Into the Heart of Wine’s Lost Region

The ancient wine region of Colares is fast succumbing to development and decay, even as the world has started to rediscover it. Zachary Sussman on what the slow extinction of some of the world's most compelling wines can teach us about how little we know.

The craggy, mist-sprayed cliffs of Colares mark the westernmost edge of continental Europe.

The rarest of the rare: malvasia de Colares, the region’s indigenous white grape, represents just 10 percent of the area’s production (left). Un-grafted, pre-phylloxera vines (right).

A worker at the co-operative surveys a plot of ramisco during harvest; behind him sprouts one of the many crabapple trees that grow wild among the vines.

A bunch of ramisco grapes ready for harvest; the region's native red variety has not been found anywhere outside the limits of Colares.

Traditional cane fences constructed around the vines shelter the grapes from the harsh winds coming off the Atlantic, located just a couple hundred meters below.

Given the scenic views (and close proximity to Lisbon), it isn’t difficult to see why the luxury real estate market has threatened to overtake this once sleepy town.

A sleek vacation home constructed on what was once prime vineyard land; if you look closely, you can see a stray strand of vines crawling up to the property’s stone fence.

Francisco Figueiredo, head winemaker and enologist at the Adega Regional de Colares, has dedicated his life to preserving the area’s endangered wines (left). Traditional equipment in the Adega’s courtyard (right).

Colares wines aging in traditional wooden vats inside the Adega Regional.

Inside the cellars of the Adega Regional de Colares, the region's largest producer.

“All of that used to be vineyards,” says Francisco Figueiredo, head winemaker and enologist at the Adega Regional de Colares, as he gestures towards another sleek, hyper-modern condo that looks as if it could have sprung up overnight. By all appearances, the building—most likely a beach home for a family of wealthy Lisboans—hasn’t even been inhabited yet. But its green, neatly manicured lawn offers a stark contrast to the irregular patchwork of small, sandy lots, divided by cane fences to protect against the harsh Atlantic winds, where he tends his century-old vines.

Incongruous as the juxtaposition initially seems, it’s become a familiar sight here in Colares, both Portugal’s smallest and Europe’s westernmost viticultural area, perched atop sea-sprayed cliffs 45 minutes northwest of Lisbon. Today it’s better known as a tourist destination and playground for the rich than one of the world’s most historic wine regions.

Yet there was a time when Colares was hailed as “the Bordeaux of Portugal” for its ability to produce deeply structured, age-worthy wines. The novelist Eça de Queiroz, a contemporary of Zola’s, even celebrated it as the source of “os vinhos mais franceses de Portugal!” (“the most French wines of Portugal!”)

Although records of viticulture here extend as far back as the 1100s, the region rose to global prominence after the 19th-century phylloxera epidemic ravaged more than two-thirds of Europe’s vines. By virtue of its sandy, louse-resistant soils, Colares survived unscathed, and ultimately emerged as one of the major European areas still capable of producing wine. To this day, it joins the company of places like Santorini and the Canary Islands, which have retained their original un-grafted rootstock.

But little, if any, of this traditional Colares still exists, and what remains only reinforces the overwhelming extent of its decline. In his 1969 book Portuguese Wine, published just before the brunt of the damage had been inflicted, British author Raymond Postgate wrote that the region “is far enough from Lisbon to be free—up till now—of its dangerous expansion.” Sadly, one doesn’t have to search too far for evidence of how that cautionary “up till now” would turn out.

Thanks to the viral spread of the luxury real estate market, which has all but subsumed the region’s vines, the wine industry in Colares has been left on the verge of extinction. What little wine it now produces remains shrouded in obscurity, virtually unknown even within Portugal. After decades of neglect, however, the region has recently started to be “rediscovered,” at least among the geekiest circle of industry elites, for whom its unique history—and more importantly, its scarcity—holds an undeniable appeal.

This likely sounds like a familiar story: Wine region goes into decline, toils in obscurity, is reclaimed by progressive industry types eager to broadcast its big comeback. This reclamation narrative has developed into one of the industry’s most ubiquitous tropes. Just consider, for instance, the wave of buzz that attended the so-called “rise” of the Jura, Sicily or, more recently, Sherry, to name a few.

In a way that challenges our modern arrogance—our sense of having already figured it all out—Colares demonstrates the extent to which our accepted narrative about “greatness” in wine (both what it is and where it comes from) remains conditional and constantly evolving. More often than not, it turns out, the story is scripted by the workings of power and economics rather than any reflection of our own good taste.

However, unlike Sherry or Sicily, which continue to benefit from a new wave of winemaking talent, for Colares it might already be too late. While those regions fell into decline during the latter half of the twentieth century by adopting a high-volume, low-quality industrial model, Colares never had the chance: With landowners selling off their vines to developers at exponential rates, it simply withered away.

Few viticultural areas have experienced such a dramatic reversal of fortune. The story of this place is one of extremes, but it also points to a broader question: What ultimately determines which of these “reclaimed” areas survive, joining the established canon of “great wine regions,” and which become little more than historical footnotes like Colares?

