The Wines (some) of Jose Maria de Fonseca, A Somewhat Definitive Guide

I haven’t written much lately because, frankly, there hasn’t been much that I experienced that excited me. Besides, it’s a lot of work and I don’t get paid for it (see note at column’s bottom as to why I choose not to).  I have been posting short reviews and industry news on my Facebook page, several of them about the wines of Portugal – call it my “Portuguese re-phase”- so when I got an invite to meet with senior winemaker Domingos Soares Franco of Bodega Jose Maria da Fonseca, it took me all of a millisecond to accept, and I became excited again.

We met at avec in Chicago in May with other wine professionals where I felt guiltless in monopolizing his time.  Domingos is passionate about wine.   Passion translates into good product and his wines are beyond that.  We tasted several wines and I think the best approach today is simply to start at the beginning and go forward with each of the wines tasted.

The "Mizer" (R) and Domingos  Soares Franco ( VP & Senior Winemaker)
sharing my favored Alambre de Setubal

Jose de Sousa 2017
My favorite. A tenor nose: all high notes with oriental spices. Silk on the palate counterbalanced with bass notes of dates, chocolate, fig and plum offset by allspice and a hint of oak.   A small part (maybe 30%) used in the process is very similar to that used by the Romans 2000 years ago. That portion of the grapes: {Grand Noir 58%, (the local name for Baga), Trincadeira 22% and Aragones 20%} are destemmed by hand and trodden underfoot. Afterwards, a small portion of the must, skins and stems are fermented in talhas (clay vessels) and another in legares (large granite holding tanks) and the rest in temperature controlled stainless steel. The use of talhas gives spice to and adds another dimension to the wine (call that dimension “secondary,” “tertiary”…… we need a new name for this old process) that sets this beverage apart from anything you’ve ever tasted. The wine has skin maceration of four weeks followed by nine months in French and American oak casks. Despite the inclusion of stems, I found the tannins smooth and rounded. With a suggested retail price (ARP often less) of $19.99, this is a must buy and a “Mizer” recommendation.  ALC: 14.5%.  TA: 5.25 g/L   pH: 3.63.   Region: Alentejo   93 points Wine Enthusiast (2016 Vintage) and 94 (2015 Vintage), drink through 2020 and 2019 respectively.  Other tasters refer to “a dense texture, layered with black fruits and acidity” and stating that the wine “has a particularly juicy edge.”  Agree about the texture and dark fruit..

Periquita Reserva 2017
A logical follow up to the Jose de Sousa, it has lower notes and a deeper nose, but a slightly sweet aroma. Plum lifted by violet on the nose. Blackberry with some cardamom on the palate. Some grip. From the V.R. Peninsula De Setubal, the wine is produced at Cova da Periquita. The wine had proven to be the best in the region, so popular, in fact, that it became known as Periquita wine.  Other owners asked for cuttings, which Jose de Maria de Fonseca obliged. But he registered “Periquita” as a trademark in 1941 and its popularity has since taken hold in Sweden, Brazil, the UK, USA, Canada, Denmark and Norway. With its character, sweet aroma and complexity, it’s easy to understand why it has been so well received.  Blended from indigenous grapes (I’m all about that): Castelao (56%), Touriga Nacional (22% and Touriga Francesa (22%). Fermentation about 7 days at 79(F) with full skin contact. Aged 8 months in new and used French and American oak.  ALC:13.0%   TA:5.60 g/L   RS:7.9 g/L.   Region: Setubal Peninsula.  The SRP (Suggested Retail Price) is $14.99 which also contributes to its worldwide acceptance.  90 Points Wine Enthusiast which recommended it as a “Best Buy”.  Drink now per them. Other tasters refer to “strawberry red cherry (and) aniseed toast (with) smoky nutmeg licorice” and “hints of vanilla and dark berries.”  Wine Enthusiast refers to it being “full of black fruits with a structure of generous tannins”.  Today, being in June 2019, I found the tannins noticeable but very pleasant.      

