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Herdade do Esporão Vinha da Defesa 2012

I have just returned from three weeks in Madeira, but in terms of wine drinking - as opposed to wine tasting - I might as well have spent my summer break in Portugal's Alentejo. One of many new facts I have learnt about Madeira in the last few weeks is that although there is a small quantity of table wine produced here, alongside the more familiar fortified wines for which the island is justly famous, it remains a niche product which can require a little detective work to track down. When it comes to wine with dinner, the locals mostly drink wines from mainland Portugal. And although the Douro crops up quite often (to my surprise I was able to reacquaint myself with the wines of Quinta do Crasto, an old friend from many years ago; the red reserva was staple drinking for me in the late 1990s) as well as the Dão and Vinho Verde, by far and away the most commonly encountered region is the Alentejo.

Indeed, probably about 70% of my drinking came from Alentejo. This region lies in the southern half of Portugal, and although vast the area dedicated to viticulture is but a small portion located inland, near the border with Spain, north of the Algarve. Although the Atlantic is not that far away, the region is renowned for its 'continental'-style climate, hot and dry in the summer, with cold winters. And whereas the rest of Portugal is dominated by small estates, here many properties are large, expending over many hectares, sometimes growing dozens of different grape varieties, and producing dozens of different cuvées. I drank wines from a number of Alentejo estates, with Cartuxa and Herdade do Esporão popping up most frequently. At the latter, the wines have been made for many years by Australian David Baverstock, assisted by Sandra Alvares.

Herdade do Esporão Vinha da Defesa 2012

The climate engenders dense, textured, fruit-rich red wines which in many cases have a 'New World' feel to them, and it is no surprise to me that they seem so popular with the locals. The whites, however, struggle in my opinion, and although several I drank were attractive and clearly well made they didn't seem to excite. The problem is - to this drinker of Muscadet, Cour-Cheverny and Sancerre - that the wines rarely possessed the acidity I really craved in the warm climate of Madeira, acidity which was a pre requisite for the grouper, squid, trout and salmon I so often found myself eating. One wine that really stood out in this respect, however, was the 2012 Vinha da Defesa from the aforementioned Herdade do Esporão.

The wine is a blend of Arinto (more precisely Arinto de Bucelas, a variety that seems to originate from the Bucelas region near Lisbon), Antão Vaz (an autochthonous Alentejo variety) and Roupeiro (a widely encountered Iberian variety with many synonyms); after three weeks of drinking I am beginning to look on these three Portuguese varieties, which seem to crop up in most Alentejo whites, as old friends. The soils of the Esporão estate are granite, schist and clay, and the winemaking process is modern with destemming, cold maceration and settling after pneumatic pressing, and then temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel by inoculated yeast, followed by centrifugation, fining, cold stabilisation and filtration. Happily for drinkers in this approach seems to preserve the aromatic fruit and also the acidity in the wine, both very welcome when standing over the barbecue under Madeira's subtropical sun. In the glass it has a colourful, green-tinged hue. The nose is delightfully expressive, with Galia melons and green apples, with a touch of grapefruit vibrancy too. There are some slightly perfumed apple notes on the palate, more evident with a slightly warmer serving temperature, with a nicely textured substance to it as well as a bright, defining acidity, something I have missed over the last few weeks. All in all this is a fresh and lively wine, one which persuaded me to go back for more, a rare accolade. Well done. 15.5/20 (29/7/13)

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