Wine making at Panascal, as on the other Fonseca properties, follows traditional principles. On the ground floor of the quinta house are the lagares where the grapes are trodden.
The Távora River winds northwards through a narrow steep sided valley, flowing into the Douro some 4 kilometres west of the town of Pinhão. The northern end, where the valley widens before opening onto the Douro, has long been prized as a source of the finest Port. Prized above all were the wines of one particular slope on the steep right bank of the Távora in the parish of Valença do Douro, known as Panascal.
The location took its name from the tussocks of panasco, the cocksfoot grass Dactlylis glomerata, which proliferated across the hillside. The reputation of this area is conveyed in the words of an old saying, 'Do Roncão e Panascal vêm os melhores vinhos de Portugal', or 'From Roncão and Panascal come the best wines in Portugal'.
Although vineyards have probably been established at Panascal since the early 19th century, it was not until relatively recently that these formed a property of significant size. The Viscount of Vila Maior, the great 19th century authority on the vineyards of the Douro, mentions that in 1869 the area contained five parcels of land belonging to individual grape growers. These fell into disrepair after the ravages of Phylloxera, which destroyed many of the Douro vineyards in the 1860s and 70s, and at some point early in the 20th century they were amalgamated into a single large estate known as Quinta do Panascal.
By the middle of the 20th century the quinta had become the property of Colonel José Pacheco, member of a prominent family of Douro landowners, and it was from the Pacheco family that Fonseca purchased the estate in 1978.
Unlike the Pinhão Valley estates of Cruzeiro and Santo António, both of which had a long historical association with the firm, Panascal had not traditionally been a supplier of Fonseca. However the firm was aware of the estate's outstanding reputation and saw an opportunity to convert this prime location into a new technically advanced vineyard producing wines suited to the Fonseca house style.
A number of factors combine to make Panascal an exceptional vineyard site. Its broad sweeping west and southwest facing aspect mean that the whole vineyard is well exposed to sunlight. The vines on the steep lower slopes bordering the Távora River are wrapped in the still warm air enclosed between the sheer sides of the narrow valley. In this area, known as the Torrão, the wines are dense, velvety and luscious, with powerful dark fruitiness interlaced with flavours of liquorice and chocolate. On the upper elevations which rise to about 400 metres above sea level, the slope is gentler and the vines are cooled by the wind, producing more elegant wines, finely scented and with a vibrant acidity. These different elevations allow the property to produce wines with the combination of rich, luscious fruitiness and aromatic complexity which is the cornerstone of the Fonseca house style.
The renovation work began shortly after the purchase of the property. Apart from two hectares of old vineyard planted on traditional walled terraces on the bank of the Távora, known as the Vinha do Rio, the steeply inclined lower slopes were re-landscaped using patamares, modern terraces separated by tall earth banks, using experienced gained during the renovation of Quinta do Cruzeiro.
The gentler slopes in the upper part of the quinta were planted in vertical rows using the vinha ao alto technique. One of these plots, planted in 1985, was converted in 1992 to organic viticulture, the initial area of two hectares later being extended to six. One of the earliest experiments in organic viticulture in the Douro Valley, these plots provided much of the experience and knowledge which would underpin the development of the sustainable vineyard model later developed by David Guimaraens and head of viticulture António Magalhães.
The technique of planting in vertical rows was refined in 1995 with the establishment of the pioneering Vale da Régua vineyard. This follows a method perfected by Fonseca known as matrix planting. Each row is planted with a single variety best suited to the location. Rows located on a ridge are planted with Tinta Roriz which requires dry soils in full sun. Touriga Francesa is planted in low lying positions where the soil is more fertile and the variety's fragile shoots are protected from the wind. On a slope, the higher positions, which are well aerated and where the soil is often stonier and better drained, provide the best conditions for the Touriga Nacional.
Although the varieties are planted in separate rows, they are picked and fermented together. Wine making at Panascal, as on the other Fonseca properties, follows traditional principles. On the ground floor of the quinta house are the lagares where the grapes are trodden as well as the wooden vats where the Port is left to settle.
Quinta do Panascal is now Fonseca's flagship estate. As well as being an important contributor to the blends of the classic Fonseca Vintage Ports, for over thirty years Quinta do Panascal has also produced distinctive single estate Vintage Ports made exclusively from the best produce of the property. As well as being shipped to markets around the world, these wines can also be purchased in the estate's shop. Visitors are welcome at Panascal throughout the year for a tour of its vineyards or to watch the wine making during harvest time.