If you’re wondering how an extinct wine tastes and looks like, I can tell you it’s defined by a topaz color, complex bouquet of dried fruits, honey, and spices. Very rich and lavish on the palate presents a remarkable volume and persistent finish.
This is Carcavelos wine’s history, the fortified wine you never heard of. And no, it’s not Madeira.
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These days the French and the Brits are on the same side (sort of) but for many centuries they have been at odds with each other.
This matters because France supplied the British Isles with wine. When the relationship became unstable, the thirsty British started to look for their nectar elsewhere.
Portugal and England had already established, back in 1386, an agreement that eventually became the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world. Therefore the British turned to their friends in order to quench their thirst.
The Marquis’ wine
Located just outside Lisbon, Carcavelos wine region was once owned by Sebastião José de Carvalho. Best known as Marquis of Pombal, he was Portugal’s de facto ruler in the late 18th century.
Vested with immense power, property, and fortune the Marquis invested in wine production thus turning Carcavelos into a very desired and well-crafted product.
“The vines were exemplary tended and pruned, and the building, including press rooms, warehouses and storage vaults, were unique in that century”O Vinho de Carcavelos – Perspectiva histórica e a actual produção na Quinta do Marquês de Pombal em Oeiras
By the way, this was the same man that created the world’s first demarcated wine region in the Douro valley.
A person of great vision and cunning, but also many enemies, he was cast aside when Queen Maria I, aka Maria the Mad, took the throne in 1777.
Christie’s first wine auction featured Carcavelos
On that sale in 1769, ‘Calcavella’ had the company of Burgundy, alongside Old Hock, Malaga, and Tent.
The wine was noticed by Thomas Jefferson when he was the US ambassador to France. Later on, he would order it several times while living in the United States.
I would prefer good Lisbon; next to that Sherry, next to that Calcavallo; but still a good quality of the latter would be preferable to an indifferent quality of the former.Thomas Jefferson on Wine
Take that Sherry!
The four knights of wine apocalypse
Precisely when Carcavelos wine was on a winning streak, doomsday arrived in many forms:
Showing up in southern Portugal in the second half of the 19th-century, mildew and powdery mildew drastically reduced the crop yields.
Phylloxera, that hideous bug
This insect, which came from the American continent, ravaged all European vines one by one eventually landing in Lisbon by the end of the 19th century.
As the reputation of Carcavelos wine peaked in England, that fame was used to brand other wines. The vineyards were dying but the market was afloat with tampered, low-quality Carcavelos definitely burying the wine’s reputation.
In the 20th century, the wine region gave its last breath at the hands of real estate development. After all, facing south and looking into the Atlantic, the vineyards had the best views.
Saved from oblivion. Coincidence or destiny?
By the end of the 20th century, the wine region was kept alive by the stubbornness of men like Manoel de Boullosa that, for twenty years, carefully restored the vineyards at Quinta dos Pesos.
Meanwhile, Luis Carneiro, an agronomic engineer, watched helplessly while vines were being uprooted at Quinta do Barão. He managed to save some vine cuttings, giving birth to a precious new vineyard in 1983.
Later on, the Municipality of Oeiras became the torchbearer by creating the first publicly owned winery in Portugal under the brand ‘Villa Oeiras’.
Carcavelos wine today
Alexandre Lisboa, Villa Oeiras’ winemaker, is proud of the work done so far but admits that managing a vineyard, and producing an aged wine under state bureaucracy, can be very demanding.
Arinto, Galego Dourado, and Ratinho grape varieties are the blend’s backbone. The wine is fortified using aguardente da Lourinhã, a very fine Portuguese brandy, and then aged in Portuguese and French oak barrels.
The wines are released in the form of a 7-year and a 15-year-old Carcavelos. There’s also the fancier Villa Oeiras Colheita 2005 made from a single harvest.
Carcavelos wine is dead, long live Carcavelos wine!
Anyone who wishes to dig deeper into the wine’s past is still able to find vintages from inactive producers, namely Quinta dos Pesos where winemaking operations ceased in 2005, Quinta da Bela Vista with wines made from old harvests averaging forty years, and Quinta do Barão, probably the most iconic brand.
With a history spanning over four centuries, rescued by the Portuguese state and planted among concrete, Carcavelos wine continues to defy logic. Let’s hope it keeps that way.