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The Castelão Grape

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About Castelão

(Synonyms: Castelão Frances, Castellam, João Santarém, Mortagua, Santarem, Teixeira Gyrão, Trincadeira Preta)


Castelão grapes Map showing Portugal

Castelão is a red-wine grape originating in Portugal, where it is actually the most widely grown red variety (possibly most widely grown, period).

There is an undue amount of confusion about the relation between Castelão and Periquita: a great many sources (including, as we write, Wikipedia) seem to think that Periquita is simply a synonym for Castelão, but that is quite wrong. "Periquita" is a proprietary (or "brand") name, owned by the Jose Maria da Fonseca winery; Periquita blends will always contain Castelão, but most also contain varying amounts of other wines as well (apparently, only the da Fonseca "Periquita Classico" is 100% Castelão). Castelão was also once widely known as Castelão Frances, but when Portugal tightened up its wine laws, the official name became simply "Castelão".

What sort of wine one gets from the Castelão grape depends (as always) a good deal on how it is grown and vinified: some are described as "drink young", others as eminently age-worthy. The chief variable seems to be the tannin content (tannin-rich wines typically age much better, while low-tannin wines are for early consumption); that content, in turn, sems to depend strongly on vineyard qualities, from vine age to soil to temperatures—curiously, the vine thrives in harshly hot climes and poor, sandy soils.

What seem to be the common characteristics are fairly high acids and a medium body, with distinct raspberry qualities overlain by general red-wine spiciness. The better specimens are described variously as "dense" and "muscular" (sometimes even as "harsh when young"), with the complexity and subtlety of some much-more-famed red varietals.

Factoid: The name of the popular Castelão-based blend "Periquita" means "parakeet", but does not derive directly from the bird name, but rather from the name of the vineyard (Cova de Periquita) in which the founding da Fonseca first planted Castelão. Other grapes sometimes found in Periquita include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, and Aragonez aka Tempranillo.

Some Descriptions of Castelão Wines

  • Wikipedia

    "The vine thrives in sandy soils but is able to adapt to a variety of conditions. It produces a wine that can be harshly tannic in its youth but softens as it ages. In the Algarve VR [appellation], it is often blended with Negra Mole to produce a wine with less aging potential but less harsh in its youth."

  • Wines of Portugal.info

    "Castelão grapes from carefully-managed, low-yielding old vines can be made into well-structured wines with plenty of tannin and acidity, and fruit reminiscent of redcurrants, preserved plums and berries, sometimes with a hint of well-hung game. Castelão is rarely able to shake off a rustic character. The best examples can age very well, sometimes resembling fine old Cabernet when mature."

  • Catavino

    "Physically, this little grape is tough, pooh poohing fertile soil in moderate climates for dry, sandy and intensely hot temperatures. When pushed to suffer, like all good masochists do, this grape magically evolves into an intense and aromatic wine with red berry and floral aromas. Consisting of small bunches of little dark skinned berries, this variety typically produces smooth and well balanced wines with good aging potentia as a result of its fondness for oak. Generally found in the Ribatejo, Estremadura and the Alentejo regions as blending grapes, its claim to fame lies in the region of Terras do Sado. Here, in the DOCs [appellations] of Palmela and Setabul, the grape thrives, sucking in the warm temperatures to produce concentrated and pungent red wines."

  • Wines of Portugal.com

    "It is highly adaptable to different climatic conditions and its remarkable versatility enables winemakers to make a range of wines – from the easy drinking and quaffable reds and rosados to the powerful and intense reds perfectly suited to lengthy cellaring. Castelão comes into its own and is most expressive in the Sétubal Peninsula, where it makes meaty and intense wines with aromas of red berries and blue flowers that marry well with the deft use of oak. Castelão is a ubiquitous grape in Portugal found not only in the Setubal region but in the Tejo and in Alentejo. While many styles exist, as a rule it retains a food friendly acidity."

  • Fringe Wine

    "The vine produces small clusters of tiny berries which means that there's a fairly high skin to pulp ratio. This means that the wine produced from these grapes can be pretty tough and high in tannins, which is why many producers decide to use Castelão in so many blends. It gives very good color and structure while the other grapes in the blend soften its rougher edges and make it more approachable in its youth."

  • Wine Searcher

    "The wines produced from this grape are typically fruit-driven and intended to be consumed in their youth."

  • Wine Geeks

    "Castelão produces a hardy and robust red wine packed with raspberries and spices."

Some Castelãos to Try

(About this list.)

