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An Afternoon With Domingos Soares Franco

It might have been an overcast and drizzly day in Manhattan, but in the upstairs private dining room at Aldea, a Portuguese restaurant, the mood was anything but somber.  A few wine writers had gathered to meet the very charismatic and engaging Domingos Soares Franco.  If you don’t know his name, then you should!

Domingos is co-owner and senior winemaker at José Maria da Fonseca, a historic family-run winery in Portugal.  Domingos along with his brother is part of the sixth generation to run this winery and the seventh generation is now joining the ranks.

Domingos holds the distinction of being the first Portuguese national to graduate with a degree in Fermentation Sciences (Viticulture and Oenology) from the University of California, Davis in 1981.  As he put it, “In the 1970s there were no wine schools in Portugal or nearby, so I went to America to learn.”   In addition to the knowledge he acquired from being part of one of the oldest and most prestigious wineries in Portugal, he returned from America with a newfound insight that influenced his approach to vine growing and winemaking.  He combines Portuguese tradition with a dash of modern thrown in. Domingos currently works with 30 grape varieties and enjoys seeking out varieties and blends that will appeal to the consumer.  With a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “It’s a secret as to how I judge if a wine will make the consumer happy.”

José Maria da Fonseca was established in 1834 and is one of Portugal’s most historic wine producers.  Its headquarters are in Azeitão on the Setúbal Peninsula.  It is the 4th largest winery in Portugal with more than 650 hectares of vineyards containing a collection of Portugal’s top local varieties.  Their vineyards are located in several wine regions around Portugal that include Douro, Vinho Verde, Alentejo, Dao and Setúbal. 

The Fernandes Soares Franco winery located in Azeitão is a state of the art winery that was established in 1999. The winery is entirely computerized and has a 6.5 million-liter capacity with 513 vinification tanks, including traditional presses that date back to the 20th century.

The six-member winemaking team is made up of two women and four men with Domingos at the helm. Domingos admits, “I wish we had more women winemakers.  Women have a much more sensitive nose”.  The team works closely together engaging in research studies, experiments and innovation.  Domingos is always present for the blending sessions and he still makes the blends.

Team of winemakers  Photo credit:  JM da Fonseca

We began our luncheon with a special cocktail called Alambre Burbujas made with a perfect blend of Alambre Muscatel, dry Sparkling wine, honey and bitters.  It was heavenly and a must serve for the summer days ahead.  

Photo credit:  Penny Weiss

Here is the recipe:
Alambre Burbujas 
1.5oz Alambre Moscatel
1 round of orange
2 dashes Angostura bitters
.5 bar spoon honey
2 oz dry sparkling wine

Combine Alambre, honey, orange and bitters in mixing vessel, muddle lightly to express the orange into the combination
Add ice and stir to chill and combine flavors
Strain into wine glass
Add dry sparkling wine
Garnish with Orange rind

We tasted through five wines over a three-course meal. 

Photo credit:  Penny Weiss

The first two wines were 2017 vintages.  Domingos said, “2017 was a strange season with lots of rain and heat waves, but it was our best harvest in sixty years.”  

From left to right: Jose de Sousa, Periquita Reserva and Domini Plus Photo credit: Penny Weiss

José de Sousa 2017  Region:  Alentejo
The José de Sousa Rosado Fernandez Cellar, which was founded in 1878, was purchased by José Maria da Fonseca in 1986, fulfilling their dream to produce wine in Alentejo. In keeping with a 2000-year-old Roman tradition, an ancient fermentation method takes place in ceramic amphorae (also called Talha winemaking). The José de Sousa Cellar owns 126 of these pots.

Alentejo is well known for making Talha wines and it is part of the wine culture here.

