IT’S NOT MERELY A WINE; IT’S A REGION OF HISTORY, DIVERSITY AND QUALITY: Part 1
Doug Frost MS MW on Portugal’s largest and most misunderstood DOP
If you think you know Vinho Verde, it may be time to reconsider.
With a new emphasis on single-variety and single-subregion Vinho Verde wines, this centuries-old region offers many examples of genuine excellence.
Within the current system for wine education, students have B-L-I-C drummed into them as the defining qualities for excellence: balance, length, intensity and complexity. Typical Vinho Verde wines express a tangy intensity that lingers long after the initial floral and orchard fruit notes have lost their specificity. The grapes of the new Vinho Verde carry both intensity and distinctive flavors. Most famously, Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain, just across the border) is grown mostly near the River Minho, predominantly in the subregion of Monção e Melgaço. Enjoying more warmth, the grape can show orchard fruit variations of apple, pear, apricot, peach and nectarine, along with all manner of citrus fruits. It tends toward richer flavors and higher alcoholic content than its peers. Vinho Verde wines from Monção e Melgaço represent some of the most sought-after Alvarinho in Portugal and beyond.
The Loureiro grape has peach and apricot flavors alongside distinct floral aromas even when its mild ripeness allows only for alcohol levels of about 9%. Trajadura is more overtly textured, retaining the character of melons, apples and pears. Arinto is arguably one of Iberia’s greatest white grapes, remarkably ageworthy among Portuguese whites. Here, it is often called Pedernā, but it carries through fascinating mineral notes that make it a star in its home region of Bucelas. Avesso, like Alvarinho, can ripen enough to add body and weight to any blend and it often shows some floral notes. Azal tends to be planted in drier, more exposed soils in the Amarante, Basto, Baião and Sousa subregions, with a lighter, citrus character that, like Arinto, can improve with time. A small amount of aromatic Fernão Pires pops up too.
Irish whiskey pros have traditionally used the term “moreish” to describe their favorites (by this, they mean drinking it makes you want more). I find the notion applicable to wine balance too. The best wines offer pleasure on the first taste and then, usually via the vehicle of acidity, pull back, dry out the palate, and create as much thirst as they do satiety. Wines like Vinho Verde leave me wanting more.
These characteristics are not a trick of winemaking, but a reflection of place. Driving into the lush river valleys around the northern Portuguese province of Minho is rarely a sunny experience; most times, it is drizzly or just plain soggy. As much as the Douro of northern Portugal is defined by its mountains and the blazing hot summer sun, the Minho is demarcated by its proximity to the ocean and the rivers that drain into it. Rivers run parallel across the region from east to west at seemingly even intervals, providing air flow in both directions. When the interior warms up, the air rises, and the colder and wetter it becomes near the coast. The land grows green and lush.
Doug Frost is a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier as well as an author and wine consultant based in Kansas City, Mo. Frost is one of three individuals in the world to hold simultaneously the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles, achieving his MS in 1991 and MW in 1993. Wine Spectator has bestowed the accolade of Master of Spirits on Frost. He is the author of three books, Uncorking Wine (1996), On Wine (2001), and Far From Ordinary: The Spanish Wine Guide (third edition, 2009) and is a contributing editor of the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, forthcoming in 2020.