Original article by: New York Times
COLARES, Portugal — The vineyards in this small wine region west of Lisbon on the Atlantic coast look like something that slithered up from the sea.
Trained low to avoid the biting wind that blows incessantly off the ocean, the vines resemble green serpents snaking along the sand. It’s as if vines from a more conventional region had come to the beach on vacation and had collapsed in a deep slumber.
Colares, one of the world’s most singular wine regions, emits a sleepy timelessness. The grapes are grown today just as they have been for centuries, except far fewer of them can be found. As recently as the 1940s, vines covered almost 2,500 acres of these sandy soils.
Only about 50 acres remain, spread over a narrow swatch west of the Sintra area, where the royal families of Portugal escaped the steamy Lisbon summers for colorful wind-cooled palaces. Much of the vineyard territory was lost in the 1960s and ’70s to suburban expansion.
Yet Colares produces what may well be Portugal’s most distinctive still wines. The reds, made of the ramisco grape, are high in acid and powerfully tannic, so much so that they are aged for years in the cellars before they are released. The current vintage on the market is 2007.
For all their initial intensity, the wines soften after 10 years of aging, revealing a graceful complexity, with savory kaleidoscopic flavors: herbal, balsam and saline. The wines are low in alcohol, too, seldom reaching 12.5 percent.
The white wines — made from the malvasia de Colares grape, which is genetically distinct from other grapes called malvasia — are fresh, rich and likewise herbal and saline with depth and character. They do not require quite as much aging as the reds; the current vintage is 2012.
The Colares vineyards, the westernmost wine region in continental Europe, are often said to be on the verge of extinction, doomed by a relentless appetite for seaside housing. For the moment, the threat seems to have abated.
The 2008 financial crisis slowed the real estate boom, said Francisco Figueiredo, a viticulturist and enologist who runs the Adega Regional de Colares, the co-op that produces the vast majority of Colares wines. Part of the region is within the Sintra district, a Unesco World Heritage site, and within a Portuguese park, which is protected from further development.
In the last few years, about five more acres of vineyards were planted and will soon come into production, the first sign of growth in Colares in a long time. Interest in the wines is increasing, too.
“I’m a little more optimistic,” Mr. Figueiredo said as we walked through a vineyard in June. “There’s more interest abroad. We used to be a little bit forgotten.”
It was not always that way. Back in the late 19th century, the vineyards of Europe were devastated by the phylloxera aphid, which preyed on their roots. The vines of Colares were unaffected because phylloxera cannot live in sand, and the wines came to be in great demand.
Eventually, phylloxera was stopped by grafting European vines onto American rootstocks, which are immune to the bug, and vineyards could be replanted. Virtually all European vines are now grafted, but Colares vines remain on their own roots.
In the early 20th century, this was an indication of purity and quality for Colares. Fraud abounded as unscrupulous producers and merchants in other regions used the Colares name for their wines. In 1934, the authorities decided that, to prevent fraud, only wine made by the co-op could be called Colares. This was the law until 1994.
Now, Mr. Figueiredo said, just two other producers make Colares. Adega Viúva Gomes, which is the only other Colares label I have seen sold in the United States besides the wines of the co-op, does not make wine. Instead, Viúva Gomes buys wine from the co-op and then ages it in its own cellar before bottling. That apparently makes a difference. Viúva Gomes wines are subtly distinct, particularly the white, which emerges in the bottle even more briny than the co-op’s.
Everything about growing the ramisco and malvasia grapes is hard work. To plant the vines, growers must dig trenches in the sand, which can be roughly 3 to 15 feet deep, to the chalky clay below. The roots need to grow in the clay to survive. As the vines get taller, the growers gradually fill in the sand, aided no doubt by the ceaseless wind, which blows back its share.
The wind is the enemy of the vine, Mr. Figueiredo said. The salt it carries can burn the leaves. So in addition to keeping the vines low, growers also plant apple trees among the vines, and erect fences made of stone along with maintaining barriers of wild-growing cane.
Once the grape bunches fill out, growers must raise the vines off the sand to facilitate air circulation. They achieve this by painstakingly placing wooden splints under the vines, which elevate them like trestles under a road.
Plenty of other grapes, like castelão and tinta roriz (tempranillo in Spain), are grown conventionally on clay-based soils in the Colares area. These wines, which carry the appellation Vinho Regional de Lisboa, can be quite good. But only wines made from ramisco or malvasia grown on the sand can be called Colares.
The ramisco grape, which makes up 75 percent of the Colares plantings, is superbly adapted to its unusual environment.
“I have never heard of ramisco being able to grow anywhere else, and I know a lot of people tried,” said Nuno Ramilo, whose family business, Casal do Ramilo, has been making wines from the clay soils since 1937. When he and his brother, Pedro, took over the business, they decided they wanted to make Colares, too.
“We looked at our region and the sand, and we said, ‘Let’s do what people used to do here,’” Nuno Ramilo said.
So, in 2015, the brothers planted about five acres of grapes on a windy, sandy lot where their mother had wanted to build a condominium, a project they said was blocked by the government. Nuno Ramilo got a little creative, too, training the vines on low wires rather than along the sand, thus avoiding having to splint the vines.
“If you want to work in Colares,” he said, “you have to plant, because the old people who have the vineyards won’t be working them forever.”
At the airy, well-ventilated warehouse of the co-op, around 75 huge wooden tanks made of mahogany, imported from Brazil, and other “exotic woods,” as Mr. Figueiredo calls them, are a reminder of what production was like in the 1940s. Now, except for a scant few, they sit unused.
The same is true at Viúva Gomes, where 10,000-liter vats are displayed like museum pieces.
“It’s good for Colares, but we don’t have 10,000 liters of Colares anymore,” said Diogo Baeta, who helps his father, José, run Viúva Gomes. They age about 1,000 liters a year in smaller barrels.
Mr. Baeta said he is happy with Mr. Figueiredo’s winemaking but hopes to do it himself one day.
“Francisco and I, we share the same philosophy of making the wine in the traditional manner of the region,” he said. “But my goal is to make all our wines in the near future.”
Viúva Gomes uses a facsimile of an old label on its bottles, from the days when the spelling was sometimes rendered “Collares.”
The Colares wines were traditionally sold in 600-milliliter bottles, an awkward size that is illegal in some markets, including the United States. So now, Colares, both red and white, is largely sold in 500-milliliter bottles, which are legal. The wines can be found for $25 to $45.
“It’s a homage to the old bottles but also a recognition that there’s not a lot of wine to go around,” Mr. Figueiredo said. “Rather than push prices up, they reduced the size of the bottle.”