Esporao: The Gentle Ecological & Viticultural Giant

Reguengos de Monsaraz

Alentejo, Portugal


Vineyards and the estuary at Herdade Esporao

     Our last appointment of the day was deep in the far southeastern section of the Alentejo region at the enormous Herdade Esporao. We were only miles from the border with Spain, so many of the villages and Herdade in this region have a historical and architectural feel of battle fortifications like castles and stone forts for protection from the invading forces from Spain. The Romans settled here before those days and hints of the empire’s presence still stand, especially in the town of Evora where a Roman temple still stands about 40% intact in the center of the village. In the 20th century when Portugal was ruled by whom they still just call “The Dictator” and not by his name, Alentejo was deemed cattle country by dictator Salazar and where the country’s beef was sourced. Grapes were not much of a factor, if at all, in the middle 20th century. The land has a similar look and feel to California, with rolling golden hills, oak trees and grape vines. The major crop is still not grapes, in Alentejo it is cork. In fact most of the world’s cork come from the ancient oak trees that dot the landscape or grow in randomly patched of groves. The major difference to many other wine regions though is the extreme heat and dryness. In the summer, the heat is downright scorching with temperatures frequently rising above 100 °F.

California?  Nah, just Alentejo, Portugal
More California like landscape in Alentejo.

From the highway, it was about a
25 minute drive to the Herdade at Esporao, and most of that was on their property. I have never seen a wine estate this large in all of my travels to wine regions. At 1,860 hectares (4,600 acres!) the estate is roughly equal to the size of 2.5 Central Parks (New York City).  With 450 hectares under vine, there are 189 varietals planted.  The remainder of the property is mostly a protected biological ecosystem miraculously balancing and sustaining wildlife and agriculture simultaneously.

     We were to taste the current portfolio of wines, enjoy a 4-course lunch paired with wine and then get a tour of this enormous facility. Bruno was our caretaker and took us to an outdoor seating to start the portfolio tasting. Now, of all the wines from Portugal I had tasted before our visit after Port wines the Esporao wines are those that I had the most recent experience with drinking. The Reserve and Private Selection wines are widely available and are great values from a pricing to quality ratio. The mono-varietals were my favorite group of wines, The Alicante Bouschet from that group was the top wine I tasted in the portfolio that day and one of the best wines of our trip (the Torre was down to the last few bottles so I was not able to try it). The Syrah was well made, reminding me more of a new world style than old world Rhone; while the wonderfully aromatic Verdehlo white wine could easily replace a summer white wine drinker’s favorite sauvignon blanc. The Douro wines from Quinta Dos Murcas were solid, with the Reserve bottling leading the way and a great value Douro blend called Assobio.
All 9 wines in the lineup!

We moved on to lunch on a spectacular veranda overlooking the property with a wide view of the estuary in front of us. The setting was serene as the sun hung lazily overhead and friendly clouds passed by over the huge landscape. We chose some of the wines we had with the tasting to have with our meal, creating a wine pairing lunch that was one of the best we had on the trip. We also did a comparative olive oil tasting of the different varieties of estate grown olives found at Esporao.  Unfortunately,
 a thunderhead rolled in at the end of lunch but we had already finished moved on to the tour of the Herdade.


Lunch on the veranda, what a view!
Olive oil tasting
Miguel Leal, tour guide and driver extraordinaire!
The main entree, Cod of course.

We made our way with Bruno and Miguel to an SUV that Esporao took visitors in see the vineyards which at the time were being picked or were just about ready to be picked. We saw the last few baskets of Aragonez being picked in one vineyard and then saw their experimental vineyard that had one row each dedicated to many of the grape varieties that dominate the world market currently. We saw Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese to name a few. On our way back to the Herdade we stopped at the Herdade’s symbol, the castle-like structure that stood watch over the land for hundreds of years. Nearby was the oldest living thing I have ever seen, an olive tree more than 2,000 years old. Its origin has been scientifically dated to a date in BC terms, meaning it was planted before the time of Jesus (AD), talk about a religious experience!








