Beer & Wine Wine

Portuguese Vintners Are Reviving Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Wine. And It’s Good.

Take the unctuous caramel notes and lengthy, toasted nut finish of tawny port and combine them with the fresh palate-cleansing acidity and elegant finish of Madeira, and what do you get? Carcavelos.

This Portuguese fortified oxidative wine dates back to the 18th century, when it was reputed to be a favorite of a Founding Father (and rabid oenophile). In his book “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” (University Press of Mississippi, $26), author John Hailman includes a letter from Jefferson to Richmond merchant James Brown requesting a quarter cask of wine.

Carcavelo grapes.

“I would prefer good Lisbon; next to that, Sherry, next to that Carcavallo [sic]; but still a good quality of the latter would be preferable to an indifferent quality of the former.” Take that, Jerez.

Back then, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, owned vineyards on his property and was a proponent for Carcavelos. In 1908, the area was demarcated as a Denominação de Origem Controlada—Portugal’s highest classification of protected designation similar to France’s DOC—and at its peak, there were 10 to 15 wineries producing it.

Villa Oeiras vineyards with encroaching real estate. Kelly Magyarics

But unrestricted urban sprawl in the form of real estate development in the suburbs of Lisbon and the coastal town of Estoril all but decimated vineyards. Today, a mere 25 hectares remain. But thanks to a unique partnership between the municipality of Oeiras and Portugal’s Ministry of Agriculture, Carcavelos is being rescued from oblivion.

Villa Oeiras is the only publicly owned winery in Portugal, where grapes are planted on 12-and-a-half hectares for some stellar Carcavelos that’s soon finding its way to the States. Driving up to the vineyards on a recent sun-filled fall day, I could see rows of stark white apartment buildings in the distance, visible proof that progress in this commuter town has been encroaching and endangering the vines.

But thankfully, the vineyards for Carcavelos are expanding, albeit little by little, due to people like Sara Duarte, who are not only preserving and cherishing Carcavelos but making sure more wine drinkers get to experience it. A tour guide who also works for the municipality, Duarte explained that the vineyard’s proximity to the sea, coupled with the clay and limestone soils, lends minerality and freshness to the wine.

We headed to the adjacent Casal da Manteiga, the former dairy owned by the Marquis de Pombal that now houses tanks and barrels, where I was greeted by winemaker Tiago Correia, who happens to be engaged to Duarte.

Tiago Correia and Sara Duarte.

He says that fermentation for Carcavelos occurs between 60 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s generally fermented dry, though vinho abafado (must with residual sugar) is set aside before fermentation is completed. Afterward, the wine is fortified with a grape-based spirit that’s 77 percent ABV to bring the alcohol to 18 to 20 percent ABV, and the must is added back in to sweeten it.

DOC regulations dictate that Carcavelos must be aged at least two years in the barrel and six months in the bottle before its release. Villa Oeiras ages its wines at least five years in all different kinds of barrels, each of which adds something unique. Out of the handful of wines that we tasted, my favorite was one aged in medium toast French oak—it had attractive woody aromas and was sweet on the palate, with caramel and cinnamon and a soft, luscious, delicious nut-filled finish.

Part of the partnership with the government also restored the 18th-century cellar in the Marques de Pombal’s palace nearby. Though it has been modernized to include office space, it also houses hundreds of barrels of aging Carcavelos. (Today, there are 1,000 barrels in two cellars. Keep in mind the winery started with a mere two barrels!)

It was a cool spot to taste through Villa Oeiras’ portfolio, both literally and figuratively, as the barrel room was built over a natural spring, ensuring constant temperature and humidity levels.

Carcavelos barrels aging in the cellar. Kelly Magyarics

The youthful 2016 harvest was straw gold in the glass, with honeyed apple and pear and a short pleasant finish. Another blend averaged seven years, with a tawny hue and easy-drinking and balanced style, with nuts, orange and honey. A rarer red Carcavelos made with castelao and trincadeira showed funky vegetal aromas alive with a savory tomato and olive quality.

The expression you’ll soon find on store shelves in the U.S. is a blend of wines whose average age is 15 years. When I tasted it, an incredible complexity of aromas and flavors filled my senses, including aromas of dried fruits, a hint of salinity and gobs of freshness on the palate and that signature nutty finish that tawny port fans crave.

Correia recommends serving it between 54 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit; once opened, a bottle of Carcavelos will keep for up to six months. But with a wine this rare, special and utterly quaffable, it’s quite easy to be torn between wanting to savor it and diving in for a full-fledged sumptuous overload.

Maybe we should do as Jefferson would: “I have lived temperately. ... I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend.”