Fly Gap & Esporao – A Study of Wine Parallels between Portugal & Texas
Part 1 of 2 by Brock Estes
I would like tell the story of how Adam Nelson and myself came to become great friends with the Herdade do Esporao Family, but it would be entirely too long, and consist of crazy stories from early mornings at 6th St. in Austin to late nights in various places of the Alentejo region of Portugal. I can tell you that the story began when I stumbled across some Portuguese wines in a warehouse, and decided to try them. The wines made by Esporao all had an energy that tasted like home to me. I can’t describe it in any other way than that. I was left feeling extremely confused and excited at the same time. I asked Adam to try the wines and he concurred. Immediately we became advocates for Esporao.
Time had passed, and I actually got the opportunity to hang out with Pedro Viera and David Baverstock of Esporao. I mentioned to them that after doing some short research there seemed to be a lot of similarities between the Alentejo region of Portugal and the Texas Hill Country. I told them that Adam and I were working towards building our own wineries, and were becoming intrigued in the Portuguese varietals that grow well there. They both invited us to come to Portugal for a while and experience harvest with them. Initially I thought I would never get to go, as I would be making my own wine at the same time every year. However as this year quickly became the worst vintage year in Texas history, I decided to forgo fighting for anything that was available, and instead go study in the region of the grapes I want to plant. It turned out being one of the best decisions I have ever made. It definitely recharged my creative batteries, and left me with a peaceful confidence in my ability to achieve the style of winemaking that I’m going for. This is a 2 part series where I will touch on some of the parallels of regions in Portugal to regions in Texas. This first article is my observation, and the second article will be David Baverstock’s observations when he comes to visit Mason County in the spring of 2014.
David Baverstock was born in Adelaide Australia in 1955. He graduated from the wine program at Roseworthy College in the mid 70’s. After graduating, he decided to tour some parts of Europe before jumping head first into the real world. On a last minute whim, he decided to hop a train to Portugal and extend his trip for 3 or 4 days before heading back home to Australia. He ended up meeting his future wife, and has pretty much been in Portugal ever since. In the late 70’s, David started making port wines for Symington Family Estates located in the Douro region of Portugal. He began to get aspirations of making table wines from the Douro instead of Port. He was one of the pioneers of the movement to make table wines from the Douro. Most people thought he was crazy, and Symington Estates did not see eye to eye with his ideas. Some people caught wind of David’s ambitions, and invited David to experiment with making table wine in the Douro. David made the first table wine for Quinta de la Rosa and developed the whole range of table wines at Quinta do Crasto. In 1992 he took on the additional role of technical director at Herdade do Esporão. In 1999, he was awarded the title of Portuguese Oenologist of the year and, in 2002, was one of the ‘Flying Winemakers’ immortalized in a Time magazine article about the group of Australian oenologists whose influence was revolutionizing wine production techniques around the globe. David however, is not a typical globetrotting winemaker, chasing the sun and managing several grape harvests round the world each year – he has established long relationships with many estates in Portugal and, using local varieties, has had a profound effect on the winemaking in Portugal for over 30 years. David has won Portuguese Wine Maker of the year in 1999, and 2012.
Weather & Soil
Driving from Lisbon into the Alentejo wine region of Portugal, the hills started to pop up, and there were rocky outcroppings. We were headed to Reguengos de Monsaraz where Esporao is located. As we got close to Moura Portugal, I had never felt more at home in my life while being so far from home. There were stretches of road where the landscape seemed to be copied and pasted from pieces of landscape around Mason County. The weather felt exactly the same as back home as well. Here is the observation of Weather Parallels. http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Temperature+for+Moura+Portugal+vs+Mason%2C+TX+from+1995+to+2013 Click the more button at the top right corner of the History Chart comparison to view all comparisons like humidity, wind, precipitation, and pressure. It’s all freaky close especially when you consider that the small difference in degrees and humidity offset each other.
In regards to soil, the Alentejo region of Portugal is eerie similar to the Texas Hill Country in that it has the widest diversity of soil types among the other Portuguese wine growing regions. The Texas Hill Country Wine Growing region has the most diversity of soil types among other wine regions in Texas, with Mason County being the Mecca for diversity inside the Hill Country. Mason County is positioned in the heart of the Llano Uplifts, with the most soil type diversity among counties located in the hill country. Soil diversity is perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the wide selection of wines produced in both regions.
