The Vineyards of Colares, A National Patrimony At Risk

Ξ November 12th, 2009 | → 6 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Colares is centuries-old wine growing region on the Atlantic Coast of Portugal. A forty minute train ride from Lisbon, Colares enjoys a very different, adaptive agricultural practice than that found in vineyards only a few kilometers inland. The vines are planted in sand. Actually that is not quite true. The sand is excavated and the vines planted on the clay layer beneath, often to a depth of 3-4 meters, and then the cane is progressively buried in sand as the it grows. As the reader will discover, this practice has had a number of interesting consequences, including the survival of the perhaps the greatest acreage, around 12-14 acres, of pre-phylloxera vines in the whole of Europe. Granted DOC status in 1908, the authorized grapes are equally adaptive and rare, Ramisco and Colares Malvasia. But details of all of this may be read below. Enologist/winemaker Francisco Figueiredo of the Adega Regional de Colares was my guide.
As has been true of my every waking moment since touching down in this astonishing country to attend the European Wine Bloggers Conference, Colares, too, provided both intellectual pleasures and something like heartache. I spent time in pre-Olympic Barcelona and returned years later to find old neighborhoods I had known utterly transformed. Much was swept away in the march toward modernization and something like international respectability. A similar transformation is also underway everywhere in the small portion of Portugal I traveled. And wine making traditions themselves are in the crosshairs, as my earlier interview with Virgilio Loureiro made perfectly clear. Colares is yet another example. Development, especially of weekend homes for Lisbon’s wealthy, has taken many vineyards.
The Ramisco grape produces wines that are out of international favor. Lean, low alcohol, high in acid, requiring many years of cellaring to become approachable, the wines of Colares are challenging; a different kind of reflection about wine is required of us. And if the challenge is refused or ignored, then Colares inches closer to oblivion.
Below you will find a mix of historical and current pre and post harvest photos, many from Francisco. I arrived well after the harvest. Some of the topics he discusses are best illustrated by images taken before my arrival.
This is the first of a two part interview. (Part 2)
Admin How long have you been working here?
Francisco Figueiredo Ten years. This has been my tenth harvest. For the first few years I worked here only at harvest time. I was still studying. I’m an agronomist and have done post-graduate work in enology. Since then I have worked here in Colares. I also give support to growers/producers not in the Colares region but in the Estremadura region. I’ve always been in this region. My parents live here. So I’ve known the region well since I was a child.
The Colares DOC is a very small wine region. It is between the Sintra Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, which is very near. It is a short line along the coast, the demarcated region. And we have to meet two conditions for the wine to be Colares DOC. The vines have to be planted in sandy soils, and as we will see, it is loose sand, like beach sand; and we have to make the wine using mainly two local grape varieties. The red is called Ramisco and the white is called Malvasia.
The vineyards are very traditional and quite unique. They are old vines, mainly, ungrafted and pre-phylloxera, some of them still. Because of that we don’t have to use American rootstock. We plant the vines directly on the clay that is underneath the sand, not in the sand itself. To plant a vineyard we dig down in the sand to the clay layer, which can be from 1/2 a meter to 4-5 meters deep. The vines are planted in the clay for the roots to get the moisture, the humidity and the nutrients; then gradually we place sand around the vine as it grows. It takes about two years until the terrain is level again.
Is there a qualitative difference in the grapes whether a vine is planted 1/2 a meter or 4 meters?
FF No, not exactly. The main difference is that if we get the clay layer closer to the surface we can produce a little bit earlier. We don’t trellis the vines. We are doing some experiments but in the traditional vineyards the vines are not trellised. They are left on the ground. And that is important for maturation because of the heat off the sand. The heat reflects off the sand and helps the maturation go a little bit faster. That is important because we are in a region with a lot of humidity and moisture, lots of wind and mists, fog. It is usually 10 degrees celsius less here than on the other side of the mountain and Lisbon during the summer. So the maturation is slow. We usually harvest late, around the beginning of October. The last week of September, beginning of October we are harvesting the sandy soil vines.
The sandy region called Chão de Areia (meaning sandy soil), has a sub-region called Chão Rijo where the soil is only clay. It means ‘hard soil’. They are more like trellised vineyards, with higher production [yields] as well. We use different varieties on those clay soils. But we can’t use the Colares DOC designation on the labels. They are sold as table wine or labeled Estremadura regional of regional Lisboa.
Is sand constantly being added to this area or is there erosion?
FF No. We protect the terrain with free stone walls. And we also use dry cane palisades to protect the vines from the strong ocean winds. So there is constant shelter. The vines and the sand is protected.
What kind of yield do you get from an average Colares vine?
FF We get very low yields; one and a half to two tons per acre. In the clay soil you can get around eight to twelve tons per acre. Much more. That’s a big difference!
How many winegrowers are there in the Colares DOC?
FF There are 55 associates. But most are small. The total sandy soil area is about 12 to 14 acres. A very small production. Unfortunately the area has gone down. Not now. It’s stable now for the last ten years, with a small increase. But we have lost a lot of vineyards. In the 60s and the 70s there was a lot of development. We are very near the mountains and the sea. This is a place people want to build homes, people from Lisbon. Most are weekend homes here. [We are driving along the coast. Large homes and apartments climb up the hillsides] All of this used to be vineyards. Not in my time! I am 30 years old.
About the matter of the preservation of the Colares vineyards. Do you go before city hall to argue that a development shouldn’t proceed because of the vineyards it would destroy, that your patrimony is at stake?
FF Yes. We are inside Sintra/Cascais Natural Park, which should be protected. But it isn’t. It is very difficult. And of course for someone outside even if they wanted to invest in a vineyard would find it very difficult because the price of the land is very, very high. People are expecting to sell for construction, not vineyards.
What legal protections do the winegrowers have?
FF Practically none.
So someone could walk up to a grower tomorrow and offer them a large sum of money and there would be no objection.
FF Yes.
