To give you an idea of where this region is located, see the map below of Portuguese wine regions. The Vinho Verde wine region (in green on the map) is in the northwest, bordering the Atlantic ocean in the west and Spain (Rias Baixas) in the north. The famous Douro lies directly east (in orange on the map). To browse more maps click here. Also, here is a link to a great interactive map of Vinho Verde's sub-regions.
The viticultural issues that Vinho Verde faces are linked to an agricultural product: corn. Native to Mexico, corn is a major local product in the Minho, first introduced from the Americas in the 1500s.
The real historical catalyst occurred in 1755 when King Joseph I of Portugal made Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo the "Marquês de Pombal" (essentially giving him the power of Prime Minister). Melo planned to increase Portugal's economic strength so they could better compete with Spain and he initiated the Pombaline Reforms to do this. Part of the Pombaline Reforms aimed at promoting corn as an agricultural product to feed the populous, and promoting port wine from the Douro.
One way to help wine production in the Douro was to limit competing wine production nearby. Melo restricted vineyards in today's Vinho Verde region by decreeing that growers could only grow vines on the perimeters of their food fields. Farmers responded by making their average field smaller, so that they could have more perimeter space for vines. Farmers also planted their perimeter vines up high on ramadas (mimicking the vine's natural tendency to grow up trees) partly to make use of farming land beneath the vine. When Melo fell from power, the laws were not strictly enforced again until the 1800s when Portugal experienced a population surge. With the larger population to feed, the government began to re-enforce Melo's laws to ensure that farmers were focusing on large-yield staple crops such as corn (instead of wine grapes).
To this day, there are hundreds of corn fields with ramada vines on the perimeter. Only recently have producers been starting to plant blocks of vineyards for larger-scale production.
The brown colored bread to the left is the local cornbread that is served pretty much everywhere.
---> Here, you get an idea of how blocks of land are hashed out for corn, cabbage, or vines, and how many of these blocks are outlined with high-trained ramada vines. I noticed throughout the trip that several growers had ripped out the corn and planted VSP wire-trained vines, but still kept the ramada perimeter for either aesthetic beauty, or because they believed that certain varietals do better on ramada.
This photo is of a more rural neighborhood (in the north, near the Spanish border), but even in the busier towns the backyards had square gardens of corn or cabbage, surrounded by ramada. Several locals talked about how they liked to regularly have dinner under the ramada.
As much as I want to paint a picture-perfect vision of Vinho Verde, I have to keep it real. Things started to get bad in 2008 with the global crisis, and then Portugual suffered another hit in 2010. Unemployment is now over 15%. The government is issuing special "austerity measures" and several economists are warning that Portugal could be the next Greece. In 2011 Portugal received a gigantic bailout from the EU, and they are still having difficulty. Luxury items are the first to be cut from household budgets, which affects travel, restaurants, and wineries. Restaurants are starting to offer inexpensive buffets to get people in the doors (see sign to the left, advertising a buffet they are offering specifically because of the economic situation). Wine producers are seeing drops in sales as people drink more beer, or downgrade from the 10 euro bottle to the 3 euro bottle.
The Portuguese economic crisis is driving much of the business philosophies of various wineries, and having a serious impact on wine production. In this climate some companies/wineries are really doing what it takes to maintain the financial health of their businesses, even if that means that they cannot focus on premium quality wines at the moment. There are still some great, high quality wines being produced (a few of which I will mention later), but overall as a trend, some wineries are doing things like producing a special bottling that will only cost 2 euros to keep the general public drinking wine (memories of 2 Buck Chuck, anyone?). Wineries with the capacity for large production are finding that they can buy tons of grapes from small farmers at cheaper prices, and so they are not always focusing on the quality of estate fruit. Tactics like these don't necessarily translate to fine wine production, but they help to maintain sustainable cash flow for the winery in the midst of an economic crisis.
What is needed is enough economic strength to sustain businesses through rough times when they have little cash flow and get individuals through a longer-than-usual period of unemployment. The government, businesses, and citizens recognize the need to get the country back on track for economic growth, and the way that the overall wine sector seems to be doing this is to focus on large-production wine that is aimed at thirsty export markets. Many of the large wine producers we visited discussed the great successes they are having with the specific export markets of Brasil, Angola, and the USA. With the average domestic person tightening up their belts and drinking less wine, these export markets are key to getting the sellable wine product in the country sold.
Furthermore, the companies that are lucky enough to have lots of liquid cash during this period are finding themselves in a fortuitous position-- they can buy up vineyards and property at discounted prices. Mostly, it is the larger producers (1 million case+ production) having success in this period. The smaller producers (20-50K cases) are having more difficulty. Because smaller producers are having more difficulty, they are less likely to invest in non-essential business operations, such as massive advertising campaigns. Again, in this area, the larger companies find themselves at an advantage and it is obvious when walking through an airport or checking out billboards or Portuguese television which companies have liquid cash to further buttress their market share.
