Spring is a time of beginnings, of renewals, of discoveries; it’s a refresher course that includes becoming reacquainted with the neighbors and a post-winter appreciation of all things green.
In the world of wine, is there a comparable all-of-the-above example than Portugal’s iconoclastic Vinho Verde?
Even the new Vinho Verde website looks fresh – is splashy, colorful and fun and covers all things VV.
Light-weight, easy on the budget, low in alcohol and slightly spritzy—(not enough to be called ‘semi-sparkling’ but enough to titillate the tongue) Vinho Verde hails from the Minho region of northern Portugal. Minho’s proximity to the Atlantic, along the coastline known as Costa Verde, allows for a steady supply of cool, ocean-borne rain to wash across it, making the appellation far more amenable to agriculture than drier regions further inland. Ironically, Baixo Corgo (home to Port—a style of wine so different as to be Vinho Verde’s antithesis), is contiguous to Vino Verdhe along the Douro River.
Having first achieved Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) status in 1908, the demarcated zone covers nine sub-regions, many of which specialize in a specific varietal—true connoisseurs can tell them apart, although subzones often appear on the labels along with the Vinho Verde designation.
It Isn’t Easy Being Green
The term ‘Vinho Verde’, translated as ‘green wine’, has nothing to do with its origins near the Costa Verde (Green Coast) nor to its slight greenish tint when made with alvarinho grapes (often picked before they are fully ripe), nor even to the fact that the greenest of all holidays—St. Patrick’s Day—is also a harbinger of spring. The name is a colloquial reference to green as in ‘young’ and speaks to the buoyant and stimulating youthful snap inherent to the wine—although it also indicates that you’ve got a fairly short window of time to enjoy it. Most Vinho Verde is meant to be consumed within a year or so of bottling; that way, the racy citrus and apple aromatics remain fully realized.
In older vintages, these notes can be as fleeting as the sunshine on a perfect April afternoon.
One of the most common Vinho Verde misconception is that all ‘green wine’ is white. In fact, the DOC allows a number of red grapes, and almost a third of the wines released as Vinho Verde Tinto is made with a blend of them, among them vinhão (also used in port), azal tinto (its cousin, azal branco, is used in white Vinho Verde blends) and espadiero. Generally harvested while still young and acidic, red Vinho Verde varietals can be fierce on the tongue with tannins that have not fully matured—as a result, many vintners rely upon malolactic fermentation to soften the sharpest edges.
There are also rosé Vinho Verde versions, often made with espadiero and padeiro grapes; producers may or may not encourage a secondary fermentation to mellow the acidity.
Still, it’s the white Vinho Verde that receives the most press, and with them for the most part, a malolactic stage is frowned upon. Most producers prefer to add carbon dioxide at bottling time rather than allow a ‘natural’ fizz to develop. This is based upon the belief that malolactic—a secondary fermentation which converts a portion of the tart malic acid that’s present in grape must to softer, creamier tasting lactic acid—takes away some of Vinho Verde’s characteristic spunk.
The grapes most commonly used in white Vinho Verde are alvarinho (called albariño in Spain), trajadura, and the workhouse varietal, accounting for 45% of the cultivars grown in the DOC, loureiro. This fascinating, laurel-scented grape does not develop a lot of natural sugars while ripening, and thus helps maintain Vinho Verde below its legal limit of 11.5% alcohol.
To this day, much of Minho’s winemaking force is comprised of small growers who often produce Vinho Verde as a supplement to their agricultural livelihood. As a result, vines are often trained above the ground, along trees, pergolas—even telephone poles—while vegetables grow underneath.
One unique producer who bucks the trend by being both large, new and family-centered is Pedro Araújo of Quinta do Ameal, behind only Soalheiro in volume. After twelve solo years at the estate his father first planted in 1990, his small yields of louriero—5 tons/hectare—have placed this varietal on the wine map of such wine-lit luminaries as Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier and Hugh Johnson. Referring to himself as ‘a winemaker who happens to work in Vinho Verde’ rather than ‘a Vinho Verde producer’, Araújo is fond of such iconoclastic techniques as fermentation in new French barriques and a six month age time in the same, resulting in loureiro with the characteristic bay-leaf aromatics blending with the nuttiness of oak.
At the other end of the ‘age’ spectrum is Avaleda S.A., a family-owned concern which has been in business for more than three hundred years. Now into a fifth generation, the company remains entirely in the hand hands of the Guedes clan, producing crisp, award-winning, mass-oriented wines in Valongo do Vouga and Penafiel, within the heart of Vinho Verde DOC. As a wonderful example of a multitasking winery, Avaleda is also renowned for its brandies and cheeses.
Equally upscale, perhaps, is Quinta de Azavedo, owned since 1980 by Sogrape Vinhos—the company that brought you Mateus. Although it is the largest wine producer in Portugal, Sogrape’s dedication has been to produce quality wines with the style of a small family winery. Azavedo is a living example. With 37 hectares planted to loureiro and pedernã, the quaint, tradition-steeped winery has embraced some modernity with an advanced trellis system that replaces their old pergola-trained vines; the wines are spritzy, smoky and succulent.
Monção’s incomparably lovely Solar de Serrade, whose 17th century manor house—the centerpiece of the estate—is known equally for its is justifiably noted for its furniture, tapestries and china collection as for its excellent Vinho Verdes, both red and white.
As the trend toward lighter, lower alcohol wines gathers pace, a number of wineries are altering styles and programs to accommodate the changing tastes. It’s an ideal time to discover or renew your relationship with Vinho Verde—a wine which hasn’t had to change a thing.
Some of my favourites from the region:
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro: From the Vinho Verde sub-region of Lima, this wine shows the characteristic minerality and delicacy of the area’s granitic soil, which has proved the most ideal spot in Minho for loureiro. Light, golden with a hint of green, there’s lemon grass on the nose that’s somewhat reminiscent of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc; also, a touch of sparkle and flinty undercurrent that carries through to the finish.
Available in the WINE ON THE ROCKS SHOP – www.wineontherocks.com
Quinta do Ameal Escolha: Also from Lima, this nearly transparent beauty reflects the sub-region’s terroir in a big blossomy nose; lots of orange fruit—tangerine especially—and a substructure of butter and nutty tannins from bâtonnage and the six months the wine slumbered in new Nevers barriques.
Quinta Edmun do Val Alvarinho: At 13% AVB, this crisp, beautifully focused alvarinho is not technically a Vinho Verde, and in fact, having been aged on its lees for eight months (and then, another eight in the bottle before leaving the winery), it shows more girth than is typically seen in the region. A serious and complex expression of alvarinho, the wine, made by the talented Olalla Ruibal, displays juicy acidity loaded with warm lemon, melon, green apple and floral notes, finishing with a slightly bitter citrus bite and a satisfying powderiness.
Casa do Vilacetinho Loureiro: Served to Queen Elizabeth II during her trip to Portugal, the historical highlights of the Vinho Verde can be traced to 1790, when the great winegrower, the 1st Viscount of Alpendurada built the manor house which today serves as the estate’s centerpiece. The wines are steeped in tradition as well, and reflect Vinho Verde’s purest pedigree. Strong citrus scents mingle with fresh flowers and stone fruits; there’s a bit of residual sugar to temper an electrifying dose of acidity.
Solar de Serrade Alvarinho: Spritzy, with lemon/lime pith and refreshing and approachable acidity, this grassy green wine is an ideal shellfish mate. From Monção, in the heart of Vinho Verde, it shows the pronounced minerality of the zone with an undercurrent of tart apple, melon, ripe Bosc pear and light, tingly carbonation on the finish.