The dessert wine of Setúbal in southern Portugal is one of the oldest and most famous wines in the world. Muscat of Setúbal, known by its Portuguese name of Moscatel de Setúbal, is a fortified wine made from Moscatel and/or Moscatel Roxo grapes that grow beautifully in the region to the south of the capital, Lisbon.
The best are aged for up to 40 years in oak barrels. Young wines offer aromas of blossoms, citrus, pears and honey. With time more intense flavours and aromas evolve: dried fruits like figs and raisins plus notes of coffee, hazelnuts and orange marmalade.
José Maria da Fonseca, the founder of the oldest table wine company in Portugal (in 1834,) is credited with inventing this style of wine. The José Maria da Fonseca Company produces a large range of dessert wines.
Moscatel de Setúbal is usually made in a lightly oxidised style. The wine macerates on the skins of the Muscat grapes for six months — much longer than in many other fortified wines. Sweetness levels range from off-dry to very sweet. The original Moscatel was probably Muscat of Alexandrina, which came to the Iberian peninsula with the Phoenecians from what we now know as Egypt. Moscatel Roxo, derived from the Portuguese word for purple, is an offspring of that Muscat. Wines made only with the Roxo grape receive a minimum of 36 months of ageing.
Setúbal’s fortified wines are versatile and can be served at both ends of the meal. Young wines make an excellent aperitif to sharpen the appetite if served chilled, while older versions are wonderful companions to rich desserts but can also be served alone.
The Setúbal Peninsula is Portugal’s second smallest wine-growing region with a total of 9,400 hectares under vine. This includes 470 hectares of Moscatel de Setúbal and only 32 hectares of Moscatel Roxo. The region is about a 40-minute drive from Lisbon. It has a long history – the Romans planted vines more than 3,000 years ago. Setúbal was famous in the pre-Christian era as a source of salt from the nearby bay, and a highly-prized sauce made from salted fish.
Two named regions or appellations apply in Setúbal: DO Setúbal for fortified wines made with the Moscatel grape, and DO Palmela for table and sparkling wines. The region received DO status in 1907.
The main Palmela white wines are made from Fernão Pires and Arinto along with Muscat, though international varieties like Chardonnay and Verdelho have been planted recently. Castelão is the most widely planted red grape though it is also known locally as Perequita. Indeed, Castelão has many aliases in Portugal. Most red wines from Palmela are based on Castelão.
The 2010 Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal presents a fine example of the dessert wine. In the glass it glows like golden-brown honey bathed in sunshine, and it bewitches with aromas of orange marmalade and sweet spices like cinnamon, surrounded by zingy acid plus a generous mouthfeel.
A good entry level Moscatel de Setúbal comes from Casa Ermelinda Freitas. The wine glows in the glass and offers aromas of honey, apricot and candied orange peel that stay in one’s memory like a lingering kiss. Casa Agricola Horacio Simoes produces at least five dessert wines. Rui Lobo makes fine fortifieds from the Roxo grape. His 2009 is the epitome of harmony of fruit and acidity and will still be drinking well in another two decades.
Antonio Saramago has been making wine in Setúbal for almost six decades. In 2009 he released his Cinquenta red blend to mark 50 years as a winemaker. His 2007 Moscatel de Setúbal reserva is a majestic wine whose aromas seem subdued at first but soon open in the mouth into a peacock’s tail of flavours. This is an ethereal wine, especially when tasted with roasted almonds, a local delicacy.
Antonio Saramago told us, through an interpreter, that he has a particular affection for the Castelão grape but only when made from old vines. His are more than 40 years old and he makes traditional style reds whose structures suggest they could be enjoyed decades from now. The 2010 Saramago red has 5 per cent Touriga National added to the Castelão and spent time in both American and French oak, the former for “a touch of sweetness,” Antonio said.
While Saramago has been making wine for almost six decades, Nuno Rodrigues is a newcomer who is focusing on innovation. He is working with international grapes like Chardonnay and Viognier for his Tri-pe wines. The word translates as tripod because Rodrigues believes great wine needs three elements: terroir, technique and the right attitude. His 2013 chardonnay is especially elegant, full of zingy acid and bright fruit.
Casa Ermelinda Freitas makes a range of excellent reds based around single grape varieties. Earlier vintages have been discussed in this column. A highlight is the 2012 Dona Ermelinda reserva. It is a blend of four traditional red grapes and is quite remarkable. It will reward patience but can also be consumed now with a hearty meat dish.
Special mention must be made of the Rio Frio vineyard, who launched their first vintage at the Iberico wine festival in Setubal this month. Vines were only planted in 2010. Winemaker Maria Caeiro produces a red and a white blend from local grapes are these are impressive given the youth of the vines.
The Lima Fortuna family exhibited their four liqueurs at the festival. These are made by collecting wild berries from the mountains and steeping them in various alcohols to produce enticing digestives. Sofia Lima Fortuna said the Arrabidine range were originally created by monks. Her family has been making the liqueurs for 65 years, using bottles that replicate the original containers. Expect subtle and generous flavours of sour cherries and a range of flowers. A superb way to end a meal.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the second Iberico wine festival based in Setubal, who supplied his accommodation and some meals.