IT’S NOT MERELY A WINE; IT’S A REGION OF HISTORY, DIVERSITY AND QUALITY: Part 2
Doug Frost MS MW on Portugal’s largest and most misunderstood DOP.
Starting in the 17th century, the area’s grapevines were relegated to second-class status, with premium land given to the country’s dominant grain. Vines were found on the edges of the fields, trained up into the trees and hedges that marked the corn fields’ boundaries. The enforcado system, often marked by pickers hanging off high ladders at harvest, was once the hallmark of the region. The great Harold Grossman wrote in 1964 of a Rio de Janeiro meal in which each guest drained more than a bottle of Vinho Verde. He wasn’t boasting;
Vinho Verde has classically been a low alcohol affair, offering only a gentle buzz for most. Vinho Verde’s green and lustrous landscape reflects a wet and cool environment where the sort of ripeness associated with warm New World sites is impossible. Alcohols will always be moderate. Regardless of personal taste, the market is veering toward lower-alcohol wines, particularly those that offer varietal intensity. Vinho Verde has both. But with B-L-I-C as the lodestar, can Vinho Verde fulfill each initial in the anagram?
Complexity may be the greatest challenge. And yet, courtesy of a wide group of grapes, Vinho Verde has the opportunity to become more than the sum of its individual parts. Of course, each grape expresses differently from the others. More excitingly, all of the white grapes of Vinho Verde seem capable of reflecting in some flavorful or aromatic manner the specific soils in which they’re planted. Granite prevails throughout the Vinho Verde DOP but there are outcrops of shale, slate and even schist, particularly in the western portions of Lima and Cávado (and just a small piece of Monção e Melgaço), while there are increasingly acidic soils to the east. Each seems to provide its own nervy minerality, and producers can speak of their wines showing differently in all of these spots. Moreover, they all carry the thirst quenching character that has seen sales of white wine growing throughout the world.
Vinho Verde’s wineries and growers have a great opportunity to redefine themselves as a region known for complex, tangy, mineral-driven wines. Premiumization is a term tossed about constantly, but that’s because traditional wine regions understand its importance to their future and that of their heirs. And with such a rich abundance of grape material, Vinho Verde can accomplish that too. The wineries have long since modernized; the vineyards too bear little resemblance to the old photos that still illustrate the wine books. The vine-laden trees on the edges of cornfields, vines growing enforcado, are anachronistic; even the pergolas remain more out of convenience than choice. Most vineyards are planted on more traditional trellises (whether cruzeta or barra, more or less like France’s double guyot) for more uniform ripeness. Still, the humidity pressures that were at least alleviated by the old methods require vigilance in the vineyard — the simple difference between so-so and excellent wines is most often a lack of rot in the grapes.
Yet the march to complexity is no mere gambol into modern winemaking; certainly, the new (old) tools are deployed: battonage, large-format barrels, neutral oak, controlled oxygen exposure. Rather than a discordant chorus of character drowning out the temperament of these grapes, the choices made in the winery are yielding Vinho Verde its true voice.
The new white wines of Vinho Verde are more reflective of their constituent varieties because they have the benefit of greater ripeness. The growers of yesteryear picked early, not so much to achieve an earlier, once desirable style, simplistic and gulpable as it was, but often to avoid rot and mildew. What is ex citing in Vinho Verde is that its integrant grapes—not only Alvarinho, but each and every one of them—has something to say and something to add to the blend.
With so much material available and so many options to explore, Vinho Verde is getting a chance to sing its very own lithesome song, just as the world market is leaning toward a more buoyant style. It’s the obvious moment to ask: Isn’t this Vinho Verde’s time to shine?
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.