Published in The Daily Telegraph 12/ 18/2006
Vinho verde, the characteristic young wine of northern Portugal, is under-appreciated outside its home. But that’s changing, says Peter Grogan
The “green” in the title refers to youth rather than colour. But there is no doubt that vinho verde is big in Portugal.
Massive, in fact. In the average wine aisle of a British supermarket you will find 500-odd different wines. Imagine, if you will, 3000 bottles in a Portuguese supermarket, every single one of them a different vinho verde.
And then there are uncounted millions of bottles filled with cloudy, still-fizzing wine from the taps of all those gleaming vats that don’t come into the reckoning and, in any case, seldom travel further than the end of the lane.
A few minutes’ drive out of Oporto and the vines that stripe the countryside of the Minho region start to appear. “In late summer the sight of the grape-bearing garlands along every road gives almost pagan pleasure,” wrote Hugh Johnson in the 1970s.
Aside from the stainless steel vats, the basic production methods, at least at the domestic level, would be recognisable to the pre-Christian inhabitants of the region.
The grape varieties grown for vinho verde (which sounds like “been-yo-beard” pronounced with a light Scots burr) are not much travelled themselves. The main varieties are the laurel-scented loureiro, the charismatic trajadura and the crisp arinto.
Alvarinho is the only vine to have upped sticks, but only across the Spanish border into Galicia, where it is known as Albariño. Back in the Minho, it is the principal grape variety in the district of Monção, where it makes arguably the finest, if not the most characteristic, vinho verde.
The squeamish export market, frowning on the cloudiness and the fizz, has required that the “better” wines have their rough edges smoothed off but, refreshingly, some of the less improved varieties have spirited themselves on to those supermarket shelves.
Very little wine of poor quality gets past my wife. Presented with a glass of non-vintage Morrisons vinho verde, poured from its irredeemably naff bottle, she was sceptical.
But the scintillating little bubble and fresh acidity which Hugh Johnson found “so marvellously refreshing” worked their magic, and Mrs G deemed it an excellent spritzer. I, for my part, agreed with Johnson that “it’s all too easy to gulp it like beer on a hot day.”
The cordial relations between England and Portugal, enshrined in the 1386 Treaty of Windsor -still active and unaffected by recent sporting events – remains the longest-lived such agreement in the world.
It will not, I hope, be put in jeopardy by my opinion of the red wines of the region.
Any robust survey cannot possibly ignore them, not least because they have only recently been overtaken in terms of volume of production by the white wines.
The fact that they seem to be effectively unobtainable here is, hopefully, because by some mechanism or other – possibly a clause in the treaty – they have been declared illegal on the grounds of tasting so horrible.
The excellent Monção Co-Operative produces some delightful whites, but even their flagship reds remain very disappointing.
But the last couple of years have seen sales of vinho verde rising at a rate to make even a rosé salesman blush and the good news is that this renaissance does appear to be quality-led.
The basic production methods would be recognisable to the pre-Christian inhabitants of the region
In the vanguard is Portugal’s largest wine company, the family-run Sogrape.
It produces everything from an annual 20 million bottles of Mateus Rosé to a rather smaller number of bottles of Barca Velha, the iconic red wine of which Jose Mourinho famously sent a conciliatory case to Alex Ferguson after an early touchline spat.
Don Hewitson, the proprietor of the Cork and Bottle wine bar off Leicester Square, central London, stocks Sogrape’s Quinta de Azevedo, and enthuses about vinho verde.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” he says. “It has lower alcohol content, usually around 10 or 11 per cent, which is just what you want in the summer. Plus it’s beautifully crisp and has a nice little spritz.”
Wines of the week
2005 Alvarinho Soalheiro, 12.5% vol (£10.75; Butlers Wine Cellar, 01273 698724. £11.99; Handford Wines, 020 7221 9614; Philglas & Swiggot, 020 7924 4494). This is a big, lush wine, with a perfect balance of ripeness and acidity and that je ne sais quoi – honeysuckle, perhaps – that Albariño always reveals.
2005 Quinta de Azevedo, 10.5% vol (£5.25; Wine Society 01438 740222. £4.99 for two or more at Majestic until August 28, then £5.49). Ghostly-pale, “new style” vinho verde with just a prickle of fizz, a sherbetty nose and tingling green-apple acidity. A Granny Smith in a glass and great with oysters.
2005 Quinta do Ameal, 11.5% vol (£8.48; Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2400). 2005 has produced some unusually rich, full-bodied wines. Barely a hint of spritz, but a lovely, laurel-scented nose and a lip-smacking savoury tang. Not a typical vinho verde, but very classy none the less.
NV Gazela, 9.5% vol (£4.49; Morrisons). Yes, it’s non-vintage, and the labelling is rather startling, but after an hour in the freezer – yes, really – this is as refreshing as a wine can be. Drinking it within an hour or so, to keep the fizz going, isn’t going to be a problem.