There is happy news for those of us who have been quietly bemoaning the lack of depth in the Exciting White Wine category. While we have been sourcing and quaffing wonderful whites with less-than-familiar varietal names from countries like Greece, Italy, Germany and others, Portugal has been somewhat ignored. But no longer. Grab your corkscrew because the style and quality of white wine from Vinho Verde will rock your world.
I was in Portugal as one of five international wine judges at the 2010 Best of Vinho Verde competition. The awards ceremony, held in the Palácio da Bolsa in Porto, highlighted the wineries, wines and winemakers destined to shake up white wine lovers everywhere.
It won’t surprise you to find out that wines from the region (all called Vinho Verdes) are mostly white, but it may shock you to find out that reds, rosés, sparklers and brandies are also made there. The competition, sponsored by the eight-decade-old appellations body Comissão de Viticulture da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (CVRVV), was open to all designated wines; about 400 entered. We judges had the extremely pleasant job of choosing the best five from among the thirty top scorers. The winners were all very impressive white table wines with personality, a little pucker and a lot of pluck. But chances are, you won’t know any of the grape names or much about the area where they are grown.
The Vinho Verde region produces a prodigious amount of wine — 120 million bottles per year, most of which are consumed in the country — and is Portugal’s sweet spot for white wines. With 34,000 hectares in grapes and almost as many growers, the area boasts 289,000 vineyards and 600 bottlers. There are seven “recommended” indigenous white grapes: Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Batoca, Loureiro and Trajadura, and another eighteen “authorized” varietals. Although many of these stand very well alone, they also make blends as harmonious as Simon and Garfunkel.
You probably recognize the traditional semi-sparkling Vinho Verde we’ve been getting. Typically made from Loureiro or Alvarinho varietals, it is effervescent, with lower alcohol content and bright acidity, and is considered to be a summery poolside or salad wine. If you’ve visited the Algarve, Portugal’s popular tourist destination, you may have had a restaurant’s house white: an unbottled, slightly sweet, highly-carbonated wine they call Vinho Verde. But don’t be fooled. These light wines have their place and their fans, but compare to the competition winners like a high school band to Bono.
The best of the Best of Vinho Verde were white table wines (no effervescence). Two were Arinto, one was Azal, one was Avesso and one was a blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes. One producer, Quinta de Gomariz, took home two of the five trophies, and six golds out of twenty-one. When we visited this winery in the Ave sub region (one of nine) after the competition, I went Lady Gaga over the wines.
Quinta de Gomariz’s cobblestone driveway through vineyards is lined with vines trained to form a shady pergola, an attractive lattice tunnel feature repeated at most farms. We were welcomed by owner Manuel da Silva Correia de Sá. Although Quinta de Gomariz is a relative newcomer, solid granite buildings and long rows of vines on soft slopes mean it blends seamlessly with its neighbours.
While walking through vineyards with António Sousa (who consults for 15 wineries), the superstar winemaker talked about the quality of the grapes, and explained with a shy smile that “… they do all the hard work.” As his wineries took home a disproportionately high number of medals, I surmise that he also did his share. I wondered if the amusing chickens and geese roaming the vineyard had a vital role to play, but António informed me that they were there only to pose for photographs. He also explained that the rainbow of roses heading the rows in many vineyards used to function as indicators of the health of the vines, but nowadays, with modern vineyard practices, these roses are only there because they are beautiful. I snapped away.
We tasted the full range of wines inside. From the Quinta’s 27-hectare estate, 250,000 bottles are produced. The wines are as fresh, distinct and as well-designed as their labels.