Francisco added to this subject in a separate email. “I can’t recall any government role in the direct preservation of vineyards. Indirectly the government supports wine sales, mainly outside, through ViniPortugal and partially funding exportation projects. The only thing I can recall regarding the Colares vineyards were two specific measures which gave some annual funding to the grape growers. The objective was for growers to maintain the landscape aspects related to the sandy soil vineyards (conservation of the free stone walls and the dried cane palisades). One of these fundings came from the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park Authority (the protocol only lasted 1 of the intended 5 years due to lack of money!). The other was a specific environmental measure from the Government which lasted 5 years and ended 2 years ago). None of these fundings were directly made to avoid selling the vine land. Wine is one of the agricultural products that the government supports more intensely, but not by trying to avoid the selling of property (that would be difficult because we are talking about private property). I can’t recall any protest related to the selling of a vineyard.”
FF This road we are on used to be all dirt. It is asphalt now. They put the sewer line down the middle of the road. I am beginning to worry about this. We are in one of the main growing areas, a place called “Chão Verde”, outside the small town of Fontanelas. These are probably the only vineyards in the world with a sewage system outside the vineyard! It is very difficult.
Are there people in the government who are sympathetic to the issue of preservation?
FF Yes. It is not with me directly, but the directors of the Adega Regional are in constant contact with associations and politicians to try to make some progress for the vineyards. But it is difficult. It’s difficult.
[We get out of the car.] This is an old vineyard. You can see the stone walls and the dry cane palisades. In the vineyards we usually grow the vines with apple trees. They are also low. It is very common to see this type of association.
The apple trees are blossoming now…
FF That is because we had a lot of heat in the past few weeks. You came at the wrong time of the year to see vines. It’s after harvest. These are very old vines. They still produce. This is one row. Over there, beyond the free stone wall is another vineyard. One of the things we do is raise the grapes so that they are not in direct contact with the hot sand. They can get burned. We prop the bunches up with a small stick.
It sure doesn’t look like Napa Valley! Someone driving through who did not know of Colares’ viticultural history would not ’see’ anything.
FF That is true. (laughs) It is obvious that there can be no mechanization in these vineyards. So we are doing experiments with low trellis systems to see if it is possible to mechanize the vineyards, to make them more economical and more affordable. All the picking now is done by hand. But so it the spraying and the digging of the vineyards for planting. And it is all done with the family.
With respect to the families, do these vineyards pass from generation to generation? Are the young interested in continuing?
FF I am afraid that the next generation isn’t very interested in wine growing. Some of the growers are old people from 60 to 70 years old. But I don’t see that their sons are very interested in the wine growing business. They have other jobs doing other things. The wine growers themselves have other jobs. Some work on different agricultural products. Others keep the vines as a hobby. The cooperative has to make some effort to try and keep tending those vineyards that will be left behind when the older generation passes. That is the only chance for the region: the cooperative will have to work directly taking care of these vineyards when the time comes.
So that I understand, all the 55 associates of the cooperative harvest their grapes and then send them to the cooperative. All the grapes are mingled, fermented together, and bottled under the single Adega Regional de Colares label.
FF Exactly. We just separate the grapes from the sandy soils [Chão de Areia] from the clay soils [Chão Rijo]. With the clay soils we differentiate two types of vineyards: the ones that produce ‘less quality’ grapes, let’s say, so those grapes go into simple table wine; and the best grapes from the clay soil go to the better Regional Estremadura wine. In the sandy soils there is no need for any differentiation. This is, by the way, the only DOC where the Ramisco grape is grown, and the Malvasia Colares. But it is also permitted in the Estremadura Regional, of course.
So is the Ramisco grape itself in danger?
FF Fortunately, no. I will show you another vineyard where we, along with the School of Agronomy, the Technical University of Lisbon, have selected throughout the region several cuttings from the best vines, and we have planted them in this vineyard. There are several clones in the region. They are now being kept, safeguarded in the vineyard. The idea is to protect the varieties.
This is a very old wine region. We have records of consistent wine production since almost the foundation of our nationality, since the 1100s.
These rocks that make up the walls, where did they come from?
FF Usually each grower has a piece of land on the sandy soil and on the clay soil, sometimes more pieces of land. So when the planted the ‘hard soil’ vineyards they took out the stones and they brought them to the sandy soil terrain to build the walls.
Notice the trenches of this vineyard being filled. As you can see, we plant after making a trench, a ditch. We put the sand to the side and gradually fill it in as the vine grows. In this area we had to dig about three meters down. I saw how deep when they were paving the road. It was about three and a half meters down to the clay layer.
We see a gentleman cross the road ahead of us.
Oh, this is Mr. Gonçaol. He is an associate of the adega. You are lucky. His vineyard is closed but this way we can see it. You can see again the apple trees. Always the protection, the shelters. These rows or groups of rows separated by the dry cane palisades of vines we call manta. The direct translation of manta would be a blanket. The clay in this vineyard is about one and a half meters down.
I see he has dug around the vines. What is this for?
FF On of the jobs that is done this time of year, this season. The job is to take these roots out, to cut them away. Sometimes we will also add manure for the vines at this point. The roots are of no interest to us. We want only the deep ones. And there is no irrigation. It is all dry farmed. That is the importance of planting the roots on the clay. No drip irrigation. We have some modern vineyards, not from our association, but from another association, which they drip irrigate. You can easily see that they are not strong vines because of that. So this is the natural way to have water, to plant them directly on the clay.
And over here he has new plantings.
So all of these vines are ungrafted, of course. And the source of all the cuttings?
FF All the cuttings are done here. There is only one nursery site for Ramisco vines just in case someone needs cuttings for a vineyard. For the traditional growers like Mr. Gonçaol, they do their own cuttings. And they choose only from the best vines.
Now, you don’t have phylloxera here. What are the disease and pest pressures?
FF The main pressure here is powdery mildew…
And second homes…
FF (laughs) …and building construction. That’s a real pest pressure! But of simpler pests we have what we call Cicadella, sharpshooters. Growers like Mr. Gonçaol didn’t know about the pest. It started about five years ago. We have seen some increase in the average temperature. And the sharpshooter came from the Alentejo to the north.
We say goodbye to Gonçaol and continue on our tour.
End of part 1


