A consumer survey a couple of decades ago showed that drinkers of Mateus Rose, once among the world’s top 10 best-selling wines, were not aware that it was from Portugal. Ironically, the same is probably true of port, even today.
What, though, of Vinho Verde? Even if wine lovers are aware that it is the name of Portugal’s most northerly wine region, anyone who drank its wines back in the 1980s would not recognise it today. Back then in the words of Charles Metcalfe, co-author of The Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal, it amounted to little more than “cheap, fizzy bottles”.
But the past five years have seen “huge changes” in quality levels, Metcalfe asserts. Much of this change has to do with two main issues: First, the demise of the cooperative in favour of estate bottling and second, the modernisation of vine training systems.
Where once vines climbed up trees, or hung from pergolas below which grew cabbages and potatoes, today they are trained along tidy, wired rows that bring good exposure to sunlight and breezes. The result is riper and more healthy grapes.
Yet there is not just a single Vinho Verde. Significant climate variations occur across the region, which is divided into nine sub-regions. Different grape varieties do well in different meso-climates within these sub-regions.
Unbeknown to most, the region also produces some red wine. Vinhao, for example (known as Sousao in the Douro), makes brightly coloured and deliciously juicy wine. The biodynamic Afros estate makes a particularly good one.
The most typical of the white wines are light, fresh, crisp and aromatic, and best consumed young. They’re typically a blend of grapes including the floral Loureiro, peachy Avesso, and aromatic Trajadura.
But the white grape which can more than stand alone is the increasingly feted, low-yielding, Alvarinho. Talented winemaker and general manager of Quinta da Lixa, Carlos Teixeira, believes that Alvarinho is not only the top grape “by far” of Vinho Verde, but also the whole of Portugal. Alvarinho is, he says, the most expensive grape in Portugal, fetching more than one euro per kilo. This means that growers can potentially make a good living from it.
Teixeira has won many awards for his work with Alvarinho including golds in the Brussels world wine contest. In the Golden Grape Awards his Pouco Comum 2013 was awarded best of the regon. For this wine, which translates as “Uncommon”, he gives the grape four different treatments, playing with temperature control and yeast selection, for example, then blends everything together – making it a wine that no one could copy.
Alvarinho fares particularly well in the northerly sub-regions of Moncao and Melgaco, where rainfall is lower. During the summer temperatures are noticeably higher then elsewhere in the region.
It has caught the attention of noted Douro winemakers, including Dirk Niepoort, and has even found its way to the Douro. In addition to his iconic red blend Poreira, winemaker Jorge Moreira also crafts a richly textural, mineral white Poeira, which is 100 per cent Alvarinho.
Teixeira notes that Alvarinho is growing all over the world, in countries from South Africa to North America. For him, it’s up there in quality terms with Riesling, Semillon and Viognier – three other grapes embraced across the winemaking world.
Metcalfe believes that it is the region’s embrace of Alvarinho, with its small and concentrated berries, which has allowed quality to rise so rapidly. Labels such as Quinta de Soalheiro and Palacio da Brejoeira sit at the pinnacle.
Wines made with Alvarinho tend to be rich and full-bodied but highly fragrant, with floral tones – some like honeysuckle are very attractive – and fruity notes such as peach, apple and citrus, and even tropical hints such as pineapple. They can age for up to 20 years, becoming rounder and developing orange-honey characters while retaining a good acid balance.
An active interest in producing quality white wine is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Portugal. Some other indigenous white grapes are worth looking for. Encruzado is the Dao’s star white variety: Dao Sul and Quinta dos Roques are two good producers.
In Bairrada, Luis Pato works with Bical for his fabulous Vinha Formal which ages like a Burgundy. Not unlike Alvarinho, Arinto (which also grows in Vinho Verde, under the name of Pederna) can make wines delicious in their youth but with the ability to gain complexity. It is the main grape in the white-only DOC of Bucelas, and showcases itself marvellously in the Quinta Boicao Special Selection Branco.
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