Take an informal poll of grape varieties people could name and the top five are pretty easy to name: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and probably either Moscato or Gewürztraminer.
You'd have to go way down the list to find grapes like Azal, Loureiro, Trajadura, Avesso, Arinto or Alvarinho -- in fact the only way you'd find them is if the poll included a) a large number of wine geeks or b) members of the local Portuguese community.
Before travelling to Portugal's Vinho Verde region a couple of weeks back, I was only really familiar with Arinto and Alvarinho, and the latter only because Spanish Albari±o (same grape, different region) has enjoyed some modest international popularity.
Located in the northwest corner of Portugal, with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Spain to the north, the Vinho Verde region is home to an incredible more than 25,000 grape growers -- that number becomes a bit easier to comprehend when you see the many rural homes in the region that have a have a hectare or two of vines in their backyard. Nearly everyone grows grapes, and many sell to co-operatives or larger producers.
Rather than reference the almost-greenish colour of the wine, Vinho Verde refers to the youth of the wine as well as the lush flora of the region. (Aside: When you're from Manitoba, seeing citrus trees loaded with fruit in February is something else.) Most common in our market and beyond are the eponymous pale, light-bodied, slightly fizzy, low-alcohol (typically 10-11 per cent) white blends made in the region.
These wines don't typically spend time aging in oak barrels, but rather are fermented in stainless steel tanks before getting a small dose of bubbles and going into the bottle. They're reasonably priced wines bringing bold citrus notes and which are meant to be drunk young. In their youth, Vinho Verde's bubbles, chalky minerality and moderate acidity gives the wine freshness and backbone -- both important components when pairing wine and food.
Seafood and pork are staples of the Vinho Verde's regional cuisine, and (not surprisingly) their wines work incredibly well with both. Bacalhau (cod) is hugely popular, and is served in all manners -- from dried and salted to deep-fried in fritters to fresh in a risotto-type stew. Vinho Verde is the ideal wine for lighter fish dishes, shrimp, grilled octopus and much more thanks to its lighter texture and citrus/herbal flavour profile.
Pork also appears in various incarnations in Portuguese cuisine -- pork belly, cured meats, sausage and other piggy bits are all popular in Vinho Verde. The mild effervescence and acidity of Vinho Verde wines cut through the fattiness and saltiness of these dishes.
Then there are the wines made from the Alvarinho grape -- either made entirely of the grape or in blends. Wines containing Alvarinho can't be called Vinho Verde, as the region is pushing to establish it as a flagship grape (like Riesling in Germany, Malbec in Argentina, etc.).
Beyond the blends, many producers in Vinho Verde are using single grape varieties, emphasizing each grape's unique characteristics. The grape getting the most attention is Alvarinho. It's richer and more complex than most other indigenous Portuguese grapes -- Alvarinho brings the viscosity, complexity and short-term aging similar to Viognier or Gewürztraminer. If you ever see a Portuguese Alvarinho around, grab it -- ideally we'll see more of these wines in our market one day.
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SOGRAPE NV GAZELA VINHO VERDE (Vinho Verde, Portugal -- $8.52, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The Gazela Vinho Verde is probably the region's biggest export. Lime candy, chalky limestone, green apple skin and a hint of pine on the nose are decidedly racy. The green apple skin component takes charge on the light, slightly spritzy palate, while slightly sweet lemon-lime flavours work well with the effervescence and the mineral notes. You'd be hard-pressed to find as good a white wine at Liquor Marts or private wine stores for under $9 before taxes. 86/100
AVELEDA 2011 VINHO VERDE ($10.62, Liquor Mart and beyond)
While the label recently changed, the Aveleda has been in our market for a dog's age. A blend of Loureiro, Trajadura and Arinto, it brings floral, pear, lime rind and soapy notes on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied with that hit of spritz, it's a light and lean flavour machine -- if you like lemon-lime, crisp pear and green apple, that is. At a modest 10 per cent alcohol, it's a far lighter wine than most whites and brings considerably more flavour than, say, those low-calorie and low-alcohol "skinny" wines out there. That's a column for another day. Again, great value here. 86/100