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Harpers catches up with Esporao's David Baverstock

Published:  14 May, 2018

Over the past 15-20 years, Portugal's wine industry has been transformed. Quality has been pushed to the forefront; producers have returned to native varieties in a big way, recognising them as Portugal's raison d'etre in a crowded and competitive global wine industry. Meanwhile, regions that were once also-rans have emerged with distinctive styles and a renewed commitment to local traditions.

Over this time, Australian-born David Baverstock has been chief winemaker at Esporao, one of the largest and best respected producers in the southern Alentejo region. His career has been emblematic of the changes that have transformed the industry.

Committed to local grape varieties, he is also a proponent of the traditional Portuguese art of the blend - with a few exceptions he only makes single varietals to illustrate the individual characteristics in the more widely produced blends.

He has overseen a massive overhaul of Esporaro's key brands including, at the value end PE/Alandra and Monte Velho, and at the premium, Esporao Reserva. He has started making two Amphora wines, Vinhas Velhas and Moreto. And in Douro, Esporao now produces wines under the Quinta Dos Murcas label, including the value-end Assobio label.

Other projects include a long-term plan to acquire a winery in Vinho Verde - “Alvarinho is such a great variety” - though there is currently nothing definite.

As if to compensate though, last year saw Esporao buy a Porto-based craft beer producer Sovina, which it plans to distribute via national distributor Prime Drinks, in which Esporao also has a share.

As 2018 gets under way, Baverstock admitted there had been no slowing in pace, with attention currently focused on upgrading the main winery before this years harvest.

“It was built in the 1980s and grew up bit by bit, but it was never really that organized. We are rebuilding it to enable us to boost capacity. We are now one of the biggest producers in Portugal, with around 15 million bottles a year – the co-ops are bigger but they generally don't have to bottle all their wine,” he said.

Aside from Esporao's organic growth, another reason for the winery revamp has been climate change, which has prompted a shortening in harvest times from around eight weeks to five, with harvesting now starting at the start of August instead of at the end.

“The new winery will have to be able to deal with this accelerated timetable. The truth is that in such a warm region as Alentejo, grapes now ripen much more quickly, particularly for the reds. If you get hot spells early in the season, that's OK but later on, sugars can go through the roof if you don't manage things well,” he said.

Baverstock added the changing climate, coupled with a shift in taste away from heavier styles, had changed how Esporao makes its wines. Less oak generally is used at the premium end, whilst amongst the cheaper wines there has been a definite move away from new oak and a focus on using better base materials.

“The aim is to make well-balanced, food-pairing wines with elegance and freshness. We seek concentration in terms of fruit flavour and expression,” he said.

Baverstock said the shift towards making more expressive wines has been helped by Portugal's impressive pallet of grape varieties.

“We've been using much more Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet than we were a few years ago, but we work with around 20-25 varieties. It is useful to have such a range to fall back on,” he admitted.

Although it still produces a single varietal white Verdelho and red Trincadeira every year, Esporao has largely moved away from making varietal wines, instead putting the focus on blends. However the estate wines will soon be fully organic; some 150 hectares have already been switched across with the remaining 350 to be certified by 2020.

Baverstock sees the move as inevitable, echoing Portugal's more general shift towards quality, reflecting new, dynamic wine-makers who in many cases have returned home after training in such places as France, Italy and Australia.

“Over the past 20 years wine-making here has improved dramatically. There is also much more consistency. It used to be that a good vintage could be followed by a bad one but improvements in wine-making makes that much less likely, particularly with the higher end wines. If there is a problem it is at the entry/above-entry level; the industry needs more Monte Velho's from the likes of Sogrape, that provide quality and consistency at a good price. It will happen but it takes time,” he said.

He is frustrated that the industry's emerging talent is not marketing themselves properly.

“This is such an exciting country. Regions like Dao and Barraida have come on enormously and wine-makers there are producing some outstanding wines. And Douro and Alentejo get better each year,” he said.

Baverstock reckons Portugal's impressive range of native varieties and the drive towards quality – particularly at the top end – is making it carve out a niche for itself, with quality also improving at the volume end.

Although Portugal's increased tourism profile helps boost recognition of Portuguese wines, lack of profile remains a problem, he said.

“We also need to retain focus on our unique biodiversity, our varieties and the other things that make this place great. There is no reason why Douro and Alentejo can't be as famous in a few years as Chianti.”