‘I also drink beer when I’m off the job’
AUSTRALIAN WINEMAKER, David Baverstock, is one of Portugal’s most successful expatriates. David works at the estate of Herdade do Esporão near Reguengos de Monsaraz in the Alentejo, 180 kilometres south of Lisbon. The prestigious Portuguese magazine Revista dos Vinhos named him winemaker of the year in 1999, the first time a foreigner won such an accolade. His wines win regular awards in international competitions – his Esporão Touriga Nacional was named best Portuguese Red Wine at the 2002 International Wine Challenge in London – and fetch top prices in Europe, Brazil and the United States. In this exclusive interview with The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman, David Baverstock tells us about his early days in Australia, his passion for Europe and how he helped pop superstar, Sir Cliff Richard, to produce his own wine.
Tell us about your background …
I was born in Adelaide in 1956 and had an interesting childhood. My father was a bank manager. He preferred country postings as opposed to cities, so we moved around the state of South Australia as I was growing up and I changed schools a lot.
I fell into winemaking because I finished off my last three years in high school in a high profile wine-growing region (the Barossa Valley). Everyone now knows that Australia is a fantastic wine-producing country, but it certainly wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
I really didn’t have any fixed ideas about what I wanted to do, but winemaking really appealed to me. It was the right thing at the right time. Now it’s a very trendy thing to do in Australia – the wine industry is so successful and popular that everybody wants to be a winemaker. But when I finished high school, it was considered a risky and slightly dangerous profession. People thought you were eccentric to go into winemaking because you were venturing into the unknown.
So how did you set about fulfilling your dreams?
I studied winemaking for five years at Roseworthy Agricultural College, the only place at the time that you could study winemaking in Australia. That was handy because it was just 15 minutes away from the Barossa Valley, the centre of the Australian wine industry. You had to do two or three years of agriculture and then two years studying oenology (the science of winemaking). I graduated in 1978 as a qualified winemaker.
A large part of the course was to do with European viniculture because the Australian winemaking industry was not well established. I’m sure the concept of teaching winemaking in Australia has now changed, but in those days we spent much of our time studying the great winemaking areas of the world. These areas – Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, and Moselle and Rheingau in Germany – are still great areas up to a point. But they are no longer necessarily considered the best places to make wine because they face competition from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and California.
The first thing I wanted to do when I finished my studies was travel to Europe, not go straight into the industry and start work. I was intent on working in villages in Europe and seeing what the ‘Old World’ was about.
So did you come to Europe straight away?
I had a year off working in the industry, working in vineyards and getting a bit more of a feel for the business. I was killing time until the northern hemisphere vintage kicked in.
I arrived in Europe in time for the 1979 vintage in Germany, working for six months in a big winery in the south. Then I had the idea of doing the French vintage the following year. I filled in the time travelling – backpacking – as so many Australians do.
When and why did you come to Portugal?
I came to Portugal in 1980 to have a holiday and also to go to the Douro to see the port-making process. I arrived in Lisbon, went to the beach and bumped into a local girl. It was a combination of romance and interest in the business. So I met this girl who is now my wife and the mother of my two sons (Philip, 23, and Andrew, 17).
After a few months, I was running out of money and so I returned to Barossa to get a job. My wife came out six months later, but she didn’t settle very well in Australia, as she was on her own a bit too much. So, after a couple of years, we decided to come back.
You then spent 10 years producing port in northern Portugal …
I ended up working in the port trade, based with the Symington Group, because the table wine industry in Portugal back in the early 80s was not as well advanced or quality orientated as it is today. It was even behind Australia and Australia wasn’t very advanced. So I took refuge in the port trade because it was so well established. The English had been there for 300 years and they had a recognised product – they were organised and professional. I also felt that it would look good on my CV because port was very important in those days.
As time went by, I felt I was losing touch with table wines, which were my first passion – not fortified wines – and so they let me get involved with some table wines in the Douro as a consultant. Then, in 1992, I was offered a very lucrative position at Esporão where I’ve now been for 14 years, working for José Roquette. He’s a very dynamic entrepreneurial figure, but he is now in his mid 60s and has cut back on other activities to concentrate on Esporão. He was president of Sporting football club for a number of years and people in that field are usually high powered.
