The deep roots of the Ramisco grape almost literally reach right back to the very establishment of Portugal as an independent kingdom on the Iberian peninsula. Noted in documents written more than five centuries ago, the wines of Colares (pronounced ko-larsh) have been long intertwined with Portugal’s royal family, with some references dating to the 12th century.
But before we delve into this grape’s fascinating history, or try to describe the remarkable wine made from this rare and noble variety, or the reasons behind the appellation’s astonishing heyday in the late 19th century on up to World War I, or the curious story about its close connection to Portugal’s earliest rulers in the 11th and 12th centuries, let me first offer a bit of geographical background.
Next, we should take a small, but worthwhile detour into seeking out Ramisco’s possible ampelographic origins; ampelography is the field of botany that focuses on the identification and classification of wine grapes.
HOW SAND SAVED THE WINES OF COLARES
Nestled just behind a line of narrow sandy bluffs between the Atlantic and the foothills of the Sierra Sintra mountains, and located some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Lisbon, Portugal, massive 50-to-100 year-old Ramisco grapevines snake amid apple orchards planted nearby, which along with sturdy cane fencing, shelter these earth-bound vines from ever-present gusts of wind sweeping in from the ocean. Without these fences, including some assembled from stone boulders, gail-force blasts can literally rip ripening Ramisco grapes right off the vines, says Francisco Homem de Figueiredo, Winemaker, Adega Regional de Colares (the Colares Regional Cooperative), and your correspondent’s gracious and knowledgeable host during my recent trip this past spring to a singularly fascinating appellation.
Welcome to Portugal’s tiniest, oldest, and, today, a largely forgotten wine growing region: Colares. It also holds another, less auspicious vinous distinction. In 2012, Colares could very well be the most-endangered wine appellation in the world.
Hemmed in by still expanding residential and commercial developments, Colares’s once expansive rural landscape of farms, orchards and seaside vineyards has gradually given way to ultra-modern weekend retreats, luxury hotels, and plush gated-communities. Adding to the coastal transformation of these once sleepy fishing ports and nearby hamlets, vineyard owners of a certain age in Colares are “cutting back”, pun intended: That is, these 60- and 70-year-olds are selling their holdings, which nowadays are more valuable as ocean-side residential lots than as cherished backyard vineyards. (Indeed, Colares, and neighboring Azenhas do Mar, have undergone a startling evolution much like the East End of New York’s Long Island, where former potato fields have gradually given way to more and more gaudy “McMansions” from Westhampton to Montauk.
With some owners literally as old as the vines they have lovingly tended and grown up with, such sales to aggressive developers further accelerate the appellation’s diminishing acreage, according to Figueiredo. During our tour of some of these family-owned holdings, whose dwindling group of 55 owners sell their grapes directly to the Colares Wine Cooperative, Francesco estimated that compared to a century ago when Colares vineyards attained almost 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), today the shrinking appellation –which was formally established in 1908 — totals a mere 19 hectares, barely 50 acres! (In addition to Ramisco wines, there are 15,000 bottles of white Malvasia wine produced annually in the Colares appellation, according to Figueiredo.)
But, owing to the appellation’s sandy soil that makes it uninhabitable to the phylloxera pest, Colares wines in the late 19th century emerged as the toast of enophiles and epicures across Europe. This turn of events came about not only because of the wine’s unique availability — recall, most of the rest of Europe’s vineyards had been nearly completely destroyed by the phylloxera pest — but also because the wines of Colares were, and remain today, delicious, refined and eminently age-worthy.
For all these reasons, Colares wines became known as the “Bordeaux of Portugal.” Although as we shall see, in fact, Colares wines more likely bring forth associations with France’s other equally renowned red wine appellation, Burgundy. Indeed, the great 19th century Portuguese novelist Jose Maria de Eça de Queiroz, said of Colares: “Os vinhos mais franceses de Portugal!”, “the most French wines of Portugal.” (This quotation is taken from an excellent account about Colares wines by Wiremu Andrews, a noted New Zealand-born sommelier, visit: bit.ly/JsovtC )
SO WHAT DOES A COLARES TASTE LIKE?
Along with Colares’s sole remaining private bottler, Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva, of Azenhas do Mar, Portugal, who, at the age 84, still comes to the da Silva winery every day, overseeing his company top brand, Colares Chitas, Francisco soldiers on. All told, between Figueiredo’s Colares cooperative and da Silva’s Chitas sales, only 50,000 bottles of Colares are produced annually.
As we tasted a number of Francesco’s Arenae vintaged-dated Ramisco wines at the Adega, I asked Francisco what wines most people might be familiar with most nearly resemble a classic Colares wine?
Francicsco offered the most remarkable, and enlightening, reply: a Pinot Noir Burgundy from a Premier Cru Cotes de Nuits, or a fine Nebbiolo bottling from Barolo in Italy.