Parallels of Sustainability Tactics at Esporao to Natural Biological Resources in Mason County
Not too long ago, Esporao decided to ban the use of pesticides and fungicides, in an effort to make better quality wines. They recently won the Sustainability award at The Drinks Business Green Awards 2013. http://greatwinenews.com/portuguese-family-winery-esporao-wins-sustainability-award/ . Knowing this, I really wanted to ask tons of questions in regards to sustainability in the vineyard. One of the greatest things I heard the entire trip came from Luis Patrao (Red wine maker for Esporao & Owner of Vadio). He gave me the best definition of terrior that I have heard to date. To him, terrior is more than just the soil and climate of a region. Terrior also includes who’s growing the vines, what are their beliefs, what are their practices, etc. He’s right, you can take a piece of property and add chemicals over and over, and after many years the terrior will change. The earth is like a sponge. This is why they choose to use different techniques such as organic sprays. Traveling through the vineyards at Esporao I kept spotting bat houses way up high on telephone poles throughout the vineyards. They are using bats to fight off the insects. Bats eat 2/3 of their body weight in insects every night. Seeing these, I thought to myself how perfect. Mason County is home to one of the largest bat caves in the country (estimated over 4 million bats). Getting bats in the vineyard will be no problem. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voB-B-Xl3w0
Esporao’s Ampelographic Vineyard helps influence Fly Gap Wineries Planting Selection
Ultimately, I want to make wines that have great age ability. This is somewhat a difficult task in a region such as the hill country or Alentejo. The weather is hot and the diurnal shift is not that great, and the vines easily produce sugar which is good, but most vines struggle to produce good acid levels. Acid levels go hand in hand with age ability. This is why you see a lot of blends in areas such as this, because all the grapes help each other out where one lacks something, the other provides. If you don’t know, Portugal has the most indigenous varietals that any other country by far with over 300 varietals. Esporao has an ampelographic vineyard of 188 native Portuguese varietals that they are using to study. They have saved some of Alentejo’s rare varietals that were almost extinct. The Only other ampelographic vineyard in Portugal is owned by the Portuguese government, and Esporao works closely with them through research. Currently, David is sometimes using foreign varietals like Petite Verdot & Alicante Bouschet to add acidity to his blends. But the ultimate goal is to use only Portuguese Varietals.
What is so cool about Portugal’s varietals is that some do produce great acid levels in the extreme heat. Adam and I were lucky enough to taste all the varietals off the vine and conduct some research. So far, Texas has been planting some of the best Portuguese varietals for achieving high acid levels. Texas is doing a great job in my opinion. I’ve seen that Lewis Wines have been getting Arinto. Arinto maintains the highest acid levels out of any Alentejo grape. It can be great by itself and better in a blend. In terms of acidity, Verdelho is right behind Arinto in acid levels, but has a way better balance than Arinto. Verdelho grape produces amazing wines. Some other whites that Texas should keep in mind in regards to achieving high acid levels is Antao Vaz, Bical, Cercial, Rabigato, and Viosinho. In terms of Reds, I’ve seen that Bending Branch is producing a Souzao which maintains great acid levels. Some other great reds for high acid levels are Tinta Miuda and Baga. I am in love with Baga, and want to plant Baga everywhere. Baga produces extremely small berries, is thick skinned, and yields extremely high acid levels. The wine has to be aged for 4-5 years before its ready to drink. All I can think about is Baga these days.
For the Second half of our studies, we went up to Quinta Dos Murcas in the Cima Corgo part of Douro. Esporao acquired Quinta Dos Murcas a while back. Quinta Dos Murcas is home to the first vineyards that were planted vertical in the Douro. All the terraced vineyards have 2 rows of fruit on each terrace, and the second row on every terrace does not get as much sun as the first therefore it doesn’t produce the same fruit quality as the first. For those of you that are familiar with Douro, Quinta Dos Murcas is located between Regua & Pinhao. It’s in the town of Covelinhas right on the River. Here we worked pretty hard for well over a week. As we got to hang out with the locals that were born into the wine community, we started witnessing the similarities between the 2 countries.
The most common denominator between Douro and Texas as a whole is the Faith that everyone involved possesses. What’s crazy to me is that Douro is the oldest demarcated wine region on the planet, and yet so similar to the Texas Wine Industry. If you think about it, they had been making port wine only for centuries and centuries. They do it better than anyone.
However, they just started tapping into the table wine industry in the 90’s. As of now, there are incredible table wines coming from this region, as well there are not very good wines coming from the same region. Just like wineries here, the consistency level from winery to winery is way off. I think it all has to do with how young the industries are. It’s amazing that Douro is the oldest, and yet in a way it’s also the youngest. With all that said, you talk to anyone from the Douro, and you can feel and see in their eyes when they talk, that they have faith in the ability for Douro to progress into a premier wine region among all other wine regions. It’s the same type of faith that we Texans have in our ability to make amazing wines as well. We all know deep in our hearts we can make good juice, but it just takes some time to figure out the recipe for success from vine to glass. Also it was refreshing to be in a vineyard where someone thought outside the box, and changed a way of doing things, which in turn helped the quality of a wine region as a whole. I’m referring to the vertical planting.
