Vinho Verde, Portugal
As we swelter away across the country through one of the hottest few weeks on record, I thought I would bring you a piece that would transport you to a far away green, lush land that is famous for a wine tailor-made for stinking hot summer evenings; the partially frizzante, light, low alcohol, crunchy and fresh Albariño wines of Vinho Verde in the very north of Portugal.
This wine region, like many in Portugal, is based around an all-important, life-giving river, the River Minho. Here in Portugal, like in almost all of Europe, irrigation is strictly forbidden, and therefore this water source, which originates in the Galician mountains of Spain just to the north, is what feeds the soil with fresh water. Without this fresh water from the river and the abundant winter rainfall, the region would not be known by its second title; Costa Verde, the green coast. The river however means more to the locals than a water source; fishing plays a strong part in everyday life in this part of the world, and the wine made here matches perfectly with local dishes such as “caldo verde” (codfish with rice), “Margarida da Praça” (octopus and garlic), steamed conger-eel, whiting and bream. The river is also used as a major highway for travel, as it has been for centuries, and recently the river has become a major source of power for the region. Over the last decade, several small-scale hydro-electric power plants have been built upon the Minho, providing a respectable percentage of renewable energy to the region. Very handy in this isolated corner of Portugal! Click for larger map
One variety is king in this region; Albariño- also known locally as Alvarinho and called “the perfumed aristocrat of Galicia” by wine writer Jancis Robinson MW. This is truly one of the only Portuguese natives to make a mark on the global wine scene. There are even a few examples found throughout the Hunter Valley in NSW! The reason for its success is many layered; firstly, the grapes produced by the vine are hard and tiny, held in very small bunches. This is an advantage in this rather wet region, as these small, hard berries with their thick skins have fantastic resistance to fungal diseases such as grey rot which can ruin whole crops in other regions. Another reason is that the vines produce a large number of these small bunches- usually around 30-40 per vine! This means that the vine has a lot of bunches to fill with sugary goodness during the ripening season, and results in small berries with abundant fresh acid, but not that much sugar, which equals not that much alcohol in the final wines. The white Albariño wines of the Vinho Verde average between 9-11.5% alcohol; a big part of their refreshing style. Many people describe the wines as having the freshness and crisp characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc, but with the aromas of Viognier.
One of the most distinctive features of Albariño from Vinho Verde is that it usually has a sparkle to it! Traditional winemaking in this region puts the young wine into sealed barrels to undergo Malolactic fermentation, and this produces carbon dioxide which is trapped in the wine due to the sealed container not allowing the gas to escape. The bubbling on the palate is often described as a prickle, and is never as noticeable or obvious as in a sparkling wine or Champagne. Despite Albariños dominance, there are other lesser known varieties grown in this region too; Avesso, Loureiro, Pederna and Trajadura are white grapes that can be added to Albariño to make a cheaper ‘house white’, but also have little spots where they thrive and are made into their own wine. The ‘house red’ counterparts of this region are harder to find, and are based on Alvarelhao, Espadeiro, Caino Tinto and today more and more the globally popular Cabernet Sauvignon. However interestingly enough, up until the early 1980s, Vinho Verde made more red wine than white! This was slightly fizzy, bone-dry and sharply acidic with a tasting note of ‘fur and animal’; small wonder they changed over to whites really!
Over the past few decades, especially after Portugal joined the EU, the quality of wines from this region has leapt forward amazingly. Today you can sometimes see producers adding quality level descriptions to their bottles. For example, if a wine is made of 100% one variety and comes from one of the recognised quality sub-regions, it can add the words Escolha, Grande Escolha and Superior Colheita Selecionada– the first of which is the easiest and the last the most strict and challenging to achieve. Each of these levels allows a higher percentage of alcohol than the entry level legislation-decreed 11.5%, indicating better sites with more ripeness and more careful vineyard management controlling yields. A good rule of thumb to remember is simply to look at the a.b.v. on the bottle; low alcohol indicates crisp, fresh and light, whereas the higher it is (maximum allowable is 14%) the more complex the wine. These higher a.b.v. wines usually undergo a short period of oak ageing to increase complexity.
Wine Sales Manager