It is one thing for Audrey Roberts, a character in leading, mainstream UK television soap, Coronation Street, to enthuse ‘Portuguese wine is all the rage’, whilst drinking a ‘very fruity’ Vinho Verde. Quite another for The Wine Society’s buyer, Joanna Locke MW, to declare: ‘Vinho Verde is producing the wines of the moment.’
Increasingly popular, the northwestern Portuguese region’s white wines have gone mainstream with, reports Locke, ‘quite an appetite for this light, pure, refreshing Atlantic-influenced style.’ Freshness and fruit quality hold the key to Vinho Verde’s new, improved bedrock of quaffers – and the altogether more serious wines showcasing its stylistic diversity and thrilling quality potential.
Scroll down to see Sarah Ahmed’s Top Vinho Verde wines to try
Today, Vinho Verde is synonymous with white wine. Until the 1970s, however, red wines predominated, principally made from Vinhão, a thick-skinned, astringent grape. Old school wines were high in acid and low in alcohol (8-9%), because vine-growing was literally relegated to the periphery by corn and dairy production. Cultivated around field borders, trained high around stakes or trees (‘uveira’ or ‘vinha de enforcado’) or on polyculture-friendly pergolas (‘ramadas’ or ‘latadas’), shady vine canopies did little to advance ripening or discourage disease.
Traditionally produced in wineries with lagares (open fermentation vats), wines were characterised by a ‘prickle’ of carbon dioxide because they were run off into cask or bottled quickly, before fermentation completed. The arrival of modern vinification equipment and techniques heralded a massive switch to white winemaking (nowadays, 82% of production), resulting in cleaner, more aromatic wines.
However, the die remained cast by the past’s high acid, effervescent style, albeit successfully modernised by Casal Garcia. With injected carbon dioxide and residual sugar to balance high acidity, Portugal’s original ‘swimming pool wine’ – a classic non-vintage blend of varieties – remains the world’s best-selling Vinho Verde.
Focus on quality
Weaning producers off gas and sugar to build critical, as well as commercial success, reflects three decades of ‘focusing not only on wine quality, but also in the vineyards,’ says leading winemaker Anselmo Mendes. Strikingly, Vinho Verde is home to two of Portugal’s biodynamic (and wines with no added sulphur) pioneers: Fernando Paiva (Quinta da Palmirinha) and Vasco Croft (Aphros).
Region-wide, modern trellising (vertically shoot positioned) and ‘a better choice of grape varieties’ has vastly improved the raw material. With riper fruit, wines are drier and 11-12% alcohol levels ‘are becoming the norm’, says specialist Portuguese importer Nick Oakley.
Just as importantly, the elevation of quality is down to new wave single-estate and winemaker-led labels. At the bleeding edge, Mendes, Quinta de Soalheiro and Quinta do Ameal forged a now increasingly trodden path for dry, single-varietal, sub-regional wines, highlighting the diversity of Portugal’s largest demarcated wine region (although Ameal and others have preferred to label wines Vinho Regional Minho, which covers the same geographical area, simply to distinguish them from the swimming pool wines).
Traditionally known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho (‘between Douro and Minho’), Vinho Verde stretches from the Minho river in the north (along the border with Galicia, Spain) to the Douro river in the south. Its lightest wines (those most likely to benefit from residual sugar) typically hail from Atlantic-facing sub-regions or the fertile basins of east-to-west-running rivers (which funnel the ocean’s cool, humid influence inland).
Inland, the ocean’s influence dissipates and, to the east, bordering the mountainous Trás-os-Montes and Douro regions, a degree of continental influence is reflected in greater fruit intensity, body and alcohol; textural flagship wines may be lees-aged in barrel, with bâtonnage. Here, you might also find transitional schist soils, but Vinho Verde’s soils are predominantly granitic and well drained.
Unsurprisingly, the most ambitious wines generally come from Vinho Verde’s warmer and drier inland reaches. Well protected from Atlantic influence, the Monção e Melgaço sub-region has been associated with Alvarinho since the 1930s. Following a planting boom in the 1990s, some 50 producers, including Soalheiro and Mendes, make wide-ranging expressions, from simple to highly sophisticated and ageworthy. Alvarinho’s high skin-to-juice ratio and high acid and sugars at full ripeness, give winemakers the best tools to produce complex pours with potential to evolve beautifully. Expect to find honeysuckle, pear, tropical citrus and stone fruit aromas and flavours. A short fermentation with skins (‘curtimenta’) or skilful oak-ageing can enhance concentration and complexity.
