Rarely, if ever, does one see Portuguese wine on the racks at their local US wine shop. The grapes are difficult to pronounce and hail from regions unknown to the average wine consumer. Try looking for Castelão, Moscatel, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira or Encruzado on your next stroll through the aisles of Total Wines. An onerous task to say the least.
I was extremely fortunate in my previous wine experience in North Carolina. A Raleigh-based Galician wine vendor worked with importers to expand our Portuguese collection, bringing bottle after bottle, week after week, for us to taste and sample. These wines fascinated me, as they had depth, finesse and complexity at quite a competitive price point. I gained an understanding and familiarity of these wines over the years, learning to recognize the characteristics of the varietals and the nuances that separated them.
Portugal had been on my ‘wine bucket list country’ for years, since I first tasted the Alentejano wines of Herdade de Esporão back in 2008. Needless to say, Lisbon was our first destination trip since we arrived in Brno.
To the consumers, Portuguese wines are approachable, food friendly, and price driven. The whites have balance, complexity, and acidity, while the reds are bold, rich, earthy and tannic. They reflect their unique terroir by their salinity and minerality. Although Portugal boasts over 200 indigenous grape varietals, most are kept hidden away in the bodegas and vineyards in Portugal. The vast array of grapes span centuries of invasions, religious rifts and commerce routes created between the Indies and Northern Europe. The grapes and vines have been adapted to their climate over hundreds of years of cultivation and pair effortlessly with their native culinary delicacies.
Our first stop on our wine trip in Setubal was Quinta de Alcube a family run winery and farm located about 45 minutes south of Lisbon. Producing just over 30,000 Liters of wine per year, this winery sells directly to consumers, without a formal distribution channel.
Growing about a dozen different varietals, this winery relies heavily on the production and sale of their boxed wine, which has spiked in popularity over recent years. To the naysayers of boxed wine, I must admit that it is quite a value for the price paid. It is the exact same wine that goes into a bottle. Yet five liters of wine, vacuum sealed in an airtight bag, can certainly outlast a few open bottles left hanging in the cupboard. Furthermore, boxed wine is a cheaper export method for the winery, as packaging and shipping prices drop significantly due to the ease of transport. Even here in Brno, most vinotékas buy wines from the wineries by the box and sell them to the end consumer in 1 or 2 liter bottles as a way to keep costs down. During our brief visit to the winery, we did in fact see Portuguese consumers drive up, load their cars with boxes of wine, and drive off down the dirt road.
We sampled indigenous varietals such as Castelão, the most widely planted red grape varietal in Portugal. It was my overall favorite, showing aromas of black raspberry, black plum and earth. Castelão could be a lovechild of Barbera and Tempranillo, both for its delicate aromas and meaty structure. It desperately needs some oak aging to round out its rather rough tannins but can be a fantastic pairing to braised beef or stuffed peppers.
We also had the opportunity to taste a white wine blend of Moscatel & Fernão Pires, that had crisp acidity, citrus, floral and tropical aromas. Moscatel, belonging to the Muscat family, is genetically one of the oldest grape families in history, with its native origins in Ancient Egypt. Fernão Pires, on the other hand, is a grape unique to Portugal, having a rather bright, spicy characteristic. All the wines from Quinta de Alcube were balanced, clean and most importantly approachable.
Our next stop was quite a different experience. José Maria da Fonseca, a 6th generation family run winery established in 1834, is a powerhouse in Portugal. Producing over 34 brands of wine, including fortified Moscatels, reds, whites and sparklings, José Maria da Fonseca’s wines are exported to 70 different countries worldwide. Since 2018, they are also the official wine of TAP Portugal, the country’s premier airline, an enviable nod to their quality and consistent production levels.
Our cellar tour began with a history of the family. The patriarch, Jose Maria da Fonseca quickly rose to fame shortly after 1850 with Periquita, a red wine made from Castelão, Touriga Francesca and Touriga Nacional. Periquita was in fact the first bottling of wine ever in Portugal. Prior to that time, wine had been sold exclusively by the barrel. Yet after a trip to France, Jose Maria da Fonseca revolutionized wine sales in Portugal by introducing this bottling technology. His now infamous Moscatel de Setubal, a fortified Moscatel dessert wine, gained prestige after some of his unsold barrels, destined for sale to Brazil, had made the return journey by boat back to Portugal. The temperature and climactic variances on the ship had, in fact, advanced the aging of the wine in a shorter period of time. Wines that typically would have taken ten years to age had the same characteristics of wines taken by ship in just a few months. This process created a unique flavor to the Moscatel and put the Fonseca wines in high demand throughout Europe.
Passed down over the generations, the winery has since expanded to include a garden, multiple barrel rooms, a tasting room and small museum.
The Brazilian Mahogany barrels, in constant use for the past 60 years, were both impressive and fascinating. Due to their size, the slats of wood were only assembled once inside the barrel room, with any leaks or holes patched with beeswax and repaired by the sole dedication of one winery employee. This employee’s son is now the only individual at the winery capable of patching these immense barrels. Certainly an awe inspiring story at such a prestigious site.
Our day concluded with a spirits tasting at Lima Fortuna, a family run winery specializing in liqueurs native the region. We sampled Gin Jeira, a famous concoction made from wild cherries from Serra do Louro. Gin Jeira was originally used as a cough medicine, as the potent cherry taste and high alcohol content was reminiscent of modern day Robitussin. In Lisbon, Gin Jeira is actually sold in chocolate egg-like shells, where one could drink the potent liqueur and then eat the chocolate! These shops were rampant in Lisbon, however the quality certainly varied from the tourist traps at Rossio Square to the more traditional locales like Lima Fortuna.
We also tasted Arrabidine, a digestive named after the monks of Arrábida and made exclusively at Lima Fortuna. It had a wild, herbal taste to it, with caramel, coffee and toffee undertones, and has been made year after year using their traditional methods and secret recipes.
Setubal certainly did not disappoint. The day was filled with boisterous conversation with the wine shop purveyors, winery employees and our tour guide. Overall, I found it to be an incredibly diverse, open and accepting culture, with an endless selection of wines, appreciation of history and dedication to tradition.