There’s really no better pairing in the world than the right wine in the right season. And have I got the wine for you: It’s thirst-quenching, low in alcohol, bone dry and crisp as a thin slice of lemon, just crying out to be drunk this summer. It’s the Portuguese version of summertime in a bottle: Vinho Verde.
You may have seen Vinho Verde on the cheap shelf at the wine shop, stocked on a low shelf. That’s where the rather unpleasant sweetened versions lurk—wines that the Portuguese themselves wouldn’t drink. These wines are often concocted by importers looking to tap into the sugar-frenzied American wine market that went out of style 10 years ago. Forget those wines.
The wines that interest me are the refreshing, dry white Vinho Verdes. There are fruit flavors aplenty in these wines: grapefruit, lime, lemon, green plums. And holding it all together is fresh, vibrant, appetite-enhancing acidity. Vinho Verde comes from northern Portugal, from the region known as the Minho, which is named for the river that separates Portugal from Spain’s Galicia province. It’s wet in the remote Minho; any European who tunes in to his TV weatherman knows that this is where the rain first hits Europe after its journey across the Atlantic. It’s also a relatively cool, humid zone. So it’s no wonder that Vinho Verde is a cool-climate wine, a complete contrast to the hot-climate wines of central Portugal, or the Douro Valley.
A Selection of Portugal’s Best Vinho Verdes
92 Quinta do Ameal 2003 Escolha (Vinho Verde); $25. Wood and Vinho Verde don’t mix, say the pundits. Yes, they can, if the wood is handled as sensitively as it is here. The toast is just there, but its job is to enhance and enlarge the dense, intense green fruit flavors. A fine white wine that is creamy and delicious. Editors’ Choice.
The following are delicious, bone-dry Vinho Verdes that are not yet available in the U.S. Ask your retailers or local distributors for them, and maybe their availability will change.
All reviews by European Editor Roger Voss.
Most Vinho Verdes are blended wines produced from a mélange of Portuguese grapes, including Loureiro, Trajadura, Arinto, Azal and Avesso. In the far north of the Minho, Alvarinho shines, and as such, is sometimes produced as a single-varietal wine. On the other side of the Minho River, in Spain, Alvarinho is known as Albariño.
In blended Vinho Verdes, each grape adds something important to the mix. The Loureiro is juicy and aromatic, adding lots of flavor. The Trajadura lends delicacy. The Arinto makes very fragrant wines. Azal is more rustic. The Alvarinho, which is the most expensive and sought-after of the grapes in the blend, produces the most powerful, rich wines, packed with aromas and flavor.
Climate encourages profligacy
The climate in the Minho encourages profligacy. Plants grow everywhere: up walls, around rocks. Everywhere that there is some earth, something is planted in it. Grapevines, too, seem to appear spontaneously around the edges of fields, supported on precarious wooden pergolas, or climbing up trees. Vines like this don’t produce grapes for quality wines; serious producers in the region now plant conventional vineyards as a matter of course.
With people, as with plants, this is the most populated region of Portugal, with half the country’s population crowded into the fertile valleys between the granite mountains. Grapes have been grown here since the Roman times. Wines from what is now the Vinho Verde DOC were being exported to Britain in the 17th century, from the port of Viana do Castello, long before the Douro and Port wines were shipped from Oporto.
Vineyard parcels here are very small. That is part of the region’s charm, but is also a huge drawback in terms of quality. "We have 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of vines and 35,000 growers," says Manuel Pinheiro, president of the Vinho Verde Commission. "Most of the growers are part-time farmers, and most grow grapes as part of a range of crops. It’s hard to push quality."
Hard, but not impossible. Private estates as well as more forward-thinking cooperatives are boosting the level of quality in this most conservative of Portuguese regions. They are the ones who encourage growers to take their vines off the high pergolas and line them in neat trellised rows. They tell growers to plant the right type of vine in the right place, and restrict yields.
"Ten thousand hectares have been planted in the last five years," said Pinheiro, "and it’s been planted properly, none of the cultivation around the fields or up trees. The raw material is there."
Most famous of the estates is Aveleda, which is owned by the Guedes family. Joint president Antonio Guedes says that "we try and set an example to smaller growers. And when we buy grapes from them, we give a premium for quality." But, he acknowledges, "there is still a lot of cheap wine out there."
Dry wine requires good equipment
The quality of Aveleda’s wines, I’ve found, has increased dramatically in recent years. Always reliable, they are now very good indeed. "I think there is a future for the drier styles," Guedes says, explaining the improvement. "All the sweeter styles are so similar." Making dry wines requires good equipment, which Aveleda now has.
"We have equipped our winery to take grapes, not wine, and we have expanded our own vineyards," says Guedes.
Because of its size, Aveleda can be an example to smaller growers looking to improve their products. Other private estates, too, offer shining paradigms of what Vinho Verde can be. Pedro Araujo’s Quinta do Ameal, a 29-acre property in Ponte de Lima, is one such estate. The organically run vineyard is located on the banks of the Lima River, its steep slopes jutting close to the riverbank.
Araujo’s Vinho Verde relies on the Loureiro grape, which Araujo, Ameal’s owner-winemaker, describes as "the perfect grape for the Ponte de Lima region." He makes two styles of wine: a fresh, unwooded style, and a wooded bottling that he calls "Escolha." It’s rare to see Vinho Verde that has spent time in wood, and it’s an even rarer occurrence when the combination actually works. "The secret," says Araujo, "is to use the wood as a light touch of spice, and no more."
What’s particularly notable (and very unexpected) about Araujo’s Vinho Verdes is their ability to age. Tasting through the past five vintages of both his wooded and unwooded bottlings, many of them were still holding up well. I know, five years is not a long lifespan for many other wines, but in terms of Vinho Verde, where normally the latest vintage is the only one worth having, it’s like forever. Those extra years in bottle gave the Escholha a dominant creamy character rather than one of green fruits, while the 2002 vintage of the unwooded wine had become attractively nutty.
Minho Valley – Alvarinho
Across the mountains in the Minho Valley, the grape of choice is Alvarinho, not Loureiro. The cooperative at Monção is in the heart of Alavarinho country. With 1,800 growers and sales of $12 million, they are easily the most successful cooperative in Vinho Verde. How? "We have Alvarinho, we make a good product, and we do good marketing—it’s simple," Armando Fontainhas, the co-op’s economist, explains. And the good thing is that the co-op’s wines are available in the U.S.
Nearby, the 34-acre estate of Quinta da Pedra has the largest parcel of Alvarinho under single ownership in Portugal. However treasured in these parts, the grape does have its drawbacks, as winemaker Jorge Moura explains.
"It oxidizes fast, so you need to press fast, and you need to have a long, cool fermentation. This allows the grape to express all its flavors." Moura produces two wines from the estate: Senhoria, which has 5 percent Trajadura in with the Alvarinho; and the estate wine, which is 100 percent Alvarinho. Both are good. Sadly only the estate wine is currently available in America.
So why aren’t more of these fine, delicious, crisp, dry wines brought to U.S. shores? "Producers don’t think the market is ready for them," says Pinheiro. "That’s what the American importers tell them." It’s about time consumers and wine drinkers told the importers that they have it all wrong. And now that Vinho Verde producers can deliver some delicious, dry wines, it’s time we got a chance to taste them.