Vinho Verde: Impetuous Youth
These are young, immature wines. Probably that’s exactly where their name comes from, who knows. We visited the Minho region, where we could taste some varietals like Trajadura, Loureiro and Alvarinho. And despite the warnings of an enologist, we even dared to taste a house red wine. These are our impressions.
This thick, green spot furrowed with intricate and narrow paths is located in northwestern Portugal between the rivers Douro and Minho. The Vinho Verde region is made up of a complex of terraces that look towards the Atlantic Ocean and is the most densely populated part of the country. Its 1.5 million inhabitants live in stone constructions that look like white constellations against a green sky. About a third of the population consists of farmers who every year keep their fingers crossed so that the ever-threatening winter sky does not open up an ruin the harvest festival.
Because of the strong marine influence, with winds that funnel along the numerous rivers that cross the hills and mountains, grapes take their time to ripen, if they do at all. Hence the name of the wine, which has come to designate the entire region. Although some still argue that the Vinho Verde appellation derives from the colorful landscape and not the lack of ripeness, the wines boast freshness above 6 g/l of acidity, in open defiance to the established enological balance. Today, these wines are sold in over 90 countries as light, merry wines of quick consumption that are particularly suitable for those hot summer afternoons reminiscent of film-maker Eric Rohmer and the first loves.
Everything here seems to have been taken from a movie. For example, right now we are riding on a bus that runs up and down the slopes in poetical stillness. There is no guide available to tell us where the hell we are. All we see is partly inhabited houses with small fields where the land work has barely changed in centuries. As if it were a black and white movie, we watch in astonishment how an old lady prepares the soil for her crops. The cow that pulls the wooden plow is certainly the same the woman milks every morning, while a hairy dog barks and barks out of hunger, or maybe because it misses the youngsters who must have emigrated to France or another country in search of better prospects.
Also known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho, this region of 7,262 sq km encompasses approximately 110,500 fields, of which more than 90% are less than 5 hectares in size. And almost everybody calls himself a viticultor. Despite the increasing property concentration, a phenomenon that is inevitably spreading across the world, the area still lives on –and suffers the effects of– subsistence economy. The large economic groups coexist with thousands of small farmers, in a viticultural region still free of pose or affectation and rich in tradition, effort and humility.
Officially demarcated by law in 1908, Vinho Verde is divided into six sub-regions. Although each one has its own specialty and style, the history and reputation of its wines comes without doubt from the Alvarinho de Monção wines. The first evidence of these wines –some texts date back to the year 165 AD– along with records from the first exports can be found in the far north, along the Minho River. Later on, the winemaking tradition began a decantation process with the aromatic wines from Loureiro de Braga and Lima, the reds from mountainous Basto, the tall growing vines from Amarante and the modern, professionalized cellars from Penafiel.
Today, Vinho Verde is undergoing a vibrant reconversion process, especially after Portugal’s admission into the European Union. But the advent of new viticultural and winemaking technologies has not replaced the old techniques. On the contrary, the uveiras –tall vines growing freely along tree branches–; arjões (stakes) –wires tended at six or eight meters above the ground which force men to perform a true balancing act on ladders while harvesting–; and ramadas (trellised vines), are still a widespread everyday scene around here. The need to use the land for other purposes as well –other crops such as potatoes and vegetables are still grown under the vines– contributed to hinder the implementation of more modern viticultural practices, perhaps more than in other regions.
The search for grapes of better quality, specifically greater concentration and fruit maturation, triggered the adoption, during the last 30 years, of new training systems, namely bardo (trellis), cruzeta (cross) and cordão (cordon). But the system that has proven most effective is the simple cordon. Unlike other traditional training systems, and also the double cordon, it makes vineyard management easier and, above all else, prevents excessive bunch shadowing thus making vinho verde less green.
This change in management –and way of dealing with the business– has also translated in numbers. Ten years ago wine production hovered around 200 million liters, with a greater proportion of reds. Today, however, it remains under 100 million liters and with a clear predominance of whites, an indication that all efforts have been put on quality rather than quantity. This is what international markets are claiming for, and the region has quickly followed suit. Little by little and with a certain stillness, just like our bus ride up and down the steep green terraces.
