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Colares, impossible wines

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Colares, impossible wines
There are places on Earth particularly gifted and suitable for viticulture, where everything seems to happen with a certain spontaneity (I wouldn’t say easiness )with that kind of nonchalance as the French would say which distinguishes the very good from the excellent. And then there are other type of places, the impossible places, where every drop of wine is born soaked with sweat, tears and blood and is conquered with great effort. Colares is one of those. Vines there need to snake like serpents on the sand in order to protect themselves from the fierce salty winds, untrained and often few meters away from the ocean. Viticulture in Colares is a pure form of masochism, the vines can be worked only manually and need to be protected by the violent ocean wind with stone walls or cane fences. Moreover, planting a vineyard there is a heroic, sometimes life risking act- in order to plant a vineyard a hole needs to be excavated first, often close to 2 meters deep until the clay underlying the sands is reached in which the vines can anchor their roots. In the past the pheasants were literally risking to be buried alive under the sands when planting a vineyard, especially in windy days..
Welcome to Colares, homeland of the vines of the impossible.

Some history: the curse ( and blessing) of the phylloxera

The viticulture in Colares has ancient roots, vineyards have been grown here since Roman times, it is interesting as well the fact that it is the second oldest PDO ( Protected Denomination of Origin) in Portugal existing as such since 1908. The closeness to Lisbon and even more to Sidra, the summer residence of Portuguese royals, has surely played a role in the rise of the fame of the region, in conjunction with the high quality of its wines compared to the finest examples of Bordeaux in terms of elegance, longevity and nobility. But the real fortune of Colares starts in a rather unfortunate period for the rest of Europe, when at the end of 19th century all the vineyards on the continent are destroyed by the phylloxera. Colares,with its sandy soils immune to the phylloxera remains practically the only wine region surviving in Europe and for a certain period becomes the heart of European viticulture. This glorious for Colares period is signed by the maximum expansion of the denomination in terms of surface, over 1000 ha. The Ramisco, the indigenous red grape of Colares remains today in practice the only “ pure-blooded” grape in Europe which was never grafted on an “ impure blooded” rootstock. With the invention of the solution of the American rootstock and the gradual recovery of the European vineyards the importance of Colares starts to decline. The closeness to Lisbon which once made the region’s fortune becomes also its misfortune: where in the past used to be vineyards nowadays the land is colonized by summer holiday homes.

Colares today

Today from the over thousand hectares of vines existing at the end of nineteenth century only about 30 still survive. The lowest point was touched in 2009 when the vines left were only 14 ha. The growers nowadays are few and mostly aged, the viticulture is extremely fragmented: micro vineyards sheltered by stone walls or cane fences to protect the vines from the salty ocean wind which otherwise would burn their leaves. The main producer in the region is the cooperative Adega Regional de Colares, the oldest in Portugal founded in 1931 which produces today the lion’s share of the Colares wines. To be labeled as Colares a wine must come from ungrafted , low trained vines cultivated in the sands; in order to avoid that the grapes lay directly on the ground and get attacked by botrytis, small cane supporters are positioned underneath the bunches. The only permitted varieties for a Colares are the local Ramisco ( red) and Malvasia de Colares ( white). There are also other international and portuguese varieties grown in the area on modern trellis systems but they can not be labeled as Colares.

Heroic viticulture under grey skies

Colares is a timeless kind of place. Viticulture here is still done as it used to be in old times: hard, manual, with every bunch collected being a conquest. The denomination, among the tiniest in Europe, is mainly composed of centenary vineyards, ungrafted. The yields of these old, low trained vines are ridiculously low in contrast with the huge effort necessary to grow and collect them. The challenge of protecting the grapes from fungal diseases and botrytis is also impressive.

Colares is an inhospitable place, where even trees are rare due to the the violent winds. Skies are grey for large part of the year and fog is a common host. The climate is cool, humid, atlantic. While in the rest of Portugal harvest is normally end of August (Alentejo) or September ( Douro) in Colares it is in the second half of October. Achieving complete maturation of the grapes here it is still a problem, regardless of the climate change. We already explained what a huge challenge it is to plant and grow a vineyard in such a hostile place, the question comes naturally, does it make sense keep on doing viticulture in a similar location? The answer is yes, strongly yes for those lucky enough to have tried these rare and particular wines.

Unicorn wine

In the modern wine world, more and more globalized and homologated, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the so-called unicorn wines- with a unique, distinctive personality, impossible to find anywhere else. Colares is one of them. Born through a very traditional enology: spontaneous fermentation and long aging in big wooden barrels ( made by “ exotic wood” imported from Brazil) the wines are normally released after 10 years of celar aging. The reason for this lies in the nature of the Ramisco grape, tannic and acid in youth, fine and savory in maturity. The wines of Colares are legendary for their longevity, the high acidity in combination with low alcohol is able to keep them alive for decennials. Bottled in small size bottles of 0,500 ml these rare wines are a true unicorn wine.

The wine son of the ocean

There is no other wine, at least among what I’ve tasted so far, whose personality is so strongly shaped by the presence of the ocean. A Colares tastes of salt and wind, it is savory, earthy, herbal,balsamic.. The fruit is timid, as if scared of the fierce winds too. The alcohol is low, rarely above 12%, the wines are light bodied, pale and sapid with a remarkable acidity promising of an everlasting youth and vitality.. The local white Malvasia di Colares in contrast with the name and the driven expectations is not aromatic, it gives fresh, acidic, sapid wines capable of long aging too.

This little denomination on the Atlantic coast of Portugal with its almost surreal landscape and close to impossible viticulture is a birthplace of very particular, rare wines surrounded by mystery and legends. Colares is one of those few places on Earth able to intrigue the imagination of those who deeply love wine and who seek in it authenticity, uniqueness and emotion.
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