Myths and secrets at Bussaco

King Charles I enjoyed hunting in the Bussaco forest so much that he decided to turn a local Carmelite monastery built in 1630 into a royal retreat. When construction began in 1888, the king engaged the most important Portuguese artists of the time in the project. 

It is a gorgeous place. Limestone from the nearby village of Ançã, carved with intricate motifs, decorates the outside. Beautiful tile murals and frescos depicting scenes inspired by literary works and historical events adorn the interiors. 

In 1910, Portugal abolished the monarchy and became a republic. The royal palace seemed destined to become a romantic ruin. But Alexandre de Almeida, a local entrepreneur, endeavored to save it. He negotiated a concession with the state to convert the palace into a luxury hotel. Inaugurated in 1917, it became a success with international celebrities like the mystery writer Agatha Christie.

In the 1920s, Alexandre de Almeida started bottling wines to serve in the dining room of the palace.  These wines gathered fame for their unique character and outstanding aging ability. 

Alexandre de Oliveira, the founder’s grandson, currently runs the hotel group that operates the Bussaco Palace. One of his childhood friends, António Rocha, directed the hotel for many years. Fifteen years ago, António told Alexandre that he would like to give up his managerial role to focus on producing Bussaco wines. Knowing António’s passion for these wines, Alexandre accepted his proposal.

We met António in the palace cellar. He’s been spending many hours there, patiently recorking old bottles so the wine can continue to age gracefully. He showed us with pride wines bottled in the 1940s. “They flow from the bottle with remarkable freshness and vigor, ready to be enjoyed,” he told us.

“What makes Bussaco’s wines so special?” we asked António. “Great wine is 60 percent myth and 40 percent secrets,” António answered, smiling. Bussaco is located between Bairrada and Dão, so the wines are made with grapes from both regions. The red is made from Touriga Nacional and Baga, the emblematic grape from Bairrada. The white is made with Bical, Maria Gomes, and Encruzado. Total annual production is small, only 20,000 bottles. But the cellar stores 200,000 precious bottles hoarded over the last century. 

Later, we joined António at a vinic dinner for a small group of wine connoisseurs at the famed Mesa de Lemos. There were many interesting wines to try, and as the wine flowed, so did the conversation. António tuned out the words to focus on the aromas and tastes of the wines. When it was time to sample the Bussaco wines he brought, António tried to be impartial, appreciate qualities, and identify aspects that can be improved. This passion and dedication is the true secret of Bussaco’s wines. 

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.

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