Vinho Verde – lovely wines and not always what you’d expect

Vines at Quinta de Aveleda – old and new training systems

Some of the most famous wines and wine styles seem to stay in fashion for ever, others fall in and out of favour with consumers. Sometimes it seems really unfair that certain things have broad approval when others do not – I for one will never understand the Pinot Grigio craze, much as Westlife’s popularity puzzles me.

Along time ago amongst my first ever wine memories German wines, Beaujolais and Vinho Verde from Portugal were all considered excellent choices to serve your guests. Since then, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, they have lost a lot of popularity – indeed mere mention of German wine often produces the same sort of hilarity associated with photographs showing relatives in bell-bottomed trousers and safari suits. And while it is true that a choice few German wines and Beaujolais Crus have rekindled a sort of following, Vinho Verde has remained unloved by the majority of UK wine consumers.

Unfairly in my opinion as I have long thought there are some terrific wines being produced in Portugal’s Minho region where Vinho Verde wines come from, but until recently I had never seen the place for myself. Well I recently returned from the region and my liking for the wines has been reinforced by meeting a wider range of producers and seeing the myriad of styles that are available.

You see that is part of the problem for Vinho Verde, many people think they know what these wines are like and assume they do not like them – anymore. Traditionally and typically a basic Vinho Verde will be very light in alcohol – 10-11 % – very light bodied and fresh with a slight fizz or petillance to accentuate the freshness and very high acidity, which is often balanced by a little sweetness. All of which sounds very 1970s, but actually modern grape growing and winemaking can make this sort of wine much better than many people remember, very pleasurable and refreshing to drink.

There are many very affordable versions available, every supermarket has an own label version which will be perfectly enjoyable as long you buy the youngest vintage. However there are some more ambitious producers who lead the way and show what can be done with this apparently unassuming style.

Map of Vinho Verde – click for a larger view

It is geography and climate that has fashioned the traditional Vinho Verde style – unlike southern Portugal, the weather here is un-generous in every aspect except rain. The Verde in Vinho Verde applies to the verdant countryside as much as anything else, so the growing season is short which makes it very hard to ripen the grapes properly. Modern viticulture techniques are only just managing to solve this problem. The old ways of very high training (used because the humid soils can cause rot) – on pergolas or even in trees – look wonderful and make a great photograph, but they seldom achieve maximum ripeness. So, as in so many places the picturesque training methods of the past have mainly been supplanted by modern trellis training systems.

Vines trained in the trees

Vinho Verde is historically a land of small holdings and farmer winemakers who made wine for themselves and their neighbours to drink without much thought. Although there are records of Minho wines being exported from the 1780s onwards, commercial bottling of Vinho Verdes really only dates back to the 1940s-1950s and the creation of cooperatives and  companies large enough and ambitious enough to want to create good, saleable wine. So it is interesting that two of my favourite producers of the basic traditional style are actually big wine companies who can invest in the best equipment and modern practices – Aveleda and Sogrape.

Aveleda produce two lovely examples actually, both rather superior versions of the style I describe above:

Casal Garcia
D.O.C. Vinho Verde 

Possibly the region’s first big brand, this is fresh, light clean and vibrant (84/100 points for the 2011 vintage)

UK stockist information available here.
US stockist information available here.

while the same producer also makes:

Aveleda Vinho Verde
D.O.C. Vinho Verde 

which to my mind has a little more polish and complexity (85/100 points for the 2011 vintage), but there is not much in it – both make a delightful aperitif or partner light dishes and spicy Asian food.

UK stockist information available here.
US stockist information available here.

Aveleda is a fine producer and they make a wide array of finer wines from the region too.

Sogrape also make several Vinho Verdes, their beautifully repackaged:

Gazela
D.O.C. Vinho Verde 

is fresh, clean, modern and stylish and like the Aveleda wines above can be enjoyed for what they are without too much thought or wine poncifying (84/100 points for the 2011 vintage).

UK distribution information is available from Stevens Garnier Wine Agency.

However Sogrape also a produce a Vinho Verde that is a real cut above this for sophistication and elegance:

Quinta de Azevedo
D.O.C. Vinho Verde

I frequently show this in classes and tastings and it usually has close to universal approval. It isn’t fizzy and is very close to being bone dry and the 70% Loureiro in its blend makes it delightfully aromatic and herbal – 88/100 points for the 2011 vintage. This is a very good quality and stylish dry white wine that is widely available and offers very good value for money.

Around £7.50 a bottle in the UK from Majestic and Waitrose, further UK distribution information is available from Stevens Garnier Wine Agency.

Vinho Verde isn’t only these simple, but attractive wines, there is actually a whole load more going on which will reward the dedicated wine seeker.

Near Barcelos José Bento de Silva Ramos’s family have owned the Quinta de Paços for over 400 years. Throughout that time they have produced wine and are now experimenting with grape varieties and growing techniques. On my visit I was able to taste their entire range and I was impressed by their enjoyable wines, but the standout for me was:

2011 Casa de Paços Fernão Pires
Vinho Regional Minho

They label this as a humble Vinho Regional, equivalent to a French Vin De Pays or Italian IGT, as the grape is unusual in the region and the wine does not taste like a Vinho Verde.