Domini Plus 2015
A study in grace.  A wine to pair against wine from anywhere that “wine snobs” are inclined to contemplate over. The nose is wispy and ethereal.  It seduces and then diffuses leaving you with a memory of wonder. Baking spices.  Slight toast. This is elevated “old world”, not in-your-face. On the palate, the wine is rich and mouth coating, but it’s not a one-note song. Wet slate, clove, minerality, all lifted by rose petal; each element seamlessly intertwined. Liquid art.  From the Douro – a recent area for Fonseca, but one most artfully managed and used – the wine is a blend of Touriga Francesca (96%) and Touriga Nacional (4%).  Tasting this wine, I came to understand why Domingos prefers Francesca over Nacional.  Less assertive, more polished and refined.  27 acres of the vineyard are from the Douro Superior and this makes itself evident in the glass. So does the process of vinification: Full skin contact at approximately 82(F). Ten months in new French oak.  ALC: 13.9%   TA: 6.0 g/L   pH: 3.64   SRP: $44.99   Region: Douro    90 Points Wine Enthusiast, which recommended drinking from 2019.  Wine Enthusiast also referred to this wine’s “Intense aromas of violets, cassis, spice and blackberries” and stated that the wine (“palate”) “is full bodied and concentrated with rich, black fruit flavors, smooth tannins and a long persistent finish.”  Looking through the magazine’s reviews, I observed this wine has been well rated consistently by them with an earlier reference saying, “It’s the French wood aging that gives this wine it’s Plus moniker. It brings out elegant perfumes, the black fruits rich and smooth.” 

Ambre Moscatel de Setubal 20 Years   
How to describe this wonder of sweet wine that remains under the radar; harder yet – to explain why?   Trockenbeerenauslese has given way to less expensive Ice Wine. (For me, like comparing a “puddin’ pop” to Tiramisu).  As popular as Chianti has become in the U.S., sales of Vin Santo remain insignificant.  Few have tasted a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, though so many proclaim the elegance of French wine. Is it that generally, the market has moved away from “sweet” wine or is it the cost?  Seems I’ve observed a great many people starting out in wine opting for sweet. Perhaps once graduated and moved on, sweet is relegated by them to “inferior” but no one knowledgeable about wine believes that.  Good wine vs. bad wine is available as either.  As for cost, admittedly no winery’s flagship wine is inexpensive.  But I submit it’s an experience that should be appreciated on occasion.  And this Moscatel (from Setubal) is both unique and a quality reference point for what dessert wines should be.  Any wine can be sweet, but how it is balanced with acidity is the not an inexpensive art.  Consider too that any wine aged 20 years in wood comes with cost.  Then again, all Moscatel de Setubal is fortified yielding a wine of higher than average alcohol (fortification stops the fermentation process, leaving residual sugar).  It is served in small glasses. And re-capped, the wine will remain fresh for months making it not so expensive after all.  What can you expect from this Moscatel from Setubal?  The nose is alive with caramel, honey and orange marmalade.  The palate enjoys a carry-over of these notes in harmonious balance. Of all dessert wines tasted, it finished so crisply as to make it unique – not to disparage a  5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú, or any other “sweet” wine.  But this wine is so unique, so tied to the geography of Setubal in Portugal, that it should not be ignored. And it needs to be experienced for its finish. If you’re wondering if this was my other favorite, you no longer need to wonder. It is. ALC: 18.4%   TA:7.3 g/L   pH: 3.34     RS 182 g/L   SRP: $69.99   Region: Setubal Peninsula    Wine Enthusiast:  92 – 94 Points. In its most recent review, the same magazine states “This Moscatel de Setubal is a beautifully smooth, nutty wine, with acidity and freshness along with sweetness. Surprisingly light, despite its 18% alcohol, its closest parallel is Madeira rather than Port.”  Earlier, I quote them saying “Why is Moscatel from Setubal so unknown?’.  

Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 40 Years    
As with the 20 Year Alambre, the best lots are selected for production of this fortified wine. Upon arrival, the alcohol level of the grapes is analyzed to determine the ideal moment to add brandy, halting fermentation. Aged in used oak as is the 20 Year.  And, as in the 20 Year, no caramel or color is used.  I observed a greenish hue at the wine’s rim-edge in the glass (normal after 20 years). The wine is more intense than the 20 year in all aspects and developed stronger aromas and a  taste of brandied raisin.  As with the 20 year: 100% Moscatel.  ALC: 18.7%   TA: 5.25 g/L   pH: 3.4   RS: 187 g/L   SRP: $149.99   Region: Setubal Peninsula 

I like to think Galileo Galilei somehow tasted these wines when he said “Wine is sunlight held together by water.’ and I too wonder why (as did Wine Enthusiast when they asked) Why is Moscatel from Setubal so unknown?’.  These wines are not a testimony of interference or technology.  They are all indigenous and all about terroir. Yet, the wines of Portugal, particularly Setubal, have long flied under the radar.  Perhaps it’s because its neighbor’s (Spain) land mass and acreage plantings is so much larger.  Perhaps it’s because Italy (with more than 900 indigenous grape varieties) have awed American palates. Fact is, these wines offer a unique footprint; a sense of place – wines made from grapes (also indigenous) that grow best only in that place. Tasting that wine, these wines, puts in your glass a sense of that place unlike any other. You can leave home without leaving your living room.      


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