In Search of the True Vinho Verde

Long synonymous with slightly fizzy wines meant to be thrown back with abandon, Portugal's Vinho Verde region is looking to prove that it's capable of a whole lot more. Zachary Sussman on the region's dueling identities, and the search for what will come to define the next generation of Vinho Verde wines.

Vinho Verde Wine

The winemakers weren’t happy during the week I spent three summers ago in Portugal’s Vinho Verde region, a lush, heavily forested oasis in the country’s rainy northwest. Their frustration wasn’t on account of the weather, or rot, or some disease in the vines, or even the financial crisis, which was dominating the local headlines at the time. The culprit, it turned out, was a different headline altogether. Immediately after my arrival, the New York Times ran a profile of Vinho Verde, in which wine critic Eric Asimov dubbed it “Portuguese for ‘Cheap and Cheerful.’”

The way Asimov portrayed the wines should be familiar to anyone who has crushed a fizzy, low-alcohol bottle of Vinho Verde at a picnic, pool or whatever setting lends itself to day-drinking. In addition to “cheap and cheerful,” other adjectives he used include “fresh and lively, zingy, zesty, sometimes fizzy and above all, untaxing.”

“In the last few years, Vinho Verde has soared in popularity here,” Asimov explained, which has transformed it into “a welcome symbol of summer for many Americans.”

Most regions would covet this kind of coverage. The gripe, however, wasn’t necessarily that Asimov got the story wrong, but that he only told one side of it. According to some, the enormous success of this mass-produced, mass-exported style has come to define Vinho Verde as a whole. This has left a complicated legacy for those eager to shift perceptions.

“We’re viewed as this single-profile, low-cost, fizzy wine,” says João Camizão, proprietor of the Sem Igual label and a member of the Vinho Verde Young Project, a group of four producers who collaborate to promote the new generation of the area’s winemakers. “The easy, spritzy stuff is great on some occasions, and it’s extremely good business, but we have something else to offer, too.”

He’s not alone in that sentiment. Over recent years, a new wave of Vinho Verde producers—typically small-scale, independent winemakers, who represent a stark contrast to the large corporate firms that dominate production—has begun carving out an alternative ethos for the region. Collectively, they’re making the case for what might sound like a contradiction in terms: Vinho Verde’s rebirth as a serious wine.

The past few decades provide many examples of wine regions attempting a similar transformation. Unlike the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, when the way to signal a kind of “seriousness” meant conforming to a specific set of guidelines—basically, lowering yields, maximizing ripeness and polishing the wine with new French oak—the formula is no longer quite so obvious. Today, a robust market has emerged for wines that aren’t conventionally “serious,” but we take quite seriously indeed. As a result, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what a “serious” wine is supposed to look like anymore.

As it wrestles with this question, Vinho Verde has arrived at a critical moment in its own development. The area built its popularity in the United States upon being brisk and inexpensive. Now that its producers have become more ambitious, can it reach for profundity without sacrificing the qualities that made it so appealing in the first place?

To Vasco Croft, proprietor of the biodynamically farmed Aphros estate near Ponte de Lima, the effort to reveal Vinho Verde’s elevated side is more an act of reclamation than invention. He views his role as helping to restore the area’s former identity as a diverse wine region. “My work is about changing the stereotype most people have about Vinho Verde,” he explains. “I want to communicate that it is a region, not a style, and that there are many different expressions possible.”

For many of today’s independent Vinho Verde winemakers, this goal translates to rejecting the so-called “classic” style—non-vintage, non-varietal and artificially injected with CO2—in favor of producing varietal-specific wines with none of the area’s signature effervescence. Their belief is that this approach will better transmit the particular details (social, geographical, cultural) that make Vinho Verde what it is—or rather, what it could become.

They are now applying this vision to the task of defining the unique profiles of Vinho Verde’s nine demarcated sub-regions—Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Cávado, Lima, Monção e Melgaço, Paiva and Sousa—which decades of co-operative winemaking and bulk production have all but obscured. In this spirit, the region’s modern evolution is following the curve of a wider paradigm change within the wine world, which defines “seriousness” in terms of a certain specificity of focus.

