Last week, while wandering through a vineyard in northern Portugal I had a brief bout of granite envy. There sparkling in the sunshine, standing like statues across the landscape were several hundred tall granite posts, at least eight feet high and 10 inches square, linked by wires, each one holding up a single leafy young vine.
Having recently refitted a kitchen I know just how expensive granite is and while these posts are rough hewn they are beautiful masterpieces of stonework. They would be no good in my kitchen, but they would look lovely in my garden.
Granite is the bedrock of northern Portugal and fragments of it in the soil make the ground sparkle while its character seems to be carried through to the eventual flavour of the wines, adding base tones of minerality to crisp floral notes.
I was in the green verdant region known as Vinho Verde, right at the top of Portugal, between the River Douro to the south and the River Minho to the north. Standing on the banks of the Minho I could look over to Spain and its Rías Baixas region. The Vinho Verde region catches the Atlantic weather, with more rain than Manchester but when the sun shines it is blissfully warm and its breezes and free draining soil allow the grapes to ripen while still keeping their freshness.
Vinho Verde translates as “green wine” which I must admit I thought came from the colour of the pale, green-tinted white wine produced here, but not so. The green refers to the crisp acidity of the wine, and it can be red as well as white. But the red wine is really a local oddity. Harshly acidic, low in tannin and so deep in colour that it could stain the glass you drink it from, it goes well if you happen to have a whole roast pig to wash down.
Otherwise it is best left for the locals to appreciate – apart from two particularly good examples I tasted there which so far are quite difficult to find.
The key white grapes in this region are Loureiro and Alvarinho with Trajadura, Arinto and Avesso adding their own characters to the wine. Loureiro gives citrus and floral notes while Alvarinho adds more tropical fruit notes such as quince, peach and banana. All these grapes can be grown across the region but local legislation prevents Alvarinho being mentioned on the label unless it comes from the specific area right at the top of Vinho Verde, called Moncão and Melgaço. With steep-sided valleys and low yields, this is the most challenging region to grow grapes and undoubtedly the wines from this area have the edge when it comes to quality and flavour, but I can’t help feeling that Vinho Verde should work together to put the region on the international wine-drinking map rather than indulge in neighbourly one-upmanship.
That aside, I was astounded at the overall quality of wines now being made as Vinho Verde which make perfect wines for warm weather, to accompany fish, light salads and even spiced sausage and roast pork.
As an alternative to Sauvignon Blanc, Vinho Verde presents clean, fresh citrus flavours with enough melon and herbal notes to keep the interest without dominating the palate. Clearly a lot of work has been done in recent years to improve the region and its wines.
Top of my list of producers is Quinta de Soalheiro, a seven-hectare vineyard overlooking the Minho, right at the top of the region and in the favoured zone of Moncão and Melgaço. Since moving to organic practices with wild flowers dotted across the vineyards and a strict policy of no chemicals, producer Luis Cerdeira says that his vines are now “smiling”.
Tasting through a series of vintages of Alvarinho-based Vinho Verde I was surprised, not only by the depth of flavour, concentration and balance of these crisp, minerally wines but by the way that they age. Having only drunk young Vinho Verde before, I was impressed by the older vintages going back to 1995 which demonstrated mature, almost Riesling-like character with nutty complexity and precise, balanced flavours.
Field and Fawcett in York has stocks of Soalheiro Alvarinho 2010 (£16.20, 01904 489073) which has elegant, fresh flavours and will be good to chill down and drink now, but unlike cheaper Vinho Verdes, this one will happily keep for several years.
Luis’s sister Maria José runs a small free-range pig farm and makes some of the best spicy sausage (chouriço) and aged dried ham (presunto) I have tasted. If you head there on holiday be sure to call in.
Further south, along the banks of the Lima river, Vasco Croft (apparently no relation to the port family of that name) has returned to the small house and farm that has been in his family for generations.
“It was overgrown and abandoned for many years,” he said “but I wanted to find a place where I could be self-sufficient and grow grapes.” Using biodynamic principles which are several steps beyond organics and with a laid-back approach that extends to the swimming pool being allowed to revert to a frog pond, Vasco produces wines under the Aphros label that not only have character, but soul as well. The whites, made from Loureiro, since Alvarinho “wasn’t happy here”, have notes of honeyed freshness, melon and a purity of style that makes them stand out. There is also a rosé, a sparkling and a red, all of which hit the mark for style and completeness. Not yet available in Yorkshire, you can order these wines from Caves de Pyrene (01483 534750) at about £13.99 for the white and red Vinho Verde and £18.49 for the sparkling.
While these small producers are making exceptional wines, it is the bigger brands which are most easily available and while none have the intensity and complexity of the smaller estates, some are a very good place to start exploring Vinho Verde.
Quinta de Azevedo is a lovely old estate in the Lima valley owned by Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, but here the size of the business means there is enough investment to replant vineyards and make enough wine to distribute widely. With crisp, light citrus and melon flavours, a streak of minerality and a refreshing finish, Quinta de Azevedo 2011 (£6.49 on multibuy, Majestic) is a great introduction to the wines of Vinho Verde.