By Sharon Kapnick
Americans are always on the lookout for something new and intriguing. While Portugal is best known for its light white Vinho Verdes, its hearty red wines and–of course–its Ports, it has more to offer for those seeking new tastes from unfamiliar indigenous grapes. If you happen to be looking for something different, you’d do well to try Herdade do Esporão’s white wines. (If you’re just a few varieties short of the 100 needed to join the Wine Century Club, for adventurous wine drinkers who’ve tried 100 wine grape varieties or more, these wines will quickly boost your numbers.)
I recently met Sandra Alves, who makes Esporão’s white wines, and tried several of them. I learned that Esporão’s boundaries were drawn in 1267, making it one of the oldest estates in Europe. It’s located in the Alentejo, Portugal’s southernmost, hottest and driest wine region. The traditional local grape varieties that Esporão grows date back to Roman times.
Esporão is proud of preserving a significant number of Portugal’s indigenous grape varieties. Its vineyards comprise more than 40 varieties and most are native to Portugal. The most important in the region is Antão Vaz, the local star; the best wines of the Alentejo are often based on it. Antão Vaz offers elegant aromas, tropical fruit flavors and mineral and spicy hints. It produces firm, full-bodied, well-structured wines. It’s often blended with Arinto and Roupeiro. In her book Vines, Grapes and Wines, Jancis Robinson describes Arinto as being “remarkable for its capacity to hang on to its acidity however hot the prevailing climate.” Arinto is often added to other lower-acid white grapes to improve blends–especially in the hot Alentejo. It adds freshness and vivacity. Roupeiro contributes strong floral and citric aromas.
Duas Castas, or two varietals, is made of a changing cast of two white grapes. The 2011 blends Viosinho and Semillon. Viosinho makes fresh, fragrant, full-bodied, well-balanced wines. It’s commonly found in Douro whites but also does well in hot, sunny climates like that of Alentejo. While Semillon is a varietal more commonly associated with Bordeaux and Australia, it thrives at Esporão. Chief winemaker David Baverstock hales from Australia and is responsible for its appearance in Esporão’s wines. Alves likes its rich, honeyed viscosity. The 2011 Duas Castas has aromas and flavors of orange blossom, white plum and grapefruit. It’s creamy with a long finish (SRP* $12.99).
Esporão’s Reserva Branco 2011, its classic signature wine, combines Antão Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro and Semillon. Aromas and flavors of tangerine and apricot, with subtle hints of toast and smoke. Complex, with mineral notes; creamy; well balanced (SRP $19.99).
The Private Selection 2011 is a blend of Antão Vaz and Semillon. It’s creamy, rich, elegant and complex. Its full fruit flavors, mineral notes and toasty oak combine to make a delicious wine (SRP $24.99).
*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.