Updated: Jul 27
Looking for wine tours around Lisbon that don't require much (and actually, no) driving? I had the same dilemma. Wineries in Lisbon region are impossible to reach by public transportation, only car, and not all wine lovers drive. But now I know about a gem nearby – Setúbal is just a train/bus ride away from Lisbon and it’s home to Portugal’s oldest table wine producer.
Let’s visit José Maria da Fonseca winery in Azeitão village in Setúbal wine region and find out all about this innovative estate!
Peninsula de Setúbal Wine Region
Setúbal is just an estuary away from Lisbon
It was known before as Terras do Sado for the river which flows through its’ lands. Today the official name of the denomination is Peninsula de Setúbal. Setúbal is just an estuary away from Lisbon, to be precise south of the Tejo (Tagus) estuary. The land is mainly flat, very suitable for agriculture, the soils are mainly sandy, while in Serra da Arrábida they’re limestone and clay. The climate is Mediterranean.
The innovator of Portuguese winemaking
José Maria da Fonseca was the first one to sell wine bottled. Before, all wine was sold in bulk, which besides other incommodities made falsifications very frequent. To phrase it differently – he was the first one to protect his brand and ensure consumers can predict what they get in the bottle.
During the tour I saw Portugal’s first bottling machine from 1800’s brought by José Maria da Fonseca from France.
Now let’s see what they do with their Mediterranean climate conditions to make viticulture as sustainable as possible at José Maria da Fonseca (after all we are talking innovation):
Starting from the 80’s they stopped mobilizing the soil, retaining the natural vegetation layer, which keeps moisture, reduces the need of watering and is beneficial to plant and animal biodiversity.
In 90’s the winery was the first in Portugal to introduce drip irrigation, now it’s a nationwide standard.
The soils are fertilized with stems of grapes along the vine rows.
Visiting José Maria da Fonseca in Setúbal wine region
Their winery in Setúbal is famous for two wines the Moscatel de Setúbal - a famous dessert wine from Portugal and Periquita - the most well known red wine from Setúbal. Let’s talk about both.
Moscatel de Setúbal:
A fortified sweet wine from Portugal, like Port and Madeira wines.
Generally made of Moscatel de Alexandria (one of the most ancient grape varieties, and one of the last not crossed, so remained original from the Phoenician times). If the wine contains at least 85% of Moscatel de Alexandria and comes from Setúbal it can be called Moscatel de Setúbal.
Moscatel Roxo – is the second used variety. It’s pink (as the name states) and has a lot of overwhelming aromas.
Fonseca’s Moscatel is known for wining a gold medal in 1855 during the renown Paris Exhibition (the winery itself was established in 1834), exactly the same exhibition when the Bordeaux classification was born.
This part of cellar is dedicated to the private collection of the Fonseca family - they save a bottle of each vintage as part of their history.
The difference between Moscatel and other fortified wines of Portugal:
At Fonseca’s the wine is fermented in stainless steel, and very soon in a few days the fermentation is interrupted by addition of neutral alcohol.
Therefore, the alcohol content is around 17% (much lower than Port) and residual sugar is 120 g.
Afterwards, the wine ages in stainless steel on its’ skins (it’s called debourbage in viticulture) for 6 months.
The last stage takes the must to old oak barrels of 500 liters in a naturally cooled wine cellar.
Here wines will age from a few to hundreds of years.
The interesting thing is that the value of a bottle of Moscatel de Setúbal is determined by hold long has it been ageing in barrel, the ageing in bottle doesn’t count. Here it’s quite similar to Port wines (besides vintage ports).
One of the oldest wine brands in Portugal and the world. It was sold bottled since 1850 (remember the bottling machine Fonseca brought from France?)
Periquita wine is named after the vineyard it was first cultivated on – Cova da Periquita.
Thanks to Periquita production a new grape variety was introduced to Setúbal region – Castelão.
Originally, Periquita was made of 100% Castelão. Nowadays, Periquita Original is a blend of Castelão, Trincadeira and Aragones. The Periquita Reserva is a blend of Castelão, Touriga National and Touriga Franca and stays 8 months in new French and American oak.
The original Periquita rests in old oak vats with a capacity of few thousand liters for around 6 months before bottling.
Interesting facts about José Maria da Fonseca
The grapes for Hexagon wine are foot trodden in lagares in a very traditional Portuguese method. The wine is a very complex blend of best of theirs Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinto Cao, Syrah and Tannat. The wine ages both in new oak (12 months) and in bottle.
Fonseca was always export-oriented. In 19th century they sent barrels with wine on board of Portugal ships to be sold around the world. Some weren’t sold and returned back home. Upon tasting they were shocked to discover that the ‘travelling wine’ became better and tasted as after 20 years of ageing in cellar. Fonseca didn’t get lost and sold them under the ‘Return Trip Moscatel’ name.
the ‘travelling wine’ became better and tasted as after 20 years of ageing in cellar
Of course, the new generation repeated the experiment. They sent barrels with ships to Latin America and the US. After the barrels returned a blind wine tasting was organized to compare the barrels that stayed in Setúbal with the ‘travelling’ ones. Again, tasting proved that the ones that crossed the Equator, experienced all the possible humidity and temperature shocks were better, more mature like after 25 years of ageing.
Setúbal wine tasting tour at José Maria da Fonseca
Alhambre Moscatel Roxo de Setúbal 2012 – amber colour, dry apricot, raisins, almonds, caramel on nose. Balancing medium+ acidity and again dry fruits and caramel on the palate with a long finish.
Vinhas de Algeruz Reserva 2017 – a pleasant fruity red wine, low on tannin, cherries, raspberries, strawberries on the nose and palate.
Getting to Setúbal and José Maria da Fonseca from Lisbon
As I mentioned, this is one of the most suitable wine tours out of Lisbon that one can do without driving a car.
Ready to visit Setubal wine region but looking for some other obscure Portuguese wine regions around? How about wine tasting in Alentejo or a wine tour to Bucelas, or maybe an extinct wine variety tasting in Cheleiros? Drop me a note below in comments or just contact me for more insights on wine tasting trips in Portugal.