The nose is fresh, herbal, lively and fragrant, but the palate is very different. There is texture and weight to the mouth-feel and tropical characters to the fruit as well as the grape’s herbal feel. This is a lively wine that is delicious and very easy to drink – 87/100 points.

Around £8 a bottle in the UK from Casa Leal.

At the Quinta de Gomariz, midway between Porto and Braga, in the Ave sub-region, Antonio Sousa – their ambitious winemaker – introduced me to the delights of the Loureiro grape. Just as Syrah gets all the fame in the Rhône, so does Alvarinho/Albariño in Vinho Verde, yet other grapes are much more important here. Loureiro is more widely grown and for me is one of the star aromatic grapes of Vinho Verde – and Galicia where it is often blended with Albariño and Godello.

Antonio Sousa at Quinta de Gomariz

2011 Quinta de Gomariz Loureiro
D.O.C. Vinho Verde

I liked this very much with its lifted apple, grapefruit, elderflower and floral nose. The palate was concentrated, yet light-bodied, with high acidity and yet had an underlying creamy quality from the ripe fruit that they had worked so hard to achieve in the vineyard. A delightful wine full of tension and beautifully balanced – 88/100 points.

Around £10 a bottle in the UK – stockist information available here.

I tasted and enjoyed many other Loureiros including:

2011 Quinta da Lixa Loureiro
D.O.C. Vinho Verde

Lixa is a leading estate and produce a wide range.

This was my favourite of theirs and shows a fresh, lively and slightly petillant style – 86/100 points

2011 Vinho Verde Loureiro Colheita Seleccionada 
Adega Cooperativa de Ponte de Lima 
D.O.C. Vinho Verde sub-região do Lima

A much richer take on this aromatic grape, it is still – not petillant – and textured on the palate – 87/100 points

Sub-regions

As you can see from my map, there are eight Vinho Verde sub-regions. I like sub-regions, I am drawn to the concept of being able to see where a wine comes from and why it is like it is. Try as I might though I cannot really get to grips with the Vinho Verde sub-regions as the differences remain very slight – just as I do with most of the Napa sub-regions in truth.

There is one exception though – the sub-region in the extreme north east of the region – Vinho Verde sub-região Monção e Melgaço. 

Monção (pronounced Monsow)and Melgaço (pronounced Melgasso) are towns that give their name to the area of vineyards that surrounds them. They are on the south bank of the Minho River and here, within sight of Galicia, is the only bit of Vinho Verde that specialises in the famous Alvarinho grape.

I was particularly keen on:

2011 Soalheiro Alvarinho
Quinta de Soalheiro
D.O.C. Vinho Verde sub-região Monção e Melgaço

Without a doubt Luís, João and Maria Cerdeira’s Quinta de Soalheiro is one of the finest estates in Vinho Verde, which is fitting as their father was the first person to see the potential of Alvarinho, he planted the 6 hectare estate in 1974 and released his first vintage – and the first pure Alvarinho Vinho Verde – in 1982.

Everything they do seems to be impeccable, they have been organic, or at least in conversion, since 2006 and the attention to detail really shows. Their wines are beautifully textured and concentrated, but this does not come from skin contact as it often does in Vinho Verde, but from the use of natural yeasts in the fermentations, which give longer fermentations that produce smoother results. Even this, their basic wine is stunning – 91/100 points.

2011 Morgadio da Torre Alvarinho
Sogrape
D.O.C. Vinho Verde sub-região Monção e Melgaço

This is Sogrape’s top Vinho Verde and it is a beautiful wine, more crisp and lighter in mouth-feel than the Soalheiro, but with nicely concentrated flavours and depth and flashes of minerality – if you like Sancerre, this is for you – 90/100 points.

UK distribution information is available from Stevens Garnier Wine Agency.

Many Styles – Vinho Verde Espumante

So far I have only mentioned still white wines, but Vinho Verde actually produces every style of wine there is.

There are some excellent sparkling wines – Vinho Verde Espumante – made from all the different grapes, but the best I tried was the:

2008 Quinta da Pigarra Espumante Reserva Alvarinho
D.O.C. Vinho Verde Espumante sub-região Monção e Melgaço

Sparkling Vinho Verdes have to be made by the traditional method (Champagne method), which means that it is aged on the lees and so develops yeast autolysis, which gives the bready, briochy, flaky pastry notes. I have never known such a good sparkling wine made by the traditional method and from an aromatic grape variety – usually the yeast aromas get in the way of the aromatics – which is why Prosecco and Asti are made in a different way. What is more, this is a Reserva, so spends at least 14 months on the lees, whereas most only spend 9 months.

The Alvarinho characters really shine through, while the lees ageing adds complexity and richness – 91/100 points.

