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The High-End Lowdown on Vinho Verde
By Rebecca Murphy
Jul 2, 2013
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Vinho Verde is a deliciously refreshing, slightly bubbly, low alcohol white or rosé that is nearly perfect wine for warm weather.  These attributes are highly prized by those who have experienced Vinho Verde’s peerless refreshment value, and yet there is even more to it than just refreshment.  In addition to being a wine type, Vinho Verde is also an appellation that produces serious--and seriously delicious--wines made from the Alvarhino grape as well as other varieties that are native to the area. 

I confess that I didn’t appreciate this fully until I recently judged a wine competition to pick the five best Vinho Verde wines.  The competition is an annual event sponsored by the Commission of Viticulture of the Region of Vinhos Verdes (CVRVV) to recognize the best wines of the region, as judged by national and international experts.

The 2013 competition started with 183 wines judged by Portuguese wine professionals.  They gave gold and silver medals to 37 Vinho Verde DOC wines.  A panel of international judges representing the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Brazil and the US scored those top 37 wines to determine the top five. 

The tasting was conducted in the very professional setting of a white room equipped with individual judging cubicles that included a sink and a computer with a program for scoring each wine.  When we finished scoring all the wines, we were each given charts that showed both our individual scores and the median scores of the group.  It was interesting to see that three of my highest scoring wines were made from a grape called Loureiro.  To this point, the only encounters I have had with this grape was as part of the blend in some Rias Baixas wines from Spain, not as a single-variety wine.

The judging was conducted on a Tuesday, with the winners to be announced at a gala dinner and ceremony on Friday--with the contestants in attendance.  More about the winning wine below.

After the judging, we headed off to learn about the region first-hand.  We had landed in Porto, the gateway to the Douro valley where ports are made, but we headed north to greener territory.  The Vinho Verde region is separated from the warmer, more Mediterranean climate to the east and south by several mountain ranges.  It is located in northwestern Portugal, an area called Costa Verde, or the “green coast.”  Here the average temperature is 58˚ F, with annual rainfall just over 47 inches.  Most of that rain occurs in the winter and spring months.  The Atlantic Ocean is the western border, and several rivers flow across the region toward the ocean.  The Douro River is the southern border and the Minho River is the northern boundary, so the region is traditionally named, “Entre-Douro-e-Minho.”  On the north side of the Minho is Spain’s Galicia region, often called “Green Spain.”  These two areas have much in common historically as well as geographically. 

One of Portugal’s many natural resources is an abundance of indigenous grape varieties.  In a world where seemingly every wine region produces a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon--sometimes indistinguishable one from the other--it’s so exciting to taste and learn about new varieties.  Alvarhino, a.k.a. Albariño in Galicia, is the top white grape along with Loureiro (low-RAY-row), Trajadura (tray-shah-DUR-oh), Avesso (ah-VES-oh), Azal (ah-ZAHL) and Arinto (ah-WREN-toe).  These grapes may also be used to make the traditional-method Vinho Verde sparkling wine.  Rosés, which are often made from Padeiro (pah-DARE-oh) and Espadeiro (esh-pah-DARE-oh), are becoming more available.  And, a small amount of red wine is made from such grapes as Vinhão (VEEN-yow), Borraçal (bore-ah-SAHL) and Amaral (am-ah-RAO).  There are also aguardentes, distillates made from wine, with a minimum of two years of barrel ageing, as well as a marc-style spirit made from the stems, seeds and skins remaining from wine fermentation.     

The hierarchy for white Vinho Verde is, in ascending order, classic, Vinho Verde labeled with a sub appellation, and Vinho Verde Alvarhino.  The traditional blend for the white classic Vinho Verde is 60% Loureiro, 20% Arinto and 20% Trajadurais.  These are bright, refreshing, slightly fizzy and low in alcohol.  One way some wineries ensure the trademark freshness of these wines throughout the year is to ferment and bottle as the market demands.  The grapes are crushed at harvest and a portion of the juice is held in cold tanks.  When more wine is needed for a market, they ferment the juice and bottle the resulting wine, sometimes with a bit of CO2 for spritz, plus a splash of fresh grape juice to add a dash of sweetness to counterbalance the wine’s high acidity. 

