Colares: Wines by the Waves

Colares: Wines by the Waves

Colares is a small appellation in the westernmost part of mainland Portugal. Here, Malvasia de Colares and Ramisco, two indigenous grape varieties, grow ungrafted in beach sand, locally known as chão de areia, untouched by phylloxera. While the region has other soils and grapes, only the wines made primarily from these grapes, grown on the sand, can be labeled as Colares.

The area is dominated by the Atlantic Ocean, which provides moderating winds that are particularly strong in the growing season, not only carrying cold air from the sea but also raising the level of humidity. Vines in Colares are planted deep in the ground, in the clay and limestone soils beneath the sand. They are trained low to encourage the grapes to ripen and for protection from cold breezes. In the traditional vineyards, the vines are old, viticulture is backbreaking, and yields are small, but the resulting wines are refreshingly balanced.

At its zenith in the 1930s, Colares spanned 1,800 planted hectares (4,500 acres), producing millions of bottles of wine annually. Because of tourism, economic factors, and changing trends, plantings decreased to just 12 hectares (30 acres) by 1999. Today, however, plantings are beginning to increase again, and Colares is receiving the attention it deserves.

The Phylloxera Survivor

When phylloxera arrived in Europe from the United States, it devastated vineyards, and very few vines were unaffected. But phylloxera, an aphid that feeds on plant roots, cannot infect vines growing beneath the sand; the sand acts as a buffer, protecting the roots. As other regions succumbed to phylloxera, Colares became famous for supplying high-quality wine when the global supply was sparse. Today, growers in Colares can still plant directly in the ground without grafting onto American rootstocks.

The first challenge to the thriving Colares wine industry was when the important Brazilian market collapsed because of the Wall Street crash of 1929. Fraud had also begun to rise. In response, the Adega Regional de Colares cooperative was established, in 1931. António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese prime minister from 1932 to 1968, granted the co-op a monopoly on Colares wines in 1938.

During the 1960s, Portugal’s economy was liberalized, resulting in a prosperity that led to the conversion of vineyards into fashionable summer retreats and hotels near Lisbon, the country’s capital. Lisbon and other larger cities began to attract people from rural areas, leaving elderly landowners without anyone to inherit their vineyards.

Later, beginning in the mid-1980s, changing trends in wine also presented challenges to Colares. The region’s wines did not offer the fruit and alcohol levels sought by consumers, who preferred so-called international varieties and styles. The labor-intensive traditional viticulture in Colares was no longer economically viable. By 1999, vineyard plantings had decreased to a mere 12 hectares (30 acres).

The cooperative’s monopoly continued for several years after Portugal joined the EU, in 1986; it was dismantled in 1994. Joining the EU provided Portugal with many important opportunities, including funding to elevate wine industry standards. But a significant challenge persisted: the EU exclusively supported winemaking projects involving vineyards grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, a rule established to minimize risk. Representatives from the cooperative spent years trying to persuade the EU to include Colares in its funding programs, which they succeeded at 30 years after Portugal joined the EU.

Today, the determination to see Colares thrive is palpable in the region. Colares was on the verge of disappearing from the wine industry not long ago, but progress is being made, with vineyard plantings expanding to 18 hectares (45 acres) in this millennium. The local government has begun zoning land specifically for agricultural purposes, reducing the cost of land and protecting it from other development. Both smaller producers and the co-op have planted new vineyards, which are devoted mostly to Malvasia, balancing the proportion that Ramisco once dominated. These Malvasia vines not only offer better yields and are easier to cultivate but also align with market trends favoring fresh white wines.

Terroir Essentials: Geology, Climate, and Soil

Colares is near Lisbon, but, unlike the capital, it is not protected from the Atlantic Ocean. Because the Atlantic is cold year-round, Colares has an extreme maritime climate.

The pronounced fog in Colares diminishes the effect of the sun by acting as a filter. Even at the peak of summer, it can take several hours for the sun to warm and dry the vineyards through the fog. Because of the reduced sunlight and the cooling influence of the sea, there is a monthly mean temperature difference of less than 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year.

Average humidity is consistently high, never dropping below 78%, but it rises during summer, with an average of 86% humidity in August. The humidity varies throughout the day, peaking in both morning and afternoon.

