José Maria da Fonseca – Portugal from glass to plate

2015 was a great year for me discovering new wines, new wineries and new wine makers. Even after 25 years, I’m still making my way through the 7500 chateaux in Bordeaux. But there is more to life than Bordeaux – really – and I’ve enjoyed meeting some inspirational wine makers from further afield. All over the world, winemakers share the same enthusiasm and passion and it’s contagious. You may have seen this recently in my posts from SA but I was also blown away by a trip last summer to Portugal. I wasn’t there for the wine, I was there for the golf but there is only so much golf this girl can watch. My friend Roger Voss, European Editor of The Wine Enthusiast, highly recommended I visit Jose Maria de Fonseca while I was in the area.

Outside of port, my knowledge of Portuguese wine is very limited. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn more as José Maria Fonseca produce 34 different brands from vineyards throughout Portugal. The 6.5 million litres of production comes from their own 650ha vineyards as well as from grapes bought from the North and South of the country. Consequently their’s is an enormous range of style and price point with 80 per cent of the production exported to Northern Europe & the Americas.

The beautiful fountains at the entrance to Fonseca
The beautiful fountains at the entrance to Fonseca

Fonseca produced the first Portuguese Rosé in the 1930s, Faisca (older than Mateus which arrived in the 40’s). António Porto Soares Franco qualified as a wine maker in Montpellier and made his rosé famous in Lisbon serving it with hot dogs at an amusement park, leading to great success on the domestic market.

Their biggest and oldest brand is Periquita. Introduced in the 1850s, they now produce over 800 000 litres pa, it is one of the biggest red brands in Portugal. Never content to rest on their laurels, a white wine joined the range eight years ago and head wine maker Domingos changed the blend in 2014 to include Viognier, giving it a delightful mouth feel.

The range includes premium and super premium wines but it is the Moscatel de Setubal that keeps the heart of the family beating.

I visited them in their historical centre in the Setubal peninsula just South of Lisbon. Sixth generation, Domingos Soares Franco, couldn’t have been a more charming host. As senior wine maker and VP working alongside his brother Antonio, his passion shines through. His personality is as big as some of his wines with his unique blend of experience, innovation and independence.

Some of the majestic mahogany vats
Some of the majestic mahogany vats

2015 was his 35th vintage; he was the first Portuguese winemaker to graduate from Davis University in Californian, which might explain his heady mix of respect for tradition and disrespect for rules.

It is a resolutely modern company but firmly anchored in the past.  Setubal is their largest vineyard; it is here too that they have engaged with a very modern and ecological approach to vineyard management that has been the benchmark for their production since the 1980s. They also produce wine in the Douro and in Alentejo, where they produce the José de Sousa wines (they purchased the winery in 1986).

The company was founded in 1834 and won their first award for their Moscato in 1855 (familiar date anyone?). Now the sixth and seventh generation are at the helm. The beautiful Manor house in Setubal is the original family home dating from the early 19th century; the house was restored in 1923 and was the Soares Franco family residence until 1974. With its beautiful gardens, it is now the hub of their wine tourism activity, which includes a museum and a shop welcoming over 36 000 visitors a year. The old ageing cellars here house the huge 100-year-old, 2000 litre Brazilian Mahogany vats. Vats this size and this old are neutral, giving no taste to the wine. But they make for an impressive backdrop for dinners and events.

The shop at the Fonseca Manor House.
The shop at the Fonseca Manor House.

Portugal has over 250 indigenous grape varietals to choose from, in the gardens at Fonseca they have a ‘library’ vineyard collection started in 1920 by Antonio when he was studying in Montpellier.

The super modern wine making facility, with four bottling lines with a capacity of 30 000 bottles per hour and a production of 6.5 million litres is only a stone’s throw away, but it is here that you can feel the beating heart of the family.

The tasting line up
The tasting line up

The tasting started with the entry level Lancers Rosé, a low alcohol (10%), slightly sparkling rosé which enjoys huge success in the US market where has been sold since the 1940s. We tasted the iconic Periquita in red (2012) and the first white of the range 2014 vintage (excellent for whites) as well as the Periquita reserve red 2013. I particularly enjoyed the Quinta de Camarate 2014 red. Not far from Setubal, this single vineyard has been in the families since the early 20th century. This label was launched in the 60s, with some new French oak and a little Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the traditional local Touriga Nacional, Aragones and Castelao. The land is planted under vines and the reminder grazed by sheep producing the famous local Azeitao cheese – hence the sheep on the label!

The Hexagon range
The Hexagon range

The José de Sousa collection was also eye opening. The vineyard, in the heart of Alentejo to the South has been making wine since the 1870s, but joined the family holding in 1986. 1940 had been a benchmark vintage for de Sousa, and with the purchase they decided to go back to the future, following the traditional wine making techniques of the area to reproduce this success. They ferment the grapes in 100 clay amphorae alongside a brand new stainless steel winery. José de Sousa Mayor is the estate’s premium wine, with a more precise selection, a larger percentage being vinified in the clay amphorae and aging in new French oak. The granite soils transmit a fresh minerality that shines through this big powerful wine.

Domingo also signs his own Coleccao Privada – with this he says he can do what he likes (I have a feeling he does that anyway). But the Moscato is really the star, it is their speciality; they produce almost a million cases. They produce 10 labels of Moscato here aged in old oak from ten up to forty years . The cellars of the manor hold the oldest Setúbal Moscatels, some of which are over 100 years old.

I know I have a bias towards sweet wines but these traditional fortified wines balance perfectly freshness, alcohol and an elegant fruit driven sweetness. A DOC since 1907, these traditional wines are enjoyed in Portugal more often as an aperitif than a dessert wine, in the heat of the summer chilled, they were delightful. We tasted the Alamabre 2010 from the Muscatel de Setubal varietal. Fermented until 5°, when up to one third of brandy is added, Domingos has had fun experimenting with various brandies including blends of Armagnac and Cognac to create the range. This blend is then kept on the skins for three months before pressing. The youngest current bottling is 2010, as it needs four or five years minimum ageing for complex oxidative aromas to develop. The latest addition to the Alambre range is the Alambre Moscatel Roxo de Setúbal 2010 D.O.C. Called Moscatel Roxo as it is made from this rare purple version of the Moscatel grape, a speciality of Setubal.

Because no wine is complete without food, at the end of the tasting off we trotted off to the neighbouring restaurant, bottles in hand. Here again I was treated to a wonderful welcome from Domingo’s brother, Antonio and a group of friends with some delicious typical local dishes. Despite serving some of his top Hexagon wines, the major point of discussion was the quality of the sardines and whether the season was at its peak or not yet.

Lunch including the famous sardines
Lunch including the famous sardines

To accompany these delicious dishes we started with the delightfully bright Verdelho 2014 and then onto the Hexagon wines; José Maria da Fonseca’s Super premium wines. These wines combine the best of the New World and Old World. Keeping alcohol lower and acidity higher they give a powerful but elegant expression of the terroir, specifically aimed towards the international market. They use the old traditions of foot-trodden grapes and alcoholic fermentation finished in oak casks, but use new oak French oak casks for the 12 months aging.

If you can’t get to the winery for a visit call in at their flagship store come wine bar in Lisbon. All the wines from the range are available here by the glass, served with local specialities, but I bet the sardines can’t beat the ones in Setubal.

 

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