Monthly Archives

September 2023

Education Wines

Vinho Verde Wines… The Serious Side

Vinho Verde Wines

Vinho Verde wines. The ultimate in light, bright, easy-drinking whites. Low in alcohol, refreshing, subtly sparkling, and with just a touch of fruity sweetness on the finish. An affordable option in a sea of increasingly expensive wine choices.

This highly stereotypical description has been used for decades to sum up the wines of the verdant Minho region of northwest Portugal. The consistency and unique personality of Vinho Verde wines made for a simple branding message that has long resonated with casual wine drinkers around the world.

This global success has been a boon to the region, allowing for expansion, modernization, and, most importantly, a wave of quality-focused winemakers. Stylistically, the Vinho Verde wines of today are far more than a one-trick pony.

From Rustic Reds to Modern White Vinho Verde Wines

Winemaking is not a new activity for the Minho area. The first literary references date back to the first century AD. The old Minho province was officially recognized as a wine region in 1908. At that time, and well into the latter half of the century, red wine dominated.

The agricultural focus was on dairy and corn. Vineyards were an afterthought, grown on the edges of fields, up trees, or in overhead (pergola) canopies. The dense shading of these training methods, combined with cool winds and steady rain from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, made ripening a challenge and rot an ever-present concern. The wines were often thin, tart, and rough around the edges.

Vinho Verde History. Photo credit: Photo: Casa Alvão/ Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes

All that started to change in the late 1970s, with the advent of more modern winemaking practices, including the introduction of inert tanks, temperature control, and a greater emphasis on cellar hygiene. This brought about a radical shift – to clean, fruity white wines with a subtle spritz of injected carbon dioxide to heighten their lively, early-drinking appeal.

Vinho Verde Wines : The Blend and the Sum of its Parts

While the Vinho Verde name has gained recognition among white wine lovers, the grapes that make up its blends have not. Over 45 different varieties are planted in the region. For white wines, the most common are Loureiro, Alvarinho, Arinto (aka Pedernã), Avesso, Azal Branco, and Trajadura.

Each grape had its role to play in the blend, Loureiro for its pretty floral aromatics or its broader structure, Alvarinho for its vibrancy and its array of citrus, stone, and tropical fruit flavours, Arinto for its nervy minerality, Avesso for its creamy texture, Trajadura for its steely structure and so forth. However, the focus has traditionally always been the blend and not its component parts.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, and all this began to change.

Vinho Verde Wines Terroir Pioneers

The turn of the century brought with it a wave of new energy in Vinho Verde. A handful of respected winemakers, like Anselmo Mendes, Quinta da Soalheiro, and Quinta do Ameal, started setting their sights on more complex, age-worthy wines.

The vineyards of Vinho Verde are divided into nine sub-regions separated by the Minho, Lima, Cávado, Ave and Douro Rivers and their many tributaries. Each area is unique in its proximity or distance from the Atlantic, the influence of its waterways, its undulations, meso-climate, and so forth. Granitic sandy and loam-rich soils dominate throughout Vinho Verde, but several veins of schist traverse the region from south-east to northwest, and stony outcrops also exist in several areas.

Mendes and his contemporaries sought to dial into these sub-regional differences by creating specific blends or single variety bottlings that best expressed their place. In 1998, Mendes, a renowned Portuguese consulting winemaker, returned to his native Monção with this goal in mind.

Anselmo Mendes. Photo Credit: Anselmo Mendes Vinhos

The Vinho Verde sub-region of Monção and Melgaço is located in the northern reaches of the denomination, along the inland banks of the Minho River. Lower annual rainfall and warmer summer temperatures here create rich, structured Alvarinho wines with fragrant peach and exotic fruit notes.

Further south, other grapes found their groove.  The Lima Valley proved an ideal terroir for single variety Loureiro, with its highly refreshing, floral expression. The inland sub-region of Baião has more continental influences with warmer summers. Here, the late ripening Avesso grape shines; developing notable body and depth.

Terroir-focused single variety bottlings, as well as blends, have become increasingly prominent in recent years. Winemaking practices vary from traditional, unoaked, early bottled styles to longer aged, discreetly oaked wines.

Beyond White Vinho Verde Wines

Once a second-class crop relegated to the periphery, Vinho Verde vineyards now span some 16 thousand hectares. The wines are produced by 370 wine bottlers across the region. White wine remains the undisputed focus, accounting for over 85% of sales, but Vinho Verde rosé and red wine are gaining a niche following.

