The Pour: Colares, Where the Vineyards Snake Through the SandOn August 3, 2017 by Margot
It was not always that way. Back in the late 19th century, the vineyards of Europe were devastated by the phylloxera aphid, which preyed on their roots. The vines of Colares were unaffected because phylloxera cannot live in sand, and the wines came to be in great demand.
Eventually, phylloxera was stopped by grafting European vines onto American rootstocks, which are immune to the bug, and vineyards could be replanted. Virtually all European vines are now grafted, but Colares vines remain on their own roots.
In the early 20th century, this was an indication of purity and quality for Colares. Fraud abounded as unscrupulous producers and merchants in other regions used the Colares name for their wines. In 1934, the authorities decided that, to prevent fraud, only wine made by the co-op could be called Colares. This was the law until 1994.
Now, Mr. Figueiredo said, just two other producers make Colares. Adega Viúva Gomes, which is the only other Colares label I have seen sold in the United States besides the wines of the co-op, does not make wine. Instead, Viúva Gomes buys wine from the co-op and then ages it in its own cellar before bottling. That apparently makes a difference. Viúva Gomes wines are subtly distinct, particularly the white, which emerges in the bottle even more briny than the co-op’s.
Everything about growing the ramisco and malvasia grapes is hard work. To plant the vines, growers must dig trenches in the sand, which can be roughly 3 to 15 feet deep, to the chalky clay below. The roots need to grow in the clay to survive. As the vines get taller, the growers gradually fill in the sand, aided no doubt by the ceaseless wind, which blows back its share.
The wind is the enemy of the vine, Mr. Figueiredo said. The salt it carries can burn the leaves. So in addition to keeping the vines low, growers also plant apple trees among the vines, and erect fences made of stone along with maintaining barriers of wild-growing cane.
Credit Joao Pedro Marnoto for The New York Times
Once the grape bunches fill out, growers must raise the vines off the sand to facilitate air circulation. They achieve this by painstakingly placing wooden splints under the vines, which elevate them like trestles under a road.
Plenty of other grapes, like castelão and tinta roriz (tempranillo in Spain), are grown conventionally on clay-based soils in the Colares area. These wines, which carry the appellation Vinho Regional de Lisboa, can be quite good. But only wines made from ramisco or malvasia grown on the sand can be called Colares.
The ramisco grape, which makes up 75 percent of the Colares plantings, is superbly adapted to its unusual environment.
“I have never heard of ramisco being able to grow anywhere else, and I know a lot of people tried,” said Nuno Ramilo, whose family business, Casal do Ramilo, has been making wines from the clay soils since 1937. When he and his brother, Pedro, took over the business, they decided they wanted to make Colares, too.
“We looked at our region and the sand, and we said, ‘Let’s do what people used to do here,’” Nuno Ramilo said.
So, in 2015, the brothers planted about five acres of grapes on a windy, sandy lot where their mother had wanted to build a condominium, a project they said was blocked by the government. Nuno Ramilo got a little creative, too, training the vines on low wires rather than along the sand, thus avoiding having to splint the vines.