Changing colours: Vinho Verde

11 April 2017

Once defined by its light and spritzy green wines, Vinho Verde has undergone something of a ripeness revolution. And, says Clinton Cawood, with two great vintages on the market there’s never been a better time to check out the new wave

We’re going to need to see some ID before you read any further. Over a certain age, you’re considerably more likely to be carrying some baggage when it comes to Portugal’s Vinho Verde, and probably a hands-on appreciation of why the region’s name contains the word ‘green’.

In the last decade or so, however, a revolution has been taking place in this rainy, white-wine-focused corner of the country. The region’s traditional high-acidity, low-abv, slightly fizzy wines remain, but winemakers have been increasingly producing more complex and interesting wines too – wines that show off what the region is really capable of, and consequently are better suited to a broader range of cuisines and dining occasions.

Alvarinho works very well with Asian food, but for European cuisine I consider it a very good alternative to Riesling’ Leonardo Barlondi

In short, if you’re letting those traditional styles prevent you from considering Vinho Verde for your wine list, you’re missing a trick.

‘The wines from Vinho Verde can be some of the greatest aperitifs, and they can also match fantastically with oily fish, sauced fish and seafood,’ says Nelio Pinto of Candlesticks Hotel in Lincolnshire’s Stamford. ‘Vinho Verde is quickly shaking the idea that it is an area for cheap, slightly spritzy wine for knocking back. The wines from this region have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, mainly due to a greater understanding of the varieties planted and better winemaking techniques.’

The unfinished manor house at Casa de Vila Boa
The unfinished manor house at Casa de Vila Boa

RAC Club’s Davide Dall’Amico, last year’s Wines of Portugal Wine Quest runner up, is enthusiastic about the range of grape varieties and styles offered by the region. ‘Whether it’s the mineral and slightly creamy Avesso-based wines, or the well-structured, perfumed and age-worthy Alvarinho from the northern parts of the region, or the fresh and aromatic, Sauvignon-like Loureiro-based blends, these newer styles are very food friendly.’

Raymond Reynolds, of the eponymous Portuguese-specialist wine merchant, has seen first-hand the change in Vinho Verde over the past decade. ‘The styles now being made are more nuanced, enhanced by terroir and varietal character,’ he explains. ‘This is happily getting away from the perceived cheap, zingy, petillant, simple “green wine” that conflated the name of the region with a style.’

Perfect vintage
Say what you like about 2016, with its questionable politics and relentless celebrity deaths – it’s looking like it will at least go down in history as a great vintage.

Early last year, winemakers gushed about the conditions that had led to a 2015 vintage that some described as ‘perfect’, perhaps partly inspired by a less-than-perfect 2014. Now 2016 looks to only be improving even on that.

At Quinta de Gomariz in the central part of the region, production was up 10% in 2016. ‘Characteristics have remained similar, so we have all the signs that 2016 will be an amazing vintage,’ explains export manager Tiago Lopes.

Further south, at Calçada Wine Estate in the Amarante region, quantities were slightly lower for 2016, but there’s no less enthusiasm for the quality of the vintage. Managing director André Estácio Pinto comments: ‘The last days before harvest favoured good maturation, giving the grapes good concentration and flavour. We feel like our wines are showing good evolution and we’d risk saying that they’re even better than in 2015.’

Quintas do Homem’s Ana Coutinho is no less effusive about 2016. ‘We had amazing weather – hot and dry – and the grapes were actually perfect. In my opinion, we have more complexity in 2016 than the year before.’

Call me Al(varinho)
If there’s one grape variety that represents the future fortunes of Vinho Verde, and its capacity to create premium, complex, food-friendly wines, it’s Alvarinho (Galicia’s Albariño when it crosses the Portuguese-Spanish border).

Intense, substantial Alvarinho, with its sometimes tropical fruit notes, as well as honeysuckle character; Alvarinho with its ageing potential, and the parallels drawn between it and Riesling or Semillon; Alvarinho with its ability to command higher prices than other Vinho Verdes, yet still offering great value compared to its equivalent offerings on a wine list.

‘In Alvarinho there’s value perception,’ says Vasco Magalhães, at Anselmo Mendes, a specialist in the variety. ‘That’s not always the case in Vinho Verde.’

The growing appreciation for this grape isn’t lost on sommeliers in the UK. ‘It’s the noble grape of the Vinho Verde region,’ says Leonardo Barlondi of Ting, at Shangri-La at the Shard. ‘I found really great producers there that deserve to be in the best markets. I find Alvarinho’s quality to be very steady, and in the blend it makes the wine rounder, with a longer finish.