A single variety wine can be labeled with the name of the grape and Vinho Verde, except for Alvarhino, which can only be labeled Vinho Verde if it comes from the northernmost sub region called Monção et Melgaço.  This sub region, bordering Galicia, is considered to produce the best Alvarhino.  If a single variety Alvarhino comes from another sub region, it must be labeled Minho Vinho Regional. 

So, many of the best varietal wines from the area cannot call themselves Vinho Verde.  For producers from a region that is trying to tell the world that they make serious wines and would like to charge equally serious prices, this is a big drawback.  Alvarhino is their best white grape variety.  It may perform at its peak in Monção et Melgaço, but it makes very good wine from grapes in other parts of Vinho Verde.  It also has some name recognition in the world thanks to their northern neighbors in Rias Baixas.  Almost everyone agrees this rule needs to be changed to show the world that Vinho Verde makes more than delightful, fresh fizzy wines. 

However, some recognition will need to go to the Alvarhinos from  Monção et Melgaço.  The international judges recommended to winemakers (during a meeting before the awards ceremony) that a Portugese system similar to the Classico regions in Italy or Crus in France be developed to allow all Vinho Verde Alvarhinos to carry the Vinho Verde DO, with those from  Monção et Melgaço showing a special designation.

We visited seven wineries in four days, tasting around 150 wines.  Highlights of winery visits include Quinta da Aveleda (US importer HGC Imports Inc.) in Penafiel, the Guedes family-owned estate with glorious gardens and a few whimsical structures that Disney would envy.  You’ve likely seen their popular Vinho Verde classic style wines Casal Garcia white and rosé wines with lace printed on the label, apparently the biggest selling Portugese white wine in the world. 

Quinta de Azevedo (US importer Evaton, Inc.) in Barcelos is one of the properties owned by Sogrape, creators of Mateus.  The estate was acquired in the early 1980s and has been restored.  Some parts of the 79 acres of vines are 30 years old, but many acres have been replanted from a system of circle agriculture where vines were planted around the other crops in an estate.   

For me, the best wines we tasted were made at Soalheiro (US importer Wine In Motion) near the town of Alvaredo in the Monção su region.  Luís Cerdeira and his sister, Maria, have father João António’s big shoes to fill.  He is credited with planting the first Alvarhino vines in the region and bottling the first Alvarinho wine.  They farm just over 17 acres organically and buy grapes from 30 growers in the area of whose grapes Luis says “I know each vine, we control each one.”

On the last day in Portugal we got to find out which wines we chose as the best five.  The ceremony was held at the beautiful Palácio da Bolsa, the Stock Exchange, in Porto.  The festive room was set with more than 30 tables of ten, for an assembly of winery owners, winemakers, government officials, wine organization members dressed in full wine brotherhood regalia, media, friends and family.  The ceremony was dramatic and well coordinated.  All of the judges were seated together with a host winemaker, Carlos Teixeira from Quinta da Lixa.  As it turned out, two of the best Vinho Verde wines selected by our panel were his:  Qunita da Lixa, Vinho Verde DOC, Loureiro 2012 and  Qunita da Lixa, Vinho Verde DOC, Aromas da Castas, Alvarhino-Trajaduras 2012.  The Loureiro has charming floral aromas with bright citrus fruit and a delicate balance.  The Alvarhino-Trajaduras has the former’s elegant structure and flavors of peach, apple and quince layered with floral highlights and notes of roasted nuts.  Trajaduras adds more peach and apple and tames Alvarhino’s steely acidity.  The US importer for Quinta da Lixa is Wine in Motion in New Jersey. 

The take-away from this experience is that there is much more to Vinho Verde than the deliciously refreshing basic wines.  It is also a gorgeous, verdant region with an ancient culture and a wide array of wines to explore, most of which are underpriced for their quality.  They are getting easier for find in the US, and I strongly encourage you to be adventurous and seek them out.