Lima sub-region’s single-varietal Loureiro is also well established. With higher rainfall and vineyards extending from the coast to the interior, lesser wines from high yielding vineyards can be vapid. Benchmark examples range from pretty, aromatic floral wines with notes of bath salts, to more concentrated wines, with laurel, bay leaf and incisive lime. A handful of producers make accomplished, oaked, ageworthy Loureiros (Ameal, Paço de Palmeira), whilst biodynamic producer Aphros pushes boundaries with a Pét[illant] Nat[urel] and Daphne, which undergoes skin contact.
Of the emerging single-varietal wines, Avesso from the Baião sub-region, bordering the Douro, shows great promise. Like Alvarinho, it retains excellent acidity while attaining full ripeness. Trailblazer Quinta de Covela’s green almond and herb-flecked example is restrained and very gastronomic, whilst Cazas Novas makes a flamboyantly fruity example, with a touch of residual sugar. A & D’s Avesso range sits somewhere between the two.
Late-ripening, but with high malic acidity accounting for its snappy, Granny Smith apple bite, Azal grows well in Amarante. Sem Igual made a textural, rounded, ageworthy example until 2016, when it blended Azal with Arinto for a fresher style. Valued across Portugal for its citrus drive, single varietal Arintos are well-focused and bright. Top grape varieties are increasingly being commandeered to improve blends.
However, susceptible to disease and botrytis in the Atlantic-influenced Cávado sub-region, Quinta de Azevedo’s Arinto has been replaced with Loureiro, which António Braga finds ‘a much better terroir fit’. Introducing Alvarinho has produced a more expressive, modern Vinho Verde and new Reserva. ‘Where top grape varieties are increasingly being commandeered to improve blends, introducing Alvarinho has produced a more expressive, modern Vinho Verde and new Reserva.
And following a quest to rediscover and preserve ancestral vineyards, a handful of rare, old field blend wines, with surprising intensity and power, reveal another side to Vinho Verde.
Beyond dry whites
Across the region, sparkling wines (traditional and tank method ‘espumantes’) are growing in popularity – and complexity. Meanwhile, according to Soalheiro’s António Luís Cerdeira, Vinho Verde’s red grapes cannot meet demand for producing volume (still) rosés – typically off-dry and made from Espadeiro and Padeiro.
Red wines are a small, but growing, niche. Vinhão’s iodine-edged sour cherry, wild fruit, high acidity and rustic tannins are being tempered, to a greater or lesser degree. Aphros’ sophisticated Vinhấo range includes a Palhete (the term refers to wines made by co-fermenting red and white grapes; here Vinhão has been fermented with a small percentage of Loureiro) made in amphora under the Phaunus label. In Monção e Melgaço’s favourable climate, Mendes has introduced a softer, more biddable Vinhấo – a good starting point. Aphros ‘Ouranus’ is one of a new breed of ‘glou glou’ (gluggable) wines. Made from Alvarelhão, Croft describes it as ‘supremely light and ethereal’, compared with the ‘irreverent and intense Vinhão’.
Signposting artisanal trends, micro-negociant Márcio Lopes sources sappy red Pequenos Rebentos Atlântico (a Cainho-Alvarelhão-Pedral blend) from ramada vines (which Sem Igual are also exploring). His Pequenos Rebentos Selvagem, on the other hand, is an amphora-fermented, barrel-aged Azal from traditional enforcado vines. Keen to express the versatility of the region, Lopes is committed to ‘making wines to open markets, not to answer to the market’. Light years away from the spritz and residual sugar styles, he ferments naturally and, save for entry-level wines, favours old oak or chestnut barrels over stainless steel for less upfront aromatics, more complexity and structure.
Lest there be any doubt about Vinho Verde’s rising stock, last year, high profile Alentejo producer Esporão acquired Quinta do Ameal. CEO João Roquette was drawn by ‘the region’s potential to produce world-class whites, versus the general perception of Vinho Verde as a simple inexpensive wine.’ Which is not to ignore the everyday Vinho Verdes making headway in supermarkets and multiple retailers. Impressed by new-wave wines, Oakley started listing Vinho Verde in 2011, and the category has since grown from zero to hero in sales and profile, now accounting for 11% of his turnover. Last year he supplied Aldi’s own-label Avesso, winner of Which? Magazine’s 2019 award for best UK supermarket white wine. Pipping a Gruner Veltliner to the post surely points to Vinho Verde’s promising new future.
