No one knows for sure how moscatel, a white grape from Egypt, arrived in the Setúbal peninsula, near Lisbon. What we know is that moscatel took to the region, producing wines that are perfect to start or end a meal. Over the years, the grape mutated into a new varietal—purple moscatel—that only exists in Setúbal. It is sweeter and more aromatic than its white cousin.
Moscatel wines are produced in the same way as port wine. The grapes are fermented for 4 or 5 days. The fermentation is then arrested before the yeast turns all the sugar into alcohol by adding “aguardente vínica” (brandy) to kill the yeast. The result is a fortified wine that is sweet and has 17 to 18 degrees of alcohol.
A great way to learn about moscatel is to visit José Maria da Fonseca’s winery in Azeitão. Founded in 1834 by a mathematician turned wine maker, it is one of the oldest wine companies in Portugal.
After one of his moscatel wines won a prestigious prize in Paris in 1855, Fonseca decided to export his wines to Brazil. A ship loaded with barrels of moscatel crossed the Atlantic. But the wine did not sell in Brazil and the ship returned with most of its original cargo. The sea voyage did wonders for the wine: in nine months the wine seemed to have aged 15 years, gaining complexity and depth. This moscatel, known as “torna viagem” (round trip), continues to be produced today with barrels carried by Sagres, a beautiful sailboat owned by the Portuguese navy.
José Maria da Fonseca ’s moscatel cellar contains bottles from every vintage since 1880 except for 1936-37 and 1939-40 when production was disrupted by the Spanish civil war and the Second World War, respectively.
It is great fun to do a blind tasting of moscatel wines at José Maria da Fonseca’s. Everybody has preconceptions about which wine will be their favorite. Some are sure they will favor the rarer purple moscatel or the older vintages. Others think that they will prefer the newer wines. Surprises abound. You will learn a lot about moscatel and a little about yourself.
Click here for information about visits to José Maria da Fonseca’s winery.