Feted Portuguese winemaker Jorge Moreira tends a single hectare of low-yielding alvarinho with which he crafts his high-end Poreira. The vines are planted on a steep slope at the top of his nine-hectare site in the Douro Valley’s easterly Sabrosa area. A recent complement to his ultra-premium red Poreira, his alvarinho is a fabulous, highly textured wine with bright acids and a generous dose of minerality.
The Douro is not the first place you’d expect to find alvarinho – but its presence in this premium wine region, outside its traditional home of Vinho Verde, attests to its serious potential. The more usual if less high profile white grapes in the Douro include gouveio and rabigato.
Winemaker (and general manager) of classy Vinho Verde estate Quinta da Lixa, Carlos Teixeira, asserts that alvarinho is not only the top grape “by far” of Portugal, but up there with riesling, semillon and viognier. He’s delighted to see it spreading across the world, even as far afield as South Africa and North America. He says that in Portugal it is the most expensive grape, fetching more than one euro per kilo.
While the image of the wines of Vinho Verde has tended to be at the light and easy end of the spectrum, wines made with alvarinho can be rich, full-bodied and highly fragrant with floral tones such as honeysuckle and fruity notes like peach, apple and citrus (and possibly tropical tones such as pineapple).
It can also be successfully blended with grapes such as trajadura and loureiro. Wines from the Vinho Verde region are usually designed to be drunk young, but those crafted with alvarinho can age for as long as 20 years, becoming rounder and developing orange-honey characters.
Carlos Teixeira has noted that consumers are now accepting drier wines so he’s reducing the level of residual sugars in wines like his fascinating Pouco Comum (“Unusual” in English), for which he gives the alvarinho four different treatments, and then blends the results together. Reduced residual sugar helps to deliver a slightly enhanced yet refreshing acidity.
Meanwhile, across the Vinho Verde border in the Spanish region of Rias Baixas (in wet and windy Galicia) the grape is known as albarino and it is very much on the ascendent. “Liquid gold!” says Mariola Varona, export manager of high-end property Martin Codax. “We have been exporting our wines for more than 20 years, but it is only recently we have noticed the region becoming well-known,” she says. These wines are also very popular in Spain, and Mariola Varona says that what Rioja is for Spanish reds, albarino is for whites.
There’s some rivalry between the two regions with each believing their expression of the grape is the best. But in fact they produce quite different wines. The Rias Baixas region is distinctive in being a group of valleys where the influence of the rias (fords) gives a unique meso-climate that produces a beneficially long and slow ripening period. Further, the soils are uniquely granitic. This, together with the influence of the Atlantic ocean, creates mineral-laced wines.
The Martin Codax Organistrum 2012 is a marked example of this. It has a creamy, lees-rich texture but shows a stunning purity of fruit, mineral overtones and a bitter almond finish. Like Jorge Moreira’s Poreira, the wine is defined more by texture and finish than aromatics. On the other hand, the more simple Martin Codax 2013 shows how versatile the albarino grape can be. This wine is bright, lively and refreshing; a brilliant seafood wine. It brings that squeeze of lemon effect. As in Vinho Verde, it can also be blended – here with grapes such as loureira and caino.
There is no question that quality has been massively improving across both countries thanks to investment in technology and winery facilities, and developing knowledge in the vineyard. At Codax they’re undertaking analysis of ocean influences to learn more about the potential of albarino, and examining the various different terroirs in their own vineyards so as to show the different expressions of the grape.
It is a similar story in Vinho Verde, where in particular better training and trellising have heightened exposure to sun and wind, resulting in healthier grapes. The region is divided into nine sub-regions, with Moncao and Melgaco in the northern part traditionally seen as the epicentre for alvarinho because of its lower rainfall and higher summer mean temperatures. But there’s now increasingly interesting work being done with avesso and arinto across the region – and certainly arinto is another top white grape variety to look out for.