Esporão: Embracing Its History & Organic Certification on a Large Scale

There is a story behind every winery. If you are a curious wine drinker then every time you pick up a bottle of wine you want to learn that wine’s story. Portuguese producer, Esporão, has a better story than most both by virtue of its historic property and its business philosophy. It’s the perfect combination for wine drinkers who enjoy a good story, want to support a winery making real sustainability strides while sipping delicious wines at a very reasonable price. 

We received four wines from Esporão as tasting samples. In addition, we sat in on a discussion with João Roquette, Chairman of Esporão Group SA, and Sandra Alves, Director of Winemaking, that gave us a very personal perspective of Esporão’s commitment to sustainability and their winemaking perspective.

A Historic Property

Esporão is firmly rooted near the historic city of Reguengos de Monsaraz, in the Reguengos sub-region of Alentejo. Herdade do Esporão takes its name from the estate’s historic name — Defesa do Esporão established around the time of the Christian Reconquest. Herdade do Esporão is home to three historic monuments: Esporão Tower, the Esporão Arch and the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Chapel. The estate’s boundaries have changed little since 1267.

Herdade do Esporão’s recent history begins in the early 1970s when the estate was purchased by José Roquette and a partner. A military coup in 1974 removed Portugal’s dictator and instability followed. It took over ten years for Esporão to release its first wines. Progress since has been steady. The Roquette family have been the sole owners of Herdade do Esporão since 1989 and today Esporão Group SA is one of Portugal’s largest wine companies.

Building on History

The second generation of the Roquette family now leads the company. In 2006, not long after João Roquette joined the company, experiments with organic viticulture began. It has been a long process, one João wishes had progressed faster, but progress was slowed by a particularly tenacious vineyard pest. In 2019 all of Esporão’s home vineyards were certified organic by Kiwa-Sativa. Esporão’s nearby Herdade dos Perdigões vineyard (planted in water-retaining clay soils) and Lavradores vineyard in Alentejo’s cooler Portalegre sub-region were certified organic in 2020.

Organic practices such as cover crops and hedge row plantings (they also attract predator insects) have increased biodiversity in the vineyards, organic matter in the soil and the soil’s ability to hold moisture — important in a region that receives a scant 23 inches of rain per year. And the estate is far from a monoculture of grapevines – it is also home to orchards, vegetable gardens and olive groves. 

Fun fact: Herdade do Esporão is located on what is probably a fault line — known to have abundant underground stores of water. This access to water made it the ideal location for the defensive Esporão Tower. Same goes for quality winegrape growing given the area’s complex soils.

Esporão’s organic certification is just part of its effort to insure a sustainable future for the company. Esporão is a member of WASP (Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program), the first sustainability program established by a Portuguese wine region.

In the vineyard and winery, water use has been significantly reduced using new technologies. Underground, gravity-fed cellars reduce energy use. Packaging is more sustainable and bottle weights are lighter. 

Esporão takes its social commitments seriously too. All employees across the company receive the same employment benefits, including field workers who traditionally have received less generous benefits.

When you factor in that no synthetic herbicides are used in winegrowing, that the vineyards are certified organic by Kiwa-Sativa, certified sustainable by WASP, and that multiple certifications monitor progress in environmental, social and management categories it is clear that Esporão takes its commitment to the earth, its employees and its financial future seriously. “Slow forward” has been the company’s motto as it has methodically moved to achieve its goals while remembering its commitment to the 300 or so families it employs. 

A Taste of Esporão Wines

Sandra Alves has been part of the Esporão winemaking team for 20 years and has come the know the vineyards and growing conditions very well. 37 grape varieties are in production, many of them indigenous varieties, planted in seven soil types. Esporão has been instrumental in establishing Touriga Nacional, Verdelho and Semillon in the Alentejo. White wines now comprise about 30% of total production, up from essentially zero at the beginning.

In an effort to determine which grape varieties and soil types will perform the best in a changing climate, an experimental vineyard nursery including some 189 grape varieties has been established. Sandra performs multiple micro-fermentations every vintage from the nursery vineyard in an effort to continue her learning process and inform the company’s strategy.

In general Sandra described Esporão’s winemaking philosophy as focused on native grape varieties, using less oak aging in favor of more concrete tanks along with the use of the time-honored Portuguese practice of foot-treading. In addition, the 2,000-year-old tradition of fermenting in amphora (called talha in Portuguese) is used.

