From the Barossa to a new port

hero Winemaker David Baverstock.

It was a perfect autumn day – warm, the water refreshing, and a gentle sea breeze soothed a young David Baverstock, the fresh-faced Barossa boy with piercing blue eyes. Recently out of agricultural college and having finished a stint of vintages in France and Germany, he thought a few days’ holiday in Lisbon would be just the thing before returning home.

Except love got in the way. At the beach he met Antonietta – now his wife and mother of their two adult sons – and life changed irrevocably.

Today Baverstock is one of Portugal’s most celebrated winemakers, heading the hugely successful and enormous winery Herdade do Esporao in the Alentejo, about 280 kilometres south-east of Lisbon. Baverstock also oversees its Douro Valley outpost, Quinta dos Murcas – and he has a clutch of awards to prove it. Recently he took out the coveted winemaker of the year gong in one of Portugal’s leading wine magazines, Revista de Vinhos, but he also took out the title in 1999, becoming the first non-Portuguese winemaker to do so.

Before that fame, he returned to the Barossa Valley – Antonietta soon followed – where he landed the winemaking role at Saltram after the abrupt exit of Peter Lehmann and his winemaker, Andrew Wigan.

Baverstock was barely 25. ”I was just happy to get a job, and it was a great experience to be at this famous [and expanding] Barossa winery,” he says. ”We had chardonnay juice coming from the Hunter Valley. There wasn’t any chardonnay in South Australia and there was very little in New South Wales at the time. It was pretty exciting. We had cabernet coming up from Coonawarra and there were some great fortified wines [being made in the company]. It was a fantastic learning experience – well, for a couple of years anyway.”

Unfortunately, the experience soured and the multinational owners at the time were more interested in profit than great wine and too many worthy people were being sacked.

”We were losing character in the winery. [The owners] wanted gold medals for certain wines while we were also doing bag-in-the-box. By the second year there, I was working under difficult circumstances,” he says.

His friend and mentor, Robert O’Callaghan of Rockford fame, offered sage advice: ”If you’re any good at your job and you’re working for a big company, you won’t be making wine for very long. You’ll be pushed up the ladder and you’ll be controlling information and crunching numbers.”

”I have never wanted to do that and never will,” Baverstock says. ”I was still young and adventurous and I thought, ‘What the heck, let’s go to Portugal’.”

He and Antonietta headed back in 1982. ”Returning was more of a challenge than I realised,” he says. ”I didn’t speak the language and there wasn’t much work so I really struggled for the first 12 months or so. There were no jobs working with table wines.”

So Baverstock headed to Oporto to make port for Crofts for a year before joining the famous Symington Family Estates, owners of exemplary port houses today, such as Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Vesuvio and more. It was a happy, prosperous time.

”What I learnt most about being in the port trade and working in different houses was the blending, and creating a house style,” he says. ”Although we were making port, it still translated into an idea about table wines. There’s no doubt that working in port helped me understand more about blending than had I stayed in Australia.”

While making port, he couldn’t help wondering what the wines would be like if they were fermented dry and not fortified. With Symington’s blessing, he played around with some trial batches. ”One of the nice things about the port trade was the social side, with fantastic lunches at lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia [Oporto’s famous port area], yet the buyers would be served really average table wines, leaving the ports to shine at the end. So I started serving my wine, which was pretty good, and these buyers would say, ‘Hey, this stuff’s great, where can we buy it?’ They were told it was just a hobby to keep me happy. I went along with this for a while but I wanted to do something more.”

Baverstock was fortunate because Symington allowed him to consult to Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro Valley for the sole purpose of making table wines. It was 1991 and only Dirk Niepoort had started to make table wines a year earlier so for the Douro in this modern era, it was revolutionary. The art was in the blending.

In 1992, wealthy banker, businessman and owner of Esporao, Jose Roquette, offered Baverstock the job of a lifetime – chief winemaker. Today the company edges towards 20 million bottles, with many tiers of Alandra, from inexpensive fresh table wines to the expensive age-worthy Torre.

Since 2000, Baverstock has concentrated on the burgeoning Esporao brand, although latterly he has overseen its Douro venture, Quinta das Murcas, a beautiful property bought in 2008.

Baverstock says returning to the Douro Valley is a reminder of just how diverse and special Portuguese varieties are – both white and red. Varieties such as tinta amarela, tinta barroca, tinta roriz, touriga francesa and touriga nacional, plus extraordinary whites such as rabigato and viosinho – and that’s just in the Douro. It makes you think, he says, that with a few exceptions, such as burgundy, complexity comes from blending.

”You just don’t get enough complexity working with one variety, especially in a warm to hot region. Using three or four … you’re going to get a different flavour profile and have a better chance of making a well-balanced wine, whether a better acid-tannin balance or lots of different flavours – just like cooking.

”That’s the best thing about Portugal. Thanks to those unique varieties, the end result is something quite special,” he says. ”It’s great to have trophies in your cabinet but I get more of a kick out of these wines that go well with food that people enjoy now, because they won’t take 20 years to be drinkable and ready. They are wines you can enjoy and they give pleasure. That’s what it should be all about.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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