In a way that challenges our modern arrogance—our sense of having already figured it all out—Colares demonstrates the extent to which our accepted narrative about “greatness” in wine (both what it is and where it comes from) remains conditional and constantly evolving. More often than not, it turns out, the story is scripted by the workings of power and economics rather than any reflection of our own good taste.

All considered, Colares offers proof of just how much we don’t know, how limited we are in our attempts to classify and judge. For every “classic” region like the Médoc—an area that basically constituted an enormous swamp until the 17th century, when Dutch engineers drained it to facilitate trade with England—there will necessarily be a region like Colares, relegated to the losing side of history.

Amidst a general wine culture that is focused on stories of birth and rebirth, Colares represents the rare portrait of the death of a wine region. At the height of its power, between the years 1931 and 1955, the area encompassed over 1,000 hectares of vines, which churned out an average of 1.1 million liters of wine per year. Since then, bulldozers and builders have reduced it to a miniscule 26 hectares, up from a historic low of 14, thanks to a few recent plantings. Half of that belongs to the local co-operative, which, along with just five other producers in the area (for the record, there are almost twice as many golf courses) helps bottle the mere 20,000 liters that Colares now makes annually. By comparison, at just under 50 hectares, the single vineyard of Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy—a region notorious for its extremely limited supplies, particularly from such coveted Grand Cru sites—measures almost twice as large.

To call the wines rare would be a massive understatement; they’re practically endangered. And in the age of the #unicornwine, wherein rarity has quickly become the latest form of exclusivity, it should come as no surprise that Colares has attracted early glimmers of attention.

For the first time, an increasing (but by no means large) number of examples—typically bottled in the 500ml format, given how painfully little of it exists—are available at retail and in restaurants. Not only have top sommeliers like Michael Madrigale expressed their enthusiasm on social media, particularly for the older vintages that have entered the market, but journalists have started to catch on as well. The hype only appears to be growing.

“In my sixteen years of making wine in Colares, I’ve never seen such a growing interest as now,” Figueiredo says. “We have people buying old vintages in quantity and wine shops are asking for them in Belgium, the U.S., Canada, Norway and several other countries as well. This was not seen a couple of years ago.”

Adding to this sudden wave of awareness is the fact that that, aesthetically, the region’s output just happens to align with the recent pendulum swing of public taste away from an exaggerated, fruit-driven “international” style, which many parts of Portugal adopted during the 1990s, in favor of traditionally-made expressions that communicate a sense of place.

Tannic, high-acid and produced from the indigenous ramisco grape, the region’s reds rarely reach 12.5 percent alcohol—“the strength of a good claret,” as Postgate puts it (which was actually true of Bordeaux at the time). They’re also capable of aging for decades. Even more uncanny are the whites—derived from a native sub-variety of malvasia called malvasia de Colares—which constitute just a tenth of the region’s production. With its savory, saline expression, which combines bright coastal acidity with a surprisingly rich, wooly depth, it bears more of a stylistic kinship with malvasia Istriana than malvasia di candia, the common aromatic member of the family, while remaining distinct from any other version of the grape.

Ironically, if you were tasked with custom-designing a wine to appeal to the values of the young, hipster-ish sommelier set, it would probably look a lot like Colares. The region checks off just about every requirement to qualify as that demographic’s dream come true, almost to the point of parody. It is the unicorn of unicorns, if you will: a testament to our curious habit of transforming the overlooked and neglected into the stuff of cultural capital.

As Colares’ reputation continues to grow, production will remain relatively minuscule; even with slight increases evident over recent years, there’s simply too little land available for it to approach its former levels—“except if we demolished many, many houses,” Figueiredo explains. Given basic supply and demand, it’s probably just a matter of time before the wines become even more difficult to source and, presumably, expensive. Counterintuitive as it might seem, Colares is now surprisingly well-positioned to become the next—dare I say it—cult wine.

This question occupies my mind as we drive along a scenic stretch of cliff-sides to dinner, where we wash down platefuls of of percebes—the tiny, intensely saline goose barnacles found all along this segment of the Iberian coast—with glass after glass of briny white Colares. It’s a strange, almost guilt-inducing privilege to drink wines of such scarcity, predicated upon the acute awareness of just how little is left. At the same time, this aura of rarity has become an inseparable part of Colares’ appeal—for better or for worse.

This is the bittersweet irony. While its resurrection as a cult wine is infinitely preferable to extinction, Colares now seems condemned to survive as a collector’s item, a curiosity, a fetish.

The longer you ponder the issue, the harder it is not to wonder what Colares would have become if history had taken a slightly different turn—or for that matter, how many regions like it have already slipped into obscurity. This uncertainty is part of the lesson that Colares has returned from the brink of oblivion to impart: no matter how much we think we know, our knowledge is always fragmented, cursory at best. And it is at once humbling, heartbreaking and oddly inspiring to drink a wine that, however late we might be realizing it, reminds us of that fact.