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Portuguese whites

Portugal’s best white wines are worlds away from the sweet, fizzy image of Vinho Verde – even those from the maligned region itself. But producers face an uphill battle to convince us of their merits, says tina gellie

What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked the question, and so have a number of Vinho Verde producers. While the region remains Portugal’s premier source of white wine, and has undoubtedly improved the quality of its whites in recent years, many believe that, by any other name, Vinho Verde would smell sweeter.

‘I say I make white wine from the Vinho Verde region, not that I make Vinho Verde,’ says Pedro Araújo of Quinta do Ameal in the Lima sub-region. ‘I don’t want to be associated with the name. People have an opinion of Vinho Verde before they’ve even tasted it, thanks to the poor reputation of long ago. Unfortunately I can’t do anything about the name of the region, its laws, its reputation or how it is promoted. But I can make a wine to the best of my ability, and market it in a way that will sell.’

And Ajaújo’s best wines are very good.While one is marketed as DOC Vinho Verde, the rest – which qualify for the DOC – he has declassified as Vinho Regional Minho, to avoid the ‘stigma’ of the Vinho Verde tag. Some say it’s a smart move to avoid a moniker that conjures up a bicycle-pump fizzy, sweetened, over-sulphured, sharply acidic light wine with which you wash down sardines while on holiday in the Algarve. Think Matéus rosé, without the retro chic.

‘Vinho Verde has the problem that everyone has heard of it, but for all the wrong reasons,’ says Danny Cameron of Raymond Reynolds, the biggest importer of Portuguese estate wines into the UK. ‘It’s a pity, because you couldn’t invent a better white for the modern drinker in today’s market if you tried: not too high in alcohol, fresh acidity, good primary aromas and flavours, great with food.

But until that image can be sorted out, wines that choose to be Vinho Regional (VR) may actually have a greater perceived value because they have disassociated themselves from Vinho Verde.’

‘To me it’s the same as Beaujolais,’ adds Araújo. ‘When people hear that name they think “Beaujolais Nouveau”: simple, lightweight, often poor quality. But not all Beaujolais is like that – most are serious wines, many just as good as Burgundy. It’s the same for us: Vinho Verde can be serious, and many are just as good as any white wine you’ll find.’

Cameron believes the problem comes down to regionality, specifically for the regional body, the Comissão de Vitcultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (CVRVV), to emphasise the distinction between the region and the wine. ‘In Portugal, Vinho Verde is understood to be a geographical designation – like Dão or Douro – not a style descriptor. But that is the way it has always been seen in the UK. The CVRVV needs to better promote the idea that Vinho Verde is a region that produces many wine styles.’

Think of it this way: if you were told a wine was ‘a Barossa’, would you expect a Shiraz, Riesling or Semillon? Dry, sweet or sparkling? Saying ‘Barossa’ doesn’t automatically suggest a specific taste or style. Neither does just saying Vinho Verde. In this large, diverse region it could mean an Alvarinho, Loueiro, or a blend of several dozen grapes; with alcohols of 8.5% or up to 15%; fizzy or sweet – or even red (see box, right).

This is Araújo’s reasoning for adopting VR status. ‘For me this is more honest for the consumer. My whites aren’t in the traditional Vinho Verde bottle, you won’t find any CO2 gas and some of them have oak. If I use the words Vinho Verde DOC people will expect something else – something I don’t want to be.’

Vinho Verde is still considered Portugal’s flagship white, and the best examples certainly deserve the title. But pay a visit to this vast region and alongside producers such as Ameal, Soalheiro, Poema and Anselmo Mendes – who all focus on quality – there are considerably more with an eye on quantity. Much of that high-volume wine is the Vinho Verde of old, hidden behind a DOC stamp that, while it should guarantee a certain standard, too rarely does.

‘That’s the stumbling block,’ Cameron says. ‘The Vinho Verde we see in the UK is either cheap and poor quality, or it’s top quality wine from top producers who deserve to charge more, but in the process become apologists for the appellation.’

It’s no wonder consumers are confused. It’s the same as Chianti Classico, where a winery’s flagship – and most expensive – wine is often found under the letters IGT, not the DOCG label that promises the best of the region.

