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.

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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