6 Responses to ' The Vineyards of Colares, A National Patrimony At Risk '

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  1. Jim Budd said,

    on November 12th, 2009 at 6:50 am

    Excellent article Ken. Have linked to this on Jim’s Loire.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 12th, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Thank you, Jim. The second part, on the winery itself, will be posted sometime next week.

  3. on November 12th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for this first post. I followed the link through Jim’s blog. Collares is indeed an intresting region, but its not easy to retrieve information on its current status, as given very well in this article. I look very forward to follow the second part.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 12th, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    You are welcome, Anders. The Adega portion of the interview will prove quite interesting.

  5. on November 12th, 2010 at 3:43 am

    Excellent, informative and touching piece on this endangered wine. While Francisco Figueiredo is around, there is hope but meanwhile the best thing that could happen would be for Colares to be stocked by winemerchants throughout the world in order to encourage the few remaining growers of the wonderful Ramisco grape and encourage expansion of the vineyard. Already there are hopeful signs from merchants in the UK and USA.

  6. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 12th, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Robert, thank you for the excellent comment. Francisco’s heart is very big, and he is absolutely dedicated to Colares. I recently tasted a Ramisco from the 20s. It had been modestly topped off and the cork was changed in the 70s, but what a durable wine! It was delightfully fresh and vibrant. Colares will figure prominently in my documentary, you can be sure.

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