Monday, August 26, 2019

Extreme Viticulture: DOC Colares Portugal

Wines of Portugal
Gusty, salt-laden winds that can burn leaves. Heavy autumn rains. Nutrient poor, sandy soils. These are the conditions faced by vineyards in the historic DOC Colares  - the westernmost wine region in Europe situated a couple miles from the Atlantic Ocean and within the greater Lisboa wine region.

Viticulture has been practiced in Portugal's smallest DOC since the mid 12th century and the growers have learned many tricks to combat the elements. First, they erect dried-reed fences to protect against the persistent wind. Second, when planting, up to 15 feet of sandy soil is dug away so that the vines are anchored within the more nutrient-rich clay layer. And finally, growers have learned to gradually supplement with manure laden sand until the vines are productive.

The sand in itself provides two major benefits. First, it allows the autumn rains to drain quickly, but more importantly, the sand foils the phylloxera mites. In the mid-late 19th century when phylloxera was ravaging Europe's vines, vineyards in Colares were not affected as the mite can not survive in sandy or other loose-grained soils. Colares wine became the pride of Portugal even gaining the title "The Bordeaux of Portugal". In fact, the red Ramisco grape and the white Malvasia de Colares - which are only planted in Colares - may be the only Vitis vinifera grapes to have always been own-rooted.

Azenhas do Mar
At the time of the phylloxera epidemic plantings in Colares peaked at nearly 2,000 hectares but this figure has dwindled to only 20 or so hectares today. Obviously, as the European vineyards rebounded demand for Colares wine would slow but more recently the chief culprit has been real estate development.  The elderly owners of these small plots have financial incentives to sell to buyers interested in developing the beautiful coastline - particularly around Azenhas do Mar.

In the 1930s, when this decline began to be felt, the government decreed that growers must sell their grapes to the cooperative Adega Regional de Colares in order to maintain quality. Only wine from this cooperative could be called Colares. The cooperative is still the primary player today, but in 1994 the government allowed other Colares labels. One such is Adega Viúva Gomes, an entity that buys wine from the cooperative which it ages before bottling, and Casal do Ramilo, a four-generation grower expanding plantings where they will soon become the largest private producer of Ramisco from Colares.

While visiting Portugal, the best place to sample Colares wine is at the winery's themselves, but a terrific alternative is Binhoteca in Sintra - a Unesco World Heritage site. Here we were able to sample two Colares wines from Adega Regional de Colares and appreciate the affection that the staff had for the region. They described that despite the burdensome effects, the coastal environment also provides positive temperature-moderating effects slowing the maturation process (grapes are normally harvested in October) to create fresh, minerally driven and elegant wines.


The 2014 Malvasia de Colares Azenhas do Mar ($40) is complex with both lemon and orange citrus, the sea, creamy oats, and decent acids. Similarly, the 2010 Colares Ramisco Azenhas do Mar ($40) provides salt characters (odd for a red wine), rich red cherry creaminess, and chewy tannins. A fantastic wine.

It's safe to say that Colares wines are rare in the United States but try José Pastor SelectionsChambers Street Wines, Astor Wines & Spirits, or NLC Wines.

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