A rare trio from Carcavelos

Carcavelos from Villa Oeiras and Howard’s Folly; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Like the proverbial London bus, you wait ages for one, then three come along at once.  I seized on a rare opportunity to compare three progressively older examples of Carcavelos – an esoteric fortified wine from Lisboa’s coast.  They were made by Villa Oeiras and Howard’s Folly

Carcavelos – a bit of history

Urban encroachment – Villa Oeiras vineyards, Carcavelos; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

The licoroso wines of Carcavelos – a DOC since 1908 – were famous in the 18th and 19th century.   As they say, every picture tells a story.  Highlighting Lisbon’s suburban sprawl, my photos of Villa Oeiras’ vineyard show the Pingo Doce (supermarket) hoarding and surrounding apartment blocks.  During the 20th century, suburbanisation all but sounded the death knell for Carcavelos.    According to the Lisboa CVR, the DOC currently comprises just 12ha.  However, Villa Oeiras’ Project Manager, Alexandre Lisboa, begs to differ and this next paragraph is an amendment to my original post, summarising what he told me.

Lisboa told me that there are 31ha of vineyards across six estates, 23ha of which are in production.  Villa Oeiras, he said, has 19ha, having just planted 6ha last month.  Vitor Claro (see below) is now managing 1.8ha of vines at Quinta da Samarra and plans to plant more (c. 8ha). There is, he said, another farm in Bicesse (nearby Samarra), with plans to plant 3ha.

Villa Oeiras vineyards, Carcavelos; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

I took these photos in 2014, when I first visited with Villa Oeiras – a pioneering municipal project – which has breathed life back into Carcavelos.  Its seat is the estate of the Marquis of Pombal and Count of Oeiras, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo.  Pombal was not only the most formidable stateman of his day, he himself made Carcavelos during the 18th century.

The Carcavelos revival

The project is the result of a partnership between the Municipality of Oeiras and Ministry of Agriculture formed in 1997.  Their goal was to revive the region’s fortified wine tradition through the Villa Oeiras (formerly Conde de Oeiras) brand.  The first vineyard (5ha) was planted in 1984 by the National Agronomic Bureau with cuttings derived from the original 18th century stock.

In 2001, the Municipality of Oeiras established a small winery (Adega do Casal da Manteiga) and made its first wines (just 3,500l).  They were initially made by the renowned Lourinhã aguardente (brandy) specialist, Estrela Carvalho whose very fine aguardente is still used to fortify the wines.  The grape varieties are Arinto, Galego Dourado (the most recognised variety) and Ratinho (white) and Castelão and Trincadeira (red).

Former winemaker Tiago Correia with project manager Alexandre Lisboa in Marquis of Pombal’s restored barrel cellar; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Production began on a commercial scale in 2009 following the completion of the new winery and wine cellar.  The wine is matured at the winery and the original, beautiful 18th century barrel room, which was restored in 2013 (pictured).   The wines are made by the esteemed fortified winemaker, Pedro Sá.

Matured in French and Portuguese 225l oak barrels for at least five years (the minimum requirement is two years), the aim is to produce a modern expression of Carcavelos which, true to the region’s tradition, will evolve over many decades in bottle.

Whilst the tradition was for colheita wines (of a single vintage), Villa Oeiras started off making blends from white grapes, both reviewed below.  The first Colheita (also from white grapes) was made from the 2004 harvest; tasted in 2018, it impressed, showing Villa Oeiras’ signature silky, clean, contemporary style.  Recently, Villa Oeiras released its first red to much acclaim.  It is a 2009 Colheita, made from Castelão and Trincadeira.

Demand for Carcavelos’ admittedly tiny output exceeds supply, so it is good to see Howard’s Folly share “a fine wine barn find” of mature Carcavelos, made in a more traditional fashion, on ullage.

Vitor Claro & Rita Ferreira in Carcavelos; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Looking ahead, Carcavelos’ future is looking brighter too. Cascais municipality in Carcavelos is now starting a project similar to that of Oeiras, planting vineyards and establishing a winery.  And individual winemakers are getting in on the act too.  When I visited in 2019, Vitor Claro showed me this beautiful vineyard he has leased there,  surrounded by trees.  Lisboa told me that Vitor Claro and Cascais Municipality are producing their wines at Villa Oeiras, which is the only functional winery in the region.

Carcavelos terroir

Located to the west of Lisbon on clay/limestone soils very close to the Atlantic coast, the main vineyards sit between two small rivers – Caparide and Maria-nas.  The climate is distinctly maritime – meaning mild and humid; northern winds help combat disease pressure.

Villa Oeiras’ vineyard is comprised of south-facing very gently inclined slopes.  The average temperature in winter is 11.6⁰C and, in summer, 23.2⁰C. The average annual rainfall is 850 mm, but summers are dry, with less than 5.2 mm.

