“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”– Spinoza, The Ethics
We weren’t more than five minutes outside of Lisbon when a car sped past us billowing thick, grey smoke. A few miles later we caught up with it, the vehicle now alongside the road and bursting into flames, its owners frozen in the death-defying moment of decision between extinguishing the blaze and fleeing.
That morning we had picked-up our rental car, a tiny manual transmission Citroen with all the power of a large lawnmower. When I pushed the pedal down to exit the Avis parking lot, it let out a reluctant and entertaining go-cart sound: “Meeeeeeeee.”
My partner and I were congratulating ourselves on surviving two of Lisbon’s congested roundabouts, having navigated them only slightly better than Clark Griswold in the classic European Vacation driving-in-London scene (we experienced aggressive honking, but no actual contact).
Portugal, our guidebook warned us, is the most dangerous country in Europe to drive a car. This actually isn’t true anymore (and this was not the last time our ‘new’ guidebooks would have outdated information), but our close proximity to existential misfortune did start to register when we saw three major accidents our first morning on the road. The two after the bonfire were worse and involved flashing lights, open doors and motionless bodies in crushed cars.
Driving in countries other than one’s own can be an absurdist video game, and I have happy rather than terrified memories from Mexico (Unmarked speed bumps! Iguanas!) as well as from India, where I foolishly rented a motorcycle and once rounded a corner into a sacred cow.
Driving in Portugal, on the other hand, sobered us to the core in the way that witnessing trauma does, and our only comfort was that we were on course toward the ocean– to look west across the Atlantic instead of east—in order to taste the exceedingly rare wines of Colares.
It was a day that would take us from Lisbon to Colares, to the citadel at Sintra, then on pilgrimage to sacred Fatima, and finally to rest at the oldest boarding house in the medieval city of Coimbra.
I had heard about the wines of Colares (pronounced Koh-lar-esh) from wine friends who mentioned them in passing with mystical reverence and awe. There’s a story that in the 70s, David Lillie, co-founder of Chamber Street Wines in New York (a Mecca for those in search of the obscure), spent three months learning Portuguese in anticipation of a visit by legendary Colares winemaker Paolo Da Silva. Da Silva’s wines from that decade are the stuff of legend.
Colares is one of the world’s smallest and most endangered wine regions, with some of the oldest vines in all of Europe. It once comprised 8,000 hectares but today only about forty remain. The vines grow in sand behind a row of dunes at the westernmost point of continental Europe, in an area threatened by condo developments. The royal families of Europe reportedly hid their crown princes and princesses around Colares during WWII, and there are high-walled luxury compounds dotting the beaches.
When phylloxera wiped out Europe’s vines in the 1800s, and the continent’s vineyards were replanted by painstakingly grafting old vines onto resistant American rootstock, Colares survived untouched. The vines here are planted deep (1-5 meters) in trenches into a substrate of clay, and then covered methodically with sand as the plants grow upwards. By all accounts it is an excruciatingly labor intensive process.
The same sand that makes the environment inhospitable to phylloxera also makes for torturous winemaking. To prevent the grapes from getting too hot on the burning sand, the vines must be staked just above the ground. Not too high, however, or the ocean winds will batter the fruit.
Colares became a cause célebre during the phylloxera crisis, and a British company built a cellar in the 1880s to produce the wines for export to England. It was in this original cellar, still in use today, that we met the winemaker for the cooperative, Francisco Homem de Figueiredo.
The gorgeous and roomy old cellar has a distinctly church-like feel with high ceilings, dramatic candelabras and massive wooden barrels. Because it was August during the summer holiday, and all the other staff was on vacation, Figueiredo was manning a front desk that also functions as a sales outlet.
The cooperative’s Colares is sold under the label Arenae (in 500ml bottles), and there is a white made from a local version of the grape malvasia as well as a red made from the ramisco grape. Additionally, there are lesser bottlings of red and white wines (designated Chao Rijo, or ‘hard soil’) made from vineyards further inland.
The current release of the white Arenae is 2010, and appears in Olly Smith’s 2013 list of “50 Great Portuguese Wines.” The wine is lithe and ethereal, with a smooth, unexpectedly sherry-like consistency. Even with this textural vertebrae it remains fresh and salty.
Tasting it, I couldn’t help but imagine a time of ships and writing desks made for men half my size. In fact, the desk upon which I write is a library table from around the same time as the Colares cellar. In my mind, I correlate the desk’s make to the liquid in the bottle.
The current release of red Arenae is 2005. Red Colares’ reputation is of a rather aggressive wine that is tannic and astringent in its youth. Although the area was called the “Bordeaux of Portugal,” the wine is more reminiscent of pinot noir or nebbiolo. It is tannic but graceful, and is eminently drinkable even though it will clearly improve with age.
In a haunting article on Colares, writer David Lincoln Ross posits that there may be a connection between the ramisco grape and pinot noir via the arrival of Henry of Burgundy to Portugal in the 11th Century. The ramisco grape physically resembles pinot noir. The connection takes this already historically fascinating appellation straight into conspiratorial fiction territory with a plotline worthy of Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.
Unlikely to inherit either fortune or titles, Henry of Burgundy joined the Reconquista to push the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. As reward for his successes, in 1093 he was married to Theresa, Countess of Portugal, and received the County of Portugal as part of her dowry. Their son, Afonso Henriques, became the first king of Portugal in 1139.
Did Henry bring cuttings from his native Burgundy in the 11th century? Am I, when I taste Colares wine, tasting not only something of pre-phylloxera Europe, but wine from grapes propagated from a cutting brought to Portugal by Henry in the Middle Ages?
A bottle of the 2005 ramisco was the only wine to survive our return to the United States (heat, staircases), and I had the pleasure of opening it with winemaker David Autrey of Westrey. A fellow philosophy major, we contemplated the possibility of the ramisco grape’s connection to Henry of Burgundy, and enjoyed this supremely intriguing wine that elicits thoughts of another age.
If we take Colares as a glimpse into the make of wines in late 19th Century, we have a profile of antique wine from a still extant appellation– of a time in which, in America, Emerson is slowing dying and Henry James has just finished Portrait of a Lady. Robert Louis Stevenson is preparing to charter the ship Casco from San Francisco, and sail into the Pacific. Melville is old, writing poetry, and will soon die of a heart attack in obscurity.
It is even more enchanting to further conjecture that the wine may have a connection to Burgundy from the Middle Ages.
Alarmist articles on Colares focus on how badly the appellation is currently threatened by development. However, when I asked Figueiredo about this, he said the area has largely stabilized. He admits, however, that it will be difficult to return to the levels of production they were able to sustain up until the 1960s.
Today there are roughly fifty growers in Colares, and the ramisco grape has been cloned for preservation. Sales of the wines are steady. Last year, importer José Pastor began bringing these two Arenae Colares wines to the United States.
In memory of New Zealand winemaker Niki Dow, who died in a fatal car crash leaving Niepoort in Oporto, Portugal, on Sept 2nd.