Colares finds a new fan base

To plant vines in Colares, a deep and dangerous trench must be dug. And that’s only the start of the challenges, as Simon J. Woolf reports.

Adega Viúva Gomes, photo by José Sarmento Matos
Adega Viúva Gomes, photo by José Sarmento Matos

It’s July 2019 and labelling is in full swing at Adega Viúva Gomes, a winery in the tiny coastal wine region of Colares, Portugal. But the lovingly hand-glued labels aren’t printed with the year 2018 or even 2008. Viúva Gomes is preparing small lots of 1967, 1965 and 1934 for sale. Colares’ wines may be formidable in their ability to age and endure, yet the region itself has shown rather less resilience. 

The 1,800-plus hectares of vines that existed in the 1930s now number a mere 26. The ravages of fashion, soaring real-estate values and Eurocratic madness almost razed the vineyards to nothing. Yet just after it hit its lowest ebb, Colares appears to be finding a new and growing fan base. Have reports of the region’s death been exaggerated?

A renaissance

Colares had its golden age during the first two decades of the 20th century, as one of very few wine regions that survived destruction by the phylloxera louse – its pure sandy soils are inhospitable to the pest. Colares became known as the ‘Bordeaux of Portugal’, at a time when the rest of Europe was barely able to produce wine at all. By 1930, production volumes had reached 1.1m litres a year, mostly of it tannic, age-worthy red.

The downturn began during the Great Depression, with the collapse of the important Brazilian market. Then came a more serious threat, as Colares became desirable as a holiday home destination in the 1960s and 70s – quite understandably, as its pristine beach and white cliffs could rival Italy’s Amalfi coast in beauty. Property prices spiralled upward, and as Francisco Figueiredo, director of the Adega Regional de Colares, the region’s cooperative, laments,

“People simply gave up growing grapes and sold the land”. 

The local municipality belatedly intervened in 1999, to protect the last surviving 8.5ha of vineyard for the future. In an era when Parker points, Chardonnay and new French barriques reigned, Colares no longer seemed relevant. José Beata, who has owned Adega Viúva Gomes since 1988 recalls that “thirty years ago, it was very difficult to sell the wines – people said they have lots of acidity and lots of tannins. They didn’t like them. Now we sell everything and we have to make allocations every year”.

What’s the appeal? Not only does Colares boast a unique Atlantic microclimate, with Europe’s most westerly vineyards, its wines have a distinct character that can’t be compared to anything else in Portugal – if not the world. Their scarcity and longevity excite wine geeks and younger sommeliers, as do Colares’ many other idiosyncrasies: Where else is it possible to find wines aged for decades in their producers’ cellars, matured in exotic woods such as mahogany or rosewood? Its two native varieties, the red Ramisco and white Malvasia de Colares are grown nowhere else, nationally or globally. The wine’s briny, mineral profiles beautifully express the rugged, windswept coastline. Bottles from many decades past often reveal startling freshness and complexity.

Rare gems

Colares keeps one intriguing production factor closer to its chest. The Adega Regional de Colares cooperative produces almost all wine sold with a DOC Colares stamp, whether the label happens to say Visconde Salreu, Viuva Gomes or Antonio da Silva. Between 1934 and 1984, the cooperative was the only producer allowed to bottle DOC Colares wine – a ruling instigated to prevent the widespread fraud that ensued before. All those precious bottles of 1934, 1955 or 1969 Colares were vinified in the Adega’s cellars. Merchants (effectively negociants) would choose their preferred barrels, and then age the wine further in their own cellars before bottling and selling.

Following Portugal’s accession to the EU, other merchants were permitted to vinify their own wine and the cooperative allowed to bottle and sell under its own brand. Nonetheless, it took until 1994 before anyone other than the cooperative started vinifying their own wine from their own vineyards.

Thus far, Fundação Oriente is the only independent producer to own vineyards that qualify for the very strict Colares DOC. Not only must the vines be planted in sandy soils (clay soils exist further inland), they must also be ungrafted and bush trained. The vines must be rooted in the clay underneath the sandy soil, which sometimes means digging a pit up to five metres deep.