Another interesting factor regarding the economics of Portuguese wine in the global market is the link between price and perception. In Portugal the average person drinks 3-6 euro bottles, and a nice bottle of wine is 10-12 euros. Fine wines priced over 30 euros tend to hold price-steady across global markets due to international competition.
In the US market, the scale is much different. A value bottle is $10-$13, a nice bottle is $25-$30, and the fine wine bottles priced over $45 tend to hold true across global markets. When someone from the US sees a nice bottle of Portuguese wine for 10 euros, the perception is that this is a budget wine; when really, if viewed through the Portuguese perception the bottle would be a bit of a splurge. Some producers are exporting their wines to US markets, pricing them at what they believe is a higher quality price, but what is actually perceived as a budget wine, despite superior quality. This, of course, is great for me because I can get quality wines at a great price, but is this the best thing for the overall economy of the region, and for the wine's perception in international marketplaces? I believe the region has a bit of a ways to go to strike a balance between price and quality on the global stage.
To further complicate things, savvy importers recognize this and see that they can import lower quality less expensive 2-4 euro/btl wines and price them higher at $10-$12, which meets US market perception of $10 bottles of wine, but also matches the price of quality Portuguese wines and obscures the price-quality relationship in the international marketplace.
In 1908 the Vinho Verde region was officially demarcated by the government. 1926 marks the founding of the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verde (CVRVV)-- an association of farmers and traders who help regulate and guide the winemaking in the region. They establish and maintain quality levels, and created the Vinho Verde DOC in 1984. Pictured left are some of the CVRVV's test vineyards where they work with the local varietals and various training systems.
1986 brought major change when Portugal joined the European Union. At this time, the CVRVV began to drive new initiatives in the region, encouraging growers to focus more on white grape varietals, change over to VSP training systems, and focus on expanding their presence in export markets. In the last 25-30 years these initiatives have been quite successful. Exports, for instance, have risen from 7.8 million liters to 15.6 million liters between 2001 and 2011.
There has also been a heavier focus on terroir. Almost every producer mentioned the uniqueness of the granitic soils; this is really a special talking point for these wines. Because of this shift toward terroir driven wines, there is a heavier emphasis on estate fruit, or at least on contracts with trusted growers. There are still many, many small producers that sell their grapes to co-ops of large companies, but the estate fruit mentality is growing.
The CVRVV has also enforced quality levels of wine, which has the effect of regional branding because it tailors the wines of the region into categories in which consumers can have a reasonable expectation of what may be in the bottle. Furthermore, several large wineries have special "brands" of which they make millions of cases from mostly contracted fruit (Casal Garcia, Gazela, etc.). The quality levels mostly relegate these wines to the "classic" category, creating room for quality distinction among the smaller terroir-focused growers. The CVRVV has created three distinct levels of wine:
1. Vinho Verde "Classic"
Vinho Verde Classic wines are meant to be simpler and lighter than the Vinho Verde wines with subregions on the labels. The classic wines are different because they (1) do not list a subregion and (2) have stricter alcohol rules. Minimum 8%, maximum 11.5% actual alcohol (minimum 8.5% maximum 14% of total potential alcohol including RS). Right now, the large brands of Vinho Verde Classic wines seem to dominate the export markets.
This alcohol restriction on Vinho Verde Classic keeps the alcohol level low and sometimes, the RS up. It was unclear to me if the minimum and maximum alcohol levels are regulated at fermentation or pre-bottling, so I'm not sure if reverse osmosis is allowed or commonly used to remove alcohol post-fermentation. Additionally, I'd like to know more about how most producers are stopping their fermentations at the "right" time. Are they picking early to keep sugar low, adding sulfur once the must hits 11.5%, or filtering out active yeast cells? I'm sure a variety of methods are being used, but my point here is that I'm concerned because this regulation seems to force a potentially unnecessary intervention. I found the sulfur levels to be quite high (nostril burning) in a few of the classics, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was the result of stopping the fermentation to keep alcohol levels in check.
2. Vinho Verde with subregion
Here the alcohol restrictions are less strict. The minimum actual alcohol is 9%, and the maximum potential alcohol is capped at 14%. There are several quality reds and white blends in the market that fit into this category. I believe that the export market share of this category will grow as key markets (NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney) that drive global drinking trends begin to highlight some of the finer producers.
