I WROTE a month or two ago about wine rivers in Europe, but I did not mention the wettest one at the time. This is the Minho, 50 miles or so of which marks Portugal’s northern border with Spain. When I was there recently, it certainly lived up to its reputation. From the Spanish side of the border comes the increasingly popular Rías Baixas, which has the Albariño grape at its heart; from the Portuguese side comes Vinho Verde, where the Alvarinho is playing an ever-increasing part.
Vinho Verde (the verde refers to its youth and not to its colour) is produced from a host of small vineyards over an area from south of Porto up to the Minho. Under the dictatorship of Salazar, there was a multiplicity of small producers, and much of the wine was made in co-operative cellars. Most Vinho Verde was blended from Loureiro, Trajadura, and Pederna grapes for the white wines; and Vinhão, Azal, and Espadeiro for the red.
What all these grapes had in common was that they gave high yields of highly acid wines that were low in alcohol. The producers regularly added a little gas to the wine to disguise its acidity while preserving its freshness. In summer, on the beach, there is much to be said for such a wine.
The appellation Vinho Verde, however, has also encompassed a very different style of wine: one made largely in a narrow strip of vineyards along the south bank of the Minho. This wine has the Alvarinho grape at its heart. For a long time, there were just a few wineries making these wines, and their rarity led to high prices. Such a winery was the Palácio da Brejoeira. At this time, the planting of the Alvarinho had not spread further south, and a regional appellation of Monçao-Melgaço was created with the appellation Vinho Verde Alvarinho.
The largest producer in the region is the Co-operative Cellar at Monçao, which was founded by just 25 growers in 1958. It now also has a large facility in the sister town of Melgaço. Its main brand is Muralhas de Monção: this is a blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes, and has an alcohol content of 12.5 per cent rather than the usual nine per cent of the traditional Vinho Verde. Among their other wines is a red Adega de Monção (10.5 per cent), which makes an ideal partner to the grilled sardines that feature in the region’s cuisine.
More expensive are the wines of Quinta de Soalheiro, one of the newer wineries in the area. They exploit the grape to the maximum, with a range that includes barrel-aged, sparkling, and sweet wines to complement their Alvarinho Clássico. My favourite was their Primeras Vinhas, made exclusively from the grapes of their earliest planting.
While Vinho Verde makes for ideal summer drinking, it does not seem to have caught the imagination of the high-street buyers. Here are some suggestions: for a classic old-style, Sainsbury’s Vinho Verde (nine per cent), £5; Quinta de Azevedo 2015, a Loureiro/Pederná blend (Waitrose, £8.49); 8 Razones Albariño 2015 (Laithwaites, £14.99). Also, two Alvarinhos: Muros Antigos (Oddbins, £10.75); and, from Marks & Spencer, Tercius Monçao e Melgaço (£13).