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Posted by portugalpress on November 23, 2017

For such a small country, Portugal has an incredible wealth of fortified wine styles. These include, of course, the classic ports and madeiras, but also the Muscats of Setúbal and Favaios. Most other wine regions have their own versions of Port, in the Alentejo we have a very good example, known as Licoroso, but perhaps the most unlikely fortified wine in the entire country is Carcavelos, given its tiny size, location and historical background.

It is the smallest demarcated wine region in the country, currently with only eight hectares of working vineyard, and comprises several municipalities of Cascais and Oeiras. Urban encroachment is a constant threat to its very existence.

As Richard Mayson mentions in his book Portugal’s Wines and Winemakers, the cynical view of Carcavelos is that it was invented by Portugal’s all-powerful 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, purely because he had to do something with the grapes from his country residence in nearby Oeiras.

In order to profit from them, he even flouted his own regulations and insisted on them being blended with Port. In doing so though, he established the reputation of a wine that became popular in Britain in the early part of the 19th century.
It was a favourite of the Duke of Wellington and the Portuguese-British forces in the early 1900s, during the Napoleonic wars.

Phylloxera and Oidium, in the latter part of the 1800s, dealt Carcavelos its first blow, but by the 1930s it was back, producing 40,000 litres of fortified wine per year.

Carcavelos wine is based on red grapes, Castelão and Preto Martinho, and whites, Galego Dourado, Ratinho and Arinto. It is made in the same way as Port, being fortified during the fermentation to create a sweet wine with high alcohol.

My own introduction to Carcavelos wine came a couple of years ago, when I was asked by one of the few existing producers, Quinta dos Pesos, to oversee the bottling of their 1991 wine. When I tasted the wine, I was amazed. It seemed to combine the best of port and madeira, with some sherry (amontillado/oloroso) influences. It had the intense nuttiness of an old tawny port with the spicy complexity (curry, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla) found in the best madeiras, plus the oxidized characters of aged sherry. Lovely, long persistence on the finish.

The mix of white and red grape varieties allows for a wine with good body (red grapes) but with elegance and balancing acidity (white grapes).

Quinta dos Pesos have large stocks of ageing Carcavelos wines in oak pipes that will last for at least the next decade, but have not been making wine now for several years.

Earlier this year we had a visit from an American importer who specialises in spirits, aperitifs and unusual fortified wines, including some from France. He was blown away by the unique quality of the Pesos Carcavelos wines and has placed an order for several vintage bottlings, so there is hope that these wines will reach a wider audience and increase in popularity.

The only existing producer, as far as I know, is Villa Oeiras who, with the help of some funding from the Oeiras town council, make a luscious and elegant style of Carcavelos, which has about 10 years ageing in oak and chestnut barrels.

These are indeed wines to seek out as they have the quality and value for money to compete with their more famous Port and Madeira counterparts.