The Dukes of Palmela used to live here. Cork, pine and olive trees dot the pastures around their 17th century manor house, Casa Palmela, amid a green oasis of vines. Beyond the rows of old Syrah, wooded pathways climb the flanks of the hills of the Serra da Arrábida.
Situated on the Setúbal peninsula, south of Lisbon, this mountainous nature reserve, formed of rocky limestone, is home to all manner of flora and fauna; from eagles to rare orchids. The mountains have another name, the Serra Mãe (‘mother hills’), coined by Sebastião da Gama, poet and avant-garde environmentalist. He had lived in the region and, before he died of tuberculosis in 1952 aged just 27, had campaigned passionately for its protection.
‘Serra Mãe’ is also the name of a red wine made in homage to the region and poet. It’s a weighty, pure expression of Castelão, king of the red grapes grown in Setúbal, though blends are more common now. In the 20th century, winemaking in Setúbal lost its way, relying on export volumes of over-extracted wines from big yields. But growing tourism in the region has led to a wine and food revival.
The influence of the Arrábidas and the Atlantic allows vintners to produce fresh wines in this warm southern climate; which is increasingly clear from the invigorating red wines and increasing quantities of white wines now made here. For Portuguese wine lovers searching for a maritime alternative to Alentejo, the Dão or the Douro, this might be the place to look.
For wine lovers searching for a maritime alternative to Alentejo, the Dão or the Douro, this might be the place
In Setúbal’s fish market, I taste plump, saline Crassostrea angulata oysters, which have an unusual nutty taste. Portuguese navigators brought these oysters from Asia in the 16th century and they became known across Europe as Portuguese oysters. Like much of Europe’s oyster populations, however, they have fallen into decline due to over-fishing. There is now a movement to protect the oysters with a recognised designation of origin.
In Portinho, where cars are banished in the high season, we stop at the Farol restaurant to eat fresh grilled fish on the seashore. I sit in the sun with my driver José Manuel Santos, director of Madomis Tours, and Salvador Holstein, Casa Palmela’s well-travelled and engaging manager and a relative of the owner. Together we share a refreshing bottle of Branco Seco Especial (better known as ‘BSE’), a crisp white made by the José Maria da Fonseca winery from local varieties Arinto and Antão Vaz.
José Maria da Fonseca is also one of the local producers that has rescued the Moscatel de Roxo variety from extinction. It’s traditionally used to make Setúbal’s sweet, fortified wines, but another producer, Quinta do Piloto, shows how the variety can be used effectively to make an unusual still white; with the flavour of lychee and apricot, converging gracefully with notes of white pepper and salinity.
Back at the hotel, beneath the vaulted white ceilings of the restaurant we taste the work of chef Mauro Alison, whose efforts could grace the table of any Michelin-starred establishment. His contemporary versions of Portuguese cuisine are both subtle and spicy, playing with texture and flavour. Pica-Pau is traditionally a meat dish, but Alison has created a seafood version, cooked in basil and ginger, served with the Madeiran flatbread bolo do caco, and basil butter. Rather than using tomatoes in Malandrinho rice, there’s an Asian influence of lime, ginger, coriander and samphire to accompany poached cod served in a clam foam with sea lettuce powder. Cooked with equal precision is his Angolan crayfish mufete ao sumate, with a tantalising red sauce that includes crunchy Brazilian tapioca. For dessert, José Maria da Fonseca’s Alambre Moscatel Roxo de Setúbal is paired with a colourful version of Abade de Priscos; while the traditional glass of Port is substituted for one of Moscatel, the full complement of 15 egg yolks remains the same.
The next morning there is time for reflection in the woods of this secluded, peaceful estate. Granted, when considering Portugal, wine lovers may first think of Porto and the Douro Valley, but Setúbal’s contemporary producers show how graceful and adroit local fortified and still wines can be. Just taste the depth in flavour of JMF’s 20-year-old Alambre, amber-orange with Christmas-pudding richness and made up of 19 vintages of Moscatel de Setúbal, the oldest being up to 80 years old. Indeed, there is much to discover in this lesser-known region of Portugal, all along the routes of bright, dusty orange earth and limestone.