‘At Ting, we serve Asian cuisine in the lounge, and I think Alvarinho works very well for that style of food, but also for the European side. I consider it a very good alternative wine to Riesling.’

Within Portugal’s Vinho Verde region, Alvarinho’s heartland is in Monção and Melgaço, with the latter’s higher altitudes resulting in more aromatic wines, with a lot more acidity than Monção.

‘In this region, Alvarinho tends to be full bodied and high in acidity,’ says Barlondi. ‘Some of the best producers, like Anselmo Mendes and Quinta Soalheiro are avoiding CO2, and they make use of some skin contact. The wines are similar in style to the Albariños from Galicia.’ Nelio Pinto agrees. ‘Alvarinho is at its peak in Quinta do Soalheiro. Anselmo Mendes is seen as the man with the Midas touch when it comes to understanding this variety.’

Casa Vila Verde
Casa Vila Verde

The UK is catching on. Reynolds reports that last year was his best for sales of Quinta do Soalheiro Clássico, an Alvarinho from Melgaço. ‘There is demand and a growing recognition of this variety, producing a very high quality wine,’ he says.

Historically, only Alvarinho wines from the Monção and Melgaço regions could be labelled as Vinho Verde Alvarinho, but within a few years all wineries within the Vinho Verde region will be able to use this on their labels. Previously, wineries that wanted to use the name of this variety on the label were required to use Vinho Regional Minho, a geographical indication covering the same geographical area
as the Vinho Verde DO.

Portuguese picks
However, the burden of bringing Portugal’s white wines into the 21st Century doesn’t rest entirely on the thick-skinned shoulders of the Alvarinho grape, thankfully. There are a number of other indigenous grapes doing their part for improving the country’s name, usually in other parts of Vinho Verde.

Vinho verdes can be some of the best aperitifs – great with oily or sauced fish and seafood

Nelio Pinto

Take the wines of Quinta de Covela, for example, from the Baiao region, bordering on the Douro. The main grape here is the nutty, creamy Avesso, but the approach is no less considered – and contemporary. ‘Everything is vinified by variety and plot,’ says Covela’s Rui Cunha. ‘We need to convince people that these wines can age’.

Harvest at Quinta da Lixa
Harvest at Quinta da Lixa

In nearby Amarante, between Vinho Verde and the Douro, is Calçada. Here they produce three tiers of wine, which together summarise the wines of Vinho Verde nicely. There’s Lago: traditional, fruit-driven, effervescent wines, made from Loureiro and others. The Portal de Calçada wines are food-friendly blends of local grapes like Arinto and Loureiro, certified as DOC Reserva. Then there’s Quinta de Calçada, consisting of Loureiro and Arinto, alongside Alvarinho, some are certified as Vinho Regional Minho.

The old and the new
But what of those traditional, effervescent Vinho Verdes, carefree and untroubled by complex considerations such as skin contact or barrel fermentation?

By all accounts, these have improved in quality too. And by most accounts, these still undoubtedly have a place. They are accessible, refreshing: suited to Portugal’s climate.

‘The volume-based blends have hugely improved in quality, drawing in more customers,’ says Reynolds.
As Dall’Amico puts it: ‘That old style always has a place, where this light, fresh, slightly sparkling, off-dry style can easily be enjoyed by everybody, even those who normally don’t drink wine, with or without food.’

So don’t forget those either. And when you’ve thoroughly explored this region’s broad variety of white wines, there are rosés and reds to explore. Yes, even the slightly effervescent ones.

Sommelier picks

Nelio Pinto, Candlesticks Hotel
Covela Avesso Edicao Nacional 2015
‘This Avesso from the Baiao region is very fine, with lovely pear and citrus aromas on the nose. It’s expansive on the palate, with a creamy texture and a fresh mineral finish.’
£9.26, Portal Wines & Spirits, 020 7117 2682

Leonardo Barlondi, Ting, at Shangri-La at the Shard
Anselmo Mendes Contacto Alvarinho 2015
‘Coming from Monçao in the northern part of the Vinho Verde region, this has stone fruit and tropical aromas and very good minerality.

What impressed me is the 12-hour skin maceration and the minimum four months of ageing on lees, which together give very good structure to the wine, balancing with its acidity. Something a bit unusual for Vinho Verde, and a wine that works very well with Asian cuisine and seafood.’
£11.05, Clark Foyster, 020 8819 1458

Davide Dall’Amico, RAC Club
Quinta de Calcada, Exuberans 2015
‘A blend made of 70% Loureiro, which gives this wine a freshness, as well as a lovely bay leaf and citrus aroma, pumped up with 30% Alvarinho to give the wine more structure.’
£6.68, Perfect Cellar, 020 3131 0012

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