As is so often the case with Old World wines, it is easy to find blends with a given variety in them, but not so easy to find monovarietal bottlings. In these lists, we very much prefer monovarietals, not because they are somehow superior but because we try to give you specimens that best exhibit the grape's typicity. In the end, we could only locate three such wines available in the U.S. (though there are apparently quite a few monovarietal Castelãos bottled). Moreover, there is little material on line about most of these wines, which are not at all well known in the U.S. and much of what exists is in Portugese, so that we have to rely on dicey machine translations.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
  • Santo Isidro de Pegoes Adega de Pegoes Tinto, $7 - $9.
    (Quite scarce and litle known in the U.S. Note that while some sources say it is a blend, the co-op's own site says clearly that it is 100% Castelão.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Colour: dark red with some browning in the edge. Nose: quite expressive with ripe and jammy fruit (berries, brambles, plums), lots of oaky (wood) nuances, impressions of caramel, vanilla and even some coffee. Warm, modern and rich, oaky style, attractive. Taste: full bodied, round, mild, with lots of spicy wood impressions (vanilla, caramel), soft and sweet tannins, juicy and jammy red and black fruit, mild acidity, some complexity, but very easy and expressive, modern style. Finish: quite long, with again lots of (oak) wood nuances, vanilla, caramel, soft and sweet tannins, ripe and jammy fruit, mild acidity, some complexity, nice balance. Modern and very expressive Portuguese red wine, lots of (sexy) wood nuances in nose and taste, lots of ripe fruit too. Some complexity and good balance together with a spicy, rich, and warm style. Can be drunk now, will keep till 2007 [2002 vintage]. Very good wine making and severe selection in a difficult vintage resulted in an attractive style, both very modern full blown and oaky and opulently fruity wine. From a good and well equipped producer, a very quality oriented cooperative, one of the most dynamic of Portugal.

    When it comes to sheer value for money, this wine ranks right up at the top. Portuguese wine is famed for the flavour to price ratio (the former being far higher than the latter) and this wine really flies the flag for super value Portuguese wines. Originating from the Peninsula de Setubal (we’re heading south, so we’re talking sun-soaked, intense fruit here), this is made from the Periquita grape [sic] which often forms the backbone of Port wines. In the wrong hands you’ll end up with tannic, harsh wines from this grape – but the winemaker has teased youthful raspberry, stewed rhubarb and spice flavours in this wine. We’ll say it again – this is a true bargain – and you get change from a tenner!

    [Google-translated from Portugese:] Color: Ruby. Aroma: Intense red fruit when evolving to new spices from the 3rd year. Flavor: Structure with soft tannins and good order with pleasant mouth.

    Smells slightly alcoholic, like burnt almost, behind that some dark red fruits, cherries. Palate is soft, red fruits immediately there on the palate, unfortunately its a bit thin, I guess its made in a more modern style to give enjoyment straight away. Nothing wrong, but it lacks complexity.

    This one is in my view every bit as good as [another red from the same winery] costing a euro or more extra. It’s another perfectly-crafted, well-balanced Portuguese red.

  • Jose Maria da Fonseca Periquita "Classico", $8 - $24.
    (Scarce in the U.S.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    The wine has a deep garnet color. The nose is assertive, warm, and spicy. The palate is full, rich, with sweet fruit flavors. Highly Recommended, especially for the price!

    More exceptional in many way was another Terras do Sado wine made from Castelão, Periquita Classico 1995 José Maria da Fonseca (the company that makes Setubal and Lancers rosé among many other wines) [this tasting was in 2005]. To find a fully mature 10 year-old wine at about £8 a bottle seems pretty miraculous to me – and this bottle of a wine made from grapes grown in the sandy soild of the Terras do Sado and originally aged in old wood was tasting wonderfully fresh and vital. For my taste it was very much better balanced and more delicious than the same producer’s Hexagon 2000 at £35 for instance, a thicky oaky blend of Portuguese Tintas and Tourigas with Tannat and Syrah. For a wine with a great mature bouquet and real nerve, seek out that Periquita Classico 1995 . . . although make sure you ask for the Classico rather than the regular bottling.

    This limited production version of the multimillion-bottle Periquita brand was aged for 24 months in American oak. Made from the Castelão grape, it is rich and velvety with flavors of dark figs. This is a wine that can certainly age—keep it for 5 years or more. 90 points.

    The 2001 Periquita 'Classico' has some game on the nose, and a certain piercing quality, a bright, Burgundian feel. The acidity delivers the delectable fruit flavors to the palate admirably, and gets out of the way. There are relatively restrained tannins included... but it is tasty and charming, and it would be completely churlish to dwell too much on its simplicity.

