Portugal’s light, zesty Vinho Verde has been compared to a dive into a cold pool and a spin along a beach road in an open white convertible. As a car, it’s no Porsche, as these whites typically cost about 10 bucks.
I’ve always thought of the best ones as fresh, simple, slightly spritzy low-alcohol wines ideal for washing down steamed clams on a hot August night.
I’ve also experienced Vinho Verde at its worst: a bit like water with a hefty squeeze of tart lemon and a touch of bubblegum sweetness.
So the quality of wines I tasted on my recent tour of this tranquil, rural region in the country’s northwest came as a major surprise. Not only did I find small producers making excellent, intriguing, even complex whites in diverse styles, but also vibrant, exotic reds. So much for vinous stereotypes.
Even on a warm day, the gently rolling landscape of Vinho Verde looks very, very green, thanks to nearly 60 inches of annual rainfall, almost double Napa Valley’s. That verdancy is the origin of the region’s name, though some say it refers to the wine’s bright acidity.
Vinho Verde hugs the Atlantic coastline between the Douro river to the south and the Minho river to the north, and boasts 25,500 growers. Only 600 of them make wine.
One of most fascinating is vintner Vasco Croft, owner of Quinta do Casal do Paco near the Lima River. He produces wines under the Aphros brand, named for Greek goddess Aphrodite. (The spelling was changed from Afros with vintage 2011.)
Laid-back in torn jeans and an un-tucked blue shirt, 49-year-old Croft walks me around the 20-hectare property his family has owned for generations.
Since 2002, he’s turned it into Vinho Verde’s only certified biodynamic estate. When he took over, the barrels in the cellar under the house were rotten, the vines, planted in traditional style pergolas, abandoned.
His interest in wine, he says, was ignited by a wine-loving Buddhist monk from Brazil.
“My dream now is just to be self-sufficient and grow grapes,” say Croft, an architect, furniture designer and former director of a Rudolf Steiner school, whose shaggy white hair makes him resemble a younger Richard Gere.
Every wine we taste on the sunny stone terrace in front of his whitewashed house is delicious.
Traditionally, Vinho Verde is a blend of several white varieties. Croft grows only loureiro and makes it in four different styles, including sparkling.
The 2011 Aphros Ten ($15) is light-hearted, lemony, and low-alcohol (10 percent), but my favorite is the soft yet crisp, minerally 2011 Aphros Loureiro ($17), with its aromas of honey, lime and rose petals and citrus and fennel flavors.
The reds and rose astonish. All are made from vinhao, a grape with rosy-colored juice. The 2011 rose ($15) has intense strawberry and watermelon notes. Deep purple 2009 Afros Vinhao ($16), foot-crushed in granite troughs, tastes of licorice and savory sour cherries.
Its exotic character and sappy acidity is just right with the wild boar Croft serves, as is more powerful 2009 Silenus ($40), aged in oak. His vinhao sparkler, Super Reserva Bruto ($30), is ideal with a creamy chocolate dessert.
Many other ambitious vintners are convinced alvarinho is the white varietal that will change Vinho Verde’s underrated image.
Enologist Luis Cerdeira of Quinta de Soalheiro says that grape makes the region’s most complex, age-worthy wines and he promises to prove it. His father planted vines in Melgaco, at the northern tip of the country, in 1974.
Squinting in the sun in his family’s seven-hectare vineyard overlooking the Minho river, Cerdeira points out Spain’s Rias Baixas region on the opposite bank. It’s famous for the same grape, which Spaniards call “albarino.”
Melgaco and neighboring Moncao are Vinho Verde’s top spots for alvarinho. “Vineyard land here now costs 100,000 euros a hectare,” says Cerdeira. “It’s half that or less elsewhere.” Only Vinho Verdes from this sub-region can put the grape name on the label.
Going organic is another way Cerdeira has been upping quality. “The wines have clearer flavors, more balance,” he says.
On the stone deck of a house where the Cerdeiras receive visitors, overlooking woods where wild boar hide, Cerdeira arranges a tasting of eight vintages of alvarinho. All are stunning, and have surprising depth and rich complex flavors. The oldest, 1994, has the nutty taste of a mature riesling, while younger vintages like 2005 and 2009 show flavors of quince and a savory minerality.
In Portugal, outdoor tastings always seem to end with food, and it turns out Cerdeira’s sister Maria Joao owns a small pig farm, smokes her own meat and makes some of the best chourico I’ve ever eaten.
Over lunch we sample brilliant current vintages of the Quinta’s five alvarinhos. The 2011 Primeiras Vinhas (old vines) is more complex and round; the powerful 2010 Reserva ($30) reminds me of Chablis.
The fresh, lively, classic style 2011 Alvarinho ($22) goes perfectly with salty clams. Call it Porsche-quality Vinho Verde.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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