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The wines of José Maria da Fonseca, Terras do Sado, Portugal

Founded back in 1834, JM da Fonseca (not to be confused with the Port house Fonseca) has enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading producers of Portuguese table wines. Their portfolio encompasses a number of different regions, but is mostly dominated by wines from their home patch—Terras do Sado, a region close to Lisbon. I was interested to see how this old-school producer would match up to the new wave of producers who are leading the current Portuguese wine revolution.

Somewhat ironically, JM da Fonseca's most widely known wine is the bizarrely packaged Lancers, which comes in a squat red clay bottle. This semi-sweet, slightly spritzy rosé was their equivalent to Sogrape's Mateus Rosé, and was immensely successful from the 1950s to the 1980s, especially in the USA. But although this wine has been crucial to the company's financial health, they are now looking to establish a reputation for their newer brands, along with old favourites such as the Dão Terras Altas and the historic Periquita.

I tried a small selection of their wines. How do they match up? Well, it's hard to fault these wines. They may not be stunners, but they offer terrific value for money. Perhaps the best feature is that even though some of them are produced in quantity, they still retain some uniquely Portuguese character. I was especially impressed with the José de Sousa wine from the Alentejo, made using the traditional techniques of the area (including a fermentation in clay amphorae, how Roman!), augmented with a bit of barrique ageing.

Albis 2000 Vinho Regional Terras do Sado
From 19 ha of vines; 90% Moscatel Setubal, 10% Arinto. For drinking young. Quite an impressive white wine in a modern style. Intense, modern ripe fruit on the nose; full and spicy. The crisp, fresh, herby palate is lively and full, showing good balance. Very good

Primum Branco 2000, Vinho Regional Terras do Sado (tank sample)
60% Arinto, 5% Encruzado, 35% Sauvignon Blanc. Modern 'boiled sweets' nose. Very tankish: currently it tastes quite confected, with a lively, herby palate. Good intensity, but too young at the moment to really decide. Good/very good

Periquita 1998 Vinho Regional Terras do Sado
100% Periquita (officially known as Castelão Frances); 2.5 million litres made. This wine is a bit of an institution: first made back in the 1850s, the label has deviated little from the simple design adopted in its early years. It's quite a pale red colour, with a lovely sweet herby nose showing some soft, spicy cherry fruit. Rich, ripe and juicy on the palate, with some savoury, spicy character. An attractive midweight red. Very good+

Vinya Tinto 1999 Vinho Regional Terras do Sado
30% Trincadeira, 60% Tinta Barroca, 10% Tinta Cão; seven months' ageing in new American oak. Lovely rich juicy nose with very expressive cherry/raspberry fruit. The palate shows some deliciously pure ripe fruit, chocolatey notes and juicy acidity. Interesting stuff. Very good+

Primum Tinto 1999 Vinho Regional Terras do Sado
60% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Cão; 10 months ageing in French oak. Showing rich, ripe juicy fruit on the nose, its palate is a little denser and more structured than the Vinya. There's a lovely fruitiness, with high acidity. A really attractive red wine. Very good+

José de Sousa 1997, Vinho Regional Alentejo
60% Trincadeira, 25% Aragonez, 15% Grand Noir. JM da Fonseca purchased this estate in the southern Alentejo in 1986, and it's a piece of living history. The hand-picked grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, fermented in a mixture of open top fermenters and large clay pots, and then matured in new French oak barrels. This wine has a lovely, intense nose with spicy menthol notes and high acidity. The palate is an explosion of high acid, firm tannins and juicy, spicy fruit. A very rich style, and quite challenging. A serious, southern-style wine. Very good/excellent

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