3. Vinho Verde Alvarinho
Vinho Verde Alvarinho is the third type of wine. It is presented as its own category, but it sort of represents a small portion of wines in the Vinho Verde with subregion category, and it's easiest for me to understand this category by thinking about it as a sub category within Vinho Verde with subregion. Producers bottling 100% alvarinho from just the subregion of Monção and Melgaço can label their wines "Vinho Verde Alvarinho." This allows the high quality alvarinhos from this region to distinguish themselves from alvarinhos elsewhere in Vinho Verde. Some producers in other regions still make outstanding alvarinhos, but they must declassify to put alvarinho on the label. Vinho Verde Alvarinho has slightly different alcohol level restrictions than the Vinho Verde with subregion caterogy. Vinho Verde Alvarinho has a minimum actual alcohol of 11.5% (this keeps low-alcohol, sugary versions out of the marketplace and instantly distinguishes a higher-quality flavor profile from the Vinho Verde Classic wines).
So, ultimately, this is a region in transition from red to white production, from co-op to estate production, from large brands to terroir-focused bottlings, and from local consumption to major global players. The changes are slowed by the current economic crisis, but they are there nonetheless, being shepherded through by the CVRVV.
Click here for a fairly comprehensive guide to grape varieties in the region. There are many grape varieties in the region, but here I'll focus on just two: alvarinho and loureiro.
Alvarinho is definitely king in this region, especially in the North.
As of right now, the CVRVV has regulated that only alvarinho from two sub-regions, Monção and Melgaço, can be called Vinho Verde and say alvarinho on the label. Alvarinho from other regions must declassify to use alvarinho on the label.
Alvarinho has tiny berries and small bunches, so there is a very high pulp:skin ratio. The extra skin in the must gives the resultant wine lost of flavor, power, and character.
The photo to the left is of a baby alvarinho vine (2 years old-- in a nursery), not quite ready for wine production.
If you love austere aromatic varietals like gewurztraminer, you might prefer the higher quality loureiros in the area. I must admit, I became truly enchanted by this varietal on this trip.
Loureiro has bigger bunches & larger grapes than alvarinho, so it isn't considered as high quality as alvarinho since there is not as much skin to pulp. But what is interesting is that the lovely aromatic aroma in the fresh grapes manages to stay through during fermentation and you end up with lush wines that have an incredible fragrance. When this grape is done right it is gorgeous. However, I did taste some over-worked heavily sulfured versions as well, and the special aromatics didn't come through.
Producers of Note
Soalheiro- 100% alvarinho production, organic since 1986
Melgaço, Vinho Verde
Soalheiro is located in the north of Vinho Verde, just on the Spanish border. Run by Luís Cerdeira & his brother João. The brothers took over production from their father around 1994. They focus exclusively on alvarinho, farm on just 7 hectares and use three different training systems.
They make three main types of wine:
Classic- fresh & fruity style
Primeires Vinhas ("first vines" or "old vines")
Reserva- barrel fermented
Quinta do Ameal- 100% Loureiro production, certified organic
Lima, Vinho Verde
Pedro Aurajo (pictured left) at Quinta do Ameal makes amazing loureiros in the area. He makes two main cuvees-- both 100% loureiro-- one steel aged (Quinta do Ameal Loureiro) & one oak aged (Quinta do Ameal Escolha).
He also produces small amounts of a "Special Harvest" and he makes a sparkling wine too. Both of these bottlings are about 90% loureiro and 10% arinto.
He is one of the few producers in the region that is really focused on what is happening in the vineyard; his dedication to organic farming really enhances the quality of the wines.
----> A picture of the vineyards at Quinta do Ameal
Anselmo Mendes- loureiro and alvarinho
Anselmo consults and has his own label. He works mostly with alvarinho and loureiro; he makes several cuvees and uses winemaking techniques like small amounts of skin contact to add complexity, sometimes oak, some lees stirring. He uses natural yeasts, and some selected yeasts as well. He began making his own wines in 1998 and has been a driving force in the region ever since.
Lima, Vinho Verde
Afros implements biodynamic agrigculture, and they make interesting, terroir-driven wines. They grow loureiro (white) and vinhão (red).
They produce several bottlings: notably a red vinhão, an unoaked loureiro, and an oaked loureiro. They also make rose and sparkling.
Though several producers are clearly leading the region-- some by numbers (millions of cases sold) and others with artistic visions of wines, ultimately, this is a region in the midst of dynamic change-- some driven by EU agricultural visionaries, but most change is currently driven by the intricacies of the economic situation. In my generic observations on a very limbic level, I felt that I was witnessing a massive overhaul of the region. It will be interesting to see how small & mid-range producers survive the economic crisis, how economic crisis will continue to drive certain wine styles, how viticultural and vinification styles will change once unemployment decreases and the average person has more liquid wealth, and ultimately, which high-quality producers will continue to emerge from all of this.