For the last leg of our trip we were lucky enough to stay with Luis Patrao at his home in a small village in the heart of the Bairrada wine region. This was the icing on the cake of the entire trip. As stated before, Luis makes reds for Esporao and is owner of Vadio. Luis’s dad had passed the art of winemaking down to Luis as a little boy. His dad fermented his Baga grapes in concrete fermenters that he poured himself with local aggregate in the concrete mix, just like we are doing at Fly Gap Winery. He washed the inner walls of the concrete from time to time with a tartaric acid wash to strip out the calcium, and over time, all the calcium get stripped out. We might use a paraffin wax coat on some of the tanks for the beginning years because I’m not going to have anyone tell me I told you so. They grow or tend all the food they eat at the house. We walked out the house and down a street half a block into an old warehouse where Luis makes his incredible wines. He makes 3 wines. A Cercial/Bical blend, a 100% Baga that is aged in neutral oak for just over a year, and 4 years in bottle, along with a Bical/Cercial Sparkling Wine. Luis is very in tune with the earth, and it is refreshing.
On another note, while we were staying with Luis, the climate conditions felt scary close to that of the high plains. It was still hot, but not as hot. Bairrada is located closer to the ocean, and there was briskness in the wind that kept the hot weather at bay somewhat. The wind was from the west coming off the cold ocean, and felt just like the wind that the high planes gets swooping down from the north west off the Rockies. I went to college for a year at Eastern New Mexico, and graduated from Texas Tech, so I know what the weather feels like in the high plains. I owe it to the High Plains wine region to get Baga in some of the grower’s hands.
I am always excited for the Texas and Portuguese Wine Industry. Both industries have been gaining momentum as of late, and Portuguese wines are really starting to get noticed worldwide. As more people start to seek out the same obscure varietals that are coming out of Portugal, they will start coming across Texas wines because we are producing more and more of the same varietals. I’m also excited for Fly Gap Winery because I am focusing a lot more on getting everything complete and ready and we are pouring a lagar this month followed by more cool stuff. I’m going to push the bar with the DANK program and start releasing some of the craziest labels yet. In addition, I want to start taking a 14 appellations approach to the DANK blends, by blending several different wineries juice to make some awesome wines.
It’s truly a blessing to be in tight with the Esporao Wine Family. They are all extremely kind people with centuries of knowledge as a whole. There are so many practices that we learned that would have taken decades of mistakes to realize. We have tasted the difference of foot treading vs. punch down on the same varietal from the same vineyard, and the wines are night and day. We have been told what varietals will do well with foot treading, and which ones will fall apart from the skins making a gross mush. We have picked from blocks of vineyard that contained up to 40 different varietals, some whites next to reds on the same row, and harvested them all at the same time and processed into the same lagar for foot treading. It’s this huge mix of under ripe fruit with over ripe fruit, but we learned that they view all the varietals as one unit, and if you combine all the sugar and acid levels of all the grapes and average them, you are left with a perfect balance.
As well, the culture believes very strongly that the grapes integrate better up in the vineyards rather than blending at the end. Foot treading is vital in that it is gentle and doesn’t break up seeds like punch downs, therefore they can ferment under ripe berries without the green phenols releasing into the wine. All in all, we are supportive of Esporao as they are supportive of us. We feel like through Esporao we are able to give back to the Texas Wine Community in a big way. We are working with Esporao to get some Texas interns over there every year. We are also working with them to get varietals over to Texas that are not available in the states yet. We are taking the necessary steps on our end to do so. We hope to get Esporao in touch with Texas Tech and Texas A&M wine programs to do joint research, and to possibly help in adding varietals to an ampelographic vineyard here in Texas.
David will be coming to Texas in Late March. Fly Gap Winery & Spiller Mine Vineyards will be hosting an exclusive Wine Maker’s Dinner. David will be spending some time in Mason to do a short comparative research, and I will be inviting Texas Wine Makers that are bottling Portuguese varietals, the growers that are growing them, and the press from around the state. If I can get other Portuguese wine makers to attend I will. We will taste wines from Portugal and Wines from Texas to see how they compare. I’m looking forward to David spending some time here in the Hill Country, and I’m looking forward to hearing about his thoughts on what other varietals might do well here in Texas.
In the meantime, I want to invite everyone to try an Esporao Wine. They are available all throughout Texas – not hard to find. If your local store doesn’t carry Esporao wines, ask them too. They are distributed by Virtuoso out of Austin. Visit http://www.esporao.com/en/ & http://www.vadio.pt/