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“In France, Italy and almost every other region in the world, there is an effort to highlight the different identities of the sub-regions,” explains Pedro Veloso of Wine In-Motion, the Portuguese-focused import company responsible for bringing several new-wave Vinho Verdes to U.S. shores. “If the essence of the loureiro grape expresses itself along the bank of the Lima Valley, with the river playing such a huge role in shaping the profile of its wines, and if the Baião region has always been best for avesso, then we need to start understanding and promoting the wines in that way.”

Located just across the Minho River from Galicia, the most prominent of these sub-regions, Monção e Melgaço, enjoys a long tradition of premium winemaking. Celebrated for its non-sparkling, fuller-bodied examples of the alvarinho grape—better known as albariño over the Spanish border—the area has historically been considered “a beacon to the rest of Vinho Verde,” according to Vasco Magalhães, sales and marketing director for winemaker Anselmo Mendes. One the area’s early pioneers, along with the iconic Quinta de Soalheiro estate, Mendes has consistently proven alvarinho’s remarkable track-record for crafting complex, age-worthy and mineral-driven whites.

Equally impressive, however, is the work underway in some of the less-established sub-regions, whose potentials are still being mined. Evidence of this revitalization comes in the form of wines like the delicate magnolia-scented loureiros from Lima’s Quinta do Ameal and Aphros. If alvarinho has always been Vinho Verde’s major player, it’s loureiro—with its riesling-like delicacy, salinity and unmistakable floral aromatics—that has emerged as one of the region’s most promising new stars.

This is to say nothing of the regionally specific interpretations of avesso from Sem Igual and Cazas Novas in Baião, which show more fullness of body, or Quinta de Raza’s lemon-inflected arinto- and azal-based wines from Sousa, to name just a few.

Fortunately, in assuming a more ambitious guise, none of these wines forsake the primary virtue of freshness. The common thread uniting them all is a bracing, irrepressible wash of acidity. They achieve seriousness in the same way that certain Loire whites (Sancerre, for one) can be called “serious,” delivering concentration of fruit and mineral depth in a relatively nimble frame. Labeled with the names of the varietals and sub-regions and vinified up to 13.5 percent alcohol (11.5 percent is the maximum for the “classic” style, which bears only the basic “DO Vinho Verde” designation), these “modern” Vinho Verdes testify to a region still very much in progress.

“We only really started to make serious still wines in the 1990s, which is very recent,” says Magalhães. “The producers are still growing up, and, in a way, we are all still in the process of finding ourselves.”

In the process, two Vinho Verdes seem to have emerged: the mainstream “classic” style, with which the region has long been associated, and the contemporary expressions focused on place. But can either of them claim to be more representative of the region’s true identity?

It can’t be denied that Vinho Verde’s new wave bears little resemblance to the cloudy, rustic style made during the area’s pre-industrial past, which British author Raymond Postgate describes in his 1969 book Portuguese Wine as a “natural semi-sparkling wine,” whose “slight prickle” was derived as a byproduct of the malolactic fermentation finishing in bottle. “They taste young,” he writes. “They have the greenness of Spring.”

So is today’s bright, fizzy, artificially carbonated Vinho Verde, which was developed as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s as an approximation of the earlier ancestral style, closer to the region’s traditional spirit? Maybe, at least insofar as Vinho Verde’s historical lack of seriousness—what Postgate calls its “cheering effect”—factors into the equation. But this shouldn’t suggest that a wine like Anselmo Mendes’ “Contacto”—a rich, gently skin-fermented alvarinho produced exclusively in Monção e Melgaço—is any less expressive of what “Vinho Verde” means.

In fact, there’s room for each. These styles represent two different approaches to the notion of “place” in wine, each of which is true to Vinho Verde in its own way. Maybe the “real” Vinho Verde—whatever it might be—exists somewhere in between these poles, or as a composite of both.

“The classic carbonated style is part of our history,” says Magalhães. “Historically, it has had a lot of strength, and it’s something the region will always support, since it put us on the map. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something else, too.”

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