In fact, if you poll sommeliers as well as expert Portuguese and Spanish wine importers, they might well tell you a Colares wine exhibits the following characteristics: Ramisco-based wines are light-to-medium bodied; they feature distinct, some say relatively high, levels of acidity; and thanks to the Ramisco’s thick skin, Colares wines also possess ample levels of tannin; and most would note their alcohol level rarely exceeds 12% or 12.5%. At their best, these wines are enormously long-lived, well-structured, balanced and display great finesse, all capped by a long, lingering finish of red berry fruit and black cherry jam. In their youth, they can be a bit astringent, but with age, they blossom!
These same sommeliers and importers will also tell you that Colares wines, even if they are known to the taster (and most likely you’ll receive a blank stare from even the most dedicated wine geek on hearing the appellation or the name of the grape, that is how obscure this appellation and its wines are), they will be variously described as “light”, or perhaps “out of fashion”, and most assuredly, “not big, forward or powerful enough” to suit the palates of most of today’s wine drinkers, aficionados who truly favor far more robust bottlings of New World Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Bordeaux blends, Zinfandels or Rhone-style Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache blends.
DOES THE RAMISCO HAVE BURGUNDIAN ROOTS? – A VINOUS MYSTERY
In fact, notwithstanding Colares’s reputation as the “Bordeaux of Portugal”, Francisco’s taste association, coupling Pinot Noir and Ramisco, actually carries some strong historical/circumstantial weight. And it’s all in keeping with a central theme of the establishment of Portugal as an independent nation, free from the orbit of Castile and León, in the 12th century, then one of the most powerful ruling clans of the Iberian peninsula.
Here is a quick historical sketch that offers some suggestive context to the possible Burgundian connection for the Colares wine appellation. It’s a little involved, but a good tale!
As the Moors were gradually eased out of the Iberian peninsula by Christian crusaders during the so-called Reconquista, or Reconquest, from the 8th to 12 centuries, inter-marriage among leading Catholic noble families occurred frequently. While much of present-day Portugal during this period up to the 11th century was increasingly controlled by Castile’s ruling family, ultimately a related branch of the Castilian clan ultimately broke off in a series of battles; their aim was to achieve complete Portuguese sovereignty. Following a successful final battle against the Castilian overlords, Portugal’s first monarch was recognized by the ultimate religious and dynastic referee back then, the Pope in Rome.
The new realm’s first king was christened Afonso Henriques I (1109-1185), who is also known as o Fundador, as in “the Founder” of Portugal. The Moors, who Afonso I pursued ruthlessly and without mercy during his long reign, called him ibn-Arrik in Arabic, which translates to “son of Henry.”
Now stay with me here! Just a little more history!
Who was Afonso Henriques I’s father? Henry of Burgundy; in Portuguese and Spanish history books, he is known as Conde Henrique, or Count Henry of Portugal. How did a Burgundian come to be a Count of Portugal? Well, in 1093, Henry had married Theresa, who was the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon. For Theresa’s dowry, Alfonso VI conveyed the “County of Portugal”, then a fief, or possession, of the House of Castile to Henry. So, it is speculated that Count Henry, along a number of other Burgundian knights and their servants who all came into Iberian territory determined to push out the Moors once and for all, might also have brought vine cuttings from home. This was not unprecedented; Roman consuls and their retinues, a thousand years earlier, brought indigenous grape cuttings from Italy, and elsewhere, to plant in the far outposts of the Roman empire.
So, as some wine historians posit, it is quite possible that the Ramisco grape could be — and, by looks alone, it does unerringly resemble the Pinot Noir grape in shape, size and color — a long lost “cousin” of this renowned French noble grape. Most important, Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henrique I, who was the son of Count Henry and Theresa, and Afonso’s royal descendents, can certainly trace an important part of their genealogical roots back to Burgundy. Who knows then, perhaps Ramisco’s ampelographic roots go back to this time as well? But whatever the source of the Ramisco grape, Afonso III, the grandson of o Fundador, did much to commercialize, regulate, tax and demarcate the wine growing regions in and around Sintra, where the royal family summered to avoid the awful heat of Lisbon, as well as the seaside vineyards of Colares, which are only 10 kilometers (six miles) from Sintra.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, there is abundant documentation showing that the wines of Colares were not only gracing the royal tables in both Sintra and Lisbon, but were also being busily exported around the world, including to Portugal’s many Brazilian and Indian colonial outposts in the New World and the Far East..
Now, to bring us back to the all-important present, whether with a grilled steak or smoky pork ribs, some succulent lamb chops or a hearty stew, fresh, pan-seared trout or slow-roasted sword fish or sea bass, try a Colares wine and you won’t be disappointed!
To locate and sample the Colares wines in the U.S., visit: bit.ly/Re7xWJ
The author wishes to thank Francisco Homem de Figueiredo, Winemaker, Colares Regional Cooperative, for his help in the preparation of this article.
NOTE: All free images in this blog post have been researched and sourced from either Wikipedia or Google Images, except where noted. Photographs by the author, David Lincoln Ross, may not be used or reproduced without prior written permission.