Colares is a lesser-known but traditionally prestigious wine region situated on Portugal's central Atlantic coast. It is famous as much for its sandy, phylloxera-free soils and ungrafted vines as the robust, tannic red wine it produces from Ramisco grapes (white Colares Branco is also produced here, from a local strain of Malvasia).
Soil is key in Colares. The sandy chão de areia topsoils here, and the heavy chão rijo clays which underpin them, are quite literally fundamental to Colares' viticulture. Wines made from vines planted on any other soil type cannot be legally sold as Colares.
The sandy topsoils famously saved the vines here from the ravages of the phylloxera epidemic – phylloxera mites cannot live in sand or other loose-grained soils – which decimated the European vineyard in the late nineteenth century. Consequently, the need has never arisen to graft the vines here onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, a practice now standard in every almost every wine region on earth. Ramisco then, which grows only here in Colares, may well be the only vitis vinifera variety never to have been subject to vine-grafting.
Although free-draining and easily workable, these sands are naturally very loose-structured, and are particularly poor at storing water and nutriment. Unseen beneath them, however, are the chão rijo clays. These perform a critical function, providing a firm medium which both anchors the vines and provides them with essential nutrients.
When it comes to planting new vines here, the sand is dug away, right down to the clay layer, where the young vine is planted. Over the following few years the sand is gradually replaced (together with a complement of nutrient-rich manure), until the soils surface is leveled again, at which point the vines are considered ready for production.
Located at the south-western tip of the Lisboa region, Colares and its vines lie within two miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The nearby Cabo de Roca point is the westernmost point in continental Europe, described by Luis de Camoes as onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa ('where the land ends and the sea begins'). Proximity to the ocean, and all of its temperature-moderating effects, is considered a distinct benefit in many wine regions around the world (e.g. Bordeaux and Margaret River), but here in Portugal the Atlantic batters the coastline with gusty, salt-laden winds. The traditional dried-reed fences which surround the vineyards here are a centuries-old solution to this problem. Colares' vines are also subject to heavy autumn rains, which sweep in across the Atlantic. These can devastate entire harvests if they arrive before the grapes are picked, and increase the risk of fungal disease – which is already high in this warm, humid climate. Were it not for the fast-draining nature of the sandy soils, these rains would make viticulture impractical in Colares.
In modern times, Colares and its wines occupy just a tiny niche in Portugal's forward-looking wine industry. The vineyard area is just a fraction of what it once was, and the strong, tannic wines are a far cry from the rich, opulent styles preferred by the majority of modern wine consumers. Trading on its history, and its unusual terroir (not to mention its reputation as a source of exceptional red wines), the region has enjoyed a minor renaissance in the early 21st century.
In terms of volume, neither Colares nor nearby Carcavelos can compete with the larger DOCs further north, and they face particularly stiff competition from the increasingly popular wines of neighbors Alenquer and Bucelas. Alenquer's complex, plump red wines appeal more strongly to the modern palate than the tannic Colares reds or the heavier (often fortified) wines from Carcavelos. The mineral-tinged Arinto whites of Bucelas are currently preferred over the iodine-tinged Malvasia de Colares.
It is important to remember that, while Portugal is a resolutely Old World country, it explorers were responsible for discovering much of the New World. And while many of its wine producers remain entrenched in their wine-making traditions, there are those with sufficient drive and vision to drive the nation's wine forward – as demonstrated by the global dominance of Mateus Rosé. So Portuguese innovation may yet revitalize Colares and its wines, and restore them to their former glory.