Vinho Verde is mounting a comeback
Located in northwest Portugal, the Vinho Verde region has traditionally been best known as a producer of crisp, light, low alcohol, slightly fizzy, quaffable white wines. Some may view these characteristics as negative qualities, but it is precisely their fresh drinkability that is causing people to discover or re-discover the wines from this historic region that was first demarcated in 1908, but for which the earliest references date back to the first century BC.
A significant catalyst for the recognition is that industry and wine consumers alike are starting to realize, albeit in some cases subconsciously, that simple should not be confused with simplistic and drinkability and complexity are not mutually exclusive concepts.
The Vinho Verde region borders the Minho River and Spain to the north, mountain ranges to the east, the Douro River and more mountain ranges to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Within Vinho Verde, there are nine sub-regions. It’s well noted that, after Italy, Portugal has the greatest number of identified indigenous grape varieties compared to any other wine producing country. The region is rich with many of these native grape varieties. Also not a revelation, over 85 percent of the wines produced in the region are white.
Of course, climate, soils, geography and topography all contribute to the character of the wines. The amount of annual rainfall in the region is high, but most of the rain falls in the winter and spring rather than during the growing season. There is not a large diurnal temperature range, so the climate is relatively mild. It can be quite windy in certain areas with maritime breezes blowing in from the coast, contributing to the salinity of those wines. Soils are mostly granite based and well-draining, contributing to the wines’ aromatics, delicacy and minerality.
The traditional refreshing and low alcohol wines of Vinho Verde are representative of the general style that more and more people seem to be drawn to. I am constantly speaking with consumers, restaurateurs and producers, and there appears to be a greater desire for wines that possess drinkability and food affinity. Wine drinkers, it seems, are embracing acidity and wines that are fresh and bright and express the sites in which they are grown versus those that are overwhelmingly rich, oak dominant, heavy and palate fatiguing. It bears repeating that drinkability does not necessarily imply simplistic, nor does it mean complexity and quality must be compromised.
Small producers focussed on minimal intervention and reflecting sense of place in their wines may be leading the way, but large producers have contributed to the renewed interest in the wines of Vinho Verde. In fact, it is the contribution of large producers that is critical to raising awareness with mainstream consumers. According to Portugal’s National Institute of Statistics, during the period 2006-2017, Vinho Verde exports increased from approximately 10 million litres and just over 20 million euros to 26 million litres and 61 million euros.
Aveleda, despite its large production, is still a family-owned winery and one of the most historic and recognized names in Vinho Verde. Established in 1870, their wines, in my opinion, possess excellent price-quality ratios, typicity and veracity.
The winery produces 17 million bottles in total, but 14 million are of their fresh patio quaffer Casal Garcia. Quinta da Aveleda, their oldest brand, is a blend of Loureiro (the region’s most-planted white grape variety contributing floral and fruity notes, a slightly fuller mid-palate and relatively soft acidity) and Alvarinho (perhaps the region’s most important white grape variety with the best examples in the northern part of the region). The 2017 is linear, fresh, crisp, floral, citrusy, lightly fizzy, minerally and salty with juicy acidity. The wine is only 11.5% alcohol.
The most interesting aspect of the tasting at Aveleda was the horizontal tasting of three Alvarinho wines from the 2016 vintage from separate vineyard sites. The wine from grapes grown in Aprella is mineral and savoury, mouth-filling and textural, although a little subdued in its flavours. The site is on granite soils and is close to the sea, but mountains partially block the effects of the maritime breezes.
The Alvarinho from the Estufa site is from an average of 15-year-old vines on granite with a considerable amount of limestone. The wine is very salty and minerally and linear with mouth-watering, limey acidity. Though the Aprella and Estufa sites are relatively close together and experience relatively similar climates, the soils and the resulting wines differ.
The third wine, grown in Celorico in the sub-region of Basto on schist, is salty and minerally, slightly more voluminous, smoky, intense, complex and long.
Each of the wines was distinct, but all were also distinctly Alvarinho. Although the comparison was done primarily for educational purposes, the winery recognizes that an interest exists within the wine trade and consumers for expressing site in the bottle and is considering bottling the different expressions separately and highlighting the site on the label.
