The Alentejo sun is so blindingly bright I had to squint when looking at the ground. We have always depended on the kindness of mega-vintners. Imagine our relief when the sommelier for this 1.25 million case winery asked us into the dining room for shelter, food and drink. Other wandering wine-farers were already in the temporary structure recovering from their travels and the winery tour. Good company among new friends – especially chatty and charming sisters – only enhances great food and a separate table to manage the many bottles being opened by our host and sommelier Carla Pires for our consideration. Portugal can be wonderful this way.
The Portuguese people are as brilliant and generous as their sun, if somewhat melancholy. Consider the evidence. Portugal declared itself a nation state breaking off from Spain when the chance of conflict was remote; in the early 12th century during the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. Their melancholy, said our half Portug√© half Brit travel pal Chris, is the result of the loss of global empire.
That was half a millennium ago. Fado is the Portuguese blues. We saw a pregnant singer wail in Lisbon and, although she was compelling and tuneful, we agreed flamenco is more engaging. The language is somewhat elusive as well. It is like Spanish except, says Mrs. tBoW, it sounds more like Russian. While all this may seem to place Portugal further from the top of must-see travel destinations, such is definitely not the case.
Herdade do Esper√£o (pronounced esh-purr-ow) is the name of the mega winery we visited in the Alentejo (all-in-tay-zho) region [ed. phonetics button switched to off]. The Alentejo was Portuguese for P-L-O-N-K only a couple decades ago. Like the Languedoc in Southern France where in an abundant vintage wines were once used for fuel, this region has upgraded. Today it reminds tBoW of Argentina’s Mendoza region where an ocean of wine is finding a mountain of customers.
Esper√£o has huge vineyard holdings. All fruit is estate grown. Production is 1.25 million cases. Approximately 60% is a fruity red blend named Monte Velho that is easily purchased in food markets for a few Euros. Their second largest label is Alandra (30%), followed by Private Reserva and Private Selection wines. The last two groups are barrel aged wines found in premium stores throughout Europe. While there is an American distributor we have never seen the brand in LA. Just like it was for Argentina wines in 2008. It is easier to find more Argentine labels since. It would great if this could happen for Esper√£o and other vintners like Ervideira and Commenda Grande with its Templar cross on the label. Prices are very good and quality is equally good. They had to overcome some poor timing and cultural misalignment. Their entire shipment of 1999 Reserva was returned from the USA when it arrived in Fall 2001 because the label art was considered offensive.
“Fifteen million bottles” was the production number provided by our tour guide. The vineyard holdings – 22,000 hectares or 8800 acres – are all in the immediate area. The winery has a one acre bottling line complete with a robot that wraps the palettes in tape. The aging cellar for wines in cask is 300 yards long and 75 yards wide. They also make a lot of olive oil.
The dining room is temporary. They are building a new enoturismo building. The temporary dining room may be humble but the chef and the female sommelier are first class. She made sure we were able to taste samples from each of the three premium lines.
2010 Esper√£o Defesa Ros√© $12: Blend of Syrah and Aragon√™s which is Tempranillo. Bright translucent cherry red color. Fruity flavors similar to the Mas Bach
guzzled tasted in Sevilla. Nice but not my preferred Ros√© style. Excellent value if you like manly pink. 13%
2009 Esper√£o Private Selection Vinho Branco $21: A Rhone blend of estate grown Marsanne, Rousanne and Semillon. Figgy orange nose. golden color. They got the varietals right! This is tasty. Did I mention the head winemaker is Aussie so this wine like most of the other wines is ripe and fruity. Given the climate in the Alentejo is similar to the temps and wine styles from down under, the choice seems logical. We liked this wine, bought it then left it in the hotel for someone else to enjoy. Givers. 14.5%
2008 Esper√£o Private Selection Petit Verdot $24: From 3 y.o. vines which is awfully young. They are experimenting with this label. The wine is green says the sommellier to which we must agree. There are distinctive coffee and chocolate flavors as well as black olives. Mrs. tBoW says it is a “cut above”. We did not buy but we did have several copas. This was the sommelier’s favorite so we hit the jackpot. 14.5%
2008 Esper√£o Private Selection Alicante Bouschet $25: tBoW is not a fan of Alicante Bouschet from California, France or Italy. It is usually a blending grape. This wine is round and fruity as well as kind of coarse and dusty. It ain’t the winemaker. Not crazy about Bonnarda in Argentina either. 14.5%
2007 Espor√£o Private Selection Red $25: Blend of Alicante Bouschet and Aragon√™s, aged 12 months in oak and 18 more in bottle. Deep dark color. Choco nose, anise, coffee. Leathery tabac flavors. Closer to a Valle de Uco Malbec profile with generous fruit and high mountain restraint. Very nice but you gotta love the deep red style. Many do. 14.5%
Enoturismo is going on in the Alentejo and especially around Evora. We met two British couples who have retired near the beach in the Algarve (value buyers who would never be seen in pricey overcrowded Marbella) and were touring the wine country. Here is a blog site describing their Alentejo tour from 2008. We stayed at the same Convento do Espinheiro in Evora where the pool was a great place to close the day.
Fado translates as FATE. If you ever needed an illustration of Portuguese melancholy it can be found in Fado music. Am√°lia Rodrigues is Portugal’s Fado legend.