Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, where the edge of the earth kissed the sea, sat a castle. Perched high on a mountain, this pastel-hued palace looked down upon stark cliffs that plunged into the rumbling ocean, upon which grew precious vines. Both royals and locals prized the vines for their fine fruit and ability to thrive in inhospitable conditions: drenching autumn rains; salt-laden, gale-force winds; mist-shrouded mornings, scorching summer heat and soil as sandy as the beach below. It was also one of the only vineyards in the world to resist a scourge that destroyed the majority of Europe’s vines–the aphid known as phylloxera.
No, I am not recounting a vinous fairytale. This little vineyard that could still survives in the Colares region (pronounced ko-larsh) of Portugal near the dreamy castle of Sintra 45 minutes north of Lisbon. Sadly, these hardy, still-ungrafted vineyards, cultivated as far back as year 1154 and once known as the “Bordeaux of Portugal,” now face their greatest threat: real estate development.
The odds of this DOP (Protected Designation of Origin–though “protected” is more promise than actuality) appellation surviving are low. First, vineyard management is tedious, and labor costs are high. The grapes must be handled with care–the unruly vines sprawl across sandy lots, flopped about like the limbs of a beached octopus. Wooden stakes must be manually shoved into the ground to prop grapes up and off their heat-absorbing silica beds.
Second, to gather enough fruit for a commercially viable winery, vintners must work multiple small-scale vineyards owned by individuals as old as the vines. As elder landholders (or their children upon inheritance) sell off their plots to real estate developers, the acreage of the region grows more diminutive by the year (from a once-hefty 2,500 acres to the current 50). After all, these vineyards are on prime, ocean-front real estate, and nearby Lisboans want summer holiday homes. Only a handful of winemakers remain committed to producing wines from the unique Ramisco (red) and Malvasia de Colares (white) grapes.
But those dedicated few working to preserve the region’s vinous heritage are rewarded with remarkable long-lived wines. The most prolific producer is a co-op, Adega Regional de Colares. I visited them and another producer, Monte Cascas, at the site of these extraordinary vines during a trip to Portugal last month. Normally, “co-op” is synonymous with dubious quality, but not in Colares. The Colares Regional Wine Cellars, founded in 1931, currently produce over 50 percent of the region’s wines and are supplied by 90 percent of its growers. Remember, vineyard holdings are wee in this region; it’s practically impossible to make wine without the contribution of grapes from multiple sources.
How can New Yorkers sample such a rarity? Forego four craft beers at a Gabe Stuhlman restaurant, two cab rides from the LES to the UWS or one mani-pedi in Chinatown. All should be easy sacrifices for a taste of one of the least expensive rare wines in the world, which costs exactly $42.99 from Chambers Street Wines in Tribeca. Lucky for us, this retailer loves the Malvasia from Adega Regional de Colares; it faithfully tastes each vintage to stock what it can for the loyal following it’s built around it.
Wine nerds, eat your hearts out over this über-poetic tasting note from Chambers Street buyer Ariana Rolich regarding the 2006 vintage:
From ungrafted indigenous Malvasia de Colares vines in sandy phylloxera-proof soils of Portugal’s Colares region springs this dreamy but cohesive stream of lemon oil, just-ripened apricots, Jordan almonds, mandarin orange spritz, sea spray, a subtle grainy note (probably Cream of Wheat), clarified butter, and a patina of honey-lemon Halls. Richly exotic with a pearlescent, candied hue.
Only a teetotaler could refuse such verse. But if you’re not convinced or low on cash, try the next best offering at half the price: the Chao Rijo line. Rolich and the team just tasted the new releases last week (2008 is current for Colares), so check in with them for an update on stock.
And if you find the idea of sipping something exotic and endangered titillating, indulge guilt-free with the wines of Colares. Unlike shark fin soup, consuming this threatened product will actually increase rather than diminish its likelihood of survival.