Wine writer and former member of The Society's tasting team Jane Parkinson brings us up-to-date on the fortunes of one of Portugal's most traditional white wines & why it is deserving of more attention
Many a European wine style has retro-cool cachet these days, and I'll happily confess one of my current favourites is white vinho verde. Not just because it's 'summer' (as I type this on rainy Wimbledon day), or because I like the thought of re-discovering a forgotten region, but because it's gone through so many changes since its heyday back in the 1970s, I genuinely think we should be drinking more of it.
To fizz or not to fizz?
Although it's known for its super-frothy fizz, vinho verde isn't necessarily about that style of wine anymore. Vinho verde's energetic effervescence used to be caused by the secondary (malolactic) fermentation that took place inside the bottle, but this was a fated process for two reasons. Firstly, the yeasty by-product deposit of fermentation made the wine cloudy, which doesn't look very appealing and more importantly, as glass bottles struggled with the pressure of the other by-product, carbon dioxide, stories of exploding bottles in cellars were commonplace.
Today it's a bit less dramatic as producers filter their wine to ensure there's no chance of that secondary fermentation happening. Not only does this make the wine clearer and crisper (malolactic fermentation generally adds a roundness to a wine) but it also means today's vinho verde wines have fewer bubbles. There are still some producers who want to stick with the traditional level of fizz of course, and those who do simply inject carbon dioxide directly into the wine, which is a perfectly legal process.
Blends or varietal wines?
Historically white vinho verde is a blended wine of two or more local varieties, alvarinho, arinto, avesso, azal, loureiro and/or trajadura. Blends still account for about 80% of production today, but in an effort to improve quality in the last fifteen years, there's been a shift towards making white vinho verde wines from single varieties.
It's entirely possible to find single varietal vinho verdes from any of these grapes, but from what I've tasted, trajadura for example, is best left to blends. But there are two grapes that champion this single varietal trend with great effect. Firstly loureiro, the region's most planted variety which is sometimes - wrongly in my view - regarded as a bit of a workhorse variety, simply because it's so prolific, even though it's a variety with a very floral character, bright lemon fruit and bags of charm. Secondly alvarinho, which is hugely popular with producers but is also the subject of debate.
I'll elaborate. Even though alvarinho is produced all over vinho verde, a wine labelled as 'Vinho Verde Alvarinho' can only hail from vinho verde's northerly sub-region of Monção and Melgaço. Historically this sub-region, which is just across the Minho River from Rías Baixas (where alvarinho is produced under its Spanish name, albariño), produced the most complex alvarinho in vinho verde. But advancements in everything from viticulture to winemaking now suggest that this ruling should be revoked, or at the very least re-considered, with those outside of Monção and Melgaço claiming alvarinho from vinho verde should be celebrated from the whole region. But Monção and Melgaço locals want to protect their alvarinho, some of whom claim producers of the best alvarinhos outside of their region actually source their grapes from Monção and Melgaço itself. There are no signs at this stage that the labelling laws will change though, so it remains a question of watch this space.
Rising alcohol levels, even here
Cool and damp as a European, indeed Portuguese, region it may be, the (global) issue of rising alcohol has not left vinho verde untouched either. On a recent visit, George Sandeman of Sogrape (which owns Quinta do Azevedo) made a pertinent observation. 'Today the question [for the industry] is no longer how do we make drinkable wines from this high-acid grape juice, but how do we retain the vinho verde style when alcohol levels are shooting up to 13-14%?' It's true, vinho verde is known for being a frisky, light and relatively low alcohol style, and many of them still maintain their delicacy at 11-12%, but the issue is clearly at the front of producers' minds, and especially with the increase in interest and production of alvarinho, which naturally produces more sugar in its berries than other varieties in the region.
Oak & vinho verde
Another significant development, albeit still in its embryonic stage, is the increased use of oak barrels. Unsurprisingly, letting a delicate wine like vinho verde come into contact with oak, no matter how gentle that contact may be, has a significant impact on the wine. From what I've tasted to date, this development is just as much to do with texture as it is flavour, but nonetheless the style is becoming more prevalent. Why? Because producers are striving to make vinhos verdes that are more complex and that have better (or at the very least, new) food matching possibilities. But perhaps most importantly for producers, it's to make wines with a better ability to age, and of course in this respect we're talking 5-7 years, 10 at the very most, rather than the typical 1-2 years.
If, as predicted, this style becomes more popular, there's a strong argument to create a whole new classification for vinho verde. Such is the difference in style to 'regular' vinho verde, if the region doesn't differentiate this oaked style on the label now, in the future it could well face an issue similar to the is-this-dry-or-sweet problem that riesling producers the world over continue to endure.
So, there's a snapshot of what's happening in vinho verde right now. Far from being a sleepy little region that makes quaint/fizzy/cheap wines, it's a region that's literally bubbling away with experimentation, developments and improvements in quality. Whether the changes are deliberate, as in the case of single varietal wines and/or the use of oak, or inherited, thanks to the change in the climate, there's more to vinho verde than meets the eye, so bear that in mind next time you crack a bottle open. Speaking of which, no, I didn't even talk about screwcaps, because even though vinho verde wines are perfect for screwcaps, this is a Portuguese region, the home of natural cork remember!?
Jane Parkinson writes for several wine publications and is a member of The Wine Gang (thewinegang.com). She also has her own website, janeparkinson.com