A meal in which each course contained pork, even the dessert. A fusion of modern and traditional. Hard to imagine? Well, that’s what we enjoyed on a visit to the innovative, yet historic, winery of Herdade do Esporão in the Alentejo region of Portugal.
Dating back to 1267, the boundaries of Herdade do Esporão have remained unchanged until this day, despite changing hands many times throughout its history. At the heart of the 1800 ha estate, comprising 450 ha vines and 80 ha olives, the whitewashed Esporão Tower, Esporão Arch and Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Chapel have kept watch over the estate since the 15th century. The restored tower, symbol of the estate, now houses an Archaeological Museum exhibiting artefacts found on the estate. A 1600-year-old olive tree has been replanted nearby, another symbol of longevity.
Moving away from the historic core of the estate, a short stroll through the vines and broad beans brings you to the modern winery. An elegant building overlooking the central lake houses the restaurant and visitors centre, under which there is a fifteen-metre wide barrel ‘tunnel’, resembling nothing so much as a tube tunnel. In addition to their standard white and red wineries, the winemaking team, led by Portuguese-Australian David Baverstock, has recently added an ‘adega do lagares’ for the production of small-scale, premium wines. The impressive, lofty building looks sleek and modern; however, it was built using traditional building techniques, that is, constructed from compressed soil and water from the estate. These thick walls help to control the temperature and humidity naturally. The installation reinvents the ‘lagares’, where the pickers traditionally trod the grapes. It features marble lagares, traditional clay amphorae, concrete tanks and barrels, no stainless steel in sight.
Innovation is not limited to the winery; there is experimentation aplenty in the vineyards too. Esparão boasts 194 varieties planted in its vineyards, 37 of which are in full production. Its 10 ha ampelographic field attempts to preserve local indigenous varieties and studies the potential of other Portuguese and international varieties in the context of global warming and the trend for lighter, lower alcohol wines. Weather stations and sophisticated probes measure soil moisture and regulate irrigation. Yet, Esparão also practices integrated vineyard management and is certified organic, hence the broad beans as a cover crop amongst the vines, the oldest of which were planted in 1973.
So, what does this mix of modern and tradition add up to? A selection of award-winning unique wines from both international and Portuguese, such as Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Aragonez and Verdelho. Not to be missed. Nor should the olive oil.