10 Vinho Verde Names to Know
Among Vinho Verde’s most experienced, influential winemaker/consultants. Launched in 1998, Mendes’ good value ‘Muros Antigos’ range nails sub-regional/single-varietal classics. Pursuing his passion for Alvarinho, he leased and then acquired Monção e Melgaço’s largest holding (Quinta da Torre). This is now the home of ageworthy flagships Parcela Única and Curtimenta and Contacto, which punches above its weight.
In 2003, architect Vasco Croft re-purposed his family’s estate in Lima, switching from grape-grower to biodynamic vigneron. Intense and energetic like Croft, his Loureiro and Vinhão excel in thrillingly diverse expressions, both still and sparkling. The Phaunus range is made with no additions and no electricity, but considerable flair. Ouranus highlights Alvarelhão’s potential.
Marcelo Lima and Tony Smith acquired this exceptionally beautiful, south-facing Baião estate in 2011. They retained talented winemaker Rui Cunha, who helped to establish Covela’s cutting-edge organic vineyard with Portuguese and French varieties. They shook up the range though. The pioneering and sophisticated Avesso and the flagship oaked white Fantástico (top years only) shine.
Founded by Márcio Lopes, a protégé of Anselmo Mendes, in 2010. The name means ‘small sprouts’, but his minimal intervention, boundary-pushing range has shot to success. Classic Loureiro and Alvarinho are elegantly fruity. Selvagem, meaning wild, is an amphora-fermented, barrel-aged Azal from traditional enforcado vines; Atlântico is a sappy Cainho, Alvarelhão & Pedral red from ramada vines.
Quinta da Palmirinha
Retired professor Fernando Paiva’s in-depth studies put him at the vanguard of biodynamic viticulture and natural winemaking. His 3ha Sousa estate was certified in 2007. Paiva adds neither yeast nor enzymes to his bone-dry, pure, mineral Azal, Arinto and Loureiro, preferring chestnut flowers to sulphites as an antioxidant.
Home to Melgaço’s first Alvarinho vineyard (1974), the dynamic second generation makes a range of twelve expressions of the variety, from certified organic estate and grower grapes. Pure-fruited, elegant classics with great ageing potential. Out-of-the-box cuvées include Terramatter (partial malolactic fermentation, chestnut barrels) and Nature (no added sulphur) Alvarinhos and Oppaco, a delicate red blend of Vinhão, Alvarinho & Pinot Noir.
Pioneer of Lima’s premium, ageworthy Loureiro. Launched by Pedro Araújo in 1999, with Anselmo Mendes consulting. Fresh, aromatic classic profile. Highlights of the range include the flinty, precise single-parcel Solo Único and the complex bottle-aged, oaked Escolha. Acquired in 2019 by leading Alentejo estate, Esporão, which is maintaining the style and investing in additional planting and a new winery.
Paulo Rodrigues helped plant his family’s first Alvarinho in 1988. In 1999, the 23-year-old industrial management graduate launched the Melgaço-based label Quinta do Regueiro, going full-time in 2007. Incisive acidity and fruit intensity are hallmarks of his range of Alvarinhos: Reserva (unoaked, consistently excellent), old-vine, oaked, sparkling and mind-blowingly complex Jurássico I non-vintage.
One of Portugal’s top cooperatives, founded in the 1950s, when best-selling Alvarinho brand, Deu La Deu, was created. It was the first DWWA Portuguese white Gold Medal winner (2012), going on to win many international trophies. Known for great value-for-money, everyday Alvarinhos, traditional white blends and Vinhão.
True to the label (meaning ‘without equal’), João and Leila Camizão’s label is about differentiation. Launched in 2012 with 600 bottles, niche is the word. The powerfully intense, textured Arinto-Azal range hails from his family’s Sousa and Amarante properties. Delicious Pet Nat rosado validates unorthodox new Baga and Touriga Nacional plantings.
Vinho Verde DOC at a glance
- DOC demarcated: 1908
- Soil types: principally sandy granitic, with transitional schist
- Climate: temperate maritime in littoral and watershed areas, with marked continental influence inland
- Area under vine: 16,232 ha*
- Producers: 16,000 growers, 600 with own bottling, 1,400 wine labels*
- Annual production: 787,948hl (83% white, 12% red, 5% rosé)*
- Loureiro (3, 996ha)
- Alvarinho (2, 343ha)
- Arinto (2 241ha)
- Vinhão (1,853ha)
- Trajadura (973ha)
- Azal (883ha)
- Avesso (459ha)
- Fernão Pires (370ha)
- Espadeiro (182ha)
- Padeiro (92ha)
- Monção e Melgaço
*Source: Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes, 2019/2020