Alentejo, Portugal


Town Square in Arraiolos

In 2008, the Esporão Reserva red was the first bottle of wine I ever sold in Virginia. I had tasted it during my first week at Grand Cru Wine and was intrigued by the enormous range of flavors and aromas radiating from this bottle. Since then, I had dreamed of visiting their vineyards in Alentejo, Portugal. I craved to see where the grapes were grown, to breathe the air, to experience the winery, yet I never thought I could make this happen.

When booking our excursions, visiting Esporão was a top priority. I contacted a tour agency who organized a day trip for us, with Esporão, of course, being the main attraction. 

Our trip began in Arraiolos, a small town of approximately 3,500 inhabitants. The town was first inhabited in the fourth century BC, and since the 17th century, has been regarded for their hand spun wool, Moorish stitched tapestries and embroidered carpets. The city has taken on a dynamic personality, after having been invaded over the years by the Romans, the Moors and the Christians. The second story homes are all painted white, with a colorful, bright painted border outlining the windows and doorways. This signature border, a longstanding tradition from the initial invasion of the North African moors, reflects the heat of the Portuguese summer sun.

The tapestry-making tradition continues to this day, with multiple shops selling these masterpieces to the handfuls of tourists who pass through the city. We visited a museum in the center of the town, that boasted an incredible, permanent exhibition of these carpets, some of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It was humbling to see a hanging tapestry that had predated many of the current cities in the United States. 

We continued our journey to Cortiçarte – Arte em Cortiça, a cork factory located in Evora. As Portugal is the leading worldwide producer of cork, countless governmental regulations were put in place to protect these sacred trees from destruction, negligence and misuse.

The cork tree is the national tree in Portugal, and rightly so, as it provides a steady economy for those in the business. It is a complex product, both lightweight and durable, and can easily be repurposed. I could write about cork for ages, but this comprehensive site includes the history and details surrounding this natural wonder. 

There are roughly 10 quality levels of cork, of which the first three are considered the absolute best and are sold at a fairly high premium (ex. 2 Euros per wine stopper). A cork tree takes about three harvests and 25 years to produce usable cork, but 50 years to produce cork of excellent quality.

A literal cork board, designating quality levels. Higher quality, less porous cork at the top; lower quality at the bottom

The government legislation was introduced in Portugal to protect these sacred trees. For example, this means that a cork tree on your property is in fact protected by the government and legislative permission must be granted prior to removal. Should you decide to remove a cork tree without this permission, you could face fines, penalties or even jail time. 

The byproducts from cork production are never wasted. Once the wine stoppers have been made, the scraps, shavings and smaller particles are boiled and compressed to create flooring, furniture, clothing, insulation, even car seats!  I was speechless after entering the factory, never having considered, or even acknowledged, its massive importance in both the wine industry and beyond. 

Shoes made from cork

Furniture and housewares made from cork

Our day in Alentejo concluded with lunch at Herdade de Esporão, the prestigious vineyards producing wines and olive oils since 1267. I do want to mention a few, rather sentimental things before I delve into our winery and lunch experience. I never would have thought that in 11 years time, from my first sip of Esporão Reserva in Washington DC, I would be sitting across from my loving husband in the winery, dipping warm, homemade bread into their well crafted olive oils, sipping a 2010 Alicante Bouschet by the glass. I just didn’t think that things like this would be possible for me. I thought that by 2019, I would have been married, would have had children, and would have ended up in a corporate job in Anywhere, USA. The married part was the only thing that actually happened, and might I add, I am married to a man who I consider my best friend and an incredible travel partner. Experiences like this lunch could not have been predicted eleven years ago, but what a joyful turn of events it has been since then. 

Now getting back to lunch, Esporão offers only sustainable, seasonal dishes, inspired by the terroir, the environment, the ambiance and the creativity of the chef, who was kind enough to speak with us during our meal. We dined on cauliflower, crawfish patties, mackerel, beef and pork, each with a distinct sauce, seasoning, and refinement to every bite. We paired each course with a different wine, to indulge in as much as possible during this once in a lifetime experience. Our first glass was the Esporão Private Reserva White 2015, a blend of 90% Semillon, 5% Roussanne and 5% Marsanne. Can I just say, wow. Firstly, I never knew that Semillon was planted in the Esporão vineyards. And it proved to be an incredibly luscious, unctuous, and floral treat. Lush and plump in the mouth, the wine had an acidic backbone with pronounced stone minerality. Afterwards, I sprung for the 2012 Private Reserva White, only to be further intrigued by this incredible expression of French grape varietals. The wine was deeper golden in color, honeyed on the palate, floral on the nose, yet still maintained its acidity and vibrancy.

My third and last glass had to be a red, but seeing that I had just one course left, I had to pick the right one. After briefly skimming their wine list (for the fourth time,) I noticed a lone soldier, practically begging for a shot at glory. It was the Alicante Bouschet 2010.

It was expressive, complex, integrated, mature yet youthful. Violets, cassis, earth, plum and a hint of spice were like a perfume I could dab on my wrists. This glass of wine brought everything full circle, as it reflected all of the thoughts and emotions running through my mind. I was here, in Esporão, facing my husband, drinking some of the best wine Portugal has to offer. I was here. I made it happen. We left after a three hour lunch, full, content, and smiling. 

The three hour car ride back to Lisbon gave me the time to reflect on the day in Alentejo. Portugal’s traditions, sense of community, protection for natural resources and the pride in their community were apparent in every stop of the day. People take their time, reflect, share and encourage others to do the same. Tradition can only be maintained by the people who care, by those who expect more from the civil world in which they live. 

WritingArielle DeSoucey