Sunday, February 16, 2014

José Maria da Fonseca

When I travel in a foreign country, getting off the beaten (touristy) path is a must. There's a real sense of adventure in boarding a local bus with no forehand knowledge of precise stops and distances, available maps, or a strong command of the language. During my recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal I did exactly that for a day trip to Azeitão, a small town located southeast of Lisbon in the northern part of the Setúbal peninsula. 

I had appointments that day at two very different wineries and my first stop was at José Maria da Fonseca. Historically recognized as a dependable Port producer, Fonseca's southern outpost concentrates on their table wines and the dessert gem Moscatel.

The 'control' is on the left, the bottle on the right made the trip!
The winery buildings are full of commemorations and historical items, including a bottling machine from the 1800s and two racks of Moscatel, one with bottles wrapped in red and green tissue, and one in blue and white - which celebrates the fact that they've been making wine for so long they've survived two regimes and therefore two differently-colored flags.

There are also barrels of Fonseca's special "Torna Viagem" Moscatel: way back in the day, when sent by ship to other countries, the conditions in the hold of the ship - heat, rocking - resulted in an accidental but wonderfully beneficial accelerated aging of the wine. In 2000, Fonseca replicated the trip, keeping a control sample at home - after six months, they saw a difference in the traveling wine which amounted to twenty-five years of aging! They repeated these trips in 2007 and 2010, the latter lasting a whole year on the seas, and that Moscatel was found to have aged the equivalent of thirty-five beautiful years.
Private collection room.

Although Fonseca makes very fine table wines, the Moscatel is the pride of the family; every year they take one barrel and fifty bottles of the current vintage and place it in their own private collection. It is not being saved to be consumed (perhaps if the Pope and ten or twelve heads of state arrived on the same day, they might crack open a bottle,) but is kept as part of the incredible legacy of the family and that wine.

I was joined by António Maria Soares Franco, a seventh-generation member of the family, to taste through some of their wines and we began with the Periquita line. In the mid-1800s, José Maria da Fonseca himself purchased a plot of land with that name and planted grapes to make table wine. In 1941 the company trademarked the name, and it is believed to be the oldest brand of Portuguese table wines, known for its consistent quality.

2012 Fonseca Periquita Branco (which made my list of Top Wines Under $20 of 2013!) It had a pale gold color, with straw and light tropical fruits on the nose. Nice fruit expression with citrus on the finish but not overly acidic. Great on its own or with appetizers or shellfish. Blend of Verdelho, Moscatel de Setúbal, Viosinho and Viognier.  ~ $10

The 2012 Fonseca Periquita Tinto (original) was a very quaffable table red; a medium-plus ruby color, it had a bit of a dusty nose with cranberry and florals with good fruit expression, nice balancing acidity and subtle tannins. A blend of Castelão, Trincadeira and Aragonez, it was a great food wine for ~$10.

There was a little more structure in the 2011 Fonseca Periquita Tinto Riserva. (Often, 'riserva' means wines that were aged longer or were selectively designated so by the producer - in this case it is a quality term bestowed by an independent commission.) This was a quite dark ruby red, with blueberry and blackberry on the nose, following through on the palate. Its soft tannins gave it more structure, but it was still easy to drink. Aged for 8 months in oak, a blend of Castelão, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Very good, especially at ~$15.

Grapes for Portugal's most famous dessert wine, Port, are sourced from the Douro Valley region much farther to the north. Fonseca uses some of their Douro grapes for their Domini series of table wines - which is a pretty big sacrifice considering the business and esteem of Port! The 2010 Fonseca Domini was medium plus ruby, with a lovely nose of red fruit, gravel and earth. In the mouth it had much more gripping tannins, but was elegant with violet florals and a little licorice. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, ~$15.

I have often crowed about the amazing quality for the value wines coming out of Portugal, and all of what we'd tasted so far absolutely fit the bill. But often if you take even a tiny jump in price, the rewards are magnificent.

To wit: the 2008 Fonseca Domini Plus is a field blend (meaning no one is truly sure how much of which kinds of grapes are in it) from a 60-year old vineyard. The grapes were handpicked and foot-trodden in the old style in large stone trenches, or lagares. It then spent 12 months in new French oak. The Plus was an opaque, teeth-staining ruby. It had a nose of blackberry liqueur, licorice, violets, lavender, mocha and graphite. In the mouth, there was an incredible density of flavor, with all of those notes washing over the palate in waves. It was highly tannic, but appropriate for its style. My notes say, "Wow.  Just amazing." While tasting this, António nodded at his glass and said, "Pure Douro;" the expression of fruit showed the sacrifice of Port grapes was completely justified. And even though it is a higher price point, this wonderfulness still costs only around ~$35-40.

Finally we arrived at the 2010 Fonseca Moscatel de Setúbal. Moscatel is produced similarly to Port in that the base wine's fermentation is arrested by the addition of a brandy spirit. That means the yeast gets knocked out by the alcohol and never finishes munching up its food source, sugar, so the resulting wine is sweeter and higher in alcohol - perfect as an accompaniment to dessert (or as a dessert on its own!) A medium caramel-gold, this had a nose of burnt sugar and apricot, with vibrant acidity in the mouth and additional flavors of candied orange peel and a hint of spice. It would stand up beautifully to a crème brulée or some heavenly dark chocolate and fig concoction. A half-bottle is ~$10.

Knowing that Fonseca could easily coast on its reputation both for Port as well as their table wines and Moscatel, I asked António what his vision was for the future. He replied that they wanted to come up with new ideas and new blends, but honor tradition (like the Perequita,) and always continue to improve.

I couldn't have asked for anything more! Except, perhaps, room in my suitcase for some of these bottles.  Luckily, their availability in the States (and elsewhere) is fairly good.  My adventurous day trip to Azeitão was off to an incredible start - stay tuned for the next chapter, Bacalhôa...


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