Sweet Wines

Vinho Verde is not really sweet wine territory, but I tried two attempts that showed promise:

QM Alvarinho Vindimia Tardia
Quintas de Melgaçao
DOC Vinho Verde sub-Região Monção & Melgaço

This late harvest Alvarinho was a golden orangey colour with bitter caramelised orange notes on the nose. The palate had very high acid and bitter flavours with sadly not enough weight really to carry it off, but it was pleasant, just not really a dessert wine, more of a very off dry wine – 85/100 points.

2008 Quinta de Carapeços Winter Harvest Espadeiro
Vinho de Mesa

A blanc de noirs as Espadeiro is a black grape and a true dessert wine with 180g per litre of residual sugar. Picked in February to let the grapes develop optimum ripeness and then to dry on the vine. It had a lovely colour like a tabby cat while the nose was intense with liquor oranges and barley sugar. The luscious palate was like a rich winter fruit salad of dried fruits. The acid balanced the sweetness while the touch of tannin also helped the balance and to stop it cloying. Lovely complex and delicious – 91/100 points.

Rosé Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde literally means ‘green wine’ and so many people assume that it refers to the colour of the wine and that as a consequence all Vinho Verde is white, but that is not so. It means green as in young, and implies the wine has not been aged. What is more traditionally much more red wine was made than white, but the very high acid red Vinho Verdes had little international appeal in the past and so were hardly ever exported.

Rosés however a different matter, it seems to be a perfect region for producing rosé and there are some very attractive examples. My favourites were:

2011 Casa da Trojeira Rosé
D.O.C. Vinho Verde sub-região Basto

75% Vinhao and 25% Espadeira grapes – the label actually says Palhete which is the local term for a dark rosé – Vinhao is a teinturier grape whose flesh and juice has a deep purple colour.

A very deep deep colour, but this does not come from skins, but the Vinhao . Deep red fruit aromas of cranberry and raspberry. The palate has the merest touch of drying tannins on the edges of the tongue and bucket loads of creamy ripe fruit, red, raspberry and especially  juicy cranberry and a long finish. Not complex, but a really lovely drink – 87/100 points.

2011 Arca Nova Rosé 
Quinta das Arcas 
D.O.C. Vinho Verde

100% Espadeiro.

The colour is from skin contact and is a pale bright red cherry with a bluey tinge at the edges. Touch of cherry sweets on the nose, strawberry and cranberry fruit notes and rose petal too. It is very light-bodied and the palate is all about fresh, lively, zesty high acidity and the cherry, strawberry and cranberry fruit. Again not complex, but a delightful wine – 87/100 points.

Around £8 a bottle in the UK from Casa Leal.

Red Vinho Verde

Red wines from the Minho are not something we come across often, so I was thrilled to be able to taste some. They are not to everyone’s taste – indeed not always mine, but there are good examples. The problem to anyone who has not been brought up with them is the weight and the acidity – they are often very light and always very acidic – not something many consumers expect in a red wine.

Personally I can tolerate the acidity – and even enjoy it with the right food (suckling pig in case you are wondering) – as long as there is enough weight of fruit, so careful winemaking is required. This makes good examples of red Vinho Verde the exception rather than the norm I am afraid, but the good ones are lovely. My favourites were:

2011 Quinta de Gomariz Vinhão
D.O.C. Vinho Verde sub-região Ave

100% Vinhão.

An extraordinary red, the colour is beautiful, like squashed blackberries and blueberries – be warned it stains white clothes and surfaces! The nose is a little tricky on first opening as it is very reductive and cabbagey, but this does pass after long enough, alternatively hold your nose, because the palate is worth it!

It is unoaked and tastes just like cramming your mouth with freshly picked juicy blackberries with a touch of pepper. There is no tannin to speak of and the acidity is really mouthwatering – I loved it, serve it with rich meat dishes – 87/100 points

Around £10 a bottle in the UK – stockist information available here.

2011 Casa da Tojeira Tenente Bernardo Tinto
Vinho Regional Minho

This lovely traditional estate in the Basto sub-region has attempted to tame Vinhao’s acidity by blending it 50/50 with Touriga Nacional, which is traditionally a Port grape.

Again this unoaked wine has cabbage-like reduction on the nose, but if you open it 24 hours before you drink it it goes away leaving rich plum and blackberry fruit notes and some spice too.

The palate is rich and round with ripe plum fruit and even a touch of beetroot in a sweet and sour kind of way. A little tannin gives definition and balanced acidity gives freshness. This is a rich, soft and satisfying red wine – 89/100 points.

So there you are, Vinho Verde has a great deal to offer everyone who likes good wine and the region will repay a little investigation. Although it excels at dry whites, do keep an open mind – not all the wines are exactly what you might expect. 

10 thoughts on “Vinho Verde – lovely wines and not always what you’d expect

  1. Hi Quentin,

    It’s good to hear from you…
    Congratulations for your post, in fact you are a Wine Educator…

    When you wrote “many people think they know what these wines are like and assume they do not like them”, I agree with you that was part of problem, but I also think that people start to trying again Vinho Verde and discovering new styles, like you also refer.

    Is very interesting and exciting see people’s face when they taste our wines and say “Uau” so different from I was expecting.

    Was very nice to receive you and Carolyn, you are always welcome…
    Hope to keep in touch,

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