July 3, 2013

Appel on Wine: Meet Vinho Verde from Portugal, the new Old World


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The wine culture, dating back at least to the 15th century and perhaps to the 12th, is very traditional. Foot-treading is still performed in some places to crush grapes, though the more modern wineries producing enough for export have largely forsworn it.

Other, more important traditions, though, have prevailed. The classic effervescence in Vinho Verde was historically a result of the area's green, rugged terrain, based on nutrient-poor granitic soils, which produce grapes with high acidity that struggle to ripen. Before the advent of temperature-controlled steel tanks, the apple-y malic acid would only undergo transformation to lactic acid after bottling, producing bubbles in the wine.

Many people saw the bubbles as a flaw, but to the region's winemakers' great credit, their modern ability to use temperature to control the secondary, malolactic fermentation didn't change their determination to keep the wine style the same as it had been. Now, the alcoholic fermentation is halted so that a small amount of grape sugar remains in the wine, and gas introduced at bottling completes the process by creating bubbles.

Only one of Hutchinson's Vinho Verdes is currently available in Maine, the Raza 2012 ($11, Crush), though we're all hoping interest climbs enough to make distribution of more selections feasible in the near future. (That's where you come in.)

Hutchinson called Raza "Chablis-like," which strikes me as half-true. The wine, from the Azal grape, doesn't have the rich character possible from that famed Chardonnay. But it does have the same salty tang and chalky texture, and razor-like focus. The crisp lime zing is simply amazing, especially since it's not just lime; it's lime squeezed over white nectarines, on a picnic in a meadow.

And while everyday VV loses most of its joie de vivre a couple of hours after being opened, the Raza continued to impress me for three days. Even after it warms on the dinner table, it relaxes instead of falling apart. There's still that balance between mineral salts and stonefruits; still the crispness and levity; still the focus and layers of flavor. And it still only cost you $11.

Another distinctive Vinho Verde to try, and well worth the couple of bucks above the usual VV, is Quinta de Azevedo 2011 ($10, Pine State). Also estate-grown, this lively wine from the Loureiro grape is elegant and intense. The finish may even be longer than the Raza's, though the flavor profile is for me more singularly citric.

Both wines will provide you a glimpse of Vinho Verde's actual potential. Both wines will perform splendidly with summer meals based on fish, salads and garden vegetables, and fresh cheeses. They might even get you to take a fresh look at Riesling.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at soulofwine.appel@gmail.com


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