Portugal’s Setubal region, just south of the capital Lisbon, is believed to be the first place grapes were planted on the Iberian Peninsula about 4,000 years ago. Despite the confusions of history wine has continued to be made in the area since, even during the Muslim occupation for 500 years from the eighth century.
The world’s biggest vineyard was located on the Setubal peninsula during the 18th century. Jose Maria da Fonseca owned more than 4,000 hectares producing 30,000 barrels a year. Today Setubal has about 9,000 hectares under vine and 36 major producers.
The best-known wine is Moscatel de Setubal, a white fortified made from moscatel grapes (similar to Muscat of Alexandria). A sweet pink or red version is also made from the moscatel roxo grape. Moscatel de Setubal is one of the world’s most distinctive fortified wines, and gained fame in England after Richard II ordered it imported for the royal court in the second half of the 14th century.
The region became officially recognised in 1908, and in 2008 the Brotherhood of the Moscatel of Setubal designed a special glass for its centenary.
Henrique Soares is president of the Comissao Vitivinicola Regional da Peninsula da Setubal, translated as the regional wine commission for the Setubal Peninsula. The commission was formed in 1991 with the aim to guarantee the quality, origin and authenticity of wine from the region. Henrique escorted four wine journalists around the region. He pointed out that Setubal makes only 5 per cent of Portugal’s wine but accounts for about 11 per cent of sales in the country.
One of the most famous fortified producers is Casa Agrícola Horácio Simões. Horacio Simoes founded the estate, which has 65 hectares, the same year as the start of the republic in 1910. His son and grandson bear the same name and all three generations are still involved in winemaking.
Their 2012 Moscatel de Setubal tastes like peach nectar encased in subtle tannins and is delicious with the local azeital cheese and sweet tomato chutney.
The estate has only 2 hectares of moscatel roxo. The fortified is produced in a similar way to sherry in the sense the wine is allowed to become oxidised in barrels, a style unique to this vineyard. Barrels lose about 5 per cent each year. This is known as the “angel’s portion” which is appropriate because the estate is located in the village of Angel. Sometimes local producers use chestnut barrels instead of oak.
The region grows a range of red grapes including castelao, touriga nacional, aragonez and touriga franca, along with the international varieties cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Casa Agrícola Horácio Simões makes wines from semillon and castelao. The 2012 Val dos Altos (translates as garlic valley) semillon offers lovely acid zing with lemon tang with superb length and texture. The 2012 Val dos Altos castelao tastes and smells of raspberries and is made using the traditional method of foot treading in lagares (concrete tanks). Both are absolute bargains at only 6 euro at the vineyard.
Moscatel is versatile. Locals also produce aromatic dry whites from this grape. One of the best comes from the Adega de Palmela, a 300-member co-operative that manages about 1,000 hectares. Winemaker Luis Silva was in Angola when we visited – Angola is Portugal’s main export market – so assistant winemaker Filipa Gorjao showed us their extensive range.
At the Vinipax wine festival in mid October the co-operative’s 2013 Vale dos Barris moscatel was named best white wine. Filipa said the co-op makes about half million bottles. It sells for under 2 euro a bottle in Portugal’s supermarkets yet is a wonderful wine.
The 2013 Vale dos Barris rose is blushing pink with aromas of red fruits and compote, and tastes of dry Turkish delight. It’s a blend of syrah, castelao and arragones. At 2 euro from the vineyard it is another amazing bargain. The co-op’s symbol is the sword of Santiago, famous during the Crusades.
Another co-operative with an excellent range of wines was the Cooperativa Agricola Santo Isidro in the village of Pegões. Isidro is the patron saint of farmers. The group, founded in 1958, has 1,100 hectares and 100 members and produces 11 million bottles. It exports to 35 countries.
We have insufficient space to discuss all the wines, but many have won scores of international awards in recent years. Like many Portuguese wines, they represent probably the best value in Europe in terms of quality versus price.
Of particular note were the 2013 Adega de Pegões Harvest White, a blend of four grapes with lovely acid zing, and the 2012 Adega de Pegões syrah. The latter had rich texture and slightly savoury tannins that acted as a foil for the mass of black fruits in the mouth.
Adega de Pegões has twice been named Portugal’s wine co-op of the year.
Assistant winemaker Inês Pimentel finished the tasting with a non-vintage moscatel de Setubal which was delicious. Amber coloured, it offered aromas of dried apricots, hay and herbs. It managed to feel dry and sweet at the same time, possibly because it is left for 18 months in barrels the previously held red wines. It is only 4 euros in local stores.