By making the best cheap wine in the world, Vinho Verde created an image problem.
It's hard for consumers to take seriously single-variety wines from the same region that sells reliable $5 bottles, especially because one virtue of some Vinho Verdes is that they don't have a lot of complexity. For $5, you get something thirst-quenching, slightly fizzy, low in alcohol and unchallenging: A poolside wine.
Against that backdrop, it's a revelation to taste Vinho Verde's single-variety wines, particularly Loureiro and Alvarinho. They're as good as any white wines in Portugal -- full of character, with floral notes, plenty of fruit and that distinctive thirst-quenching acidity.
This makes sense if you look at a map of Portugal. Vinho Verde is a huge region, easily the nation's largest, stretching from the hot interior southeast of Porto to the Spanish border.
The prime areas of Vinho Verde are geographically as good for white wine as anywhere in the country. The west side of Vinho Verde borders the Atlantic ocean. Rias Baixas, famous for its Albariño (the Spanish spelling of the same grape), is just over the border.
Yes, the larger Vinho Verde region includes vineyards that border the hot Douro Valley, and grapes from there find their way into the main $5 wines.
But if a wine says "Alvarinho" on the label, it is limited -- partly for political reasons -- to Monção e Melgaço, right across the Minho river from Rias Baixas. Loureiro, the other great grape of Vinho Verde, could in theory come from anywhere in the region, but in practice, it only thrives on the Atlantic coast.
"We have the terroir for freshness. It's the Atlantic terroir," says Antonio Luis Dias Cerdeira, who runs the lab and tasting panel for the Vinho Verde Commission.
The work of the Commission is amazing, considering the price at which most of these wines sell. Every wine that carries Vinho Verde on the label -- some of the cheapest wines in Europe -- must be analyzed by the independent tasters on the Commission.
Cerdeira says about 6 to 7% of wines fail and must be relabeled as table wines. The wines not only must be unflawed; they must have typicity of the region.
"This is why we don't have a lot of medals in contests," Cerdeira says. "When I taste in a contest, I want concentration. Body. But this is not the point of Vinho Verde. We want freshness."
People seeking lower alcohol wines should love this: Vinho Verde "classic," not from a sub-region or labeled as a single variety, cannot have more than 11.5% alcohol. The maximum alcohol for sub-region wines or Alvarinhos is 14%.
Despite their high acidity, wines from Vinho Verde are not expected to age well. In fact, Casal Garcia, by far the region's biggest-selling wine at 9 million bottles per year, is non-vintage. And why would you want to cellar a $5 wine anyway?
But with the single-variety wines, the story is different. Anselmo Mendes, one of the region's most famous winemakers from his consulting gigs in Spain, Brazil and other regions of Portugal, likes to host vertical tastings of his Alvarinhos and Loureiros. Muros Antigos Alvarinho 2008 seemed at its peak last month: Stone fruit and lime, with great acidity and some secondary characteristics. The 2005, from a very good vintage, was drinking well, if dominated by minerality. But the 2006 and '07 had fallen off a cliff.
As for Muros Antigos Loureiro, it was hard to beat the 2009, which had the fresh floral aroma of the grape with stone fruit, apples and a line of gravel down the center. But the '08 and '07 were already past peak. Mendes thinks Loureiro lasts five years at most, while he believes a good Alvarinho can improve for up to 10 years. I had a 1994 Alvarinho from a different winery, Soalheiro, that was still fresh, with the brightness of preserved lemon. But just because you can wait that long doesn't mean you should.
Mendes is one of many Vinho Verde vintners ("VVVs") experimenting with barrel fermentation. The local Portuguese market loves the stuff and pays a premium, but every non-Portuguese taster I was with considered them a waste of good fruit.
Another controversial experiment is the use of non-Portuguese grapes. Casa de Sezim is one of several blending Sauvignon Blanc with Loureiro, which forces the wine to be called table wine. Owner José Pinto de Mesquita studied in Bordeaux with Denis Dubourdieu, the Sauvignon Blanc master.
Mesquita says, "The Sauvignon Blanc ripens earlier. We let it go all the way until it's almost to noble rot. We make the wine and then we blend it with the Loureiro." He feels the need to do something different because he needs to make more money from his grapes than a wine labeled Vinho Verde can fetch.
That's a problem throughout the region. Cerdeira says wine grapes cost about 40 cents per kilo to produce and currently sell for just a few pennies more. In fact, if Portugal's economy weren't so beaten up, with unemployment over 13%, Vinho Verde might not be so good. Many vineyard owners have small plots of land they keep as a second occupation. Recently many have found themselves with extra time on their hands, so why not lavish some love on the grapes?
It's ironic that Vinho Verde is so easy to find in the US -- it makes up 40% of all non-fortified DOC wines from Portugal -- and yet the best wines from the region are not. That's because of the "Yellow Tail problem:" When people think they can get a region's wines for under $7, they don't see any reason to pay more.
But we're not talking about a lot more. The Muros Antigos and Soalheiro wines I described cost $15 to $20, and I tasted other good ones in that range whose importers bring in only a few cases because they're timid about their market potential.
Folks, at these prices you're not risking a lot. Try some single variety Alvarinhos and Loureiros from Vinho Verde -- whatever brand, wherever you find them. The cheapest major wine region in the world has an upscale surprise for you.