This is certainly true for this oddly wonderful bottle of Malvasia from the Arenae coop in Colares, Portugal.
Honestly, I can’t untangle the rich silkiness of this greenish-hued, candied-floral, dry Sherry-like wine from the impossible conditions under which it is made.
This is not so much the discovery of a romantic corner of the world. It’s more like finding a living preserve, a jewel-box of history that is holding its own, just barely, against a changing, encroaching landscape.
Colares is the smallest D.O.C in Portugal, 40 minutes east of Lisbon, literally a beach community on the westernmost tip of continental Europe. This is an ancient wine region giving way steadily to vacation homes on this desirable chunk of Portuguese beach. One hundred years ago there were some 8,000 acres in the D.O.C. Today there are fewer than forty and still shrinking.
Mention Colares and wine enthusiasts will get geeky over how the sand in this area kept the phylloxera blight at bay, making the ungrafted Ramisco and Malvesia vines some of the oldest (many over 100 years old) in Europe.
This is true, but as Keith Levenberg says so well in his post on the area, that’s less than half the story:
“The thing about sand is that while it may be inhospitable to phylloxera, it’s not all that hospitable to serious winegrowing, either.”
Underneath the sand, up to 10 feet below, is the clay which holds the moisture, the nutrients, the feeding tube that enables the vines to exist in the windy, moist, brittling heat of the area. The vines are planted at the bottom of these trenches, then over the course of years the sand is slowly backfilled as the vine grows.
The terroir of this special spot comes at the intersection of the sand and clay, opposites intertwined with laborious human care and tending to create something distinct and unique.
The woody vines grow horizontally along the sand, protected by stone walls and stick fences from the strong winds. When the grapes start to form, the ground hugging vines are propped up from the beach by stakes to keep the leaves and grapes from withering on contact with the hot sand.
Crazy amounts of hand labor are necessary at every step from planting to harvesting. Painful that this ancient coexistence between hostile elements and doting winemakers should clash and be mostly vanquished by the desirability of the land for summering populations from Lisbon.
David Lillie, co-founder of Chambers Street Wines, told me how in the 70’s he spent three months learning Portuguese in anticipation of a rare visit of the Colares legendary winemaker Paolo Da Silva to New York. David is predictably understated and not at all prone to hyperbole but he lit up brightly, and, in turn, lit up my curiosity about this amazing place and its wines.
Hopefully I’ve shared a bit of this here.
Sometimes wines from obscure regions made in untenable circumstances with strange varieties just taste uncannily familiar. Not so with this bottle of Malvasia de Colares. The palate of this wine is like something far away and rarified, something rich, self-preoccupied and joyfully pensive. It floats in the mouth like a liqueur yet is light, freshly green and salty like the beach it is born from. It’s foreign, like a new spice, yet intriguing and feels naturally right. Preciously pleasing.
Most think of the red grape Ramisco when they think of Colares as it’s indigenous only to this area. I find the red wines a bit hyper tannic but I haven’t had the chance to taste a well aged one as yet. But I’ve fallen hard, at first sip, for the local variety of the white Malvasia. I’m momentarily obsessed and simply can’t stop drinking it.
This current vintage is ‘06 and somewhat pricey: $42 for a 500 ml bottle. Hardly available outside of Portugal, you can get it from Chambers Street Wines in TriBeCa. The quantities are small but well worth tracking down.
This bottle is above my usual budget but I feel great about the splurge and relish when I find a bottle. On one level, it creates a taste memory of a unique piece of history and wine making that is worth every taste as a learning experience. Each purchase also supports this tiny wine coop so that it can continue to make these special wines and preserve something local, unique and globally appreciated and shareable.
Ariana Rolich my friend and wine buyer from Chambers Street Wines who sold me the 06 vintage, captured it perfectly in her tasting note that ended:
“Evidence that great things come in small packages. Gift card: “Drink me.””
I can’t say it any better.
Three excellent posts to check out for background and inspiration:
A big thanks to Chris Barnes, good friend, now with Jose Pastor Selections for turning me on to this bottle. We miss you in the store Chris!
Photo credit for vines on sand: David Lincoln Ross