Tuesday, June 28, 2011
The Passion of Portugal: Esporão and Murças
The delicious still wines of Portugal remain, in large part, unknown to many wine consumers. Though there has been growing publicity about the quality of these wines, that growth remains slow, which is a boon to Portuguese wine lovers as those wines often offer an excellent value. You may not be familiar with the names of their indigenous grapes, their wine regions or producers, but you should take a chance on their wines. Sample a few of them and you will quickly realize the attraction. Let their exotic aromas and flavors transform you into a believer.
Le Cirque in New York City. Chef Miguel Vaz Oliviera (pictured above) of Herdade do Esporão, a large winery in the Alentejo region, received an invitation to come to Le Cirque as a guest chef, a great honor. So, Chef Oliviera created a Portuguese inspired menu, based on several traditional recipes, and selected the accompanying wines for a crowd of about sixty or so attendees.
Though the establishment of the Esporão winery is more modern, the Herdade estate, in the Alentejo region, actually extends back to 1267, when the estate's boundaries were first established. About 700 years later, in 1973, Joaquim Bandeira and Dr. José Alfredo Parreira Holtreman Roquette bought the estate, naming it Finagra, with plans to create a winery. The winery was eventually built in 1987 and ten years later, they expanded operations to include the production of olive oil. In 2009, the winery was renamed Esporão S.A., and they have also begun to produce wines in the Douro region under the Quinta dos Murças brand. The Herdade estate consists of about 4500 acres with 1115 acres under vine and 200 acres with olive groves.
I have previously tasted and enjoyed wines from Esporão so I especially looked forward to this six-course dinner, each course paired with a wine from Esporão or Murças. During the dinner, two related "secrets" were also revealed about Portuguese wines, secrets which provide a revealing insight into the nature of those wines. And I'll share those secrets with my readers.
The first general secret to Portuguese wines is blending, using a mix of different grapes to produce a single wine, whether red, white or rosé. Each grape brings its own particular characteristics to the wine, so hopefully the mix becomes greater than any individual grape on its own. Though you will find single varietal wines in Portugal, blends are far more common and they certainly can be quite compelling.
The second related secret pertains to the Douro region, where the key there is field blends. A field blend is a vineyard where different grape vines co-exist and intermingle together, and you may not even know the specific grapes that grow together. Thus, when you harvest those grapes, you already have a blend, though you generally don't get to manage the proportions of each specific grape. This can create a very intriguing wine.
Neither of these secrets is unique to Portugal, but they are important elements of wine making in that country, helping to create a Portuguese identity.
This might have been my favorite wine of the evening, the type of wine I feel is typical of the best of Portugal. It had an enticing and exotic nose, with an earthy and spicy smell mixed in with blackfruit. On the palate, it delivered on the promises of its nose, with a complex melange of earth, spice, vanilla, blackfruit and even mild hints of herbality. The tannins were moderate and the finish was long and pleasing. This is a wine to slowly savor, relishing its complexity, as well as a perfect wine for wild boar, lamb, or a juicy steak. Consequently, I didn't think this wine worked well with the bacalhau, the wine seemingly to overpower the more subtle flavors of the fish. I did save some of this wine for the next course, and it was a much better pairing.
Overall, this was a superb wine dinner event, with some amazing food and wine, great people and lots of fun. It reinforced my love for Portuguese wines, and I cannot recommend enough that you expand your palate to include the fine still wines of Portugal. A good place to start would be with the wines of Esporão and Murças, especially their value wines. In addition, consider dining at some local Portuguese restaurants to enjoy their cuisine, though don't forget to accompany your meal with some Portuguese wines.