Sand. Counting the grains of sand on a beach. The Sandman. Marveling at the sculpted sandstone landscapes that wind and water and time have left behind.
Even before some clever chap invented the hourglass and we were given the perfect metaphor for our fleeting experience of time, sand has been indelibly linked to fathomless spans of existence and forces greater beyond our comprehension.
Grapevines are known to grow, even thrive, in sand, which can often yield wines of great finesse, and has been known to nurture vines of great age.
But few wines grown in sand evoke more of this soil’s metaphorical qualities than Colares, one of the world’s rarest and most special wines.
Hanging on the cliff edges of the westernmost point of continental Europe, the ancient vineyards of Portugal’s Colares region (pronounced “coo-lahr-esh”) are both literally and figuratively hanging on for dear life. Until recently this area of Portugal was known as la Estremadura, and has long lived up to its literal translation as “frontier.” Best estimates at the moment place the total amount of vines under cultivation at around 55 acres, up from a low of around 30 as recently as five years ago. What was once a thriving growing region, its wines sought after in the 15th and 16th century by aristocrats and world traders, has fallen prey to the most unassailable force in western civilization: the vacation home.
An easy forty-five minutes from Lisbon and declared in 1908 the second DOC region in Portugal’s history, Colares has become much better known over the last century for golf courses, hotels, surf breaks, and pied-a-terres than for wine. Seemingly against all odds, this wine region has survived, and thanks to growing interest in unusual and indigenous grape varieties, may yet step back from the brink of extinction.
Ironically, Colares has always been about survival, thanks to sand. The vineyards of Colares are quite simply, a bunch of sand dunes perched on a cliff edge above the Atlantic. One of only a few pure-sand terroirs in the world, Colares managed to completely avoid the ravages of phylloxera that wiped out more than 80% of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th Century. During the height of the phylloxera crisis, Colares was known as the “Bordeaux of Europe,” as it was one of the only places capable of supplying wine to a thirsty and distraught populace. A number of Colares vineyards still sport 150-year-old vines of the red Ramisco and white Malvasia di Colares grapes that can be found only here.
Looking more like beaches overgrown with weeds enclosed by rickety windbreaks made of sticks woven with straw, the vineyards of Colares are far from the most picturesque in the world, but they are quite unusual in both their growing methods and their products, white and red wines with great finesse, amazing acidity, and the unmistakable tang of sea air.
In order to qualify for the DOC Colares appellation designation, the vines must be planted in pure sand (no more than 10% clay content within 4 meters of the surface), and be completely ungrafted on their own roots. The process of planting a new vineyard involves digging a trench deep into the sand and planting the young vines down where some moisture is retained. This is not only backbreaking work, but also quite dangerous, as winds have been known to blow hard enough to bury a man alive when a trench collapses on an unsuspecting worker. Hence many workers traditionally planted vines with a wicker basket on their heads as a safeguard to provide a few minutes of breathable airspace while they could be dug out by their coworkers.
After planting, the sand is sloughed back over the new vines, sometimes leaving mounds separating the rows as further breaks against the weather that streams in from the Atlantic. The vines grow along the ground and according to regulations, cannot be trellised in any way. As the fruit appears and matures, the only provision allowed to protect the fruit from the moisture and occasional heat of the sand underneath is a notched wooden stick no greater than 30 centimeters in length. For the region’s notorious humidity however, not even such a primitive protection exists. Rot has always been the greatest challenge in this region, along with ripeness itself, thanks to the region’s predilection for fog. Not unlike the coast of Northern California, Colares is often blanketed by fog drawn in by the much warmer continental areas inland on the Iberian peninsula. Locals like to joke that Colares is where winter goes for its summer holiday.
The difficulties of production, including the typically minuscule yields that result, no doubt hastened the decline of this region as a center of wine production. As if hot sand, humidity, and frigid summer weather weren’t enough to reduce yields, the region also suffers from a plague of parakeets, who eat ripe and nearly ripe grapes with impunity. Some producers claim that killing the birds and hanging their carcasses in the vineyards can be a deterrent, but mostly they just curse the birds, and accept a further reduction in yields. Currently only six producers make Colares DOC wines, all but one of which utilize the cooperative production facility in the region to process their grapes.
I had the opportunity to visit Colares a couple of years ago on a press trip to Portugal, and fell in love with the racy finesse of these wines with their salty edges and incredible acidity. But examples of the form weren’t easy to come by, and on that trip I only tasted a few wines, all current vintages.
Recently, however, I was offered the chance to taste through a set of wines newly imported to the states that included much older vintages, and I leapt at the chance. An enterprising family in Portugal recently purchased the Adega Viuva Gomes winery in Colares, and all its stocks of older wines, some of which stretch back to the early parts of the 20th century. An equally enterprising importer named Chris Mraz has decided to bring these wines, including many of the older vintages, to the US through his Threshold Wine Company.
Adega Viuva Gomes operates out of a gorgeous building constructed in 1808 by the Gomes da Silva family, who were significant vineyard owners in Portugal for more than two centuries. The building was merely one of their many warehouses until 1902, when they established wine production company under the name Viuva de Jose Gomes da Silva & Filhos, and began to produce Colares wine, which they spelled in the traditional manner with two “l”s. It was purchased about 20 years later by the famous Fonseca family, and then sold again in 1931 to Victor Guedes, who owned it until 1988, when it was purchased by the current owners, a family by the name of Baeta. Wine production at Viuva Gomes trickled to a halt in 1974 when the dictatorship collapsed in a coup, and the country went through a period of social unrest. No wine was made at Viuva Gomes until the Baeta family purchased the property. Since 1988 they have been renovating the property, and slowly selling the museum of old bottles that came with the property.
