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.

Bussaco’s mystical wines

Buçaco Branco

Karl Baedeker, the famous guidebook writer, recommended a visit to Bussaco in his “Spain and Portugal, a Handbook for Travelers,” published in 1908. Here’s what he wrote:

“The royal domain of Bussaco vies with Sintra in natural beauty. In variety of trees and shrubs, the woods are without a rival in Europe and the views ranging from the Atlantic to the Estrela mountain are as picturesque as they are extensive. […] The woods […] include not only trees indigenous to Portugal but also a large number of exotic varieties, some brought home by the Portuguese navigators as early as the 16th century.”

Baedeker arrived too early to appreciate one of the great pleasures of Bussaco, which is the wine produced by the Bussaco Palace Hotel. The first bottles date back to 1917.

The Palace Hotel owns no vineyards, it buys its grapes from the Bairrada and Dão region. The quality of the wine comes from the careful grape selection and the meticulous traditional methods used in production. Bussaco wines taste great when they are young and taste even better when they lived for some decades. Both whites and reds are famous for their longevity.

These wines are difficult to buy, the easiest way to try them is to stay at the magnificent Palace Hotel. The cellar of the palace stores thousands of bottles going back to the 1920s. Trying these old Bussacos can be a mystical experience. The cellar walls are used to hearing visitors say words like divine, blessed, and sacred. These words would have delighted Friar João Batista, the Carmelite monk who started making wine in Bussaco in the 17th century.

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.

A sweet inheritance


When we eat lunch at the Palace Hotel in Bussaco, we feel like a character in a 19th century novel. There is a serenity, an ability to enjoy the passage of time that is absent from modern life.

The items on the menu are variations on traditional recipes, prepared with care and served with elegance. When the dessert cart arrives, the waitress recommends without hesitation the “Morgadinho do Bussaco.” It is a perfect dessert, made with only nuts and honey. Morgadinho means young heir. We’re lucky that Bussaco inherited this old recipe and shared it with us.