Feet Buried in the Sand

April 28, 2012


Something about the name itself has a ring of fantasy to it, as if it’s one of those mythical places like Shangri-La or Brigadoon. As it happens, the place is something of a Shangri-La for wine grapes. While the phylloxera plague was laying waste to vineyards through the rest of Europe in the late 1800s, the vines in Colares, oblivious to all of it, just kept getting older. Phylloxera doesn’t take well to sand, and the vines of Colares, fronting the Atlantic coast a few miles east of Lisbon, were literally buried in the sand. Today, Colares is one of the rarest wines in the world, appearing for sale outside its local markets with the approximate frequency of someone stumbling upon Shangri-La or Brigadoon, because that sand is nowadays more valuable for beach houses than for winegrowing. There were 8,000 acres of Colares at the turn of the twentieth century; barely 50 acres were left by the beginning of the twenty-first.

Colares is not the only place in Europe where the original, ungrafted vines survived because of the sand, but to understand what makes Colares unique you have to—forgive the pun—dig a little deeper. The thing about sand is that while it may be inhospitable to phylloxera, it’s not all that hospitable to serious winegrowing, either. In a 2000 talk, Randall Grahm listed sandy soils as one of a dozen “enemies of terroir” because they are poor in exchangeable minerals. In contrast, if you want a soil with a high cation-exchange capacity, you’re looking for clay.

According to soil microbiologist Claude Bourguignon, who has advised a Who’s Who of elite wine estates, great terroirs are fundamentally about clay. Sure, everybody has their own pet theory of what makes a terroir great, but Bourguignon has some compelling data to back his up. Bourguignon conducted measurements of the internal surface area of clay layers in a number of terroirs and made some interesting discoveries. “All the great white wines have been planted on soils containing small internal clay surfaces and all the great red wines have been planted on soils containing large internal clay surfaces,” Bourguignon reported in an interview in Jacky Rigaux’s Terroir & the Winegrower. “The smallest internal surface measured in France is that of Coulée de Serrant at 52m^2/g. . . . The largest surface currently measured is that of Pétrus at Pomerol, followed by Bonnes Mares at Chambolle-Musigny: 671 m^2/g.” Bourguignon added, “When Bordeaux owners tell me, ‘I have a very good terroir, I have good gravel,’ it makes me smile. . . . The only function of the gravel is to drain water as fast as possible so that the root reaches deeper into the subsoil, there where the good clays are found.”

If clay is a good thing and sand is a bad thing, then why should we expect anything out of an obscure red variety planted on a Portuguese beach? The answer is that Colares is not like other beaches. Dig beneath the sand, and you hit clay. Lots of it. Here is how Raymond Postgate, in his 1969 book Portuguese Wine, described the soil of Colares and the effort required to grow wine there:

Its soil is sand, sometimes as much as ten feet deep; underneath that is a foundation of clay. No vine can grow in sand, and the wine-growers have to dig the sand away, revetting it on the sides lest it fall back on them. A cone-shaped hole some twelve feet across at the top is necessary, and the diggers throwing the sand stand on different levels. When the clay is reached the vine root is driven into the clay nine inches or a foot deep, usually into a hole made by an iron bar. In due course the vine will rise, sand will be built up again round it and it will flower and fruit in the open air. . . . But the travail of growing Colares does not cease with the planting. Because the topsoil is sand and because the summer is long the layered vines have to be propped up to keep them away from the hot earth, which would otherwise burn the grapes. However, they cannot be raised any great distance, for the wind from the Atlantic is violent, and until the month of June at least can damage the vines seriously. They must therefore be protected, and palisades of willow and osier enclose each vineyard.

It’s safe to say that there is no terroir in the world quite like Colares.

And you no longer have to go there to buy some. Importer José Pastor, who specializes in Spanish wines in the natural and traditionalist camps, has added to his portfolio a set of wines from the Adega Regional de Colares, a cooperative representing several dozen growers. (There are almost none left making and bottling their own wine.) The cooperative’s Colares is sold under the label Arenæ and bottled in 500-milliliter format (hey, this stuff is precious); there is actually both a red and a white version, the red from ramisco grapes and the white from malvasia. The current release, the 2004 vintage, retails for $40 at Chambers Street Wines in New York and K&L Wines in California. There is also a cheaper bottling ($15/750ml) with the designation Chão Rijo (“hard soil”) from lesser inland plots in the region without the sandy topsoil and with considerably higher yields.