I fell in love with 2009 QG blend of Loureiro, Alvarinho and Azal. Easy to drink, it is perfectly balanced, flavourful and aromatic with a gripping acidity. The winery sells this wine for 3.7 Euros (about $5 Canadian). I’d gladly buy cases here at three times the price. QG 2009 Avesso was also a top winner with alluring aromas, persistent peachy-orange flavours and a balanced but satisfying acidity. Like the other competition winners (José Teixeira Mendes, Quinta da Levada 2009 Azal, Maria Carmo Tavares Costa, Corga da Cha 2009 Arinto, Soc. Agrícola Casa Vilacetinho and Casa d Vilacetinho 2009 Arinto) these wines are complex, refined, well made and welcoming. All are food-friendly and delicious — and exciting finds in a world of uninspiring whites.
Vinho Verde rosés are made almost exclusively from red grapes Padeiro and Espadeiro. The 2009 QG Espadeiro (a gold medal winner) was my favourite of the few rosés we tasted. Packed with minerals, fruits and a zingy acidity, this fresh dry wine is impressive.
The reds are another matter altogether. Unprepared drinkers could have a tannic attack after a mouthful, because a pencil could stand up without aid in a glass of typical Vinhão — the red grape most often used. So black-hole dense that no light escapes, these wines are impossible to drink alone, but really shine when paired with the region’s cuisine. I drank Quinta da Lixa’s Vinhão with Cabrito no Forno (roast kid) for supper at the winery, and loved the combination of rich, succulent roast meat and olive oil-coddled potatoes with the bone-dry, tannic, acidic red wine. Afros (Winery) owner Vasco Croft paired his Vinhão with sardines with equally enjoyable results. But don’t try this at home.
The Vinho Verde region is very, very green. And hilly — like Paul Bunyan dropped enormous, mostly-smooth rocks everywhere in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. Crisscrossed by rivers and valleys, the undulating landscape and differing granite-based soil structures give rise to a multitude of terroirs.
Unlike the Douro wine region, which is swiftly cropping up tourist facilities, Vinho Verde is still a rural farm area. Although visitors are welcomed warmly, only larger wineries like gorgeous Quinta da Aveleda (also famous for its exceptional cheese) have full-on tourist services. Others, like quintuple bronze medal winner Quinta de Linhares (Agri-Roncáo), which has a charming granite guest house replete with original window seats and modern comforts, have only limited options for dining and staying. Most are simpler still, as they focus their efforts on grape growing and wine making. But things are slowly changing. Quinta da Lixa, for example, is revamping an old manor house surrounded by vineyards, which should be available as a boutique spa hotel in 2011.
From Porto, where we stayed, the most distant winery town, flower-filled Monção, is on the border with Spain, about two hours north and east on modern highways. We visited Reguengo de Melgaço where the air hung heavy like a breath of aromatherapy, with recent rain and smells of pine and eucalyptus. This is Alvarinho country.
Reguengo de Melgaço has been producing Alvarhino for a decade. At a vertical tasting, the gold-tinged-with-green 1999 still had an amazing nose and solid acidity. The 2000 was vibrant with green apple, tropical fruit and honey. And so it went until we tasted the 2009, which won a silver medal in the competition for its floral, passion fruit, peach and honey aromas and flavours. The acidity that made my mouth water, allows the wine to age well. Bring on the seafood!
The Vinho Verde region has the ability to produce great quantities of wines of the quality and character of gold medal winners. Modern winemaking techniques, forward-thinking winemakers and a plethora of superlative grapes that play together harmoniously in blends and also perform brilliantly solo can (and will, with time) satisfy a thirsty market waiting to be entertained.
Get your corkscrew ready for the Elvis of whites and the Sting of rosés. The Vinho Verde band is coming our way and will expect a standing ovation.
For maps, wine route information, accommodation and restaurant locations contact the CVRVV: vinhoverde.pt
Contact the wineries directly for appointments:
Quinta de Gomariz: quintadegomariz.com
Quinta da Lixa: quintadalixa.pt
Quinta de Linhares: agri-roncao.pt
Quinta da Aveleda: aveleda.pt
Quinta de Azevedo: sograpevinhos.eu/en
Reguengo de Melgaço: reguengodemelgaco.pt