The DOC was supposed to protect Colares’ grand tradition, and celebrate its triumph over the phylloxera plague, but these conditions, enshrined in 1908, have locked the region in a double-bind. Desperate for EU grants to help increase the vineyard surface in the 1990s, Colares found itself ineligible as the EU only funds grafted vine planting. Figueiredo recalls with clear frustration: “It was completely stupid, it prevented any major investments for the region that most needed help”.

Figueiredo is the unsung hero of Colares, the steady hand that not only navigated the cooperative away from the doldrums and near bankruptcy, but also presided over the first increases in vineyard surface area in decades. Born in Lisbon, he worked his first vintage at the Adega in 1999 before taking up a full-time post in 2002. He projects a calm and slightly stoic exterior but admits that there were moments when he feared the cooperative might have to close its doors forever.  The EU finally added a special exception to their grafting rule for Colares in 2015. Meininger’s suggests that it must have been challenging to reach that point. “It took ten years of pressure,” remarks Figueiredo, almost deadpan.

Slow revival

Charismatic, long-lived Baron Bodo von Bruemmer, who bought a derelict estate named Casal Santa Maria in the early 1960s, could have been Colares’ saviour had he been fonder of its indigenous grape varieties. Bruemmer, who died in 2016 at the age of 105, started out raising cattle and breeding horses at Casal Santa Maria. But he had a vision as he woke up from major surgery in 2006, aged 96: his final calling was to restore the estate to its original function of making wine. He achieved that vision, but his taste was not for Ramisco or Malvasia. He instead planted his favourite French varieties Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, scoring a decisive own goal when it came to preserving the region’s traditions.

The availability of EU grants hasn’t exactly caused a stampede of growers wanting to create new DOC vineyards, but local entrepreneurs and merchants are slowly warming to the idea. Adega Viúva Gomes has just planted half a hectare of new vines, following a lengthy process to find a suitable site and gain all the necessary approvals. Casal Santa Maria, now managed by Baron Bruemmer’s grandson Nicolas, are “looking for the right opportunity”.

Progress might be slow, but the cooperative has achieved stability, with 35 growers who currently farm around 25ha of Colares DOC vines spread over the sandy dunes of the Sintra national park. Currently the DOC Colares wines of Viúva Gomes, Casal Santa Maria and Chitas are still made by the cooperative (apart from Casal Santa Maria’s Malvasia, made from cooperative members’ fruit but estate-vinifed). All of these producers also make much larger quantities of non-DOC wines from vines grown on the inland clay soils. 

Figueiredo and his team achieve authentic, high-quality results – the Adega is no mediocre mass-production affair. Winemaking has barely changed over the last century, with spontaneous fermentation and long ageing in hardwood barrels still the order of the day. Wines are given only a coarse filtration before bottling. Figueiredo notes that their long ageing – seven years for Ramisco and two for Malvasia – gives them all the stability they need.

He’s quietly optimistic about Colares’ future: “There is a bigger interest in our wine, young guys whose parents own land are restarting production. I think that the region will grow slowly. It’s in tune with the times, as our wines are cool climate and low in alcohol.”

He also busts one of the biggest myths that the holiday villas have gobbled up all the remaining space. “There is still land – around 300 hectares where it is possible to plant,” he says. “Most is covered with pine trees. The problem is that this 300ha belongs to around 1200 different owners.” Real-estate prices are no longer rising, as further development on plots of less than one hectare was recently banned by the province.

Jorge Rosa Santos, winemaker at Casal Santa Maria, confirms that a hectare of land still sells for around €60,000 – about three times the price of nearby Alentejo. That said, he expects it to fall. “People are finally starting to understand that the government will not change the laws to allow them to build any more holiday homes. Slowly the price of the fields is coming down as people don’t have that expectation anymore”

Colare’s wines are still modestly priced, hardly justifying the significant investment of acquiring land and planting it according to the DOC’s rules. Prices are creeping up, although Figueiredo quips, “It’s a shame that we’re not French, then we could sell the wine for €500 a bottle”. His joke carries an ironic sting – Colares might not be priced at the level of top Bordeaux chateaux, but the gravitas and heritage of wines such as Adega Viuva Gomes’ 1934 Ramisco fully merit the comparison.

Simon J. Woolf

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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