Carcavelos tasting notes

Gradations of age and colour – Carcavelos from Villa Oeiras and Howard’s Folly; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Villa Oeiras Carcavelos

The entry-point white label blend of Arinto, Galego Dourado & Ratinho was aged in Portuguese and French oak for an average period of 7 years.  It is a light, bright topaz hue with antique gold glints.  Initially, the nose has a nori accent, with a light, sherry-like nutty/ozone quality.  In the mouth, it is sweeter than the nose suggests. Fresher, purer and prettier too.  The freshness balances the sweetness and brings a lightness of being (which distinguishes all three wines relative to Tawny Port and Portugal’s fortified Moscatels).  The acidity is persistent, but rolling – well-integrated (not bracing, like for Madeira – again, for all three wines).  The spirit (77% proof from Portugal’s heartland of brandy – Lisboa’s Lourinhã region) is beautifully integrated. This is a very lissom, silky, honeyed fortified, with barely sugar (texturally and flavour-wise lighter than caramel, not viscous), lifted mirin and floral accents (jasmine?), barely toasted flaked almond nuttiness and a touch of orange pith.  It dances across the palate, seamless and a touch ethereal – the mirin/jasmine, barley sugar and freshness play into a certain gentleness and levity compared with other fortifieds. An attractive point of difference.  18.5%  £24.50 (75cl) at Vinoteca, £25.00 (75cl) at Bar Douro Bottle Shop (the restaurants list it too).

Villa Oeiras Carcavelos Superior

With its heavy bottle, the Black labelled Superior – also a blend of Arinto, Galego Dourado & Ratinho – was aged in Portuguese and French oak for an average period of 15 years.  Unsurprisingly, it is a deeper topaz hue, but still much lighter than the Howard’s Folly, which is twice as old.  Concentrated by time in barrel and more complex than the white label, the nose is spicier – wood-accented – with orange peel and pith, toasted coconut and sweet, spicy speculoos biscuit.  Notes which follow through in the mouth.  The honeyed, mellifluous dried fig fruit and caramel is elegantly sluiced with lightly citrine acidity – think lemon barley water. Going through, there is an edge of savoury pickled walnut.  Spicy black cardamom and nutmeg notes build into the finish, together with a lick of beeswax polish/old mahogany. Leavening the wood, persistent acidity brings line and length.  Fuller-bodied than the white label but well-balanced, it comes across as medium sweet.  Again, the spirit is seamless.  19% €32.00 (75cl) at Villa Oeiras’ online store; it is imported into the UK by Raymond Reynolds.  

Casa Manuel Boullosa São Domingos de Rama Carcavelos 1991, bottled by and blended for Howard’s Folly

This example of Carcavelos is old school in a number of respects.  It is a colheita/single vintage, it was aged on ullage and it is a [micro]-negociant blend.  A blend which was created when Howard’s Folly’s winemaker, David Baverstock, stumbled across an old warehouse full of barrels of Casa Manuel Boullosa Quinta dos Pesos Carcavelos.  Having impressed his boss with a sample, Howard Bilton spent the next three years negotiating to buy some barrels.

Coincidentally, I tasted an excellent (unblended) bottling from the same barrels in 2015, which I wrote up here.   Six years later, though labelled 1991, Baverstock blended the 1991 Carcavelos with 15% of stock from the 1992 vintage – “much better,” he said.

Aged for twice as long in barrel, this Carcavelos is a deep tawny hue with a saffron rim.  The nose is suitably complex and intense, very spicy (with lashings of nutmeg and sandalwood) – closer to Madeira than the other two.  And closer to Madeira because of its salty tang – a quality I particularly enjoyed about this wine (and which I detected in light – as in unfortified – base wines sampled from barrel at Villa Oeiras).  The acidity is tangy, but less strident than Madeira and, with a touch of volatile acidity to the nose and palate, it has (attractive) spicy chutney, pickled walnut and clove-studded orange notes to the dried fig and amaretto palate.  The woodiness – beeswax polish/antique mahogany furniture – is little too pronounced for my taste, but it is not ‘hard’ or dusty; in fact the palate has a café crème tobacco-licked creaminess almost – the silkiness common to all three.  Together with complexing hints of bitterness (angostura bitters, burnt almond and orange peel, botanical spirits), the saltiness and tangy chutney notes neatly offset the sweetness, lingering on the warming finish.   A journey into the tertiary in a glass.  20% 150€ for three (50cl) bottles at Howard’s Folly’s online store; it is imported into the UK by Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies






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  1. Simon Woolf

    Great to hear about the Villa Oeiras project coming to fruition – I vaguely remember being told about it at Must Fermenting Ideas in 2019, but missed out on tasting the wines.

    Ryan Opaz treated me to a bottle of the Howard’s Folly 1991 while we were in Madeira back in March. It made for a fascinating comparison, I’d say much closer to Madeira than to white or tawny port – due to the acidity.

    The bottle proved strangely drinkable, and did not last anything like as long as we thought it might.

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Yes, Villa Oeiras has really developed the range. I felt the texture is closer to Madeira, but that’s also related to the acidity – less glycerol. But I think the Carcavelos wines have a silkiness, which is an interesting point of difference – makes for that dangerous drinkability!

  2. Alexandre Eurico Lisboa

    Dear Sarah, thank you for your fantastic tasting notes about our Carcavelos wines Villa Oeiras. its important for us this kind of recognition and comparation to other portuguese fortified wines. I agree with you about those remarks. just three notes: our resident winemaker is Pedro Sá; in the region there are 31ha of vineyards, 23ha of them still producing (we have 19ha, just planted 6ha last month!); we are supporting, with our winery, Vitor Claro and Cascais Municipallity productions, since we have the only functional winery in the region. Very best regards and thnak you so much for this wonderfull paper

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