Another example of Portuguese producers focussing on native grape varieties is that of the Quinta de Santa Cristina’s Batoca. Batoca is only grown in the Basto subregion and the grape was thought to have all but disappeared. Apparently, the winery produces the only example of a mono-varietal Batoca. The 2017 bottling is light, fresh, lightly savoury and possesses softer acidity.
While Aveleda and Quinta de Santa Cristina are producers that represent the more traditional style from the region — light, fresh, crisp — there are a group of producers who are attempting to show a different side of Vinho Verde and who are growing wines that are expanding people’s views of what is possible in the region.
Producers such as A&D Wines, Vasco Croft of Aphros, Anselmo Mendes, and a group of producers that refer to their collaboration as Vinho Verde Young Projects are proving that drinkability, complexity, typicity and veracity can and do all co-exist synergistically.
A&D Wines, established in 2015 by Alexandre and Dialina Gomes, is located in the Baiao sub-region which borders the Douro region. They own three estates in the sub-region, with altitudes ranging from 200 to 500 metres. Their estates are either certified organic or in the process of conversion. The region’s colder, drier winters and hotter, drier summers seem to provide ideal conditions for the Avesso grape in particular.
While all of A&D’s wines show freshness, minerality, bright acidity and an appealing textural component, it was their mono-varietal Monologo bottlings that stood out. Arinto, Avesso and Malvasia Fina each focus on and highlight the distinct character of the region’s native grape varieties.
Anselmo Mendes calls himself an experimenter, not a winemaker, and he conducted an epic tasting of many of his bottlings comparing grape varieties, styles, soil types, vinification processes, use of oak, etc. Loureiro, Avesso, Alvarinho, Alvarelhao, Pedral, Cainho all produced in different expressions and combinations, in some cases “just because” so Anselmo, and others, could learn from the results as the study of native grapes is still a work in progress. Standouts from the tasting include the textural, lengthy and bright 2015 Tempo (composed of 100% Alvarinho fermented on the skins like a red wine and aged for 12 months in used French oak) and the fresh and juicy 2015 Pardusco combining the red varieties Alvarelhao and Pedral as well as the white Cainho.
At Aphros, lean, silver-haired Vasco Croft is a philosopher, architect, designer, viticulturalist, winemaker and one of the pioneers of biodynamics in Portugal. He possesses a zen-like passion and commitment that is both understated and exuberant — much like his wines, which are elegant, complex, fresh, expressive, have a connection to the land and, above all, are delicious and possess an insatiable drinkability. The feeling after spending an afternoon with Vasco walking around the property, in the vineyard, through the winery, having lunch on his front deck and tasting the wines, is one of being in a different place surrounded by a calming energy.
Croft’s 2016 Phaunus Loureiro is fermented on the skins in clay amphorae lined with beeswax. The wine is harvested, destemmed and pressed by hand with no machinery and possesses exotic, citrus and peach flavours, fresh acidity, great texture, complexity and persistence. The 2017 Phaunus Pét-Nat (pétillant naturel) Rosé Sparkling is made in the ancient method from only one fermentation without added yeasts or sugar. A blend of mostly Alvarelhão (which contributes delicacy, aromatics of plums and sage, and high acidity) with a splash of Vinhao (intense red colour, vinous aromas, wild berries), the wine was ideal with the fried octopus served at lunch.
The Vinho Verde Young Projects is a collaboration of Cazas Novas, 100igual, Vale Dos Ares and Quinta de Santiago — producers from different sub-regions of Vinho Verde that are working with different grape varieties and styles, but have formed a group predominantly to market their wines and raise the profile of the region.
All these producers are showing that quality, complexity and typicity are not mutually exclusive from drinkability. They are exploring the potential of the region without diminishing the traditional style of Vinho Verde — they can co-exist — and they are pushing the boundaries and creating new interest in the wines of the region.
At the same time, there seems to be a renewed interest in the traditional style of the region as consumers and the wine trade are gravitating more to wines that are fresh, drinkable and food friendly. The wines of Vinho Verde are well positioned to not just ride this wave, but help lead the way.