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A Tale of Two Wineries: Esporão and Howard’s Folly

The Alentejo, Portugal’s biggest wine region, is growing in reputation and catching up to the country’s most famous wine region, the Douro Valley. There’s plenty of room for both, of course, but it’s awfully nice to see that Alentejo wines are finally getting the recognition that they have long deserved.

One of the things that makes getting to know about Alentejo wines and wineries so interesting is the great diversity. Whether you’re a fan of sprawling historic estates or upstart urban wineries, generation spanning family businesses or daring new passion projects, known references that reliably produce wines that you’ve come to know and love or next generation winemakers who are having fun with their experiments, the Alentejo has a winery for you. 

Probably far more than one, but in any case, you won’t leave thirsty. Nor hungry, because many of the top wineries have ambitious restaurants attached. Nor bored, because the contrasts are delightful. 

Take, for example, Esporão, in the Reguengos de Monsaraz region of the district of Évora. The winery was founded in 1973 very early days in Portugal’s production of fine wines for sale, rather than personal consumption by José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira, Nowadays, Esporão is one of the largest organic wine producers in the world.  

Although it also has vineyards and wineries in the Douro Valley and the Vinho Verde region, Esporão has become an international standard bearer for Alentejo wines, and an ambassador of Portuguese culture around the world. (If you haven’t heard of Esporão wine per se, perhaps you’ve heard of the Alentejo produced Monte Velho, or of some of its other brands, such as Quinta dos Murças.)

Started in 1997, Esporão’s wine tourism operation was a pioneer in Portugal, and it has since won several awards. Visiting the winery continues to be a pleasure, starting with the drive through the rolling hills and vine covered lands of the Alentejo. It’s a good hour and a half from Lisbon, and like most things in the Alentejo, the journey is part of the delight.

The experience begins with a tour of the grounds, including the wine and olive oil-producing facilities. Then it continues on to a vine covered courtyard, where an olive oil tasting allows you to sample the Alentejo’s liquid gold by sipping it out of glasses about the size of espresso cups, sloshing it around in your mouth, and swallowing only after you’ve fully appreciated it. (Only amateurs dip bread to soften the flavors.) 

If you don’t visit in the oppressive August heat, as I did, you can go for a walk or a bike ride through the vineyards or the wild forest, which allows the family to remain wild in a commitment to regenerative agriculture and sustainability. At age 84, founder Roquette still has a regular routine of pedaling among the vines and olive groves. 

Those vineyards are impressive seemingly boundless and diverse. There’s a section devoted to experiments, such as attempting to grow famous grapes from around the world. Unsurprisingly, the Pinot Noir grapes, for example, which thrive in foggy Oregon and chilly New Zealand, are shriveled in the Alentejo sun. But all is not lost. Esporão regularly invites winemakers, sommeliers, and connoisseurs from around the world to experimental dinners, where they pair the unusual bottles with equally inventive food. 

For lay people, a visit to Esporão is no less enjoyable. The restaurant is a destination in itself, with Lisbon foodies regularly making the trip for a fine meal. Over the years, Esporão has been a launching pad for chefs like Pedro Pena Bastos, who made a big splash last year when he opened the restaurant Cura in Lisbon’s most prestigious hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon. 

Now the kitchen is commanded by the chef Carlos de Albuquerque. The cuisine is "de terroir,” seasonal and highlighting local products, many of them planted in Esporão's own gardens or supplied by neighboring producers. In 2021 they expanded to offer a series of Mãos à Horta dinners ("hands in the garden”), in which Albuquerque receives other ambitious chefs for four-hands dinners cooked over fire. 

It’s absolutely a tribute to the long history and slow rhythms of the Alentejo, a place that does nothing more than encourage visitors to slow down and savor. And it’s an homage to the classical herdades, or estates, of the Alentejo, an important tradition. 

But at the same time, one of the things that makes the Alentejo so fascinating is that it’s always changing. There’s always new blood, new ideas, and new projects. 

A case in point is Howard’s Folly, an upstart urban winery in the Alentejo city of Estremoz. The Howard in question is Hong Kong based businessman Howard Bilton. His folly his passion project and labor of love is making small batch, premium wines with some of Portugal’s best native grape varieties. When he got going on the project in earnest, he was smart enough to recognize one of the very top winemaking talents in the region, Esporão’s own longtime winemaker, David Baverstock. 

But Baverstock is one of few things that the projects have in common. Howard’s Folly is out to upend traditions, rather than to simply pay homage. The unique project produces a range of out-standing wines and brings together art and charity to support children in need through Bilton’s Sovereign Art Foundation, which uses the power of art to help them. 

If a visit to many Alentejo wineries includes walks through the vineyards and admiration of historic structures, a visit to Howard’s Folly is refreshingly different. There are no vineyards in sight. Rather, there’s art throughout the building particularly in the large, colorful murals that Bilton commissioned for the project from Portuguese artist Le Funky. A dedicated, sunlight gallery displays rotating exhibitions, including a collection of Nelson Mandela’s artworks when I visited.

But one Alentejo winery tradition that has remained true is very good food. At the Folly restaurant, chef Hugo Bernardo offers creative cuisine based on Alentejano ingredients. The constantly evolving menu of shareable plates might include local specialties like alheira (poultry sausage) croquettes and steak sandwiches, but also more inventive fare like duck magnet with beetroot puree and sea bass ceviche. 

As is always the case in the Alentejo, there’s no chance you’ll leave hungry. 

* Ann Abel is a freelance luxury travel writer with an adventurous streak: she's been tattooed in Bora Bora, flown small airplanes over three continents, and been bitten by a massage therapist.

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