When you think of the Portuguese wine industry what is your first thought? Perhaps it’s that delicious desert wine long adored by the English and world alike- Port. Perhaps it’s the beautifully terraced vineyards of the Douro.
Or perhaps you are new to wine and haven’t given much thought to Portugal. If this is the case, welcome. You are in for a treat!
Sexy, alluring, brilliant- the myriad indigenous vine varieties of Portugal have long enjoyed isolation from outside influences. Where other countries have ripped out vineyards of indigenous varieties in order to plant internationals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay to please growing world markets, Portugal has long stayed true to its roots.
For a country that helped to discover much of the New World, Portugal itself has a history of political isolation. Well, at least until it joined the European Union in 1986.
A Touch on Portuguese History
Back track to the 12th century. The Treaty of Windsor is signed in 1386 between England and Portugal and solidified with the marriage of King John I of Portugal to Philippa of Lancanster, daughter of John of Gaunt. This treaty put into effect an amicable pact between the two countries, which is still in effect today and holds as the oldest diplomatic treaty in the world.
When England went to war with France in the 17th century, Portugal became the main supplier of wine (think port) to England. If you’ve ever heard that port is ‘the English man’s wine’, the rumors are true.
Fast forward to 1932. Following 20 years of financial and political upheaval, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar becomes Prime Minister. His pro-Catholic, authoritarian, anti-liberalism regime reorganized Portugal’s chaotic wine industry. During this time, the Junta Nacional do Vinho founded over 100 winery cooperatives in less than 20 years which stood as an advancement for Portugal’s wine industry.
However, this tight control by the government led to a lowering of wine-making standards.
Salazar’s authoritarian regime lasted until 1974 when Portugal once again found itself in political upheaval. The Carnation Revolution began on April, 25th 1974, lasted two years and transformed the Portuguese regime from dictatorship to democracy.
The European Union Saves the Day
During most of the 20th century, Portugal remained largely closed off to the outside world until it joined the European Union in 1986. The EU has long supported countries with agricultural need and therefore poured money into modernizing Portugal’s wine industry.
The EU overturned the country’s monopolistic legislation while providing grants and low interest loans. This encouraged many single estates to cut their ties with co-operatives and create their own distinctive brands.
Today regions like the Dao, Douro and Alentejo have some of the most modern wine-making facilities in southern Europe while maintaining a strong commitment to the country’s indigenous grape varieties.
So How Does Portugal’s History Relate to Australian-Born Winemaker David Baverstock?
In 1973 the 2,000-hectare Herdade do Esporão Estate outside the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, in the Alentejo region was purchased by Portuguese banker José Roquette. The changing political environment of The Carnation Revolution after this purchase caused Roquette to flee to Brazil, and as a result the Esporão Estate, whose borders have not changed since 1267, fell into disrepair.
During this time grapes grown on the land were sold to the local cooperative as there was no winery.
Roquette’s return to Portugal in 1979 ushered in a revival to the Esporão Estate. He built a winery in 1987 and in 1992 hired David Baverstock, who has since served as Director of Enology, Chief Winemaker.
Baverstock’s career leading up to Esporão has taken many turns around the globe. In the below video he talks about what led him to Portugal’s Alentejo Region.
As Director of Enololgy Baverstock has worked directly with the indigenous Portuguese grape varieties planted on the Esporão Estate- aragonês, bastardo, trincadeira, roupeiro, moreto, touriga nacional, periquita and antão vaz (among many others).
Baverstock brought with him several New World technological innovations when he arrived at Esporão. These innovations included temperature controlled fermentation, stainless steel tanks, improved hygiene and American oak. With these innovations Esporão table wines transformed from heavy and oxidized to table wines of elegance, balance and bold fruit.
In 1999 Baverstock was awarded Portugal’s ‘Winemaker of the Year’, the first non-Portuguese to do so.
Breaking Into World Markets- What Baverstock Had to Say During Our Interview
“Portugal has been opened the door now for a number of years, and finally the quality is there, the consistency is there and the interest now there.
I do a lot of traveling. I’ve been in China this year, I’ve been in Brazil and you kinda feel that there’s alot of curiosity about Portugal as a wine producing country. The wines are really starting to measure up. The Duoro wines are putting a lot of focus on Portugal as a wine producing country because they are the ones that have, if you like, the nice Spectator points and the most interest particularly from the U.S. market.
But the Alentejo, which is where we are, is coming in behind that. We can produce more volume and more consistency. There’s two really important Portuguese wine regions that are bringing alot of focus to the country which are the Duoro and the Alentejo.”
In fact, if you keep your eyes peeled you will find that table wines from this country are often the quality of a $30 to $50 wine from Napa at half the price.
One year ago Herdade do Esporão enlisted as a partner of Countdown 2010 to Save Biodiversity. The Countdown’s mission is “to mobilize action to ensure that all governments and members of civil society, at every level, have taken the necessary actions to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010″.
I also talked with David about global warming and Esporão’s preparation for environmental changes. Turns out producers in the Alentejo region have plans to combat the threat of climatic change.
More Background on the Estate
The Esporão Estate was once home to Roman wine makers. In fact, the planting of new vineyards on the estate is often disrupted by excavation- so much so, in fact, that a museum has been constructed on the estate to showcase these artifacts. Esporao also produces an exciting line-up of olive oil, all sourced from olive groves in the Moura region of the Alentejo.
Wrapping It Up
Enjoying a Portuguese wine not only brings you closer to the country’s indigenous varieties but also connects you to its vibrant history, culture and terroir. La vie est belle, non?
- Alentejo Vineyard and Esporão Tower from The Wine Cabinet.com
- Photo of David Baverstock provided by Herdade do Esporão
I used these references to write this article:
If you’ve tried a Portuguese table wine lately get back to me and tell me what you think!