All the wines in this tasting are sourced from Esporão’s estate vineyards and in true Portuguese tradition they are blends. The Colheita range of wines are a bit more direct, to use Sandra’s description, meaning they are an unvarnished reflection of the grape varieties and the vintage. The Reserva range of wines are sourced from older vineyards and are aged in oak while still concentrating the grape varieties and the vintage. The Reserva wines bear different artwork by Portuguese artists every vintage. 

As a consumer I especially appreciate that the organic certification is stated on the label. This is very helpful to consumers who might not take the time to research every wine they find on a store shelf. Extra points for the Vegan certification as well.

2020 Esporão Colheita White, Regional Alentejanomedium yellow with generous aromas ripe melons, citrus and flowers. The flavors follow the aromas with citrus and melon with hints of a floral component. Tongue-tingling acidity keep the flavors light and bright. The finish is medium-long with a bit of weight and texture. 13.5% abv. SRP $18

Colheita White is a blend of Añtao Vaz, Viosinho, Alvarinho and other varieties. The grapes were fermented partially in concrete tanks and then left in contact with the lees for four months. Average vineyard age: 11 years.

2018 Esporão Colheita Red, Regional Alentejano — dense ruby with aromas of dusty earth and concentrated dark and red fruit. Flavors of ripe blackberries and blueberries blend with dusty earth and a bit of spice. The layered fruit flavors are ripe, but not too ripe with plenty of lively acidity. Tannins are grippy in a medium body with a medium-long finish. 14.5% abv. SRP $18

Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Touriga Franca, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet were partially pressed, partially foot-trodden and co-fermented in concrete tanks. After malolactic fermentation the wine aged a further 6 months in tank. Average vineyard age: 12 years.

2020 Esporão Reserva White, DOC Alentejo — dark yellow with aromas of spice, citrus and melon. Citrusy flavors lead along with ripe melons and gravelly minerality. The flavors are rich and layered in a medium body with a clean finish thanks to ample acidity. The finish is medium+ in length. 13.5% abv. SRP $20

Añtao Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro and other varieties were de-stemmed and spent time on the skins before being pressed. Fermentation took place 70% in stainless steel and 30% new French and American oak barrels. The wine aged for six months in tank and barrel. Average vineyard age: 15 to 25 years.

2018 Esporão Reserva Red, DOC Alentejo — dense ruby with garnet at the rim. Generous aromas lead with dried dill, hints of cedar layered over dark fruit. Concentrated flavors of blackberries and dried dark cherries are backed by dried dill and hints of tobacco. The fruit flavors are lively thanks to zippy acidity. Tannins are grippy, but well integrated with the flavors in a medium body with a long finish. 14.5% abv. SRP $25

Aragonez, Trincadeira, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouschet are harvested separately, de-stemmed, crushed and fermented in a combination of stainless steel, concrete tanks and small marble basins. After pressing, the wine was moved to stainless steel tanks. The wine aged for six months in 60% American and 40% French oak barrels before aging a further eight months in bottle before being released. Average vineyard age: 20 years.

Both white wines are characterized by beautiful aromatics and layered flavors. The Reserva has a bit more weight and complexity. Similarly, the Colheita Red is a more straight forward expression of the grape varieties with plenty of complexity, texture and weight, but the Reserva is a bit more complex and layered with the influences oak aging. The lovely thing about these red wines is that they are densely flavored but not over ripe. Oh, and the notable tannins are quite nice.

Growth Beyond Alentejo

Esporão’s commitment to organic viticulture reaches beyond its own vineyards in Alentejo to a few of their vineyard-partners in the region whom they are assisting with their own organic conversion. And beyond the Alentejo, in the Douro region, Esporão purchased Quinta dos Murças in 2008. The vineyards have been revitalized and were certified organic in 2019. That same year Esporão purchased Quinta do Ameal in the Lima sub-region of Vinho Verde. The region’s wet climate does not make it an easy fit for organic viticulture but, as João Roquette optimistically stated, “maybe we will get there.” All three Esporão estates offer ecotourism stays.

In all Esporão is responsible for 1,922 acres in three Portuguese wine regions. 1,663 acres are planted to vineyards and nearly all are certified organic. You can see how large the potential impact of one company’s conversion to organic viticulture can be.  

Additionally, Esporão Group SA owns Sovina craft beer, makes olive oil and has recently begun experimental plantings of cannabis. Esporão’s US importer is NOW Wine Imports, also part of the Esporão Group. By adopting a “Slow forward” approach, Esporão has managed to grow while making quality wines, lightening its environmental footprint and improving its commitment to social issues. 

Many thanks to Esporão and to Creative Palate Communications for organizing our tasting. 

Cheers!

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