José Maria da Fonseca is a family-owned Portuguese winery with one foot firmly planted in its rich history and traditions, and the other foot stepping forward into the future.
My own experience with their wines extends back as well. About eight to nine years ago, in the wine blog I wrote before I began The Passionate Foodie, I positively reviewed their 2004 Periquita ($10). stating it was a great value wine. Recently, I tasted the 2012 Periquita, and it is still only $10, remaining an excellent value. It is amazing that this wine has remained at the same low price for nine vintages.
Post 390, and met Domingos Soares Franco, the senior winemaker and vice president at José Maria da Fonseca. Domingos is part of the 6th generation of the Soares France family, and three members of the 7th generation are currently involved in the winery too. Domingos was the first Portuguese national to graduate in Fermentation Sciences (Viticulture and Oenology) from the University of California, Davis in 1981.
During lunch, Domingos was a fascinating conversationalist, possessed of great pride in Portugal, but also cognizant of the areas where Portugal could improve its wine industry. And he didn't shy away from being controversial either. He came across as honest, earnest and personable.
The J.M. da Fonseca winery is located in the village of Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, on the Setúbal Peninsula. just south of Lisbon. As the senior winemaker, Domingos has a trusted team in place, allowing him the ability to travel during harvest time. The winery possesses over 1600 acres of vineyards, growing about 35 different grapes. Domingos has been instrumental in changing the vineyards to primarily grow indigenous grapes, as he doesn't see much reason to use international grapes when they have so many interesting native grapes. Annually, they produce about 12 million bottles, over 34 brands, and export about 80% of their production to around 70 countries.
With a touch of controversy, Domingos claimed that Portugal possesses more indigenous grapes than any other country in the world. There are currently about 250 known indigenous grapes in Portugal, and each year, scientists discover about 3-4 new grapes through DNA analysis of grapes in old vineyards. Domingos believes there could eventually be about 400 indigenous grapes in Portugal. Other authorities, such as Jancis Robinson, have previously written that Italy possesses the most indigenous grapes, from 377 to 500, but Domingos feels they are wrong, counting some of the same grapes multiple times under different names.
I don't know which position is correct, though it is incontrovertible that Portugal possesses a significant number of fascinating indigenous grapes. Domingos noted that this significant number is due to an ancient glacial push, which benefited Italy, Spain and Portugal. Personally, I've often preferred Portuguese wines made from indigenous grapes, which I think provide the wines with more of a Portuguese character, more reflective of terroir. Domingoes also mentioned that his favorite Portuguese grape is Touriga Francesca.
Climate change has affected Portugal, Domingos noting that during the last four years, average temperatures have been decreasing. They have gone from four seasons to almost just two, a rainy season and a dry season. He also indicated that the southern reaches of Portugal are the most in danger and in fifty years may become too desert-like to grow grapes.
Domingos spoke about some of the general problems and issues with the Portuguese wine industry. Portugal has better wine makers than viticulturists, so that is something that needs change. They should also work together more as wine is made in both the vineyard and winery, and a better collaboration will make better wine. In addition, winemakers generally don't meet together to discuss common issues. They need to unite, to share information and work together in furtherance of common goals. That type of collaboration has benefited many other wine regions and it could only serve to do the same in Portugal.
He also advised that Portuguese wineries need to be more innovative, and to spend more money in vineyard sites. They should be planting small amounts of different varieties, and different clones, for at least ten years, to determine which grapes do best on their land. He added that Portugal is producing much better white wines now, as they are using more native varieties. However, there is a learning curve involved in working with these indigenous grapes, so he predicts the white wines will get even better with time. Domingos also believes the Portuguese should not over price their wines, and with seeing Periquita remain the same price for nine years shows he is following his own advice.
Most of the wines that we drink today are consumer driven, and nearly all of the Fonseca wines fit that description. However, Domingos produces eight wines, six red and two white, which he thinks are made the way a wine should be made. Domingos doesn't enjoy blockbuster wines, or too much sugar, oak or alcohol. He prefers elegant, easy going wines which you can sit and drink a few glasses without any issue. There are too many wines which you have a single, overpowering glass, and you don't want to drink a second. Domingos would rather a glass of wine that makes you think. This is exactly what I was told by a Chilean winemaker earlier this month.
When asked about what other wine region most excited him, Domingos stated that he felt Washington state was the wave of the future, producing superior, elegant and well balanced wines. He has been to the region once before and is eager to return, to taste more of their wines.
We began our afternoon with the 2013 Periquita Rose ($9.99), a blend of 50% Castelão, 40% Aragonêz, and 10% Trincadeira, with an alcohol content of 12.2%. Fermented in stainless steel, it is dry and clean, with delicious strawberry and cherry flavors. A simple and easy drinking wine, it would be excellent for summer though you can drink it year round, especially as it is food friendly.
The 2012 Periquita ($9.99) is a blend of 74% Castelão, 14% Trincadeira, and 12% Aragonêz, with an alcohol content of 13%. The wine is aged for about six months in new and used American and French oak. It is an easy drinking wine, with plenty of red and black fruit flavors, spicy accents and a touch of vanilla. Though inexpensive, it has more complexity than many wines at this price point. Great with or without food, it makes for an excellent pizza or burger wine. It should be a crowd-pleaser at any party.
Interestingly, regular brandy is used for this Moscatel, but Fonseca makes two others, one using Cognac and the other Armagnac. Neither of those are available in the U.S.yet, and Fonseca won't sell both of them in the same country. Though they cannot place Cognac or Armagnac on the front label, you will find it on the back. They sound very intriguing.