Archive for May 2016
Once regarded as an area for commercial wine in Portugal, the region of Alentejo has attracted some of Portugal's rising winemaking stars to the area. We met up with 2012 Portuguese Winemaker of the Year, Susana Esteban at Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields to taste her wines alongside delicious Portuguese food.
On Susana Esteban’s wine labels, there is always a drawing of a woman looking through binoculars. On her wine label for Aventura, the woman is flying a biplane. On her premium white wine, Procura, she is navigating a hot air balloon. It's not too far from what Susana Esteban is like in real life.
Originally from Galicia, she studied in Rioja and started her winemaking career in the Duoro. In 2007, she ventured south to work as a consultant and set up her own project in the sparsely-populated Alentejo.
The Alentejo Region
Alentejo is a large region covering almost one third of Portugal. Drive up from the Algarve and into the hot region of southern Alentejo until the São Mamede mountain rises up on the border of Spain. Known as Portugal’s ‘bread basket’ - with vineyards alongside cereal fields and cork oaks - only relatively recently have winemakers moved here with the view to making quality wine.
Susana’s vineyards are scattered around the mountains (“I have a helicopter, to see all the vineyards”), including a small vineyard in Portalegre with 60-year old vines at 700m altitude. The cooler conditions, and higher rainfall, is what gives wines from here complexity and freshness.
Susana explains, “Before I moved to Alentejo I had a different idea, (and I thought it was a) very commercial area, But I have found it’s an amazing area. I wanted to make something different, a very small project.”
She spent two years looking across Alentejo for the perfect vineyards and had to wait until 2011 before finding exactly what she wanted. She even put it out on Facebook, where someone contacted her about her grandfather’s vineyard he wanted to sell.
“There are some special old vineyards here with old field blends.”
What's so special about a ‘field blend’?
What makes her wines unique, and what gives the wines complexity and depth, is the ‘field blend’ in the vineyard. This is where different grape varieties are grown together, harvested together, and co-fermented at the same time. It’s a traditional way of making wine where the grapes have often not even been identified.
"Within a half hectare, there can be up to 20 different grapes in the vineyard. Each vineyards is different."
"You have to know the vineyard. Taste the grapes. We know the grapes are Portuguese, but we don't know what. The most difficult thing is to pick the grapes at the right time. It gives the wine complexity."
With all this hands-on winemaking, the output is small with an average of 25,000 bottles in total produced per year. “To control everything,” says Susanna, “you have to be small.”
7000 bottles made, from 30-year-old vineyards in Serra de São Mamede with a blend of hand-picked indigenous grapes where Arinto is the main variety. Traditional vinification in lagares.
Taste profile: Zesty citrus characters of lemon and kaffir lime with good texture and excellent weight on the palate. Very refreshing, this is a wine to drink before or with meals.
Food match: Green bean fritters and bulhaō pato at Taberna do Mercado
2,300 bottles made. From a field blend of traditional Portuguese varieties. Began fermentation in stainless steel and finished in oak. Aged in 5 year old French oak barrels from Burgundy.
Taste profile: From a cooler vintage (and area) than the Aventura Branco, the colour is lighter despite more use of oak. This has a saline (olive), floral and herbal character with great depth to the stoney, mineral finish. An elegant wine that develops beautifully in the glass.
Food match: Cachaço 5 month cured chestnut-fed pork neck
15,000 bottles made. A hand-picked blend of 40% Aragonês (Tempranillo), 40%Touriga Nacional with 20% traditional varieties of Portalegre. Open fermentation in lagares. This wine was made for easy drinking.
Taste profile: A light to medium bodied wine with floral and herbal notes with delicious red fruit and crunchy fresh tannins. This was a great wine with the line caught squid at lunch. As Susana says, "I make wine that I love to drink."
Food match: Prawn rissóis at Taberna do Mercado; (it also works well with the dessert, olive oil and runny egg sponge cake).
5,000 bottles made. 55% Alicante Bouschet with 45% from a traditional mixed vineyard in Portalegre. Hand picked grapes with traditional vinification in lagares.
Taste profile: An incredible dark purple colour with fruit of the forest characters and a concentrated, velvety finish.
Food match: Line caught Portuguese squid and potatoes (pictured)
The Sidecar is a collaboration wine. A winemaker is invited to the winery to interpret the vineyard in a wine. Each year its different. The 2014 was a collaboration with Dirk Niepoort. In 2015, Filipa Pato and sommelier, William Wouters.
The wines are very different and show how important the decisions in the winery affect the final wine. Where Dirk Niepoort chose to create a supremely elegant wine, and who even brought a tonneaux barrel from Mosel, Filipa Pato brought with her amphora to create a blend of 50% Baga from Bairrada and 50% traditional grape varieties from Serra de São Mamede. Two very different styles of wine, all very different styles of winemakers working together to explore the possibilities of Alentejo.
by Juel Mahoney