Back in September, Portuguese wine producer Esporao celebrated its 40th anniversary. But, while the Alentejo-based firm is proud of its history, the company is transforming itself into a progressive operation, thanks to its CEO, Joao Roquette. just-drinks' deputy editor, James Wilmore, visited Esporao's vineyards to talk wine, revolution and jazz with the company chief.

Joao Roquette is far from your average drinks company CEO. The diminutive 39 year-old spent his twenties immersed in the music business, as a record label owner, producer and performer. Prepare yourself, but this is how his musical alter ego – Preto – is described on the website of Meifumado, the label he helped to establish: "The plumber of memory sewers: Preto is condemned to travel a sonic underground until he reaches the light at the end of the tunnel." 

Like I said, he's not your archetypal CEO.

But, as boss of Alentejo-based Esporao for the past seven years, he has been chanelling his creative energies into the winemaking business. Since taking over the family firm, Roquette has concentrated on modernising the group, with an increased focus on sustainability, expanding its global horizons and diversifying the business. There's even talk of beer production.

"I was 33 at the time (of taking over) and I've bought a lot of new ideas," he tells me over lunch near Esporao's main Alentejo vineyards. "The plan at the time was to develop the exports and the olive oils. There was a lot of opportunity because we were not doing a lot of marketing."

Roquette's slightly rebellious spirit no doubt stems from this father, Jose. It was in 1973 that Jose Roquette decided to turn his attention to the wine business. "My mother thought it was a crazy idea," says Joao. It was to prove a tough journey.

During the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Jose was arrested and the Roquettes had to leave the country. Once the political situation stabilised, the family returned in 1979 after part of its land was returned as the country came under democratic rule. The first vintage - and the creation of the Esporao brand - did not come until 1985, with its first wine being the Esporao Reserve.

The big turnaround in fortunes, however, came in 1992 with the hiring of chief winemaker David Baverstock, an Australian already adapted to the Portuguese way of life, having met his wife in Lisbon in the early 1980s.

"The '90s was the big development for us," says Roquette. "We also built the visitor centre, which was quite an innovation in the area at the time." As an indicator of how far the company has come, the vistor centre has since been transformed, with EUR3m (US$4.1m) spent on it last year, helped by a subsidised loan from the European Union. "It was a bold move, but it's instrumental in terms of our strategy," says Roquette.

This forward-thinking approach has translated into Esporao's winemaking. The company takes the concept of biodiversity very seriously, and is in the process of converting to organic production methods. Within the next five years, it aims to adapt all its agricultural activity to organic methods.

Climate change is also an issue that is front of mind for the group. Roquette says they are "preparing for it". This has seen Esporao purchase 15 hectares of vineyards in the north of Alentejo in the mountains, around 500 metres up. "The maturation is later than in the Duoro valley, the nights are very cold, so it's very easy to grow organic there," he says.

Esporao is far from a boutique producer, however. Its bottling plant, built in 2008, has the capacity to produce 80,000 bottles a day, while the group's current wine production is around 11m litres a year. Amazingly, Esporao boasts 204 grape varities in its vineyards, which includes a site in the Douro, with around 31% of these accounting for 98% of its production.

Exports make up about half of the company's sales, with its wines being sold in around 50 countries. The main markets are the US, Brazil and former Portuguese colony Angola.

Roquette is particularly excited about the opportunity for the company's wines in the US, the world's biggest wine market. "Per capita consumption compared to Europe is low (in the US), but that will increase," he says.  "It's a market we are well-established in and we are optimistic about it." In the UK, the company has also secured a distribution deal with Barwell and Jones, which is handling 18 different wines from the portfolio. Meanwhile, in Brazil, the company is "growing well", Roquette says, despite a slowdown in the country's economy. 

Back home, Roquette believes the opportunity is also significant. And being a Portuguese wine producer, it is not long before talk turns to Port. This seems less of a focus for Esporao, but, as VP of trade body Vini Portugal, Roquette still has a view. He admits it has been a "challenge" around turning new consumers on to Port, but the industry is now trying to do something about it and it's "picking up again". Does he not think, though, that more table wine producers appearing in the Douro means Port is losing its identity? "No, you still see flagship producers like Taylor's and Croft focussed in Port which is a very good thing. It's positive they just focus on this." 

He adds: "With the 'Douro Boys', most of them are table wines, but they are also starting to do some very good Ports. I think it's a win-win situation, the appearance of table wines in the Douro is positive for everyone."

With the uncertain nature of the wine business, however, Roquette's watchword is diversification. The company already has a good reputation for its olive oils. Beyond that, Roquette has a plethora of other ideas. This includes building a hotel among the vineyards and opening the company's own wine stores in Lisbon and Porto, and further afield in Brazil, Angola and the US. "We're looking to take our experience to the cities, with wine tastings, wine bars, tapas and maybe a restauarant in one of the larger stores," says Roquette. Vegetables would come from the estate's owns vegetable garden and there are plans to breed Iberian pigs. There is also talk of Esporao producing a beer. "It would be very high end, we're talking to a brewer," says Roquette. 

"I want to devote more of my time to these new projects." 

Perhaps all of these ideas which flow from Roquette can be attributed to his return to the creative process. "Finally, I'm making music again," he tells me. "I play of bit of everything, but it's the piano I turn to, which I learned to play at jazz school." Warming to the theme, he equates his business to the music-making process.

"The approach is the same," says Roquette, without a hint of irony. "If they are well done (wines), they can be works of art."