The Setúbal Peninsula wine region in Portugal is thought to be the birthplace of the first grapevine in the Iberian Peninsula around 4000 years ago, planted by the Tartessians (an ancient civilization from modern-day Andalusia). The Phoenicians founded the town of Sétubal around 1,000 BC and are credited with creating the local wine industry, trading wines for other goods on their expeditions. The landscape, climate, and therefore the terroir of this region is extremely diverse, ranging from the clay-limestone hills of Serra da Arrábida to the hotter, sandy plains of the River Sado, near Palmela. This naturally influences the varieties suited to these different lands and the resulting wine styles.
Historically, the Setubal Peninsula is best known for its celebrated “Moscatel de Setúbal” (Muscat of Alexandria). This grape is used to make a rich, sweet orange elixir of a wine. There is also a rarer, purple version – Moscatel Roxo. This lightly fortified, aromatic sweet wine was the preferred tipple for Kings near and far. King Richard II of England was a particular fan, as was King Louis XIV of France had Moscatel de Setúbal brought in for his banquets and events. So highly regarded were these wines that they were sent out with the ships in the Portuguese era of discoveries to India and Brazil. This practice led to producing some very interesting and, consequently, very expensive wines. The barrels would usually be stored in the base of the ship, where they would be tossed and shaken by the waves, absorbing the saltiness from the sea and subjected to extensive temperature ranges. Astonishingly, this had a positive effect on the aging and evolution of the wines.
The DOC Setúbal appellation was officially demarcated in 1907 and is exclusively for Moscatel wines, representing a little over 10% of the total production in the region. These grapes grow on the lower slopes of the beautiful Arrábida hillsides near Palmela castle. This wine style is fortified. During fermentation, winemakers add grape spirit to stop the fermentation. There is still residual sugar left in the wine at this stage because the yeast is killed due to the high alcohol in the spirit, which is how the wine ends up sweet.
The vast majority of the dry red wines in this region are made with the Castelão varietal (known locally as Periquita). The DOC Palmela appellation must be at least 67% Periquita. To be classified as a “Vinho Regional” of the Setúbal Peninsula, the blend must contain at least 50% of Periquita, Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Moscatel Roxo, Tinta Amarela, and Touriga Nacional. The remaining 50% can be Alfrocheiro Preto, Alicante Bouschet, Bastardo, Carignan Grand noir, Monvedro, Moreto, or Tinta Miuda. The dry whites require the following to represent at least 50%; Arinto, Chardonnay, Fernão Pires, Malvasia Fina, Muscat of Alexandria, and Roupeiro. The remaining can be complemented with Antão Vaz, Esgana Cão, Sauvignon blanc, Rabo de Ovelha, Trincadeira das Pratas or Ugni Blanc.
Visiting the Setúbal Peninsula
Located just south of Lisbon, this region is home to a number of famous Portuguese wine estates (Bacalhôa and José Maria da Fonseca are best known abroad) and is very easily accessible as a day trip from Lisbon or as part of a longer tour. As a vacation destination, this area really does have it all- location, coast, and great food and wine! Just 25 miles south of Lisbon you are surrounded by natural beauty from the lush, Arrábida Natural Park, to the pretty coves and the vast, white sand Atlantic beaches. This is gourmand heaven too. This area is renowned for its extraordinary seafood and fresh fish (oysters, red mullet, cuttlefish, and of course the ubiquitous sardines, adored by the Portuguese). The gastro jewel in the crown though is definitely the Azeitão cheese. This handcrafted, artisan, sheep’s milk cheese is cured and truly delicious.