I woke on a Monday morning in late May to overcast skies, a bit of precipitation, and a decided chill in the air—all extremely rare for the time of year, according to our intrepid guide, Diago from the Vinhos de Alentejo (Wines of Alentejo).
Alentejo (Ah-len-TEH-zhoo) is a region in Southern Portugal that encompasses roughly one third of the country and, until recently, was best known for its cork production—about half of the world’s wine corks come from Alentejo. More recently there has been a concerted effort to produce and promote wines made in the region, mostly from indigenous grapes.
Still a bit groggy from the overnight flight from Houston and a somewhat restless night in Évora (EV-or-a), the region’s capital, I opted to gaze out the window at the vast fields of olive trees and the more sparsely planted cork groves that dotted the yellow hills.
As it turned out, I was not only the sole male on the trip, but I was also the only person who did not call New York City home. I found neither aspect troubling, and would later partake in the usual press-trip banter, but at that moment I was content to remain reticent and visually absorb as much as I could from my first encounter with Portugal.
We were headed to Monsaraz, one of the oldest settlements in Southern Portugal. Sitting atop a hill just a few kilometers from the Spanish border, the town, which has been inhabited since pre-history, has been until relatively recently a strategic holding as its 12th Century fortress (built to protect Portugal from the Spanish Moors) dominates the plain below.
We wandered the town for a bit, which is rife with countless photo opportunities.
After our stroll through town, we loaded back into the van and within a few minutes we were once again in the wide open spaces that define Alentejo. The olive trees and oak groves eventually succumbed row upon row of lush vines that alternated between tight and orderly VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning), the more exuberant California sprawl, and the seemingly wild head pruned.
Within a little more than a quarter of an hour, we arrived at the first of what would be about a dozen wineries that we would visit over the course of the week, Heredade do Esporão.
Esporão is currently the largest privately owned organic winery in Alentejo, with 4,500 total acres (1,800 hectares), of which about a third are planted to vines and olives, Esporão casts a large shadow in the region, but it was not always so. The estate and its extant boundaries has existed since the 13th Century, making it one of the oldest estates on the continent. In 1973 the estate was purchased by José Roquette with the intention of making Esporão a leader in table wine production.
Unfortunately for the Roquette family (but happily for the people of Portugal), the Carnation Revolution, in which the authoritarian government was overthrown, occurred just six months after the purchase. Eventually, the estate was seized by the government, not being returned to the family until more than a decade later.
At that point, the estate, which had been essentially neglected, required intense rehabilitation. Today, Esporão is seen as a leader in viticulturist practices including a recently planted experimental vineyard, which contains 189 varieties encompassing all of the indigenous grapes from Alentejo and the Duoro (Esporão also has a winery there) as well as the international grapes that are grown in the two regions.
The goal of the experiment is to not only preserve many varieties that were on the verge of extinction, but also determine which vines excel in Alentejo’s somewhat extreme climate (temperatures regularly reach 42-43°C [105-110°F] in the summer), which is only becoming more challenging with climate change.
We started our visit to Heredade do Esporão not with wine, but rather an olive oil tasting, which represents approximately 10% of the estate’s revenue. Unbeknownst to me, there are almost as many varieties of olives as there are grapes and, like its more alcoholic brethren, the variety of olive(s) used to make the oil largely determines its flavor components.
We tried three of the more common Portuguese varieties produced by Esporão, the largest company in the world that bottles their own olive oil.
A few interesting tidbits about olive oil production:
Esporão uses the discarded pits as the only fuel source for hot water and heating the building.
- It requires 6-7 million kilos of olives give about a million liters of oil.
- Unlike wine, olive oil during production needs to be kept warm so that it can be moved. Other wise it would solidify.
- Extraction is done at precisely 27°C since at 28° the aromas start to escape.
- During extraction, if there is a pleasant smell in the building, this is actually a negative sign—since those aromas are not going into the oil.
The three oils we tasted:
Galega. Fruity with Apple and pear. Smooth and almost sweet with nuttiness on finish.
Cordovil. Grassier and green smoother than the first. Very nice.
Corbronçousa. From organic olives. Aromas seem to be a combination of the two. Dried green flavors. More peppery on the finish.
After the olive tasting, we were to move on to tasting the wines of the Estate, but I lingered, my grogginess finally lifting (no doubt aided by the aspirated olive oils). I decided to taste each oil again, attempting to foment my inner Portuguese—I was only going to be in the country for a week, but I already knew that I wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible.
Up next: our first foray into amphorae.