When most people think about Portuguese wine, they immediately think of Port, the sweet red fortified dessert wine from the Douro region. But not many people realize that Portugal actually has more native varietals of grape than any other country on Earth. Their 250-plus indigenous grapes dwarf France's 50-60 and Italy's approximately 200.
I learned this bit of taxonomic trivia from David Baverstock, the head winemaker at Herdade do Esporão, the oldest continually operating estate in Europe. Established in 1267(!), the winery still operates out of their iconic citadel of a tower, which was constructed in 1460. Kind of gives a little perspective on what we Americans call history, doesn't it?
Baverstock himself hails from Australia, but he's spent almost 40 years working in European wineries. After a stint in the Port mines, Baverstock found he preferred to work with the more subtle blends that featured the national grapes of Portugal, Alicante and Aragonés. Esporão produces more than 20 different wines that are sold in North America, but we were lucky enough to taste four of them that are available to Nashville aficionados.
Their Esporão White Reserva 2008 was a blend of three grapes (which you won't remember, but I'll tell you anyway): Roupeiro, Arinto and Antão Vaz. Each varietal contributes different attributes to this well-balanced wine. Not as tart or acidic as a Vinho Verde, the Reserva has the body of a Chardonnay without the oaky tang of a stereotypical American Chard. With a retail of about $20 per bottle, this would be a nice alternative to fine French whites.
Ten years ago Chile, Spain and New Zealand were the secret sources of interesting bargain wines. Then the rest of us found out about them. They still produce great wines, but if you want to try something that all your friends don't know about yet, explore the vintages of Portugal. (And if you want to visit the vineyards in person, don't forget that a flight from Newark to Lisbon is only half and hour longer than a flight than from Newark to L.A.)