Like everything born of Sintra, the Arenae Colares Malvasia is of and from the sea.
I had the good fortune to spend several weeks last summer exploring Lisbon and its surrounding environs, including an unforgettable day in Sintra, guided by two friends of mine who grew up there.
Sintra, the westernmost point in Europe, is a community of fairytale castles and tiny villages perched on mountains cascading into the ocean. These mountains are loosely connected by lengths of sand stolen from the sea – beaches with signs urging swimmers and surfers to be wary, lest she unexpectedly comes to take her sands back from under their feet. Most of these beaches – or at least the best of them – are “praias escondidas,” “hidden beaches,” with entrances by way of mountain passages known only to locals. Speaking over waves breaking with the voices of sirens, my friends explained that the cautionary signs remind those who have lived here in mutual respect with the ocean for generations to still take care, for she can be a fairweather and fickle friend.
Colares is the smallest D.O.C. (Denominação de Origem Controlada) in Portugal, just footsteps from the Atlantic, with vineyards protected from the harsh ocean winds by sandy dunes. Most famously, its sandy soils proved inhospitable to the phylloxera louse, meaning that some of the oldest vine stock in Europe still calls Colares home. The characteristics of the soil that held off the phylloxera, however, are not much more welcoming to the vines themselves. From what I could learn through a bit of research, farmers have for centuries tapped into a nutrient-rich layer of clay soil, well below the initial layers of sand. There they plant the vines, coaxing them to grow and thrive, propping them up enough to keep the grapes from burning on the hot ground, but still low enough to protect them from the wind. Nestled behind stone walls and fences, they allow the sand to fill back in over years, once the roots have taken hold.
You can immediately taste the sun drenched, weather beaten, hard-won fruits of these labors in the depth and dry complexity of Arenae’s Malvasia. It opens with sherry and salinity on the nose. At first touch on the tongue, it carries the salt of the breeze off the ocean along with a warm, rounded tartness – like biting into an apple on the beach so that its juices mix with the flavors of sand and seaweed in the air. A slight oxidation seems to draw out olive oil green and bitter orange notes and pulls all of the flavors together. At first the finish is reminiscent of a fino sherry, then it gently fades into the taste of ocean sprays in the cooling air at sunset with sand between your toes.
The red wines of the Colares region have been compared to French Bordeaux wines; this Malvasia rivals the intricacy of a high-end Jura Chardonnay – without much “funkiness” (though perhaps with a little bacalhau somewhere on the finish). While Arenae’s Malvasia could easily be drunk on its own, Portuguese wines are created to be enjoyed with simple, fresh, and subtly spiced food. This wine would pair beautifully with fresh-caught seafood, steamed green vegetables drizzled with a little olive oil, salads made with ripe tomatoes, and summer fruits.
After hundreds of years of snatching life from the sand and the sea in order to produce limited quantities of this and other stunning Colares wines, the hectares of vineyards have begun to shrink annually. Today traditional farming families are succumbing to the pressures of developers and the expansion of resorts into this beautiful region. Knowing this, and knowing the small quantity of this already rare wine that has ever made it out of Portugal at all, I find myself becoming a little covetous… We currently have, between our South End and Cambridge shops, 8 bottles of the 2008 Arenae’s Colares Malvasia. Give us a call or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like us to set one aside for you!
David Lincoln Ross’ “The World’s Most Endangered Wine Region: Portugal’s Colares Appellation“
Arnold Waldstein’s “Arenae Colares Malvasia…As rare, as interesting, as satisfying as wine can be“
“Feet Buried in the Sand” from Keith Levenberg’s Cellar-Book
Marianne Staniunas is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.