Tell us about a typical working day on the estate …
It’s very varied and seasonal. The vintage falls between the middle of August and the middle of October, so we have two months of intense 24-hour operations. We run two 12-hour shifts with 20 people working on each shift in the winery. We sift the fruit during the day and during the night. So that’s my busiest time. We have more than 150 people in the vineyard picking the grapes and we have machine-harvested fruit coming in at night. We get run ragged, but it’s always a fun, creative, intense and artistic part of the job.
You brought some interesting innovations to Esporão …
The Alentejo is very similar to the area of Australia where I worked, so it was easy to adapt the technology we had in the Barossa valley to Esporão. I introduced stainless steel tanks, refrigeration and hygiene control, new oak containers and machine harvesting. We also did a lot of work in the vineyard to improve its condition.
Are you producing both red and white wines?
Yes, red and white – two thirds red and one third white.
Why do you think your Esporão wines have been so successful?
You will find that wine critics and consumers generally find there’s not that much difference between a French, Australian or Californian Chardonnay. The really promising thing for Portugal is that they have this really unique genetic pool of grape variety.
Our most successful wine is Touriga Nacional and our Esporão Reserve white wine has been more successful than we ever imagined. We’re selling that all round the world. It’s a barrel-fermented white wine, not unlike a Chardonnay in style, but it’s made with these individual Portuguese grape varieties and so has a unique flavour and character.
Is the Alentejo the best wine-producing area in Portugal?
Up to a point. I’ve worked in the Douro as well, so I know them both fairly intimately. I would say the Douro has the potential to produce the highest quality red wines in the country. But the Alentejo has the potential to produce excellent quality, in a greater volume, because the climate is more predictable – it’s hotter and more uniform.
The Douro has more fluctuations because it has an inland valley climate and it can rain during the vintage. But when they have a top year, they can make an extremely small volume of high quality wine that we would find difficult to match.
What about the Algarve as a winemaking region?
I make Cliff Richard’s wine (Vida Nova), as you know. The Algarve will never be famous for extremely high quality wines, but they can make quite good wines. The Algarve’s summer, tourist market certainly makes it a good place for Rosé wine.
I interviewed Sir Cliff about four years ago when he’d only just started his Vida Nova wine …
We now do a Rosé as well as a red wine. We’ve increased the volume and the wine’s getting better all the time. We’ve built an on-site winery on the property down there. Before that, I was bringing the fruit up and making the wine in the Alentejo, which was not ideal. So the fact that we make the wine on-site, and the fact that the vines are getting older, helps us to understand the fruit quality better.
The first really top vintage we had was in 2004, three years after we started. We got a bronze medal at London’s International Wine Challenge in London for that year’s vintage of Vida Nova. That was quite an achievement.
They didn’t know it was Cliff’s wine?
No, not at all! At Esporão, we have won silver and gold medals in these challenges. But the fact that Vida Nova, in only its fourth year, could win a bronze medal made Cliff realise that we were on the right track and that we were doing something very serious down there.
How did you become involved with Cliff’s wine venture in the first place?
He had this property – an estate with a villa and a swimming pool – and he owned this very old run-down vineyard. He said he wanted someone to turn it round and my name came up through his Algarve contacts. I got a phone call – not from Cliff in the first instance – but from one of his advisors. I asked where the property was and he said it was in Guia in the Algarve. If it had been anyone else I would have said ‘forget it’, because the Algarve doesn’t have a history of winemaking. But I thought celebrity winemaking would be a bit of fun.
When I went down, saw the property and looked at the climactic data and the soil profile, I was more optimistic. I got a friend of mine – Richard Smart, an internationally famous viniculture expert – to come down and give it the all clear. We concluded that there was no reason why we couldn’t grow very good red grapes there. So we pulled up the old vineyard, which was very run-down, and planted the varieties that I thought would do well – basically the same things as I was doing in the Alentejo.
