Vinho Verde: More than I Imagined

By David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Growing restless with riesling, chagrined by chardonnay, sapped by sauvignon or passive about pinot grigio?  Portugal’s Vinho Verde whites are just the tonic for drinking this summer, and they are not (yet) expensive.

I recently spent two summery weeks driving, hiking and wining and dining in the green tapestry that is northern Portugal. The hills rise and fall in an endless panorama of forests, vineyards, citrus, almond and olive groves – some on terraces where the slopes are steepest. And everywhere in the valleys and on lower slopes there are villages with fire-orange terracotta rooftops.

My journey began in what is called the Minho region, a swath of coastal territory reaching inland from the city of Porto on the Atlantic Ocean. I then spent time in the bustling renaissance city itself, then went up the Douro River Valley. No matter where, I found myself always looking forward to the next meal and bottle of Vinho Verde.

In Portuguese they drop the “e” and pronounce it vinho verd. Call it as you wish, but call it.

The name Vinho Verde, which describes a demarcated appellation of 21,000 hectares, is derived from the greenness of its landscape. It’s green because it is maritime, cool and humid, with Atlantic influences winding inland up a series of river valleys, including the Minho, the Lima and the Douro. This climate is just the ticket for bracing, fresh white wines with firm acidity and at their best, granitic minerality. The style is also conducive to wines with spritz, so much Vinho Verde has traditionally been made with injected carbon dioxide. Indeed Vinho Verde has become synonymous with tiny bubbles.

The Troubles with Bubbles

But as I discovered, carbon dioxide has bubbled up as a fault line in the region.  “The bubbles are what the market expects and wants” said Tomás Gonçalves of the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes. He was replying, during a seminar, to a blusterous writer who had just characterized the bubbles as “ridiculous”.  Our group of dozen Canadian and American writers and sommeliers were attending a seminar at The Monverde Wine Experience Hotel about an hour outside of Porto in Lixa.

The Minho River border between Spain (left) and Portugal.

The Minho River border between Spain (left) and Portugal.

As the tasting progressed it became clear that the bubbles were not what some of the more progressive producers “wanted”, even if “the market” did The CO2 tends to be found in less expensive blends (injected as in pop or beer), with most single varietal wines, and even single vineyard wines eschewing C02 for natural acidity and minerality. Some even veered into “reserve” territory with extended aging on lees in stainless steel, concrete or barrel – a whole new world of Vinho Verde.

I personally do not mind the bubbles. It fits.  But I do agree that when Vinho Verde begins to get serious the bubbles become extraneous. So if you want some like a white wine spritzer grab a basic Vinho Verde like the Quinta de Avaleda below. But if you are looking for the next terroir-driven white, go upscale and look at the more rare (in Canada) alvarinho, loureiro, avesso or arinto varietal wines.

Tongue Twisting Grape Varieties

Even after two weeks tasting and drinking Vinho Verde I haven’t quite got a handle on the varietal differences. Perhaps because they are minor variations within an over-riding theme. As are the nine sub-regions into which Vinho Verde is divided.

There are however co-relations in that some regions specialize in certain varieties. Alvarinho, for example is the main grape in the northern region of Moncao e Melgaco, which is on the south side of the Minho River. On the north side lie the albarino vineyards of Spain. Combined, they present a strong case for this grape to be a major player in the world of European whites. Indeed even internationally. I have had albarinos from Australia, Uruguay and British Columbia.

Alvarinho growing in Vinho Verde

Alvarinho growing in Vinho Verde

Wines from the middle sub-regions of Vinho Verde, including the important Lima River valley tend to be dominated by Loureiro, a real chameleon that has some florality but it also some vegetal notes at times, and medium to high acidity. In the more southerly regions like Baião the high acid avesso comes into play. From inland and higher regions like Amarante, Basto, Baião and Sousa Azal is important. There are also single varietal wines also made from crisp arinto and richer trajadura, but more often these are blending components. In all, there are 34 authorized varieties in Vinho Verde.

More than White

Some of my most pleasant surprises came from the other styles being made in the region. Full on traditional method espumante (sparkling wine) is showing fine quality and gaining credibility. The high acidity of the region is ideal.  So, ironically, it would seem that first class bubbles derived from second fermentation in the bottle are better than second class injected bubbles.

I was not particularly impressed by the reds of the region, with the inky Vinhão being one of the most aggressive, hoary and unpleasant wines I have ever encountered, even when soused in oak. The Espadeiro variety is much better, and quite ideal for rose, which turned out to be very fine indeed, especially when made in a pale, dry style. They reminded me of some Niagara roses based on cabernet franc. This is the land that gave us Mateus, by the way, but the pink wines I encountered were much more refined and interesting.

I have combed my notes and reviewed some of the better quality and most interesting Vinho Verde whites below. As always when returning from travels to write about new regions and wines, the number of wines actually available in Canada (Ontario in particular) is pathetically and frustratingly low. The problem is even more acute with wines of Portugal, which has simply not developed its exports as well as other major European nations. Also, many of Portuguese wines are represented by small single operator distributors who lack the wherewithal, it seems, to market them properly.

But here are some examples that struck my fancy regardless

Deu La Deu Alvarinho 2016 – This is in VINTAGES June 24 release

Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde 2016 – This is LCBO General List

Quinta De Gomariz Loureiro 2016 – This is available in Quebec

Adega Ponte De Lima Loureiro Colheita Seleccionada 2016 – The Ontario agent is listed as Rocha & Sons.

Reguengo De Melgaco Alvarinho 2016 – In Ontario this is represented by Madhu Wines, in Quebec by Amphora. 

Soalheiro Alvarinho 2016– This is represented in Ontario by FWP Trading, a leading importer of Portuguese.

Anselmo Mendes Muros Antiguas Alvarinho 2016 – This is represented In Ontario by Terroir Wine Imports.

Anselmo Mendes Curtimenta Alvarinho 2015 – This is represented In Ontario by Terroir Wine Imports.

Anselmo Mendes Loureiro Muros Antigos 2016 – currently at VINTAGES.

The best place to look is the LCBOs Portuguese Destination Store, the Stockyards location at St. Clair Ave W and Keele Street in Toronto’s west end. Here many of the selections are derived from agent’s consignment stocks. In late June other Vinho Verde’s were available, but stocks do vary day to day.