The Jesus tree, dates to the last few decades BC


     Back at the Herdade we made our way to the fermentation tanks where there was juice and must fermenting in many of the tanks as the picking had already started. Next we made our way inside to the rest of the tanks and bottle processing. The barrel rooms were huge and full of barrels of all types of toast and origin. The caves were deep underground and house the barrels and the wines in bottle that were resting before their eventual distribution around the world. Out back there were massive blending tanks stories high that were used to ensure proper consistency of the large volume blends Monte Velho and Defesa.
Red wine going through an initial soak, that is the must floating on top made of seeds and skins.



The bottling line at Esporao


Part of the barrel room below ground at Esporao.


The library of older back vintage Esporao wines


The caves below ground at Esporao, yes I tore that steel door off its hinges to get to the good stuff!


A sea of wine, yes, that is me next to the blending tanks for scale.
     As we finished up the tour, we thanked the wonderful people like Bruno at Esporao that made our visit and our tour spectacular and unforgettable.
Farmers and producers of Alentejo wine, PLEASE grow more of this grape for your red wines, this very well could be THE grape that puts you on the map like Malbec did for Argentina.

I would like to finish here to ask the Portuguese in the Alentejo to seriously think about making Alicante Bouschet their main grape and to continue to plant and experiment with this grape that seems to be in complete harmony in this region.  When I look for an Alentejo wine in stores or in restaurants I look for one made exclusively or with a good majority of the Alicante Bouschet grape in the blend.  So should you wine reader!

A bientot!
Here my notes on the wines we tasted that day at Esporao.Duas Castas White 2012
Wet rocks, lime leaf, tropical and citrus fruits, medium bodied, medium + acids, 40% is aged in oak barrels for a few months; the grapes are a blend of Viosinho and Semillon
Reserva White 2012
Medium oak impression in the nose, large and generous nose of sweet oak, apples and spicy pears, medium bodied, the palate shows brighter tropical notes and a touch of cream. Juicy and fruit forward  inish. 6 months combined new French and American oak barrels

Private Selection White 2012

The most obvious oak of the group, but with a dry and long finish, complex and structured, good acidity and elegance on the tapering finish.  I would like to see this is 5-7 years.  95% Semillon, 5% Marsanne & Roussanne.  This spends 6 months in new French oak
Assobio Douro Red, Quinta Dos Murcas
Douro sappy red fruit, gets the mouth watering, tobacco, cranberry and spice, simple and easy going; Douro blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Touriga Franca

Quatro Castas Red
Licorice, violets, pepper and spice, some green pepper notes, medium bodied with med + tannins; this is a blend of the following grapes: Touriga Franca, Tinta Miúda, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Alicante Bouschet


Quinta Dos Murcas Douro Reserva
Made in traditional foot tread lagares; aromas of blueberry, blackberry, black cherry, some teeny bits of smoke and leather, the palate has blood orange, juicy cherry and blackberries. A long and silky finish. Lovely and fine wine.

Syrah 2010
Juicy and floral, purple notes, chocolate even, med + tannins, medium to full-bodiedwith good acidity, different Syrah like character, but meaty and juicy, lots of elegant purple notes. Alicante Bouschet 2010
Solid wine of balance and depth, blueberry, boysenberry, a touch of mocha, cigar wrapper and sweet tobacco. The blueberry and spice stretches through to a long and persistent finish. Easily the most unique and strong wine of the bunch.

Private Selection 2009 Red
Opulent, young, tight and complex.  An elegant nose of red and blue fruits, roasted herbs, a smidge of eucalyptus, black and blue fruits. Medium to full-bodied, the finish sails on in bursts of fruit, silky and supple tannins. Well balanced for its size. 18 month in new French oak barrel and 18 months in bottle.




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