What do you think motivated Cliff? Was it just a hobby at the beginning for him?
Initially, it was a hobby because he’s very wealthy from his singing career. But I think he can see that he can’t last forever as a performer and that it would be nice to be involved in a business that’s creative and makes people happy, which is what wine does at the end of the day. He genuinely likes wine and it’s a fun thing to be involved in and, of course, he had the money to be able to set the whole thing up.
I go down there once a month at least. Max Birch, who’s on site, is the resident winemaker/manager. Cliff went into partnership with Nigel Birch, a neighbour who also has vineyards. We built the winery on Nigel’s property, not Cliff’s, because Cliff wanted to keep his estate as a holiday place. He didn’t want anything slightly industrial on the premises, so he just has his estate and a vineyard, and Nigel has his estate, vineyard and winery. When Cliff’s not in residence he just needs someone to come in and look at the vineyard.
I buy wine for less than two euros a bottle and sometimes nearer one euro a bottle. For those of us who are not wine connoisseurs, is that wine bound to be just cheap ‘plonk’?
No, not at all, because winemaking in Portugal is at a very good level. Climatically, the conditions are very good for growing grapes. Wine at two or three euros a bottle is usually quite good. In France, on the other hand, a wine at that price would be quite poor. But you can certainly find a decent wine in Portugal for between two and five euros a bottle.
What is your favourite wine? I suppose you will advertise your own!
Not necessarily. I like some of the top Douro red wines, but they’re quite expensive. I like Vila Santa from Portugal Ramos – he makes a good red Alentejo wine.
Naturally, I taste a lot of wine, on a professional level, but I also drink beer when I’m off the job – just like a good Australian! We have a great set-up down at the winery. We have a staff canteen and we have good food from the restaurant. We have a couple of glasses over lunch, from the bottom line of what we’re producing on the day. And when I’m at home with my wife, between us, we drink a bottle of wine over dinner.
What do you think of the controversy over plastic stoppers taking over from cork?
I don’t think that plastic is the big threat to cork. It’s more the screw cap, which has been embraced in Australia and New Zealand. I think that cork had this coming. It was under threat and the industry took no notice because it had a monopoly for so long. The synthetic stoppers haven’t really substituted national cork as much as people thought they would because they don’t actually seal the bottles very well. Synthetic stoppers do not have the elastic properties of cork. But a screw cap does seal the bottle and that’s a big worry to the cork industry.
There will always be cork for the top quality wines, but a lot of the lower quality wines will move over now. At Esporão, we’re doing market research and when we think that the time is right we will move over. But the local market is not that sophisticated when it comes to drinking – they only drink Portuguese wines.
In Portugal, there’s very little imported wine and so there’s little exposure to the new technologies of synthetic and screw caps. So we would be foolish to do it because our big market is still the local market. But, if we were working with supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, they would insist that we use screw caps. Cork is suffering and it will suffer more because they didn’t see the signs and they didn’t move quickly enough.
Is the pattern of wine drinking very different in Australia?
In Australia, you tend to only drink a good bottle of wine when you’re having a dinner party. You still don’t have the day-to-day drinking that exists here, the tradition of having a glass or two at lunchtime and sharing a bottle in the evening.
It’s still not as culturally acceptable to drink wine on a daily basis as it is over here. The business lunch with wine is alive and thriving in Portugal. But, over in Australia, they have cut back on that sort of thing.
Not many Australians live in Portugal …
We have a get-together every year on January 26 (Australia Day) and there are probably 30 or 40 Australians who attend. But, with wives and family also present, it could be about 50.
So you are obviously happy here in Portugal?
We are very happy here. Portugal is one of these countries where there’s a lot of poverty and people live very much on the minimum wage, which is not much fun. But I’ve had a good career and been successful, and I’ve been able to carve out quite a good lifestyle. And I really like what I do. I get reasonably well paid for it, but I actually enjoy the process of winemaking and that helps a lot.
I also get to travel a lot. I’m about to go back to Australia for my father’s 80th birthday celebrations. Then I’m going on to Brazil to a wine fair. This year, I’ve already been to the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Holland.