GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Aristocratic encounter with vinho verde
No-one thinks of vinho verde as a posh wine, but my first encounter with it on its home territory was in very aristocratic circumstances. The ornate gates of the Palacio de Brejoeira swung open in front of our scruffy hired Polo, and waiting at the end of
No-one thinks of vinho verde as a posh wine, but my first encounter with it on its home territory was in very aristocratic circumstances.
The ornate gates of the Palacio de Brejoeira swung open in front of our scruffy hired Polo, and waiting at the end of the long gravel drive was Dona Maria Herminia Silva d'Oliveira Paes, owner of one of northern Portugal's most respected wineries. Then (it must have been close to 20 years ago) the only UK stockist of its wines was Harrods, and today in their home country they retail at up to �90 a bottle.
She didn't exactly look the chatelaine's part, though - gumboots and raincoat. But vinho verde country is pretty damp, which contributes in no small way to the wine's crisp character.
Brejoeira wines are 100 per cent alvarinho, not one of the triumvirate of grapes - loureiro, arinto, trajadura - blended into typical vinho verde. I remember them as wonderfully aromatic and stylish, a world away from what was long the cheap favourite of students or DIY table-lamp makers. Now, fashion has swung in Dona Maria's favour, and alvarinho wines featured quite strongly when the region's viticultural commission showed off its wares in London last month.
What struck me most tasting through wines from nearly a dozen producers (sadly, Brejoeira wasn't among them) was the variety - from light, crisply aromatic, gently spritzy glassfuls through to much more serious food-worthy wines, some even barrel aged. There was a handful of reds, too, deeply purple in colour from the vinhao grape, one of the few in the wine world where flesh as well as skin is red.
Sadly, the producers who impressed me most - biodynamic Afros, whose intense, classy red was included in the latest of the annual "top 50" Portuguese selections made by leading UK wine writers, and Quinta de Carapecos, with a smartly-styled, well-made range of single varietals and blends - have yet to find UK distributors. They deserve to be on sale here, soon.
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As an aside, it's not so surprising to find reds in this green region.
Little more than a century ago they rather than whites were the main export, and they still make up a quarter of output.
I'm indebted to writer and consultant Sarah Ahmed, who gave an excellent master class at the tasting, for those two facts and a lot more - that vinho verde represents 15 per cent of Portugal's wine production, for example, with 30,000 growers providing the grapes to 600 bottling enterprises.
She emphasised, too, how in recent years polyculture - vines trained on overhead pergolas with other crops below - has been replaced by conventional single-crop vineyards on low trellises, with a resulting rise in quality.
So, given the unavailability of the wines I liked best, what did the participants provide for sunny day drinking here? Sogrape, the country's biggest wine business and a major exporter, offers modern and more traditional styles in Gazela, a soft, easy, clean aperitif (around �7, www.everywine.co.uk), and Quinta de Azevedo, zingy, perfumed and long, quintessential vinho verde (�6-6.50, less on multi-buys, at Majestic and Waitrose).
But, sadly, I can't locate a UK outlet for Palacio de Brejoeira. Ah, memories...