Those other Portuguese wines

Everyone knows Madeira and Port. But the other wines from the Duoro Valley (seen here) and Vinho Verde in Portugal deserve their places in the sun, too, says WAG Wine & Dine columnist Doug Paulding.

Portugal has a history and world influence that far surpasses its size. It was one of the four or five major naval powers in the world dating well before Columbus. It also has records and physical, geographical evidence of wine production and shipping dating from 2000 B.C. The fortified wines of Porto and the island of Madeira became known and loved worldwide as wines that were essentially bulletproof as they could survive the high, stifling temperatures of a sailing ship’s hold for months crisscrossing the equator and not be damaged. But until recently, other Portuguese wines in general were consumed by the local population or loaded into tanker trucks and shipped to other countries for bulk wine production blends.

The Esporão Group, based in the Alentejo region in the southeastern part of Portugal, due east of Lisbon, makes wine, beer and olive oil and has been in the process of increasing its own influence in Portugal. In 2008, Esporão bought Quinta dos Murças, a major wine estate on the Douro River with 383 acres, 119 of those being established vineyards with almost 2 miles of riverfront shoreline. The Douro is a magnificent river, originating in Spain and spilling into the Atlantic in the thriving and historical town of Porto. It is here along the river that all Port wines are created. All the grapes for Port wines have been, and continue to be, grown in the Douro region and are shipped to the Port lodges where the wine is made.  Most of the grape crushing is still done the traditional way, with barefoot people treading large, open, concrete vats called lagares. The region has been declared a UNESCO site, with stunning grades of 30% to 45% ascending from the north and south sides of the river. I have visited this region a few times and it truly is like no other. 

The Esporão Group is a progressive, forward-thinking operation that needed a winemaker to fit its plan. It hired José Luis Moreira da Silva, affectionally known as Zé Luis, as winemaker for Quinta dos Murças. He had completed his undergraduate degree in microbiology and his master’s in oenology and has quickly guided the team to fully organic production in the vineyard. This promotes an alive ecosystem with beneficial animals and insects and early monitoring for pests and diseases, which helps create a soil alive with microorganisms for proper and deep root expansion. Deep roots help the vines tolerate most every weather condition.

The group’s next major acquisition, in 2019, was in the northern region of Vinho Verde where Esporão purchased Quinta do Ameal. I have visited this estate and tasted the wines with former owner Pedro Araújo, and I can tell you from personal experience that this property was lovingly expanded and greatly improved during Pedro’s tenure there. On this 74-acre parcel on the Lima River, Araújo planted and crafted wines made of 100% Loureiro grape, formerly considered an accent grape for Vinho Verde’s quaffable, noncomplex wines for which the region is famous. But as in many places, Araújo reduced yields of each vine, moved to organic and sustainable production and made a wine worthy of contemplation and aging. On the estate are beautifully restored cottages, a 20-acre forest and river access — all of which would make for a brilliant family educational and experiential destination vacation. 

I recently got to Zoom-taste the wines with Zé Luis that he has made from Quinta dos Murças in the Douro Valley and his new releases from Quinta do Ameal in Vinho Verde. The 2020 Ameal Loureiro ($18) was bright and fresh with a lemon citrus presence and great texture for a lasting mouthfeel. His 2020 Bico Amarelo ($12), a Loureiro and Alvarinho blend, showed bright lemon and fresh pineapple flavors. Zé Luis called this wine “simple in a good way.”  Think honest, fresh and unmanipulated. We then moved to the reds of the Douro. The 2017 Assobio Esporão, ($14) made of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca, tasted of dusty and fresh dark fruit with great aromatics featuring spice and cedar notes. Zé Luis called this wine “a true field blend where the different red grapes all grow side by side and are harvested, crushed and fermented together.”  And finally we tasted his 2018 Esporão Murças Minas ($24) — dark cherry and blackberry with bursts of red cherry poking through and light but grippy tannins for texture and mouthfeel. 

These wines are imported by Now Wine Imports of Livingston, New Jersey, and are readily available in the tristate market. Zé Luis is young, ambitious, forward-thinking, highly educated in his field and  eco-friendly. The wines he creates are wonderful, age-worthy and easily affordable. Stock up and enjoy. Every cellar should have some wines of Portugal and the wines of Esporão and Zé Luis will complement and enhance any event. 

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