Araújo says the problem is one step worse in Vinho Verde, where the generic body actively promotes the DOC wines – ‘the label, not what’s in the bottle’ but ignores quality-minded Vinhos Regional producers who may offer the interest consumers seek.

Manuel Pinheiro, CVRVV president, says focusing on the ‘virtually unknown’ VR Minho designation, represented by ‘less than a dozen producers’, is counter-productive to the commission’s efforts, when DOC wines account for 95% of production. In an effort to boost quality, he says, 1,100ha of vineyard was put up for renewal in 2009, to be planted

with more ‘quality-oriented varieties’.

Similar efforts are promised for 2010. But unless producers’ mindsets can be geared to value, not volume, will much really change? After all, bad wine can still be made from good grapes.

Backing brancos

Vinho Verde isn’t the only Portuguese region that needs to up its game with whites. João Pires, head sommelier at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, says the whole country has ‘a long way to go’ to gain a recognition comparable to its Port and red table wines.

‘That’s partly because, for too long, producers were concentrating on those styles to satisfy the market,’ he says, ‘but also because the New World has so many other countries that do great whites with recognisable names. It’s hard to make a strong brand for Encruzado, Loueiro or Arinto when you have New Zealand Sauvignon.’

Nick Oakley, of Portuguese specialist merchant Oakley Wine Agencies, agrees, but says that’s where blending is vital. He has had great success with Tagus Creek, which blends familiar international grapes with a local variety, like Chardonnay with Fernão Pires. It is now the second biggest Portuguese brand in the UK (after Mateus rosé).

‘Portuguese grapes aren’t well known yet and neither are the regions – unless it’s the Douro – so you need to give consumers something to recognise. If this is the way to give Portugal a global image, why not?’

Ana Sofia Olivera of ViniPortugal, the country’s generic wine body, says the strategy is a good one for supermarkets, but restaurant-savvy wine lovers who shop at independent merchants will be looking for ‘something a little bit different’ from Portugal – far removed from the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.

So where should we look for that ‘something different’? Encruzado from the Dão is one of the most exciting grapes. Fresh, mineral and green-fruited when unoaked, it is more often seen with some (often too much) wood influence, when it gives a rounded, creamy, tropical, fruit-laced wine with herbal, honeyed notes.

Its high acidity means it ages well. Minerally, crisp, lemony Arinto, the most Riesling-like of Portugal’s grapes, is found in the new DO of Lisboa (formerly Bucelas). Fernão Pires – known as Maria Gomes in Beiras – is the country’s most planted white, giving everything from frothy Spumante styles, peachy-floral table wines and luscious, though often flabby, sweets. Look out, too, for Douro field blends of mainly Rabigato, Côdega, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia, as well as Antão Vaz in Alentejo.

Despite these, and other characterful indigenous grapes, white wine was not a priority in Portugal 20 years ago – drinking or producing it. Market demands have now forced producers in traditionally red-wine regions to include a white in their range, but there is a suggestion they are still seen as an afterthought by many.

Luis Pato is credited not only with bringing his region of Bairrada back from the dead but also with championing the tannic red grape Baga. He says that any producer who considers one wine in its range as secondary to another is not a good winemaker. ‘You can specialise in one style, but that doesn’t mean neglecting others.’

He admits that while Bairrada – and he – was known for reds, ‘the future is white and sparkling’. His Moscato-like Maria Gomes and superb, ageworthy Bicals provide admirable evidence.

Cameron thinks the white revolution has begun. ‘The quality of Portugal’s whites has come on apace in the past decade as a result of investment and better equipment, but primarily because of better knowledge of native grapes. Producers have already done this with their reds to great success, but whites are only now catching up.’

This was proven in 2008 at the first dedicated trade tasting of Portuguese whites selected by Decanter contributors Sarah Jane Evans MW and Charles Metcalfe on behalf of the Independent Winegrowers’ Association of Portugal. At this year’s ViniPortugal 50 Great Portuguese Wines tasting, Sarah Ahmed included in her selection a record 14 whites. At the first event in 2005, the 50 wines chosen by Richard Mayson, Regional Chair for Portugal at the Decanter World Wine Awards, were all red.

Portugal made its name from Port and red table wines. But despite issues with the reputation of Vinho Verde, it and the country’s other whites may be increasingly be the ones to watch in the future.

Written by Tina Gellie

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