The vineyards of Colares are planted in golden beach sand, which has poor water-holding capacity. Once the fog clears, the sun can bake the sand without significant water evaporation. This results in a period of a few hours in which the fungal pressure is tolerable. Beneath the sand, which is devoid of humus, worms, and other living organisms, are clay and limestone soils, where the vines can root and absorb nutrients.

A Viticulture of Its Own

Because grapevines cannot grow in the sand, growers must dig 1 to 4 meters (3.3 to 13 feet) of sand away to reach the clay-limestone soil underneath. Here, own-rooted vines are planted, typically by massal selection. As the vines grow, growers gradually put the sand back until the surface is level. The vine will be rooted in the deeper clay-limestone soil, with permanent wood growth extending through the sandy soils up to the surface of the vineyard.

Training and pruning methods are also distinctive in Colares. A traditional vineyard is not easily recognized by the uninitiated. Sporadic plantings of apple trees and vines cover the sand. The apple trees are low, approximately 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall, and the trunks of the vines lie flat on the sand. The vines are not pruned, and they expand over a large surface; 7 to 10 square meters (75 to 108 square feet) is not uncommon in traditional vineyards. A vine this size will have an extremely thick trunk and carry a massive amount of hardwood, perhaps 15 times higher than that of a typical vine.

Modern vineyards are more ordered, with visible rows, typically with wires or poles to support the vines. These vines are short pruned, with the rule book, the caderno, stating that the lowest wire cannot be higher than 30 centimeters (12 inches). The vines appear more ordered but still unlike those of a traditional vineyard, with vines trained low and grape clusters lying flat on the ground for most of the season.

As grapes mature, a few precautions must be taken to protect them. Beginning at veraison, growers must attend to rot and pests. To prevent grapes from rotting, small sticks are used to elevate the clusters, allowing airflow and sun exposure while keeping the clusters close enough to the sand that they will absorb the sunlight and warmth reflected to them. This is backbreaking vineyard labor—the trunk lies flat on the ground and the clusters must be lifted from the surface individually to position the small sticks in the sand.

Parakeets and other birds like to feed on the maturing grapes. Newspaper is crumbled and spread under the vines, where it makes crunchy sounds when the birds land, which they supposedly dislike.

The biggest problem, however, is downy mildew, which thrives in the cold and humid climate. Its spores can even hibernate in the soils because of the high winter temperatures. Some growers use copper, but others uphold the stricter limit of organics. Attaching the copper to the plant is a challenge because of the high humidity. The copper doesn’t stick well, requiring multiple sprays. Plant extracts are a viable alternative.

The Grapes of Colares

In Colares, the two main varieties are traditionally coplanted. Ramisco and Malvasia de Colares must represent 80% in the blend of DOC wines, but the wines are often closer to varietal bottlings. Both grapes ripen late. Ramisco ripens 10 to 12 days later than Tempranillo, and Malvasia de Colares ripens 2 to 4 days later than Ramisco.

Because most of the Ramisco and Malvasia de Colares plantings worldwide are in Colares, it is difficult to determine which vineyard factors influence the resulting wines. The traditional vineyards are affected by leaf roll, resulting in fewer grapes, with less color, more acidity, and less sugar accumulation. This can partly explain the low alcohol levels of the wines, which often hover around 12% ABV. The Atlantic Ocean has a dramatic impact on this region, and the amount of salt (NaCl) in white wines surpasses 100 milligrams per liter, which is substantial and could contribute to the mineral sensation of the wines.

The white grape Malvasia de Colares is genetically unique in the varied category of Malvasia. It is the offspring of Hebén and Amaral, both relatively unknown today. Hebén is also a parent of Pedro Ximénez, and Amaral is a red grape found mainly in Vinho Verde. Malvasia de Colares grapes are susceptible to sunburn after veraison, so the vines are covered with straw or herbs for protection. The wines have high acidity and low alcohol but are fuller bodied than might be expected of a wine with this level of alcohol. The fruit is tart and typically green, backed by citrus flavors. Other aromas include briny, saline notes and waxy undertones, which sometimes develop into TDN aromas.

Ramisco is a red grape of unknown origin. The grapes are small, with thick skins. The skins, however, add only slight color to the wines. Ramisco is a late-ripening variety, which is often evident in the wines, where a vegetal, green character reflects low phenolic ripeness. The structure of Ramisco wines is reminiscent of Barolo, featuring high acidity and high tannin but lower alcohol, often around or below 12% ABV.

