Portugal: A Day in Alentejo with Esporao
After a day of travel, we arrived to Lisbon early morning, then drove southeast, checking into a hotel in UNESCO World Heritage site, Evora, Portugal. The city stands within a 15th c. outer standing wall, with the center including portions of an 11th c. fortification. Ancient megolithic monuments, 3rd century B.C. archaeological sites, and hints of Moorish architecture dot the countryside. Mostly it is the sky. The region of Alentejo, in which Evora sits, is known for its clarity of light, its pure wide open skies.
After checking into our rooms, we immediately drove another 45 minutes south to Reguengos de Monsaraz, “the people’s town,” a settlement outside a castled hillside where the nobility used to live. Reguengos de Monsaraz proves the heat of Alentejo, bringing August and September grape harvests (early for much of the Northern hemisphere) of primarily red wine grapes. Esporao hosted our first day of travel through the region of Alentejo.
Olive oil proves to be one of Portugal’s treasures. While olives grow well throughout the Mediterranean, most countries have few controls on its growth, production, sourcing or labeling. While Italy is recognized as home for Extra Virgin Olive oil, for example, much of the fruit in such bottlings does not come from Italy, but instead elsewhere where farming can be done at higher volume for less. The country does not place very strong legal controls on one of its iconic exports. Portugal instead has taken the slower path keeping its focus on smaller production, higher quality oils with DOP controls.
Master blender Ana Carrilho studied olive agriculture, and blending while also teaching the subject in universities in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Today she creates high quality blends from three DOP regions of Portugal using a range of varieties. For quality olive oils the focus rests in freshness. The best oils are consumed immediately after bottling, with ideal age being within a year to three years after depending on variety. Galega, for example, tends to last long in bottle, while Arbequina keeps less well.
Esporao chief winemaker, David Baverstock, hosted lunch for us enjoying several of the wineries wines including a beautifully crisp 2012 Bruto Metodo Classico sparkling wine made from Antao Vaz, and Arinto, and 4, a red blend offering a combination of fresh red and dark fruits on a backbone of structure with satisfying acidity.
One of the coolest elements of the visit included a walk through a ten hectare experimental vineyard where each row grows a different variety. The site offers local producers, and universities alike insight into the growing potential and constraints of the region.
Cuttings for the experimental block were optained from nurseries and vineyards throughout Europe and showcase not only indigenous, but also international varieties. Alicante Bouschet, for example, a French variety known for its exquisite color, was found to be quite expressive in the region, and is now more common in red blends throughout Alentejo.
In the midst of Reguengos de Monsaraz structures from the 12th and 15th centuries still stand. From the top of a 15th c tower originally built for Duchess Catarina de Bragança, who went on to marry King Charles II of England, there remain beautiful views of gardens and countryside,
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