For the José de Sousa 2017, a small portion of the wine is fermented in the clay amphorae followed by 9 months of resting in French and American oak casks.  The remainder of wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks.  The wine is a blend of 58% Grand Noir, 22% Trincadeira and 20% Aragonês all harvested from the Alentejo region.  The color is deep red with succulent aromas of dark fruit and spices.  Concentrated flavors of rich and juicy fruit, cherry, spice, licorice, firm tannins, nice acidity and a hint of vanilla permeate the palate.
Alcohol:  14.5%
SRP:  $19.99

Periquita Reserva 2017  Region:  Setúbal Peninsula
José Maria da Fonseca holds the prestige of being the first ever to bottle wine in Portugal. In 1850 the Periquita brand, a Castelão based dry wine was the first bottled wine released from the estate. 

Periquita Reserva 2017 is a blend of 56% Castelão, 22% Touriga Nacional and 22% Touriga Francesa.  The wine is aged for 8 months in French and American new and used oak.  Domingos explained that about 80% is new oak in order to give the wine a bit more vanilla.
The color is ruby with aromas of red berries, strawberry, cherry, spice and vanilla that segue onto the palate with plum, dark cherry and hints of anise.  This wine is beautifully balanced with good acidity and soft tannins.
Alcohol:  13%
SRP:  $14.99

Domini Plus 2015 Region: Douro  Sub-Region:  Douro Superior
This wine is a blend of 96% Touriga Francesa and 4% Touriga Nacional.  Grapes were harvested from a combination of old and new vines in vineyards that span 37 acres in Douro Superior.  The wine is aged for 10 months in new French oak casks. 

This wine has a deep ruby color and inviting aromas of floral, dark berries, anise and hints of tobacco.  The palate is layered with dense dark fruit, earth, spice and a touch of minerality.  This is another easy drinking wine that has richness to it with good acidity and smooth tannins.
Alcohol:  13.9%
SRP:  $44.99

This is a nice selection of easy drinking red blends that capture the expression of the land.  As Domingos says, “I look for elegant wines, not blockbusters or powerful and oaked.”

All three red wines paired beautifully with my main course of Sea scallops with morel mushrooms and spring green garlic.

Photo credit:  Penny Weiss

Before I dive into the dessert wine, let me give you a brief history of the estate’s Alambre Moscatel.  Setúbal Moscatel is a fortified dessert wine produced in the Setúbal Peninsula that was recognized as a D.O.C. in 1907.  The name Alambre was taken from the estate where José Maria da Fonseca first planted the Moscatel grape variety.  The name also refers to the wine’s amber color.

Alambre 20 Years D.O.C Moscatel de Setúbal is made from 100% Moscatel de Setúbal.  It is a blend of 19 vintages with the youngest wine being at least 20 years old and the oldest close to 80 years old. The wine is aged in used oak with no bottle aging required due to natural oxidation. 

This is a beautiful fortified wine that is delightfully light and filled with pleasant acidity and flavors of candied orange, dried fruit and hazelnuts.  It is a delicious treat for the palate!
Alcohol:  18.4%
SRP:  $69.00

Alambre 40 Years D.O.C Moscatel de Setúbal is made from 100% Moscatel de Setúbal.  The age for this blend varies between 40 and 50 years and the best lots were selected for the production of this wine.  The wine is aged in used oak with no bottle aging required due to natural oxidation. 

The color is dark amber with seductive aromas of floral, dried fruit and honey.  Dried apricot, orange, honey, toasted nuts and a hint of baking spice explode onto the palate.  It is quite amazing!
Alcohol:  18.7%
SRP:  $149.99 

40 Years on left and 20 Years on right  Photo credit: Penny Weiss

Before our luncheon came to an end, Domingos took out a vial filled with a very dark liquid.  Domingos said it contained a vintage of Moscatel de Setúbal made in 1918.  He shared it with us in celebration of his father who would have turned 100 years old in 2019.  We were each treated to a magical thimble full of the wine.  It was “manna from heaven!”

The Trifecta! Photo credit: Penny Weiss

Domingos will be celebrating a personal milestone in 2020, which will mark his 40th harvest!  Bravo! 

Photo credit:  Penny Weiss

José Maria da Fonseca is known for its impressive portfolio of Premium, Super Premium and fortified wines.  All of their wines are of high quality with many at an affordable price.   Having met Domingos and sampled his wines, I can truly attest that the wines are made with care, dedication and passion.

Until next time…


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