One of the largest Portuguese wine producers, it was founded by José Maria da Fonseca (1804-1884). His father had become rich through tobacco trading and bought his son a vineyard near Azeitãjo south of Lisbon in the DOC area of Setúbal. He began building a large winery in 1834. He introduced new techniques, for example, he spread the vines further apart. The Castelão Francês variety was planted on a vineyard called Periquita. The wine became so successful that the vine was soon named after it throughout Portugal and became widespread.
A new blend with acidic notes was created for the Moscatel de Setúbal, which was already being produced at the time. Today, the sweet dessert wine is largely produced by Fonseca. Another pioneering act was that, apart from port, he was one of the first in Portugal to bottle the wines. José Maria da Fonseca ran the winery for 50 years and was honoured with Portugal's highest award by King Pedro V (1837-1861) in 1857. In 1944, the fifth-generation descendant António Porto Soares Franco created Lancers, an enormously successful rosé wine (he had already created its predecessor, Faisca, in 1937, which is considered the first Portuguese rosé). The first white wine appeared on the market in 1945.
Today there are two Fonseca companies (both based in Azeitãjo), but they are completely separate or independent from each other. These are José Maria da Fonseca Successores and J. M. da Fonseca International (but there is no connection to the port wine house Fonseca-Guimarãens in the Porto suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia). The latter is mainly focused on the production of Lancer, most of which is exported to the United States. It also produces a variety of wines from local and international varieties. The former company is already run by the seventh generation of descendants of the Fonseca family, and is currently headed by the brothers Antonio (president since 1986) and Domingos Soares Franco (head of production since 1980). António is a graduate of the University of California at Davis.
The huge estate now covers over 1,000 hectares. There are holdings in vineyards, wineries and estates in the regions or DOC zones of Alentejo (D'Avillez and José de Sousa estates), Dão and Palmela, among others. The wide range of products includes red and white wines from predominantly indigenous varieties (Alvarinho, Arinto, Bastardo, Espadeiro, Loureiro, Monvedro, Periquita = Castelão Francês), some of which are also blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay or produced as single varietals. These are, for example, the branded wines Garrafeira CO (Periquita with some Tinta Amarela), J. P. Vinhos (before the purchase João Pires), Quinta da Bacalhôa, Quinta de Camarate (Cabernet Sauvignon and Periquita), Primum (50% each Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca), Tinto Velho (from autochthonous varieties from the José de Sousa winery) and Terras Altas.
A speciality are old Setúbal wines from the period 1870 to 1890, made according to the traditional form. They have travelled for months on long sea voyages and have been exposed to great heat or temperature fluctuations. These specialities are called "Vinhos de torna-viagem" or "Vinho da roda". In 2000, Fonseca started an interesting project when Setúbal wines were subjected to a three-month voyage by ship. They were thus produced using the old traditional method of crossing the Aeuator twice. See in detail under Torna Viagem.