Vinho Verde is Not Just Fizzy Fun*

*Unedited version of my New Brunswick Telegraph Journal Good Drink Column from September 2012

Most people associate Vinho Verde with simple, low alcohol white wines with lots of acidity, a bit of fizz, and green apple/lemony citrus notes. While that description fits most of the wines reasonably well, my travels this week in Portugal have shown the region to be capable of much more than that.  In fact this northernmost wine region of Portugal used to make mainly red wines, although that changed several decades ago.

Verde refers to the lush greenness of the area, something that is clearly noted when travelling through the hilly countryside filled with trees, corn crops, quaint, rustic homes with red tile roofs, and grapes, which grow practically everywhere, not just in commercial vineyards. It seems every home has its own grapes growing on overhead pergola-style vine training systems, often with granite posts. These are seen in every town, in almost every yard, in parks and even over bike paths, as I found out on a ride along the Lima River.

 This old fashioned training system may be normal for these areas, but has practically disappeared in commercial vineyards, where they have moved to the more internationally used French cordon system, or variations thereof, in neat, 1.5-2 metres high, rows which allow grapes to ripen better and allow easier harvesting, including using automated harvesters.

The other big change to Vinho Verde that modern winemaking has brought to the region is the way in which the wines get their slight fizz. Historically this was achieved by allowing wines to undergo some malolactic fermentation in the bottle, which would create bubbles and often make the wine a bit cloudy. This is impractical for commercial production of wines that are now exported by the millions of bottles all over the world. They now use CO2 injection to get their tiny bubbles, or, in the case of certain, more serious, dry dinner style wines that are typically single varietal (Alvarinho, Loureiro), they don’t have any fizz at all.

Interestingly, this CO2 fizz also heightens the perceived acidity on the palate, and allows a wine with relatively low measured acidity and high sugar content to seem fresh and dry,yet with the forward fruitiness that sugar encourages.

During the week I have been taken to several of the nine sub-regions of Vinho Verde, starting from the city of Porto in the south west on the coast, up north through the Ave and Cávado sub-regions to Lima, then further North to Monção e Melgaço, where the Alvarinho grape is king. Today we went east from Porto through Sousa to Amarante and back, visiting various estates to try their wares.

Portugal is a land of many grape varieties, but, as per, there are 15 key ones used in Vinho Verde, that stand out as the best quality and the most common.  Most of the basic Vinho Verde whites are blends, often of the floral Loureiro and apricot laden, rich and floral Alvarinho, alongside Arinto and Trajedura, and sometimes Avesso and/or Azal.

Alvarinho is arguably the best grape of the region, although many Vinho Verdes do not contain any Alvarinho at all.  I tasted several wines made from 100% Loureiro that were very Gewurztraminer-like, as good as most Alvarinho,  There is a trend to dry, dinner wines, and to single varietal wines, and certain producers are making oaked wines, although I personally don’t believe this improves the wine; it just makes it suitable for different food types.  We also tried some decent reds, particularly the wines from Aphros. As with any region, though, the wines run the whole range from simple to good, not so good, and occasionally to complex and excellent.

One thing is for certain: the Alvarinho from the northern Monção e Melgaço sub-region deserves notice in the rest of the world, as it ranks up with those from its neighbour, Spain, but tends to be less expensive. I’ve often said to my wine friends that Alvarinho deserves to be considered one of the top white grapes in the world alongside Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Perhaps this will happen, yet.

We tasted a 2004-2011 vertical from a producer named Soalheiro that taught us a lesson. Not only is Alvarinho exciting, aromatic, full bodied and sporting good acidity when young, it also ages very nicely in the short term, developing a honeyed richness and complexity somewhat along the lines of Riesling and Hunter Valley Semillon.

As with any wine region I visit outside of North America, it is hard not to notice the extremely inexpensive prices here. A very decent Vinho Verde can be had for 2 euros ($2.50 Cdn), although that inflates to over $10 Cdn by the time it hits the ANBL shelves in Canada. Still, these are good value, and there is no good reason why the ANBL couldn’t list several of the better wines instead of just selling the basic entry level wines, which are admittedly good value quaffers.

I have to admit that I am stupefied that the ANBL currently has no Alvarinho on its shelves, not from any part of the wine world. That’s a problem.

Some good choices would be Alvarinho from Soalherio or Solar de Serrade, Lourerio from Quinta de Gomariz, and some of the other single varietal wines from various producers. Consumers are hungry for new grapes! Feed them!

There isn’t much wine from Vinho Verde to choose from at the ANBL, so I’ll looking at the rest of Canada to ship in some personal stock based on what I tasted this week, but we can buy the Gazela, a nice little fizzy, citrussy sipper for $10.49.  It is 9% alcohol, with a bit of sugar but balanced with acidity, and made from Loureiro, Pedernã, Trajadura and Azal grapes.  I visited their estate yesterday and was DULY impressed. It is very modern, yet housed in an 11th century feudal lord’s castle.