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Day 4 – Cara DeLavallade’s Wine Tour of Portugal

DAY 4

On day four we woke up in the Alentejo, a wine growing region southeast of Lisbon, not far from the Spanish border. The view from the bus on the way to our first stop consisted mostly of olive tree groves and marble quarries. It was stunning to see massive piles of marble along the roadways. Our first visit was to Herdade do Esporao, a large estate that includes two wineries, a museum, olive groves, and over 1700 acres of vines and other crops. They also produce honey on the estate. This was our first glimpse of the famous Portuguese “lagares”- large stone troughs used for gently crushing grapes. After grapes are harvested, they are loaded into the lagares and teams of people are employed to climb in and “stomp” the fruit over the period of several hours, often days. Human feet are soft enough to break the skin of the grape without crushing the seed, which contains bitter tannins. This way the winemaker can extract color and flavor from the skins of the grapes while beginning fermentation and avoiding bitter flavors. We found that most Portuguese wineries today still keep the traditional lagares and use them in combination with more modern technology. At Esporao, they use them only for some bottlings. They also use ancient clay amphora that were discovered on the property during archeological digs to ferment and age some of their wines. Esporao also produces their own honey and olive oil made on the estate, both presenting an incredible value.

The tasting at Esporao was the first of many we experienced where several guest wineries were invited to present their wines as well. The week continued on like this- kind of a mobile industry tasting that meant we generally tasted upwards of fifty wines per day. Sounds awful, I know!

Possibly the most interesting tasting of the day was of wines from the Azores Islands. This is an archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands that is basically in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and Newfoundland. Azores is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal, the other being the island of Madeira. Young rockstar winemaker, Antonio Macanita, makes crisp, mineral-driven whites from the region, where the grapes are all planted along the perimeter of the island, outside the cover of clouds that are perpetually settled over the center of the island. The fresh, with a salinity, totally unlike the other inland wines we tasted that day. His Arinto de Azores was particularly delicious.

Otherwise we tasted several expressions of grapes native to Alentejo- Arinto, Roupeiro, Antao Vaz, Trincadeira, Aragonez (Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, and Alicante Bouschet, a grape which originated in France, but the Portuguese have made their own. Those were just a few of the hundreds of indigenous grapes that Portugese winemakers have to work with. And although many producers are experimenting with international varietals (think Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet), most are proudly promoting the indigenous varietals and blends- a refreshing choice these days.

From there we visited a co-op winery that also produces olive oil and got a small peak at the oil production. Our final tasting of the day ended with a lavish dinner- a home cooked meal by our host that featured a delicate vegetable soup and a savory duck confit rice, similar to paella, with local pork sausage. Traditionally dinner is followed up by cheeses before dessert. The sheep cheese of the region, Azeitao, is pungent, earthy, and delicious. We enjoyed this cheese at every stop in the Alentejo, and at most of the stops in the Douro as well, morning noon and night. Stuffed yet again, we made our way back to our hotel, which was built into the side of an old castle wall in the small nearby town.

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