Back to the Beach: The wines of Colares

10/10/18 -

Early this year, at the tail end of a trip visiting vineyards and attending wine tastings in France, I took two days to visit Portugal. I had already heard many great things about Lisbon, and had always been fascinated and intrigued by the wines of a tiny region called Colares, so I headed to Lisbon and then drove west through the enchanting castle town of Sintra, to Praia das Maçãs, a small beach town overlooking the Atlantic ocean. "If you're going to Colares," said a Portugese winemaker I had met days before this trip, "you have to stay in Praia das Maçãs because the beach is beaufitul." He wasn't kidding!

Praia das Maçãs

The next day, I started with a morning visit to the epicenter of wine activitiy in the Colares DOC, the Adega Regional de Colares. Founded in 1931, this co-op was at it's height from the 1930's through the 1950's, with more than 500 members, and almost 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres) of vineyards. Due to Lisbon's expansion in the 60's and 70's, land became more valuable for beach homes and resorts than for vines, and the acreage of vineyards plummeted to a low of around 15 hectares (less than 40 acres). Luckily, the co-op kept producing wine even in those worst years, and now that the boom of expansion has subsided (thanks in part to the financial crisis of 2008), vines are being planted again.

Historically, farmers who tended vines in Colares would bring their harvest in to the co-op (or to one of several drop-off spots in the region), and grapes would be pressed and foot-stomped in old lagars, with fermenation occuring in enormous barrels. 

Old lagars now used for barrel storage
Enormous fermentation barrels


Wines were typically aged here in large barrels, ranging from 500 to as large as 10,000 liters in size. Each member of the Adega Regional would receive wine - and a decent amount of brandy back in the early days - corresponding to how many kilos of grapes they contributed.   

Barrels at Adega Regional de Colares

Most farmers had tiny plots and no cellar or barrels to age wine in, so this was the typical arrangement, but there were several houses (usually representing a larger surface area) that bought wine from the Adega and then aged it in their own barrels. The two most noteworthy of these are Viuva Gomes (pictured below) and Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva. Unfortunately, Antonio Bernardino wasn't at the winery when I was visiting Colares, so there's no photo, but he's apparently a living legend who is well into his 90's and still working! To quote our friend Chris Barnes from an article he wrote for Chambers Street about 6 years ago, "even our own unflappable jefe, David Lillie, gets a glimmer in his eye when recalling his days as a Portuguese wine buyer [at Garnet wines in the 80's], when he had the chance to meet the Colares legend Paulo da Silva, and to drink his Colares Chita wines from the 70’s." 

Viuva Gomes
150 year old vines

Though I didn't get to meet Mr. Paulo da Silva, I did have a chance to visit some of the vineyards of Colares with Francisco Figueiredo, who runs the Adega Regional. Colares is known for it's ungrafted vines, planted on clay, and buried in several meters of sand. Planting vineyards this way, building wind guards out of straw, and using small reed-like plants to support the snaking vines, was always tradition here. The winds were simply too harsh to permit any other style of vine-growing. It was truly a sight walking through these vineyard plots that had been worked in such a peculiar and unique way for centuries, and though they were slightly creepy, it was still an honor to stand next to vines that had survived the devastating phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s (phylloxera is averse to sand, so the vineyards of Colares were unaffected by the louse). 


In a quest to learn more, and equipped with a reprint of a booklet about Colares from 1938, I discovered that the history of winemaking in the region dated back much farther than I knew. Ancient writers such as Polybius (who was alive between 200-118 BC) spoke of the vineyards in Lusitania (the area that encompassed much of western Spain and all of Portugal) as being the best in this part of Western Europe.

Ancient Lusitania and Iberia circa 100 AD
"Felicitas Iulia" is modern day Lisbon
Beach vineyards circa 1938


As far back as the 13th Century, the grape Ramisco was mentioned for it's perfumed and noble character, and a writer named Ferreira Lapa wrote in 1866, that "Colares is a wine that has all the requirements and qualities of the red wines of Medoc. It is the most French wine we have."

Ramisco is the grape we focus on today, though it would be remiss to not mention the equally fascinating white grape, Malvasia de Colares (of which we have a couple to offer). By all accounts, and from all the times I've tasted Colares reds, Ramisco is similar to Nebbiolo or perhaps to the old Carmenère of Bordeaux. It's a grape with plenty of acid and tannin, and it ages beautifully, bricking in color and developing perfumed aromas, while maintaining freshness. At Adega Viuva Gomes, José Baeta (who runs the Adega with his son, Diego) opened several bottles from the 50s and I was amazed by how alive they were even without hours of aeration. 

In truth, there is so much more to write about this enchanting wine region, from it's rise to fame post-phylloxera, to the challenges faced when trying to ensure quality (many people were trying to pass lesser wines off as Colares during the height of the region's popularity). There are new stories to write as vineyards are slowly being replanted and interest is growing internationally. If you're curious to read more, click here to read the article on Colares by Eric Asimov, or click here for an article written by our friend Zachary Sussman. If you're curious to actually taste some of these wines, here they are! 

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