A wine on the brink of extinction

Article reading time: 7-9 minutes.


Bumping slowly into a small crowded car park, we come to a stop. It's high noon in the outskirts of Lisbon and once the engine cuts out the silence is absolute. Anonymous office blocks frame the scene, black silhouettes against the nuclear sun.

A woman appears from a corner, walks casually to her car. On cue, he opens his car door and our air-conditioned cool sinks out, displaced by the hot dry breath of the day. I watch from the passenger seat as they greet and she reaches in to her back seat. He takes the white cardboard box from her discreetly. Minutes later we are speeding away. On the side of the box was written one word: Carcavelos.


Old Carcavelos bottles

Vineyards look mostly the same wherever you are in the world: uniform lines of uniform vines. What changes is the backdrop. Mountains, rivers, oceans, forests – some vineyards even rise from the barren desert, forced into life through irrigation water. Finding these places usually involves travelling some distance from the nearest city, to places where the landscape hasn't changed for centuries.

Carcavelos used to look out to sea. At its peak, vines grew all along this part of the Portuguese coast, and the wine that bore its name was lauded around the world. In 1752 it was gifted by the king of Portugal to the court of Beijing. Seventeen years later, it featured in Christie’s first ever London wine sale, appearing alongside Hock, Burgundy and Malaga.

For two hundred years Carcavelos endured, until it faced a threat that was to prove irresistible. As nearby Lisbon prospered throughout the twentieth century, its conurbation crept westwards towards the coast. Sea views equalled prime real estate for developers, who found the local vineyard owners all too willing to sell their old patches of inherited land. Sweet fortified wine like Carcavelos had become unfashionable and unprofitable as modern tastes turned towards dry wines, so taking a cash windfall and being rid of these burdensome vineyards in one fell swoop was a win-win.

Within two decades, the urban sprawl had thrown up luxury apartment buildings and retail centres and business parks, and Carcavelos became buried under a blanket of concrete.

By the early 1980s, there were only around ten hectares of vines left. And nobody seemed to care.

How it might have looked ...


... how it really looks

Indifference is the reason why acquiring bottles of Carcavelos today has come to resemble a drug deal in a car park. The region was not completely obliterated, but the remaining vineyards are a mostly forgotten relic of a past agricultural era. To the world at large it remains unknown, unfashionable and of perishingly nominal value.

Visiting the region is just about the only way to taste the wine and find out more. But getting answers from a place that has lain neglected for so long proves as evasive as the wine itself.

The basics

Carcavelos is a DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) vineyard region, and the wine made there takes the same name. Among other things, DOC rules specify the region of production, permitted grape varieties, viticultural techniques and winemaking methods.

Nine different varieties of both colours are allowed to be grown, but the most important is the white grape Galego Dourado. The wine is fermented conventionally at first, then fortified to around 20% alcohol, and sweetened by the addition of vinho abafado, which is grape juice whose fermentation is terminated by early fortification. Then the wine undergoes up to five years ageing in barrels, oxidising gradually from white to brown (see below) and developing complex flavours and aromas in the process.


Carcavelos before and after ageing

As a sweet, fortified, oxidative white wine, Carcavelos is just about unique – and so it proves in the glass. The closest resemblance is to certain styles of Madeira, but with much lower acidity. As Carcavelos ages, there develops a sort of dank musty character, like the antique aroma that hangs in the air inside stately homes. Sweetness levels vary but are generally around 100 grams per litre – the same as for Port – and the finished result is unlike any other wine on the planet.

None of that helps sell the wine, however. Stylistically, it remains stubbornly unfashionable, which partly explains why it became such an endangered species in the first place. Furthermore, decades of neglect has taken its toll on quality. Unable to make a profit, most producers sold their vineyards for redevelopment and the few that remained were unable to invest, resulting in poor quality Carcavelos that served only to further its decline.

It's a sad story, but sympathy alone is insufficient to rekindle interest in something so downtrodden. And all the while, property developers lurk at the periphery of the last remaining vineyards, with outstretched wallets.

From any perspective, the outlook seems bleak. Which makes it especially miraculous that despite such adversity, the revival of Carcavelos is already underway.


The 18th century wine cellar at Villa Oeiras

In 1983, one of the last remaining vineyards in Carcavelos was replanted. It lies within the grounds of an estate originally built by the Marquis of Pombal to help regenerate the area following a devastating earthquake in 1755. He was the Portuguese prime minister, a wealthy and influential role, and he was largely responsible for establishing Carcavelos in the first place. By the 1980s, the Ministry of Agriculture was in charge and they realised that Carcavelos was on the brink of extinction.

In 2002 and 2009, the reborn vineyard was expanded to 12.5 hectares, almost doubling the existing total. The local municipality took over in 2004 and set about restoring the 18th century winery buildings, which had been crudely converted into office space. A new brand called Villa Oeiras was created and today they produce 60,000 litres of Carcavelos, a tenfold increase in volume from 2003. In pursuit of quality, they are trialling different oak vessels and ageing periods, and the results are very promising.

Not every estate was so fortunate. Quinta da Bela Vista went out of business in 1969, and its vineyards are now long gone. However, their last stocks of Carcavelos wine were saved by Carlos João Pereira of Vinhos Sanguinal, who struck a deal to sell their remaining 14,000 litres. Still on sale today, it is a time capsule of a wine from a site that no longer exists. The taste is half the sweetness of standard Carcavelos, with an intense earthy bitterness. It's a challenging but unforgettable flavour.

Sadly, not every Carcavelos is so compelling. Quinta da Ribeira de Caparide mostly make cheap bag-in-box wine, but every four years they produce a Carcavelos. The land is owned by the Bishop of Lisbon, but tended by Señor Antonio, who works alone on the estate. The wine is fiery, unbalanced and fruitless, an unfortunate manifestation of a wine in decline.

The only other producer still making Carcavelos requested not to be mentioned in this piece. It’s strange – while there is a renewed sense of hope in Carcavelos, there remains a creeping feeling of despair. The region is on its knees, but whether it is in the process of standing up or collapsing into the dust remains uncertain.


Newly bottled Carcavelos 

There are 200 hectares of land in the Carcavelos region that could be planted with vines, but the vast majority is already earmarked for other uses. Yet a new hotel was only granted planning permission once it agreed to establish a five hectare vineyard that must be used to produce Carcavelos. Such glimmers of hope wouldn't exist if it wasn’t for the municipality and their Villa Oeiras brand championing the cause of this venerable old wine.

Whether its survival can become a full recovery will need more than government funded goodwill, however. Private investment is needed, as well as stricter controls to ensure that every bottle of Carcavelos achieves a minimum quality standard. 

Perhaps above all, it needs to capture the hearts and minds of wine drinkers and find its way on to the wine lists and shop shelves where it belongs, rather than lurking in a shady car park in the outskirts of Lisbon.


Galego Dourado, the main variety of Carcavelos, in flower

My trip to Carcavelos was funded by the Comissão Vitivinícola da Região de Lisboa, whom I thank. 

Also thanks to Sarah Ahmed for her articles on Carcavelos, which were an invaluable reference as I prepared my visit.

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All images, video and text in this article are © Richard Hemming 2016.