July 3, 2013

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

By JOE APPEL

Would it mean much to you if I were to claim that Vinho Verde is the new Riesling? Probably not, though that won't stop me.

The similarities are striking: Awe-inducing mineral qualities. Thunderous acidity. The absence of oak for vinification, leading to a clean, unadulterated character and direct transmission of flavor straight from a very specific place. A limpid yellow-green color. Subtle floral aromatics and tropical ripeness that only disclose themselves discreetly, allowing the salty geologic qualities and pure energy to play starring roles. Low alcohol and therefore terrific flexibility with a wide variety of different foods.

Of course, good Riesling is beloved by wine people while dismissed by the masses, whereas Vinho Verde is in an opposite situation. When the thermometer climbs past 75 degrees, everyone reaches for that $7 bottle of ice-cold, slightly spritzy alcoholic limeade. Wine snobs snort derisively. I've snorted derisively for years.

But no more, because I've found religion, in the form of what I'll call "grower Vinho Verde." This is the second way in which my Riesling/VV analogy falls apart: the predominance in Vinho Verde (a region, by the way, not a grape) of co-operatives, rather than independent vignerons, for the production of the wine.

More than 38,000 growers operate in this northwestern corner of Portugal, separated by Spain's Galicia by the Minho River, with roughly 86,000 acres devoted to grape cultivation. Most of that acreage is in backyard tracts, with high-arching pergola-trained vines balancing over vegetable plots and driveways. Around 90 percent of the growers own fewer than 12 acres each, and can't afford to operate their own wineries, so they sell to the co-ops. The remaining 10 percent or so make their own wine, though little of this is exported.

All of this stacks the odds against your walking into a shop or restaurant and finding an estate-owned Vinho Verde. But the odds are getting better.

My ambassador to the land of excellent Vinho Verde is Michael Hutchinson, a California-based importer with many years in the wine business, who only recently has put together a portfolio of his own (MatadorVino) with relatively heavy Portuguese representation.

"Portugal is the new Old World," Hutchinson told me. "It's still undiscovered and largely untapped. It has many different interesting regions, exciting indigenous varietals, centuries of tradition, a lot of small family winemakers."

But in Vinho Verde the co-ops rule, and Hutchinson was determined to develop a platform for the more distinctive wine. "The stuff that was out there in the market," he said, "was from the huge co-ops, and was missing the mark. I've always been into wine because of authenticity, sense of place, and being able to connect the dots."

Those qualities will be missed in the usual co-op model, where large companies buy grapes and hold them for subsequent years: put the grapes in tanks, bring the temperature down so they won't ferment, add gas; ferment the grapes to order. This is why you usually don't see a vintage listed on Vinho Verde that costs $7 a bottle, and why when you open that bottle it doesn't taste like much more than seltzer.

The real picture of Vinho Verde speaks of almost infinite multiplicity and nuance. Within the Vinho Verde DOC exist a multitude of sub-regions: Basto, Paiva, Lima, Amarante and more. The wines are made from any number of indigenous grape varieties: Alvarinho, Trajadura, Azal, Loureiro, to name just a few. (That's only the whites, by the way. There are red and pink Vinho Verdes, too, from Amaral and Padeiro among others.) More than 60 percent of Vinho Verde vines are more than 20 years old, which expands the flavor palette, deepens the potential for textural complexity and adds nutritive value.

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