Sunday, 4 September 2011

Vinho Verde: not just white and certainly not green

We all think we know what to expect from Vinho Verde. It's a white wine from northern Portugal that is bracing in its acidity, very light bodied and usually with a hint of soluble aspirin spritz about it.

Well you and I both know that this would be a very short article if that were the case. I would simply usher you onto the next page with a “Move along people, nothing to see here...”

Therefore it will come as no surprise whatsoever that there is more to Vinho Verde than something that resembles lightly alcoholic, slightly flat mineral water.

For a start, Vinho Verde can be red (or rosé, or indeed sparkling). The name refers to the region, rather than describing the wine. So it's the vast expanse of verdant, not to say rain-soaked, vineyards in this chunk of northwest Portugal which are green, rather than any of the wines which emanate from them.

The vine in its natural state originally evolved to scramble up trees, and in Vinho Verde vines were traditionally allowed to grow this way, either twining through branches or along wires strung between the trees. This makes pruning the vines and picking the grapes a time-consuming – and even dangerous – process. You certainly need a head for heights. And a very long ladder.

Most vines nowadays are more commonly trained along wires at a more picker-friendly height, so the vineyards look much like any other across the world. The wines themselves, however, maintain a delightful individuality, with a style all of their own. Not least among their charms is a tendency to low alcohol – many of these wines are just 11 or 11.5% - perfect for a lunchtime glass.

Traditional styles of Vinho Verde

Quinta da Aveleda 2010 - £7.25 from
A classic mix of traditional varieties make up this textbook example of white Vinho Verde: Loureiro, Trajadura and Alvarinho. It has a mineral, iodine nose, redolent of the sea. There is a definite spritz on the palate and very crisp acidity, but plenty of flavour too and a touch of soluble aspirin on the finish. Very fresh, very individual.

Quinta da Lixa 2010 - £8.99 from
In a similar vein to the Aveleda, though it has a softer feel in the mouth. There is less driving acidity and rather more fruit, making for a gentler and less uncompromising wine.

Modern styles

Quinta de Gomariz 2010 - £9.99 (mixed case price) from The Wine Reserve in Cobham
Rather than blending, this producer makes several wines, each made from a single traditional variety. The Wine Reserve stocks their Loureiro, which has an intensely floral scent, verging on violets. The palate has Vinho Verde's hallmark crisp acidity, citrussy fruit - and only 11.5% alcohol. While you're there, you might be talked into trying the Gomariz rosé and red, which they also stock.

If you get the chance, look out this producer's single varietal Avesso, a variety that you'll rarely see unblended. The nose is bracing, like a breath of sea air. The palate has a lovely weight of rich, citrus fruit, with a hint of citrus pith bitterness too.

Quinta do Soalheiro 2010 - £13.95 from The Wine Society
Fourteen quid for a Vinho Verde? Here's a quick lesson in wine geography and how to spot a bargain. Just across Portugal's northern border is the Spanish region of Galicia, which is renowned for its white wines made from the Albariño grape. Famously a seafood wine par excellence, you'll be lucky to find a good one for under £15 in this country.

The same variety, back in Portugal, is known as Alvarinho and is a familiar grape in many a Vinho Verde blend. Some producers are now wanting to highlight the star qualities of the variety by making a pure Alvarinho Vinho Verde – but pound for pound, you get a lot more quality for your money on the Portuguese side of the border.

The Soalheiro has a pure, mineral nose. The palate is quite weighty and there is not even a hint of spritz. What impresses most is that it manages to strike a wonderful balance between the abundant ripe fruit and lip-smacking freshness, making for a serious, yet lively wine: a beguiling combination.

For daredevils

Afros 2010 - £8.82 from Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford
A red Vinho Verde (I did promise they existed) which will certainly pique the interest of adventurous wine lovers. It's an uncompromising sort of wine, which has to be experienced – though I can't promise that most people will enjoy it. The dark-fleshed Vinhão grapes make for an intensely-coloured, deep purple-to-ruby wine. There's an initial big hit of full-on, sour fruit, the tannins are low, but there is something very green and grippy at the back of the palate. Tight acidity provides the structure and a slightly unexpected (but pleasant) perfume emerges on the finish. You might not be surprised to know that this wine is biodynamic. Caves de Pyrène also stock Afros' rather more mainstream white Vinho Verde.

Doesn't sound like your cup of tea? Come on, it's only a bottle of wine and wouldn't life be boring if they all tasted the same?

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