Confusion Corner: Sercial, Cerceal, Cercial

Let’s face it. If you are reading about wine (specifically Spanish or Portuguese wine), and you encounter the term “Cerceal,” you are likely to assume it refers to an alternative spelling of the “Sercial” grape (best known as the leading grape of the driest styles of Madeira). At least…that is what I did, until I knew better.

As it turns out, they are two different varieties, although both white and both native to Portugal. And there’s more…another grape (unrelated) likes to go by the name “Cercial” (note the minor spelling difference). These grapes rightfully deserve their place in the Confusion Corner. Let’s see if we can clear this up…

Sercial: The Sercial grape variety is well-known as one of the leading grape varieties of the Madeira DOC. It is believed to be native to the Bucelas area (near Lisbon), where it was traditionally known as Esgana Cão—or dog strangler—based (one hopes) on its outrageously high levels of acidity.

It is believed that Esgana Cão was brought from the mainland to the island of Madeira, where the name Sercial caught on. Despite the fact that the grape’s claim to fame is based on its use in Madeira, the island region accounts for only 20 hectares/49 acres of the Sercial vineyards. The Portuguese mainland boasts about 70 hectares/173 acres of Sercial; much of it grown in the Douro where it is used in both White Port and dry (non-fortified) wines.

Sercial is not often found as a (non-fortified) varietal wine; but is typically used in blends. It is a late-ripening grape that has a yellow/green color when young, but ripens to a deep, golden hue. Sercial has an amazing ability to retain its acidity throughout its long growing season. The grape’s vibrant acidity is coupled with intense aromatics—including yellow fruit, white flowers, and a hint of almond—as well as an ability to age gracefully.

Sercial is not widely grown outside of Portugal. However, the amazing estate of Mas de Daumas Gassac (in France’s Languedoc) has a small plot (0.5 hectares/1.25 acres) of Sercial. In some years, the Sercial is used in the estate’s unique dry white wines; in others it is blended with Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains to produce a well-aged and well-oxidized dessert wine (vin de liqueur) known as Vin de Laurence and bottled under the Vin de France designation.

Also known as: in the Azores (Açores), Sercial is known as Arinto dos Açores. In the Minho, it is known as Esganoso. Esgana and Esgana Cão are also listed as synonyms in the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (VIVC).

Cerceal/Cerceal Branco: Cerceal Branco is believed to be a natural cross of Malvasia Fina (white) X Tinta Pereira (red)—this, according to the VIVC. However, other references cite it as a possible cross of Malvasia Fina X Sercial.

Cerceal Branco is a late-ripening, thick-skinned variety known to produce age-worthy wines with lively acidity. These wines are known for a subtle fruit character (focusing on citrus/grapefruit, lemon, and lime) while showing a good deal of savory character (what many people refer to as “earthy” or “mineral”). 

There are approximately 113 hectares/279 acres of Cerceal Branco in Portugal. A good majority of it is grown in the Douro, as well as the Dão. Smaller amounts are grown in the Bairrada, Tejo, and Alentejo DOCs. It is often used in white wine blends, including some sparkling wines. Typical blending partners include Bical and Encruzado (both native Portuguese white varieties). It may also be seen as a varietal wine; Quinta dos Roques produces a lively example (full of gorgeous fruit and mineral aromas) in the Dão DOC.

Also known as: Cercial (in Bairrada) or Cercial do Douro.

Cercial: Cercial is a totally different grape; believed to be related to one of Portugal’s most prolific red grapes: Castelão. Cercial is native to the Colares region, where it is known as Jampal. Cercial/Jampal is an allowed variety in more than a dozen Portuguese DOCs, and is grown in and around the regions of Colares, Lisboa, Beiras, and Tejo. The grape is known to produce high-qualty, aromatic white wines redolent of fruit and flowers. Despite its promise, there are currently just 106 hectares/262 acres of Cercial/Jampal in Portugal.

Wait, there’s one more—Sercialinho: Just to keep things interesting: Sercial, Cerceal, or Cercial should NOT be confused with Sercialinho. Sercialinho is a Vital X Alvarinho cross created in the Bairrada Region sometime in the 1950s. It is believed that there are about 9 hectares/22 acres of Sercialinho in Portugal, most of it planted in the Bairrada.

Sercialinho is reported to have high levels of acidity, potentially very high sugar, and aromas of green apple, pear, and honey—and some have even compared it to Riesling. Alas, it seems to lack complexity…but who knows what the future may hold for Sercialinho?

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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