A GREEN TASTING
CASA DE VILA VERDE BRANCO 2005
This is a family winery more than 900 year old. With its 70 planted hectares, Casa de Vila Verde remained an inconspicuous producer of bulk wines for centuries. Its abrupt reconversion process towards quality and international markets began only four years ago. In 2005, production rose to 5,000 cases, and this year they are looking at 6,000.
Constructed in the 12th century, the large manor house has witnessed innumerable events in the history of Portugal. Today, the vines trained in crosses –the younger wines are VSP-trained– produce aromatic wines like this delicate and bubbly Branco 2005 that barely exceeds 11.5º of alcohol. Green apple and floral notes, and a slight apricot scent. Fairly mineral. A good aperitif.
CASA DE VILA VERDE ALVAHRINO 2005
Unlike the white blend, this Alvarinho appears coarser and lacks the nice manners that welcomed us. Higher in alcohol and fruitier on the nose. Peach notes floating in a cloud of kerosene. In the mouth it shows itself sweeter, somewhat tired and undoubtedly less elegant. Let us not forget, however, that this type of wine sells for 4 to 5 euros in the local market.
QUINTA DA LIXA TRAJADURA 2005
This young winery, verde if you wish, was established in 1986 by the Meireles family under the name Sociedade Portuguesa de Vinhos. Since then, it has placed its strongest bet on vinho verde. Today, its modern vinification plant and 42 hectares in full production are split in six quintas (estates): Da Lixa, De Sanguinhedo, Da Corredoura, De Tarrio, Da Coveiros and Das Maias.
Trajadura is one of the least naturally acidic varieties, although in this case it still reaches a respectable 6g/l. The wine is very delicate, rather simplish, with citrus aromas and a dash of acetone. It the mouth, it shows itself plain, dry, not very communicative, but good enough for a € 2 wine.
QUINTA DA LIXA LOUREIRO 2005
Loureiro is a much more extroverted variety. The citrus and floral aromas are complemented with tender grass. This wine definitely speaks more and communicates better. In the mouth it feels fresher and more persistent. It leaves the palate with greater sweetness and without renouncing its citrus grapefruit tones, much like the cold climate Sauvignons we are so familiar with.
QUINTA DA LIXA BRANCO 2005
This blend contains Trajadura and Loureiro in the same proportions. Unfortunately, in this case union does not make strength. Compared to the 100% Loureiro varietal, this wine shows a much more inexpressive nose. Lots of carbonic gas, citrusy and floral notes, and a slight touch of exotic fruits. It takes its time to open up on the nose but stumbles across the palate.
QUINTA DA LIXA ALVARHINO 2005
Once again Alvarinho shows a greater fruit expression, in this case one degree of alcohol higher than the previous wine, reaching 12.5º. Very eloquent on the nose, this wine appears more balanced, with floral notes and traces of tropical fruit. Its citric acidity and sweetness contributes even more balance. The finish leaves and oleic and briny aftertaste.
QUINTA DA LIXA ESPADEIRO 2005
Despite its 6 grams of sugar, this rosé boasts bubbles and acidity to shake the palate. The fruit is there, but the wine is too forward and unexceptional.
“This is a complicated wine,” warns the winemaker. Deep and intense violet red in color, its nose appears interesting and peculiar, with obvious blood and iodine aromas. Still, underneath those ER-like notes we find a light fruity and floral scent. The mouth is carbonic, acidic and short. Too short and astringent, actually. Too difficult a wine.
QUINTA VILA NOVA TORMES 2005
This wine comes from vines grown in granite soil with a top layer of clay and trained in a single cordon. In these 11 hectares, varieties like Avesso, Arinto and Baiano grow without irrigation near the manor house that houses the foundation that preserves the work of Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz.
The wine, however, is not as eloquent as the writer. It displays shy green apple notes and a rather plain and chemical mouthfeel. And the citric finish is not as high spirited as the following lines taken from The City and the Mountains:
“Accustomed to the good old Porto wines from his grandfather’s cellar and the sumptuous Parisian feasts poured with Champagne and the rarest Burgundies and Bordeaux, from Château d’Yquem to Romanée-Conti, prince Jacinto finds himself attracted to his newly discovered Tormes wine which fell from above, from the bulging green bottle –a fresh, lively, sappy wine with more soul, and reaching the soul more poignantly, than many a poem or holy book.”
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