Vines in the sand - Colares

It's hard to imagine now, but the vineyards of Colares, near Lisbon, once covered a thousand hectares and produced more than a million litres of wine a year. In its early 20th century heyday this was a very significant wine region, and there are still cellars full of old wine to prove it.

It's a different story today. Caught between the expanding city and the sea, the land under vine is down to around 20 hectares. To put that in context, Burgundy's highly-prized Grand Cru vineyard, Clos Vougeout, is more than double that size. And the bulldozers are still moving in.

This is not an easy place to make wine. It is foggy and windy, so the vines are trained along the ground, with each shoot held up by sticks. And the ground itself is very sandy - the vines are practically on the beach. That makes the whole process arduous, but this unique situation is also the source of the wine's special quality.

When Phylloxera destroyed most of Europe's vineyards at the end of the 19th century, a handful of areas survived unscathed. Only places like Colares, Santorini and the Canary Islands had enough sand in their soils to keep it out. That means what little vineyard land is left in Colares contains almost uniquely old, ungrafted vines capable of producing wine of the highest quality.

The local co-operative, Adega Regional de Colares, embodies the story of the region's wines. It is housed in a magnificent 19th century, cathedral-like building, and controls most of the remaining vineyards. The wines made here are uncompromisingly traditional in style - challenging but satisfying, ageworthy, and built for the table. They are all bottled in traditional smaller (50cl) bottles, to accelerate the ageing process.

The red, made from local variety Ramisco, easily lives for 20 years (some locals think it peaks at 60!) After five years in exotic wood barrels and an additional year in barriques, it is tannic and high in acidity. Distinctive to this place, an authentic expression of its long history, it is the opposite of a modern, fruity, anonymous wine. With 18 years of age behind it, the 2001 is now ready to drink.

The white grape is Malvasia de Colares, fermented in stainless steel and aged for four months in exotic wood, the wine it produces is complex and a little oxidative in style.

These are very unusual, rare, historic wines from a region on the verge of extinction. Try them while you still can.