Chão Rijo does not have the intrigue of true Colares. The Adega’s bottling has some of the carbonic spritz one finds in a lot of natural wines these days which don’t aspire to be much more than everyday quaffers, but the fruit profile is a little too rich and warm to achieve that sort of easy drinkability. The carbonic spritz presents another obstacle because wines made in this fashion tend to require a long decant—sometimes even overnight—to compose themselves, which is more fussing and forethought than anyone wants to invest in a $15 quaffer. Yet when I did manage to come back to the leftovers of the Chão Rijo a few days later, the fruit had mellowed and revealed an interesting earthy quality, so there is indeed more to the wine than you can get from the pop of the cork. Maybe this is the kind of wine where a short rest in the cellar of a few months to a year can eliminate a lot of its awkwardness.

There is nothing awkward about the Colares Arenæ, which has the grace of a ballerina from the first sip to the last. One of the features that growers have consistently observed about vines growing on their own roots is that they manage to ripen grapes somewhere between a half a degree to a full degree lower in potential alcohol than grafted vines. That may not seem like a huge difference, but balance is an inherently precarious thing. A wine at 13.5 degrees alcohol has 8% more alcohol than one at 12.5 degrees; how many things can tolerate an 8% margin of error on a major structural element? Or to put it in aesthetic terms, a little difference becomes a big difference when it’s the difference between just right and not-quite right, which in wine often means the difference between effortless grace and something clumsy or clunky.

By reputation, Colares is tannic and foreboding in its youth, but that’s not the case with the Arenæ, at least not in 2004. With its feminine figure and satiny touch, there’s nothing getting in the way of enjoying it today, and plenty going on in the wine to hold one’s interest from the first sip to the last. Its fruit profile is an immediate contrast to the primary, sunny style of the Chão Rijo; the Arenæ is far more restrained, red-fruited, and just-plain wine-like, in the style of an old-fashioned claret. It’s augmented at first with the enticing, succulent aromas of hanging game and then develops a vivid smokiness as if you had just walked into a cigar shop.

That smokiness seems to be a characteristic of aged Colares, too. I found some 1955 for sale from Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva, who also happened to be the producer of the only other Colares I’d ever managed to try until Arenæ hit the market—a 1995, which certainly fit the reputation for being tannic and in need of long aging. The ’55 had certainly achieved that. At first it had me worried that it might have aged a little too long for its own good, because while it was still in fine condition it wasn’t showing all that much personality. But with an hour in the decanter it developed a more distinct character, with scents of smoke and herbal greenery. It also began to reveal what I can only describe as inner strength—remaining light on its feet but somehow becoming both more insistent and more defined. It’s labeled at 11% alcohol, making it a relic in more ways than one.

For further reading:

  • Randall Grahm’s speech at the Terroir International 2000 symposium (scroll down). 
  • Everything you ever wanted to know about cation-exchange capacity but were afraid to ask. 
  • Interviews with Francisco Figueiredo of the Adega Regionale de Colares at the Reign of Terroir and Slotovino blogs. 
  • The last five bottles of Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva 1955 Colares Chitas Tinto Reserva at WineBid.com

11 Responses to “Feet Buried in the Sand”

  1. Gil Bauer said

    A very interesting read. Nicely done, Keith.

  2. Frank T said

    Keith, I enjoyed this, thanks. A quick note, I think Chambers Street has 2008 Malvasia but not 2004 wine (which it appears only K&L has). I could be mistaken. Cheers!

  3. Andrew said

    Great article. FYI oz wine company imports these wine directly into Massachusetts.

  4. […] Keith Levenberg highlights Portugal’s Colares region, where wines “the grace of a ballerina from the first sip to the last.” […]

  5. Wiremu said

    Hi Keith, Excellent article. There must be something in the air because we have just posted an article about Colares too!

    Hopefully more people will begin to realize what a unique and precious this is!

    A link if you care to read it.

  6. Glenn Gallup said

    Well, if it’s clay you are looking for Lodi CA ought to be making the best wine in the world. Walk around a vineyard there and you are six inches taller.

  7. […] but as Keith Levenberg says so well in his post on the area, that’s less than half the […]

  8. Great intro to Colares…we’re bringing in the Viuva Gomes brand this summer…2005 Ramisco…super limited, as you know, and half is pre-sold, but it’s just too damn good to stay in Portugal.

    NLC Wines

  9. […] “Feet Buried in the Sand” from Keith Levenberg’s Cellar-Book […]

  10. […] process. I can vouch for Colares whites from Casal Sta. Maria, and reds from Viuva Gomes da Silva 1. The whites show white flowers, latex, beeswax and honey.  In their youth, they have a lovely, […]

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