Portugal is famed for its sweet, fortified wines. Porto and Madeira are home to some of the world’s top tipples of this kind and the muscatels produced in the hills around Setúbal have a more discreet, but growing reputation. So why has nobody heard of vinho de Carcavelos?
After all, this honey-hued fourth member of the vinho generoso club is rooted right in the suburbs of Lisbon rather than some remote Atlantic island or distant northern valley. Its history dates back at least to the 15th century and is intimately linked to the greatest Portuguese statesman since the Age of Discoveries.
Yet, until recently, Carcavelos was a wine at risk of extinction.
In the 1930s, around two dozen Carcavelos wine estates (quintas) were active along the north bank of the Tagus estuary between Lisbon and the plush Estoril Casino resort. Five decades later, urban expansion had squeezed out all but a couple of the quintas and the storied wine looked to be on its last legs.
“All those centuries of history could have been wiped out,” explains Alexandre Lisboa, who spearheads efforts to save Carcavelos wine. “This is not just a wine project, it’s a heritage project. Every time you take a drink, you’re making a donation to keep this heritage alive.”
A longtime landscape architect employed by Oeiras town hall, Lisboa has overseen the development of Carcavelos wine since 2006. The rescue efforts were first launched in the 1980s through a joint effort by Oeiras town hall and a local agricultural research institute. As production dried up at the old private quintas, the town hall’s operation picked up the slack. Vines facing destruction to make way for property development were transplanted to the estate once owned by the Marquis of Pombal, the only quinta currently producing the wine.
Pombal is best known for dominating Portuguese politics for much of the 18th century and rebuilding Lisbon after the devastating 1755 earthquake. But he also laid down the rules for producing port wine, creating one of the world’s oldest protected wine regions. His own vineyard in the western suburbs of Lisbon helped make Carcavelos wine a global hit.
U.S. presidents, Chinese emperors and European royalty were said to be fans. Carcavelos became the wine of choice for the British upper crust after Napoleon cut off their port supplies by invading northern Portugal. Finding the name something of a tongue-twister, Brits called it “Lisbon wine.”
Today, Pombal’s palatial summer home is a leading attraction in Oeiras, a leafy beach suburb in the heart of the vinho de Carcavelos demarcated production area. Visitors who make the 20-minute train ride from downtown Lisbon can amble for free through the Palácio Marquês de Pombal and its classical gardens.
Among the lawns, fountains and panels of painted azulejo tiles is a pastel pink building containing the Marquis’ winery, once again stocked with barrels of aging dessert wine.
Up the valley, Pombal’s old estate contains 13 hectares planted with vines, about half the total under cultivation in one of the world’s smallest protected wine areas.
The wine is made in a cluster of rustic buildings that once contained the Marquis’ hunting lodge. The Casal da Manteiga winery overlooks the vines, modern apartment blocks and the Atlantic Ocean about two miles south. When we visited in January, sheep chewed on meadows sloping down the valley and a solitary eagle circled above this rural enclave in the suburban sprawl.
“This is not just a wine project, it’s a heritage project. Every time you take a drink, you’re making a donation to keep this heritage alive.”
Surrounded by towering stainless-steel vats, and ranks of chestnut and oak kegs, Lisboa explains how rare local white grape varieties, like galego dourado and ratinho, are blended with aguardente de Lourinhã, a wine-based brandy made up the coast that’s a cousin of Cognac and Armagnac.
The result is an amber-colored brew that packs toffee, fig and almond flavors, but maintains a nautical tang that heads off the cloying stickiness of some dessert wines. “The relationship with the sea here is intense, it brings a mineral freshness, an acidity that’s essential to the character of these wines,” Lisboa says.
Quantities remain small at around 45,000 bottles a year but have been growing at a steady pace. “After all these years of effort, the future is guaranteed,” says Lisboa. “Vinho de Carcavelos is not going to disappear.”
The wines, marketed under the Vila Oeiras label, include one aged for 15 years in wood that retails for around €30 and a lighter seven-year-old version that goes for around €20. Made in exceptional years, colheita wines, including some made with red grape varieties, can top €80.
Amid the pretty jumble of Pombal-era architecture that forms the center of Oeiras, the Vinho de Carcavelos Fraternity has its headquarters in a little shop specializing in small batch wines from around Portugal. Set up in 2009 and backed by the local governments in Oeiras and neighboring Cascais, the fraternity is mostly made up of local people and associations who are fans of the wine and support preservation efforts.
Store manager Paulo Rocha says demand for the Carcavelos wines is strong, including for the fast-disappearing stock from estates that stopped producing years ago and whose bottles regularly sell for over €120. “There are a few bottles left from places like Quinta de Bela Vista and Quinta do Barão,” he says, “But all I had in the store sold out before Christmas.”
There could soon be more choice. Vítor Claro, a renowned chef-turned-winemaker, is resuscitating production at the Quinta da Samarra estate inland from Estoril with support from Lisboa’s team.
So far, however, there’s no plans to make wine in the town of Carcavelos itself, which neighbors Oeiras and is more renowned these days for its glorious sandy beach and surf schools.
“We set out to make the best vinho de Carcavelos in the world; right now, we’re doing it because we’re the only ones,” jokes Lisboa. “We’ll be happy to have some competition.”
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