    The color is classic "Periquita," a dusty, dark ruby with slight browing at the rim (even 2-3 year old wines show early browning); the bouquet is at once velvety and earthy, with ripe blueberries, figs, vanilla, and moderate oak, combining with saddle leather, spice and that seductive (at least to me) "forest floor" note; on the palate, the wine is round and supple in texture, with finely grained tannins and good structure at its core, redolent with ripe fruit, spice, layered complexity and a long, enticing finish. An amazing wine -- at 11 years of age, this is continuing to develop and evolve, and should easily develop for another 5+ years.

    Still [1995 vintage tasted in 2007] a vibrant dark ruby red. Enticing aromas of cedar, earth/mushroom, tobacco, red fruit, and non-descript spice wafting from the glass. Grand grip in the mouth with some ripe tannins and bracing acidity. Medium mouthfeel. Mid-palate is there and a nice length to the finish. I don't expect everyone to like this wine, especially as much as I do, but I consider it a nice QPR for the $16US it costs. Grand food wine. Oh, it's a dry Portuguese wine. From the famous Porto house of Fonseca.

    The Periquita Classico came highly recommended and decently priced for what ended up a great wine. Portugese wine is often overlooked by most “sophisticated” wine folks, and in reality i think it is due to the hit or miss syndrome, you either get pleasantly surprised or terribly disappointed, seems there is no in between. Jose Maria Da Fonseca is one of the oldest producers in Portugal. This single grape variety (Periquita is officially called Castelão Frances) has been one of the staples of the vineyard for over 150 years. The Classico is said to be only bottle in vintages of exceptional qualities. This vintage [2002] without a doubt follows suit. . . First sniff: rhubarb , orange hue, light cherry. On the pour: Subtle red with a hint of rust in the colour. First sip: heavy black cherry, large wine, solid tannins at the end. Over time: the finish is nice, almost a citrus ending, tannins softened nicely. Complex wine but not due to the wine maker trying for it to be, nice and solid from first taste to finish. This wine, while already 6 years old will benefit from a few more years of cellaring if you have the conditions. Those drinking now will get a well developed wine which can go with most meals and is easily drunk in a relaxing atmosphere and a nibble of cheese. This is a solid 89.

    Beautiful medium-ruby color with orange at edges; nice, deep nose of sour cherry; quite silky on the palate, medium-bodied, overwhelmingly cherry in flavor, hints of white pepper, sage; long rich cherry finish. Very nice wine, obviously well-made, kind of a one-trick pony though. Around 90 pts.

  • Adega Regional de Colares 'Chao Rijo' Tinto, $13 - $19.
    (Not common in the U.S. This is another where some sources refer to blending, but the winery's own page says 100% Castelão.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    It was a medium ruby color with a berry salad nose, bright acid in the mouth with lots of fruit and very soft tannins on the finish. At about €3,50 it was an incredible value! (US 2009 & 2010 ~ $16.)

    The Dao and Duoro are perhaps the best known regions in Portugal, capable in the hands of a talented and visionary few of making great wines. This on the other hand comes from a near lost, tiny [appellation] on the coast outside the city of Lisbon. The vines are dug deep in the sand dunes to reach the compact clay subsoil. The wines, based on local varieties are structured much like an old fashion Bordeaux yet with more fruit. These are a great value and a rarity on top of it all, for just $15!

    [Google-translated from Portugese:] We discovered this wine in May, when we ventured out to the hidden and mythical Colares vineyards, planted almost on the beach and with vines lying on the ground until the month of August. This historic but little valued and protected area is where the winemaker Francisco Figueiredo acts with passion by region. He produces wines with race, a straight structure, fruit, and a nice spicy persistence. This wine is produced in a hard clay floor (not the sandy soil that entitles wines to the Colares Denomination of Origin label) from Castelão grapes, and produced in a warm year in which there was difficulty ripening in the area. A fresh and light but undiluted wine.

    [Google-translated from Portugese:] A fruity wine with a touch pinion due to aging in oak, is a lightweight and ready to drink. The color is medium intensity. The palate is a fruity wine to taste, with strong tannins and a pronounced acidity, which makes its aftertaste is long but rough, resembling green quince. Expected much more from this wine because its region is superior wines.

    [Google-translated from Portugese:] Very nice fruity aroma, too chocolaty and resinous. Very fresh and tasty.

For a Splurge

There isn't really anything to offer here, owing to the limited presence in North America of Castelão-based wines. If you try and like one of the specimens above, buy a case.

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