The Setúbal Peninsula is the relatively small wine-growing area immediately south of Lisbon that has a long history and tradition based around some specific grape varieties and wine styles. Though there are many estates bottling wines in the region, it is also dominated by a handful of large privately-owned producers and cooperatives. As in most Portuguese regions, the picture here is changing, with experimentation and improving quality in both viticulture and winemaking. The peninsula is covered by two DOC appellations, DOC Moscatel de Setúbal for the region’s excellent fortified Muscat wines, and DOC Palmela, which covers table wines. But in fact, most of the production on the Peninsula is regional wine, not DOC (now changed to DOP across Europe). Regional wines account for 80% of all production, with DOC Palmela making up 12% and Moscatel de Setúbal the remaining eight percent.
Setúbal’s grape varieties
Castelão is easily the most widely planted red wine variety (known locally as ‘Perequita’) and it dominates both as a single varietal and in blends. The blends often include Portuguese varieties like Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional, but ‘international’ varieties like Alicante Bouschet and Syrah are increasingly popular. Syrah in particular is exciting many producers and is being planted most rapidly. Muscat, Fernão Pires and Arinto are some of the traditional Palmela white varieties, though again other domestic and international varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdelho have made significant inroads.
Moscatel de Setúbal
Moscatel de Setúbal is a fortified wine normally made in a lightly sherried style, ranging from off-dry to fully sweet. The wine macerates on the skins of the Muscat grapes for much longer than in many fortified wines, lending lots of floral, grapey character to the wines. Inexpensive versions are popular as an aperitif, and sell locally for just a few Euros, whilst the more complex wines, usually aged for many years in oak, are more often matched to desserts. Two thirds of the blend must be Moscatel, with both the Muscat of Alexandria and smaller-berried Muscat à Petit Grains to be found in the region, as can a pink-skinned variety which makes the comparatively rare ‘Roxo’. The wines appear as non-vintage, vintage-dated, and as aged styles (10-year-old to 40-year-old).
There is not a strong UK presence for the wines of the Peninsula at present, though Bacalhôa’s Tinta da Anfora and Jose Maria de Fonesca’s Perequita brands have gained major supermarket listings. I visited two of the largest producers on the Peninsula, plus one of the smallest, as well as attending a tasting of over 20 wines from the regional at the headquarters of the wine commission in the town of Setúbal. Reports on 50 wines follow.
Bacalhôa’s winery at Quinta da Bassaqueira is a must visit if you are in the area. A huge dome designed with only one central pillar, it was originally designed as the manufacturing HQ for Readers Digest magazine, but when the operation closed, was converted to a winery. Office space on a central platform is filled with artefacts and antiques belonging to owner José Berardo, one of Portugal’s richest and most colourful characters. The Bacalhôa Group owns wineries in all of Portugal’s main wine regions: here in Setúbal, but also in Lisboa, Bairrada, Dão and the Douro. Rumours abound that they are close to buying a major Port shipper. The grounds of Bassaqueira contain parts of Mr Berardo’s eclectic art collection, including a regiment of life-sized terracotta warriors and horses, two 40-foot tall chickens and a 2,500-year-old olive tree (one of hundreds of ancient trees transported here from the Alentejo). Just along the road from the winery is the 400-year-old Quinta da Bacalhôa itslef, a stunning building of architectural renown, complete with beautiful gardens (right). Tours can be pre-booked, and full information is at www.bacalhoa.com.
Head of winemaking is the urbane Vasco Garcia, with the company through several owners over 20 years and now heading up winemaking at this, plus the group’s other operations including Quinta do Carmo in Alentejo, in which Baron de Rothschild of Lafite was an equal partner until three years ago, when the Bacalhôa group acquired his shares.
José-Maria de Fonseca
The unstoppable force that is Domingos Soares Franco is the sixth generation of his family to head-up this formidable 180-year-old company, as both chief executive and head winemaker (photo courtesy cesargiobbi.com.br). The JM Fonseca name is hugely respected, and their charismatic leader had a fascinating passage into the family business. In the 1970’s he applied to the university of Lisbon to study their highly-respected agronomy course. But because his father “was declared a fascist under the communist regime,” in Portugal of the 1970s, he was rejected. After he and his father visited and considered the winemaking schools of Bordeaux, Dijon and Geisenheim in Germany, he eventually decided on UC Davis “but only with the help of friends, as my father could not move any money out of Portugal.” However his father did eventually find a way of supporting his son’s education, by sending cases of rare old Port to New York for auction, and secretly releasing the resulting funds to his friends in the US.
There is a large portfolio of wines here, based in the Sétubal Peninsula but also making wines in the Douro, Dão and Alentejo. One peripheral but fascinating current project, which Domingos cites to explain the hands-off approach he takes to encourage his young winemakers, is a pair of new wines made from every variety that could be found in the Peninsula: the red is a blend of 170 varieties, the white of 220. My tasting included only the top wines of Fonseca, drawn from a huge portfolio that includes the popular Lancers and Perequita brands.
António Saramago spent 40 years with José Maria de Fonseca before striking out on his own to make wines for other people, and his small range of Saramago wines. He works alongside his two sons and declares his passion for the Castelão variety,which he firmly believes is the most important variety in Setúbal. “I want to preserve the grape and celebrate it in face of the international and other Portugues varieties that are coming into the region,” he says.
The Saramgo project is unusual in many ways: António only produces his top wines in the best years, and does not own any vineyards or a winery. He makes around 8,000 cases per year, but the top wines tated here account for only around 400-500 cases. Currently he says his wines are selling well in Brazil and Angola.
I found his red wines to have a very distinctive, quite singular, and not entirely pleasant animal character on the nose; meaty and gamey, hinting at farmyard aromas. On the palate the wines burst into life, and his old Moscatel is a lovely wine, but I would welcome the chance to re-assess all of these wines at some point.
Setúbal regional tasting
At the HQ of the Setúbal commission I tasted over 20 wines from a range of producers.
This is a fascinating little corner of Portuguese wine, the vineyards very easy to reach on a day trip from Lisbon, and with those glorious Moscatels and a portfoilo of red wines that twists and turns, from deeply traditional to modern and experimental, there is plenty of interest for the visiting wine lover.