Friday, January 24, 2014


Sunset view of Lisbon from the Castelo São Jorge.
In December I took a lovely little trip to Portugal.  I had found an amazing deal for a hotel in Lisbon for a week, though that meant I couldn't hop around to all of the incredible wine regions like the Douro valley, Tejo, Alentejo, Bairrada and Dão, Vinho Verde... well, you get the picture: lots of noteworthy areas to visit in that country!

My home base would be the beautiful city of Lisbon, however, I wasn't flying all the way across an ocean to just walk around and look at pretty buildings (I am a professional Wineau after all) so I figured I'd journey to parts of the nearby Lisboa and Setúbal wine regions, and see what I could find.

Palace of Pena, Sintra
First up, Colares.  Any traveler to Lisbon definitely ought to plan for a day trip northwest to the town of Sintra there; easily accessible by train, this little village is home to a number of fascinating attractions and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After stopping in at the unbelievable Palace of Pena, I grabbed a taxi for a short gorgeous drive through the trees and hills to the Adega Regional de Colares.  (It is not common for the Adega to receive drop-in visitors, although tours and tastings for larger groups can be arranged in advance.) 

Colares is at the westernmost tip of continental Europe and is therefore subject to a strong Atlantic influence, and the region is primarily known for the unusual Ramisco (rem-ISH-koo) grape which produces very highly-tannic reds.  It grows well on a 500m strip of sandy soil near the water, and was never attacked by Phylloxera, the root louse that devastated European vineyards in the late 1800s.  Because of that, neighboring wineries at the time started saying their wines came from unblemished Colares, and the Adega co-operative was formed to protect the region's reputation.

Historic quotes about Ramisco on the wall above aging barrels.

Ramisco can be a tough sell, as it is not really grown anywhere else (so not many people have even heard of it,) and its inherent structure can make less-quality offerings overly tannic and astringent.  But those who love Ramisco often refer to it as the "Bordeaux of Portugal" and when finessed, it can be unusual and lovely.

For white grapes, Colares winemakers focus on Malvasia, which is a white grape found throughout the Mediterranean.  However, this one is "its own type," as winemaker Francisco Homem de Figueiredo said; giving it distinction from the other Malvasias out there beyond where they're grown and how they are cultivated.

New and Old style Crush/Destemmers
During my visit, I was treated to a lovely tour and tasting with Francisco.  It was a blend of old and new at the winery; rows of stone lagares where workers would tread on the grapes back in the day - located right next to a gleaming steel modern crusher/destemmer.  I was particularly intrigued by a large wooden anfora fermenting vessel (they are usually clay) which was able to pump juice over the cap of solids naturally without human muscle or electricity. 

Classic stone lagares.
Soon it was time to taste!  We began with the 2010 Malvasia which was grown on sandy soil, 90% Malvaisa and 10% other grapes like Arinto that were part of a field blend (basically when random vines grow haphazardly and no one is really sure exactly what is where!)  It had a light gold color with a nose of grassy herbs and something beautifully pungent I like to call 'dirty sock'.  It was quite dry but very tasty, with lemon tartness and a looooooong finish.  A 500ml bottle retails about €10-11, older vintages retail in the US for $30-40.

Late 19th C aging building.
Next we sampled the 2012 Chão Rijo Branco, mostly Malvasia with Fernão Pires, Arinto and Jampal, grown on more inland clay soil.  This was a pale greenish gold, with lemon/lime fruit on the nose.  It was a little zesty, light and fruity, with good bright acidity.  Very quaffable with a medium long length, simple but good.  €3,50-3,60 (2011 US $13).

To the reds!  The 2001 Ramisco was a light garnet color, with a very dusty/musty nose of dried cherries.  It was fairly light with an "interesting ride:" forward fruit, then tannins came through, then the fruit rose to prominence again.  It was high in acid and had very grippy tannins.  Francisco thought this was almost there, "Fifteen to twenty years after the harvest is when it has its best expression." €13-14 (some US vintages around $40.)

I really loved the 2006 Ramisco.  It was a medium garnet color, with an intriguing nose of iodine and cranberry.  There were herb and floral notes as well, and it showed more fruit expression, with Asian spice and pepper on the finish.  Really lovely.  €10-10,50 (some US vintages around $40.)

Finally, the 2011 Chão Rijo Tinto, which was 80% Castelão and 20% Tinta Roriz.  It was a medium ruby color with a berry salad nose, bright acid in the mouth with lots of fruit and very soft tannins on the finish.  At about €3,50 it was an incredible value!  (US 2009 & 2010 ~ $16.)

Adega Regional de Colares wines ready for sale.

After my tasting, I thanked Francisco, who gave me one more wine as a gift - a 2007 Blend of Arinto and Malvasia commemorative bottling (which I served at my New Year's Eve dinner party alongside a portobello risotto recipe from Lisbon's wonderful Cantinho do Avillez restaurant.  It was gorgeous!)

Palacio Nacional, Sintra
After leaving the Adega Regional de Colares, I wandered around looking for a way back to Sintra and finally used my rudimentary Portuguese in a coffee shop where they called a taxi for me and I felt wonderfully immersed in a non-touristy slice of life!  Back in Sintra, I marveled at the Palacio Nacional and had a lovely lunch at restaurant Tulhas.

All in all, it was a perfect day.  And I had another wine trip coming up the next morning... so stay tuned.



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