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Vinho Verde grows up as producers focus in on quality and single variety wines

Published:  22 June, 2016

More than the Alentejo, more even perhaps than Douro, Vinho Verde is Portuguese wine's big success story, boasting a name and style recognition that is the envy of other wine regions.

More than the Alentejo, more even perhaps than Douro, Vinho Verde is Portuguese wine's big success story, boasting a name and style recognition that is the envy of other wine regions. Far and away Portugal's leading white wine region, Vinho Verde - located in the Minho, Portugal's northernmost province - is one of the largest demarcated wine regions in Europe with 21,000 hectares of planted vineyard, nine sub-regions and more than 2000 wine brands.

Although home to a large number of varieties including Alvarinho, Azal, and Avesso, the trademark wine is a blend comprising Loureiro, Trajadura and Arinto. Typically it is light and acidic in style (with alcohol levels around 9-11%) and at lower price points in particular, including market leaders Quinta de Avaleda's Casal Garcia and Sogrape's Gazella, lightly carbonated and very fresh. More than 100 countries import Vinho Verde and sales have been rising impressively, with exports now 43% of total sales against just 17% ten years ago.

But things are changing, and quite dramatically.

"This is now a region of many wine types, not just the product that the world is so familiar with," says Carlos Teixeira, chief winemaker at Quinta da Lixa, which now produces more than four million bottles a year. Others echo this.

"People associate Vinho Verde with high acidity wines but we are moving away from that and focusing on a bigger, rounder style" says Joao Miguel Maia of Casa de Vilacetinho, one of the oldest - and southernmost - producers whose wine was famously served to the Queen of England during her only official visit to Portugal almost 60 years ago. This same wine (a blend of Avesso, Arinto, Azal and Loureiro) is still Casa de Vilacetinho's flagship but alongside it the producer makes four surprisingly rounded single varietals from each of the blend's four components. It also makes two sparklers and a rose, reflecting the growing importance of these segments to Vinho Verde. The sparkling wines are made from Avesso which he and other producers see as Vinho Verde's most promising variety, given improved vinification techniques which have eased the handling of this sometimes tricky grape.

Changes are also afoot in Moncao and Melgaio, in the forested and hilly far north of the Minho, up against the border with Spain. For years producers here, Portugal's premier region for Alvarinho, sought to differentiate themselves from producers across the border in Galicia by producing wines with a fresher, more mineral and high acidity style. Adega de Moncao, one of Portugal's best cooperatives, continue to provide quality wines of this type. Yet for many other producers, the stress is very much on producing quality wines that go against the mainstream Vinho Verde image.

Anselmo Mendes Wines is a typical example of this, making ambitious wines that the Robert Parker website has billed as "intellectually interesting and tasty." Production has soared to 750,000 bottles a year since the first vintage back in 1998, and the focus again is on mono-varietals with Alvarinho taking pride of place: the only blend is the entry level Muros Antigos, a blend of Avesso, Loureiro and Alvarinho. The diversity shown by such wines as Muros Melgaco Alvarinho 2011, Contacto Alvarinho 2011 and Curtimenta 2011 is remarkable, with ageing, prolonged skin contact and single vineyard selection producing very different - but delicious - results.

"Our wines reflect the enormous potential of this region's grapes, notably Alvarinho but also Avesso and Loureiro, which we are only beginning to explore," argues Constantino Ramos, chief winemaker. He says the 2015 vintage - a year in which growing and producing conditions were almost perfect - will be the best in a generation.

So what's behind the change? The Comissao de Viticultura da Reriao de Vinho Verde (CVRVV), in situ since 1926, has been relaxing many of its strict rules: for example, winemakers can now use the charmat method to make sparkling wine, whilst in pink wines just about any red grapes can now be used as long as the local Vinhao is chief amongst them. Significantly, winemakers across the region can now use its star grape, Alvarinho, whereas before its use was only allowed in its home, Moncao and Melgacio.

Winemakers have also been responding to changes in demand, resulting in a stress on quality and diversity (hence the growth in mono- and duo- varietal wines). Travel is also becoming an important part of the Vinho Verde experience with the CVRVV relaunching its wine routes. Meanwhile producers are taking steps to improve facilities; the best example of this is the new Monverde Hotel opened by Quinta de Lixa to showcase its wines alongside gourmet food in a luxury spa setting, surrounded by vines.

But the main motor of change is the producers themselves. As elsewhere in Portugal, there is a growing enthusiasm for making more adventurous wines, with lower yields, combined with a marked shift towards single varietal wines and away from the traditional blends. Producers are focusing on the varieties that perform best regionally, which basically means Avesso in the south, Loureiro and Trajadura in the middle and Alvarinho in the north of the Vinho Verde region.

And although reds still constitute just 10% of annual production, and have problems selling abroad - Vinhao (Souzao) can be too light and too acidic, despite the dark hues which make it such a fine constituent of port. However winemakers, inspired by growing demand for lighter reds, are now looking to breathe life into this long-ignored category, using other local red varieties including Barrocal, Espedeiro and Padeiro.

"It used to be said that Vinho Verde was no good for ageing, but the way mono-varietals are now being made, we are seeing great potential to age," says Tomas Goncalves, a senior marketing manager at CVRVV.

Traditionalists worry, however, among them Miguel Pessanha, Sogrape's chief winemaker for its Vinho Verde brands including the entry level Gazella and the mid-range Quinta de Azeveda.

"Innovation and the move towards mono-varietals is very exciting but Vinho Verde needs to be sure it doesn't move away from its traditions of low alcohol, and high acidity. These are what have made us globally renowned. If we lose this, we are making another wine," he says.