With a small group of friends and colleagues, I sat down to taste these wines, and marvel at the wonder that is Colares. The white grape of the region, a unique variation on Malvasia, has a wonderful balance between aromatics and tart green fruit flavors, while being fundamentally mineral-driven at its core. The red Ramisco is a light-bodied red, with sour cherry and berry flavors that are much more savory than sweet, and are usually accompanied by herbal notes. Both the red and white carry a strong saline character that has come to be one of my favorite rare sensations in the world of wine, the product of relentless exposure to nearby sea air.
Perhaps not surprising given the levels of acidity that these wines often possess (pH levels are often below 3 with 8 to 9 grams per liter of acidity) they prove extremely long-lived. I had tasted old examples of Malvasia from Friuli and elsewhere, and so I was prepared for the transformation of the tart, malic whites into nutty and honeyed concoctions of herbs and dried citrus. The older Ramiscos, however, were quite a revelation. The wines from the Thirties showed a lot of variation, both bottle to bottle and vintage to vintage, however the best of them were astonishing in their youthfulness. The 1934 vintage, in particular, tasted (and looked) like a wine forty years its junior might have done. These older reds (including everything up until 1999, when destemming became the fashion) were made with anywhere between 40% and 90% whole cluster fermentation. The reds offered an incredible balance between elegance and rusticity, tasting to one of my friends like “an old Pommard with a dash of fleur de sel.” The older reds have an exotic spice quality that both thrills and intrigues, one of the chief flavors being sumac, the a delicious Middle Eastern spice.
Journeying back through nearly 90 years of Colares was one of the most remarkable tasting experiences I’ve had recently, and left me with an even more profound respect for these wines and their ability to survive in every sense of the word. They are one of the singular treasures of the wine world. Colares merits seeking out by adventurous palates, and support from those who believe in preserving the obscure and idiosyncratic panoply of flavors in the wine world.
In reflecting on the magic that is Colares I can’t help but recall one of my favorite poems, “Ozymandius” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which the hubris of man becomes laughable in the face of a desert’s inexorable creep. Sand will outlast us all, and with any luck, so will Colares.
2012 Adega Viúva Gomes Malvasia de Colares, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and greengage plums, oak, and unripe apples. In the mouth, unripe green apples, and wet stones have a tart green quality melded with wet chalkboard and a wonderful salinity and dry chamomile notes in the finish. Gets increasingly more tropical over time. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.
1969 Adega Viúva Gomes Malvasia de Colares, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Dark orange gold in the glass, this wine smells of crushed, honey roasted nuts and chamomile. In the mouth, incredibly saline flavors of crushed nuts and wet chalkboard have a steely, searing acidity (think Sercial Madeira) that leaves dried citrus peel flavors lingering in a long finish. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1931 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Utterly remarkable in its density of dark ruby color given its age, the wine has just the barest hint of orange at the rim. It smells of dusty road, dried red fruit, and a sweetness of oiled leather and balsamic. In the mouth, dusty, leathery dried flowers and sea salt slip smoothly across the palate leaving notes of leather, mushroom, and pu-erh tea in the finish. Very faint tannins and good acidity. Over the course of the hour I spent with it, it got mellower and smoother, and more and more drinkable, with a slight (and attractive) creosote note slipping in after two hours in the glass. 11% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $492. click to buy.
1934 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Dark ruby in color with a dull tea stain to it, this wine smells of dried tobacco, wet earth and mushrooms with dried flowers and sumac layered in. In the mouth, gorgeously supple dried berries, fleur de sel, mushrooms and earth swirl across the palate leaving residual notes of dust and faint grippy tannins in the finish with a hint of caramel as the wine opens. Great acidity, and in remarkable shape. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $465. click to buy.
1965 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium dull ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, dried flowers, and dried fruit with an incredible cigar box quality. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful faint fruitiness that peeks out from underneath dried leaves, sumac, dashi, and a whiff of sea air. Smooth, powdery tannins, great length. More spice inflected than earlier vintages with notes of balsamic in the finish. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $319. click to buy.
1967 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium dull ruby with a faint brownish tint in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor and wet earth. Thick, even putty-like wet-earth tannins surround flavors of crushed herbs, peat and dried fruit and dried flowers. Great acidity with that telltale faint salty quality. Long dried flower finish. 11.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $227. click to buy.
1969 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and spiced cocoa powder, exotic sawdust, and dried fruit. In the mouth, aromatic herbs give a minty quality to the wine along with dried flowers and powdered dry berries. Faint, very fine tannins coat the mouth and great acidity makes the wine mouthwatering in its herbal dried flower brightness. Long finish, with some saltiness. 11.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $195. click to buy.
1996 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium to dark tawny ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried, salted fruit and dried flowers. In the mouth, tart sour cherry and dried cherry fruit mix with leather and rosehips and dried flowers. Tacky tannins grab the edges of the mouth and wonderfully saline acidity makes the mouth water. Long finish with a hint of Madeira. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $84. click to buy.
1999 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of crushed berries and wet stones and dried herbs. In the mouth salty dried flowers and berries have a wonderful wet chalkboard minerality and amazing weightlessness on the palate. Only faintly salty, with fine tannins emerging in the finish. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2006 Adega Viúva Gomes Ramisco, Colares, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet black cherry, dried flowers, and the bitter green of peeled aspen bark. In the mouth, faint but tightly wound tannins wrap around dried flowers, berries, and a dusty road blowing in the wind. There’s a touch of river mud in the finish along with that characteristic sea air that makes these wines so special wines. 40% whole cluster fermented. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.
Historical, winery and most vineyard images courtesy of Adega Viuva Gomes and Threshold Wine Company. Aerial view of Colares courtesy of Casal Santa Maria.