Geoffrey Dean finds the key to modern Portugese Vinho Verde wines
When the Duke of Wellington led British forces to victory in the Peninsular War in the early 19th century, one young officer who had taken part in the campaign against the French decided to stay on in Portugal. His name was Croft, and one of his descendants, Vasco Croft, is making some of the best wines in Vinho Verde. This lush, green and mountainous appellation, first demarcated in 1908, makes up 18% of Portuguese output and has 101 export markets, of which Britain, Germany and Brazil are the fastest growing.
Until ten years ago, Croft was living as an architect in Lisbon, which his ancestor had helped save by building the Torres Vedras lines of defence around the city that Wellington had devised. Then came a mid-life career move that saw him resuscitate winemaking at an old estate in the Vale do Lima that had been in the family for eight generations.
Farming biodynamically, Croft has managed the notable distinction of making outstanding Vinho Verde wines in a number of different styles, including some superb red. And that is the key to modern Vinho Verde wines: they no longer conform to the old stereotype of being light and cheap. Sure, there are still plenty of examples in that mould, but there are many serious wines with enough body and complexity to go well with food.
According to Croft, the Loureiro grape is at its best in the Lima Valley, one of nine sub-regions in the Vinho Verde region. “We are at the interface of four different climates here - altitude, sub-tropical, continental and temperate,” he said. “It’s the only place in Europe to have that.”
His Aphros range of wines is a wide one. The ‘Ten’ 2013 (named due to its 10% abv) is made from early-harvested Loureiro grapes, enhancing lightness and crispness, and lives up to his description of it as ‘spring water with flowers.’ The Loureiro 2013 is picked later (being 11.5% abv), has abundant citrus fruit notes and is long with good intensity of flavour. It is currently proving very popular in the UK.
The trio of sparklings showed how diverse bubbly from Vinho Verde can be. The Loureiro 2009 (12% abv with 7g/l dosage) spent 3 years on the lees, while the Vinhao grape is used to make both the rose (named ‘Pan’) and the red sparkling brand (Yakkos). The latter gains complexity from five years on the lees.
The quality of Croft’s Aphros Vinhao 2009 (12.5%) puts paid to the widely held misconception that there is no really good red Vinho Verde. Possessing gorgeous red and black fruit, it has overt yet well-integrated tannins as well as alluring texture and length. Like the still Loureiro, it is retailing at £11 with Les Caves de Pyrene.
Another fine red example, tasted ex barrel, was Quinta do Soalheiro’s Vinhao (12%), co-vinified with 15% Alvarinho. Aged in wood for a year, 30% being new, it had intensity as well as very fresh and bright red fruit. The talented winemaker, Luis Cerdeira, produces top-class Alvarinho single varietal examples from the sunny, granite hills of Melgaco and Moncao, the northern point of Portugal. ‘Soalheiro’ means ‘sunny place’ in Portuguese.
Cerdeira is another producer with not just an impressive stable of wines but also some fine old examples of Alvarinho. The 2001 from that varietal (actually made by his grandfather, Antonio Ferreira) was honeyed with a slight petrol note but not oxidised. It had good length and decent complexity.
“I think our barrel-fermented 2013 Reserva will be a good vintage to develop in bottle,” Cerdeira said. That is the richest of a trilogy of vibrant, elegant Alvarinho he makes - the first being fresh and fruity for early drinking, while the second is from vines planted in 1974 and stainless steel-fermented.
One of the most interesting estates in the region, the Quinta de Curvos, which lies near the pretty seaside town of Viana do Castelo. The Fonseca family, no relations of the port dynasty, bought the property in 1976 after returning home from Angola, and make an enticing selection of single varietal wines. These include Loureiro, Alvarinho and Avesso, as well as a blend of Loureiro, Trajadura and Arinto.
This last wine, branded ‘Superior’, is a refreshing, dry white, with its floral, citrus and tropical notes. Some saltiness was evident too. “The winds nearly always blows from the sea a few kilometres away, which leads to this saltiness,” Miguel Fonseca explained. “It gives this freshness to all our wines.”
With as much as 21,000 hectares under vine and 25,500 growers in it, Vinho Verde is a region of considerable diversity. Like many other producers worthy of a mention in despatches, Anselmo Mendes, Quinta de Azevedo, Quinta da Lixa and Casa Vilacetinho are making especially good wines. For them all, the future is bright, the future is indeed Green.