Ramisco wines are rarely released when young, although the rules permit release after two years of maturation. When young, the wines are robust and fruity but lack elegance. The tradition of maturing the wines in bottle dates back to at least 1941, when a decree was issued that required 18 months of bottle aging prior to sale. Today, however, most producers release their wines after four to seven years. With age, Ramisco wines develop complexity and a graceful character.


Because the cooperative had a monopoly from 1938 to 1994, winemaking in Colares was standard for many years. The cooperative still sells wine to merchants, who further mature them. Until the 1950s, lagares—large, open vats common in Douro—were used to ferment the wines. During the 1960s and 1970s, large, wooden auto-vinificators were used. While these are impressive vessels, the system lacked temperature control, fermenting the wines dry in two days. After this period, the quality of bottles became varied, and the co-op’s production decreased.

Today at the cooperative, most wines are fermented in stainless steel, typically with native yeasts. For the red wines, malolactic conversion usually occurs either simultaneous with or immediately after alcoholic fermentation; it rarely occurs for the white wines. The red wines macerate for 10 to 12 days with pumpovers, then remain on the fine lees for 18 months before being moved to large vats made of Brazilian wood, where they rest for approximately five years. The white wines receive no bâtonnage, but a small portion of the wine matures for six months in old wood.

Other producers in Colares follow similar winemaking practices, though the time in oak and the type of oak vary. Ramilo Wines takes a different approach, partly macerating its white wines, resulting in an orange wine character, yet these bottles still reflect the typical qualities of Colares wine. In red winemaking, there are more impactful stylistic choices, particularly around stem inclusion. Casca Wines, for example, destems, then adds stems back in. The duration of skin contact also varies. Some producers practice longer, slower macerations, while others extract more but in less time. Additionally, most producers allow their wines to rest for an extended period in large wooden vats, but some opt for a shorter period of maturation in smaller barrels to retain more fruit character.

Before the 1970s, 650-milliliter bottles were the standard in Colares. This was followed by a period of using 750-milliliter bottles, but the co-op switched to 500-milliliter bottles because of production scarcity. Today, Colares wines are available in either 500- or 750-milliliter bottles.

Looking Ahead

The future of Colares is promising. The number of vineyards and producers is on the rise, and the region’s wines are increasingly earning acclaim. Although Colares is a very small wine-producing region, and its plantings will never return to their previous heights, the novelty and scarcity of its wines are powerful factors in the international wine market.

Greater diversity is also likely in Colares. Ramilo has introduced a rosé and a sparkling wine made from ungrafted Ramisco grapes grown on sandy soil. Because rosé and sparkling wines are not permitted within the DOC, they are labeled Lisboa IGP. Colares DOC could be expanded to include both rosé and sparkling wines in the future. Some people have also suggested recognizing Sintra, the municipality in which Colares is located, as an IGP to more clearly differentiate the area’s wines that are grown on clay-limestone soils or made with other grape varieties. Similarly, defining subregions based on natural characteristics, such as proximity to the ocean or the type of sand present, could create more opportunities for producers to communicate the differences among their wines. There is an area in the northern part of Colares, for example, where the sand is dark instead of golden, a distinction that might be reflected in the final wine if the grapes were vinified separately.

Whether through legal changes or creative efforts by producers, Colares will continue to evolve as the region’s determined growers and winemakers focus on making their singular wines.

You Might Also Like


Asimov, Eric. “Colares, Where the Vineyards Snake through the Sand.” New York Times, August 3, 2017.

Harding, Julia, Jancis Robinson, and Tara Q. Thomas. The Oxford Companion to Wine. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Maltman, Alex. Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils: The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2012. 

Russan, Alex. “The Science of Salinity in Wine.” SevenFifty Daily, February 7, 2022.

Schoenfeld, Bruce. “Colares: On the Beach.” The World of Fine Wine, July 28, 2023.

Skelton, Stephen. Viticulture: An Introduction to Commercial Grape Growing for Wine Production. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, 2009.

Sussman, Zachary. “Into the Heart of Wine’s Lost Region.” Punch, September 24, 2015.

Vitis International Variety Catalogue. Accessed May 2, 2024.

Woolf, Simon J., and Ryan Opaz. Foot Trodden: Portugal and the Wines That Time Forgot. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2021.

Yarrow, Alder. “Tasting though the Sands of Time: The Miracle of Colares Wine.” Vinography (blog), August 6, 2016.