Chances are, that if one has ever tried a wine from the Alentejo region of Portugal, it was likely a wine from Esporão. Why is that? Well, the simple answer is that Esporão is one of the largest producers from Portugal’s largest wine growing region.
But it goes beyond.
José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira purchased (what would become) the Esporão Estate, which was established in 1267, in 1973, just a few months before the Portuguese Revolution (also known as the Carnation Revolution since no shots were fired in the overthrow of the oppressive, and often considered fascist Estado Novo regime) of April, 1974.
As a result, the new (and considered communist) regime confiscated the Esporão Estate, which then fell into disrepair for the next decade. Eventually, though, the estate was returned to the rightful owners, and they quickly set out to make the best wine possible, which meant the rehabilitation of several vineyards and the new planting of others on the 550 acre estate. Their business plan also included the intention to market the wine globally to highlight not only the wines of Portugal, but also the country itself, a spirit and approach that exists today.
Some forty-odd years later, it is clear that their efforts have paid off. Not only are the wines of Esporão the standard bearers for the region, but if a wine shop in the United States carries any wines from Alentejo, it is a safe bet that there is some Esporão on the shelves.
I sat down with Esporão’s winemaker Sandra Alves, who, alongside head winemaker David Baverstock, oversees the production of all the winery’s white wines, to taste through a selection of the winery’s current releases.
2016 Esporão Verdelho, Alentejo: Retail $15. 100% Verdelho. Green and fresh with cantaloupe and lemon. Lovely on the palate with a touch of roundness. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
2015 Esporão Reserva White: Retail $20. A blend of three Portuguese varieties (Antão Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro), 30% fermented in new French oak and the rest in used American barrels. White stone fruit with noticeable oak but it works well. Round and weighty on the palate but the oak is well integrated. Well done. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
When José Roquette envisioned a “new” Esporão back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he not only wanted to introduce modern winemaking techniques to Alentejo, but he was also determined to embrace the culture and tradition of the region.
Perhaps near the top of that list is the production of wine in amphorae, enormous clay pots that date from the Roman Empire. While the Portuguese continued to make wine using the amphorae, called talha in Portugal, over the centuries that followed, the production of the gigantic vessels themselves stopped once the Romans left. Thus, simply finding and often repairing the amphorae is a huge undertaking.
Traditionally, the talhas were topped with a thick layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation, but today, most modern winemakers us the terra cotta pots strictly for fermentation, punching down the cap daily with a large wooden paddle.
2015 Esporão Vinho de Talha: Retail $35. 100% Moreto. made in amphorae which is the traditional method from the region. Kind of a cross between Pinot and Grenache on the nose. Round, fruity, earthy. Lovely finish. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2014 Esporão Reserva Red: Retail $25. Aragonez, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouschet. Dark berry fruit with oak, nicely balanced between fruit, acidity, and earth. Nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2013 Esporão Canto Do Zé Cruz Aragonez: Retail $40. 100% Aragonez. Single Vineyard of old vines (planted in 1974) that is only produced in exceptional years. Rich and peppery with dark fruit. Weighty yet lithe, the fruit is a bit muted and plenty of tannin on the back end. Needs time. Perhaps a lot. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2012 Esporão Private Selection: Retail 75€, Arogonez, Alicante Bouchet, Syrah. Silky texture surrounding the red berry fruit, accentuated with spice. Impressive depth of flavor and quite concentrated, this is an impressive wine that will only get better over the next 5-10 years. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.