Endless rows of cultivated vines deprived of their saturated green foliage, due to our visit in the bleak month of November, flew past us as we drove kilometer after kilometer towards Herdade do Esporão. From afar, the agricultural buildings were already visible in the distance, flanked by the Esporão tower, a white landmark built in the Middle Ages and freshly renovated some years ago. Patches of raw ocher earth with rusty streaks shone through, blond grass grew tall and pastures were speckled with olive trees and cork oaks, spanning across almost 700 hectares making up this biodiversity hotspot.
The Herdade is particularly interesting due to its multifaceted approach in both research and practice. Not only is there a certain ambition for viticultural excellency and olive oil production, but there is also a holistic approach implemented in the Herdade’s multiple fields of work. Whether it is the preservation of the flora and fauna in the natural reserve that covers half the acreage, or whether it is the interest in keeping cultural traditions and Portuguese heritage alive, the tendency is towards shaping a more active and aware environment. These principles are written down and put into practice with what Esporão calls the Slow Forward Movement, a set of principles based on a study regarding the fast paced world of today.
Among the agricultural practices that Esporão experiments with are old and new techniques aimed at preserving the land and its nutrients, such as composting (using all organic by-products of activity to enrich the cultures), mulching (vegetal layer to protect and fertilize the soil) and swarding (sowing the inter-row plant cover) or using bats as allies in the fights against moths.Our visit led us through the main buildings and subsequently below ground. We walked through corridors of a multitude of barrels stacked below the high vaulted ceiling. We were told that the wooden moulds used to build this reinforced concrete cellar, were the same ones used for the Paris metro system. Thus the two spaces are identical in height and width. We kept spiraling downwards, lastly entering the lowest room after following yet another flight of stairs. When the heavy steel door opened, it gave way to a high vaulted cellar, filled with stacked cart systems lined along the walls, full of wine from the last decades. A corridor opened up between them and the space felt extremely generous, despite its location so far below ground, enveloped by cold steel structures. All of a sudden the lights lit up and an incredible wooden table captivated us immediately. Only up close could we see how extremely well it was manufactured and how finely it was finished, meticulously polished and flattering to the touch. We were overwhelmed by the scenery of this warm piece of furniture in this dark environment. Skrei architects from Porto had commissioned this table, along with the lamps lining all the ceilings.
Skrei also designed the newly constructed rammed earth building, adjacent to the main entrance building. The walls were built by hand with wooden moulds. Carefully designed vertical window elements in the corners let in light and allow cross-ventilation through the length of the building, together with the large entrance gate. The woven ceiling, made form wood reused from old wine barrels, uses the building’s function as a motive to give the room a comfortable feel and an acoustic barrier. Testing contemporary rammed earth building practice at such a scale surely requires courage and an ambitious interest, it was thus exciting to see the work first hand. Most certainly the manual labour this construction required brings difficulties with it that will be important to question in future practice.
Discussing our visit retrospectively, it became clear to us that the drive Esporão embodies was what sparked our interest the most. Their drive to foster a long-term coexistence of nature, the species living within, architecture and man. The interdependence of these factors became very visible at the Herdade do Esporão, partially brought about by the information hung along the walls of the entrance building, partially by the staff who explained and guided us through the premises and lastly by the atmosphere of such a large organic production site of locally sourced wine.