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November 7, 2010

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Portuguese wine family saves the grapes

CLIMATE change has a serious impact on all kinds of crops, including grapes, but one Portuguese wine family is trying to save some of the country's seldom-used varieties from global warming.

Portugal has about 258 indigenous varieties of grapes but many are no longer used to make wine.

Joao Roquette, the chief executive of Esporao SA, the largest wine producer in the country's Alentejo region, and his Australian winemaker David Baverstock have selected about 188 varietals and are planting them in an experimental vineyard to make sure they survive.

"It's a way of making sure these varieties remain. Some were on the verge of extinction. They were all used at one time to make wine, but fell out of favor. But over time, tastes change, the climate can change," Roquette explained.

"This way, we're insuring a heritage and also a resource. This is a long-term investment - 10, 20 or 30 years," he said.

Roquette wasn't always such a long-term planner, and he never thought he would be running the wine business his father, Jose Roquette, struggled to build after Portugal's Carnation Revolution in 1974.

"I didn't grow up in the vineyards," said Roquette, who spent much of his childhood in Brazil after his family fled Portugal in the early 1970s to escape the political unrest.

The Herdade do Esporao, the 13th-century estate his father and a partner had bought, was nationalized and was not returned to the families until 1984.

Roquette, who is the youngest of six children and wanted to study music, has overseen the 16 million euro (US$22.76 million) expansion of Esporao's holdings to include Quinta dos Murcas in the Douro region, an area primarily known for its Port wines.

Baverstock, who won the country's winemaker of the year award in 1999, is producing wines at Esporao in a style that is more New World than Old World, and is trying to do for Touriga Nacional, considered Portugal's national grape, what his countrymen did for Shiraz.

He admits his Esporao Red Reserve, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragones, Trincadeira, all of which are grown on the estate, is "not unlike an Australian red" but it has its own unique character and a softer, less aggressive style.

Baverstock views the experimental vineyard as a way of "saving a viticultural heritage."

"Once they're gone, they're gone. Right now, we grow about 30 different varities and we've concentrated on them because that's the way people like their wine. But people's tastes change, so at the moment, the demand for these varieties may be dead, but that may not be the case in 50 or 100 years."


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