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Portugal’s Grape Escape

6 minute read

Most of their names are gentle on the ear: trincadeira, roupeiro, moreto, touriga nacional, periquita. Some sound a little sharper: antão vaz, aragonês; there’s even one called bastardo. Mean absolutely nothing? A clue is that they are also typically gentle on the tongue when in liquid form. Yes, they are varieties of grapes, some red, some white, but all with one thing in common. Each is native to Portugal — although there are variants of aragonês in Spain and bastardo inFrance — survivors in a world that has seen the ubiquitous chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon supplant local varieties from California to Chile, from Moldavia to South Africa.

As these two all-conquering grapes head toward global glut levels, those parts of the world that have been in a viticultural time-warp are discovering that their traditional varieties, subjected to modern methods, are what tickles a jaded palate. Just ask Portugal’s winemaker of the year in 2000, according to that country’s Vinhos magazine: David Baverstock, technical director at the 2,000-hectare Esporão Estate outside the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, in the Alentejo region. All the above native varieties grow on the estate, the borders of which have not changed since 1267 and where tractors continue to turn up evidence that wine was being made here as far back as Roman times.

The modern reds and whites Baverstock makes from these native grapes are now winning wide recognition and commanding tasty prices for the estate’s owner, retired Portuguese banker José Roquette. At the International Wine Challenge in London in May this year, one silver medal went to the 1999 Esporão red reserve, a subtle blend of aragonês, trincadeira, touriga nacional, plus a 10% shot of cabernet sauvignon for good measure. It’s not cheap: the equivalent of about $13 a bottle in Portugal, slightly less in export markets, because its virtues are less well-known and competition is fiercer. “It is not unlike an Australian red,” says Baverstock, “but it has its own unique character, a softer, less aggressive style than most Australian reds.”

What would a winemaker-of-the-year in Portugal know about antipodean reds? Baverstock is a 46-year-old Australian and the first foreigner to win that award. He is one of a group that has become known as the “flying winemakers,” expatriate Australian enologists who have been revolutionizing the way wine is made, from California’s Napa Valley to the sacred soils of France. Their use of stainless steel tanks, controlled temperature fermentation, nontraditional blends and other innovations have brought accusations that they are reducing the taste range of the world’s wines, particularly among whites.

But Baverstock argues that so far the main effect of Australian science has been to make eminently drinkable vast quantities of what was once hold-your-nose plonk. “The Australian enologist’s approach on tasting a glass of wine is to say, ‘How can I make this better?’ They are not going to improve top châteaux wines, but you can be very disappointed by middle-range French wines. Because of this the French have steadily lost market share. Today, more Australian than French wine is sold in Britain. I think now Australians understand that winemaking is not just technology, the French that it’s not just tradition. It’s both.”

Baverstock is more settled than many of his fly-by-vintage compatriots. He learned his science in the Barossa Valley, in South Australia, then spent 10 years in the port and table-wine business in northern Portugal before being head-hunted south to Esporão in 1992.

While he brought to Esporão the requisite hot-climate winemaking know-how and the ability to speak Portuguese, the estate was not exactly in grape shape when he arrived. Banker Roquette had bought the place in 1973, on the eve of the revolution that ended the long dictatorship of António Salazar. “In 1974, Portugal was not the place for a wealthy capitalist,” says Baverstock over a cold glass of white roupeiro. “He fled to Brazil, leaving the running of the place to a partner. There was no winery. In those days all grapes had to be sent to the local cooperative.”

After the revolutionary fervor abated, Roquette was able to return. He built a winery on the estate in 1987, and when Baverstock arrived five years later it was producing 2 million liters. But it was bottling only about half that amount; the rest was sold as cheap bulk wine. “We needed to lift quality and introduce a commercial range of top, middle and lower quality wines,” says Baverstock, who foresaw the globalization of French grapes leading to glut. “Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are fantastic varieties, but you can have too much. Portugal got left behind in the rush to replant, fortunately, because now it has this unique genetic resource in a time of oversupply.”

But that old resource had to be harnessed to new ways. Much of the Alentejo wine was heavy, oxidized, rough as the stony land from which it had grown for so long. Baverstock invested his boss’s money in stainless steel tanks, temperature-control equipment, hygiene, a supply of American oak barrels and different bottle styles. “We make wine in a New World way using Old World grapes,” he says. About 80% of the winery’s production is swallowed by Portugal’s thirsty middle class, the rest is exported to Brazil, the U.S., Switzerland, the Benelux countries and Britain, in that order.

Esporão also bottles its own virgin olive oils and wine vinegars, and has recently expanded into selling Alentejo cheeses. Alongside the winery the estate also runs a restaurant that is popular with day-trippers from Lisbon, 180 km away, and increasingly with foreign enotourists. Baverstock enjoys talking to them and to buyers, explaining what new techniques can do for very old grape varieties. But most of the time he and his Portuguese deputy Luis Duarte are in the vineyards or the winery, where the sharp Alentejo sunlight ricochets off all that stainless steel, happily looking for new tricks to make a fine glass of wine taste even better.

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