Sparkling wine from Vinho Verde – not the subtly spritzy – but properly effervescent espumante wines made using the tank, traditional, and now Pét Nat methods are also generating buzz, though they remain difficult to come by in most export markets.

Quinta da Soalheiro was the first in the region to produce traditional method Alvarinho sparkling wine back in 1995. Almost thirty years later, they remain a reference for quality espumante, encouraging many to follow suit. Loureiro and Trajadura are also common choices for sparkling Vinho Verde.

Looking to the Future

Rainfall is high in much of Vinho Verde. While this makes for a lush, green landscape, it also means that fungal disease is a constant threat. Despite this, some of Portugal’s leading names in biodynamic and in organic winemaking are based here.

Vinho Verde Wines. Douro River Region. Photo Credit: Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes

In 2003, Vasco Croft took over abandoned family-owned vineyards in the Lima Valley. By year three he began converting the property to biodynamic farming, and grew to over 20 hectares. The success of his estate, Aphros Wines, alongside fellow biodynamic great Fernando Paiva of Quinta da Palmirinha, is an inspiration to younger generations.

The list of certified organic wineries continues to grow, led by estates and négociants like Casa de Mouraz, Quinta das Arcas, Quinta de Santiago, and A&D Wines. Their efforts go far beyond prohibiting chemical vineyard treatments, to biodiversity initiatives, conservation initiatives, and an overall commitment to lowering carbon footprint.

A Tale of Two Vinho Verde Wines

Those who love the simplicity of a crisp, light, spritzy Vinho Verde will not be lost in this brave new world of Vinho Verde wines. The region’s iconic style still makes up the bulk of its production. However, it is exciting to see how multi-faceted Vinho Verde wines have become.

New names of top Vinho Verde producers – from classic to avant-garde, traditional to natural – are cropping up all the time. Racy high acidity remains a hallmark of the region, across its sub-regional and single variety bottlings as well as its blends. However, fruit expressions, texture, and body vary more widely than ever before, offering something for every palate.

This Vinho Verde Wines piece is re-printed (with permission) from my article written for Good Food Revolution. If you want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits, check out their excellent website.

Reviews Wines

Gulfi Nero d’Avola: A Grand Cru Tasting

Gulfi Nero d'Avola

I have long been an enthusiast of Gulfi Nero d’Avola wines. Despite the arid summer heat of their vineyards in Sicily’s southeast, Gulfi manages to coax freshness and finesse from the region’s powerful red grape. I recently had the occasion to taste the estate’s top wines, alongside their irresistible Cerasuolo Di Vittoria.

Matteo Catania is one of the most infectiously enthusiastic wine producers I have ever met. When he gets started extolling the terroir virtues of his native Chiaramonte Gulfi, or his prime vineyard parcels in Pachino Val di Noto, he can go on for hours. Thankfully, his story is a good one.

It starts with a vision for producing fine wines, of Bourgogne-like elegance, in an area best known for bold, brawny reds. It speaks of determination and a commitment to grow more sustainably – without recourse to irrigation, without chemical treatments, using holistic, biodynamic practices. To read more, check out my profile on Gulfi Wines covering their background and a tasting of their mid-range wines.

In May, I caught up with Matteo Catania once again, this time to taste his single vineyard bottlings from Pachino. The recently granted Pachino DOC lies in the Val di Noto on the southeastern tip of Sicily. According to Matteo, it is the country’s “grand cru” area for the Nero d’Avola grape.

The low lying vineyards of Pachino sit at just 30 metres above sea level between the Ionian and Mediterranean seas. The vines are buffeted by near constant cross winds which cools the temperature and keeps yields low, concentrating flavours.

Significant tectonic activity in the region, due to the meeting of the African and European continent’s tectonic plates in the area, has led to mass upheaval over time. This explains the wide diversity of soil types, predominantly volcanic, limestone, and clay-based.

Gulfi Nero Maccàrj 2017 – 92pts. LW

The Maccàri contrada (aka single vineyard) has chalky clay soils and a warm, south, southwestern orientation. The vines are mature, at over 35-years in age on average. The estate’s policy of dry farming and dense plantings of head-pruned bush-vines in the traditional Alberello style result in very low yields, of just 30 hectolitres/ hectare.

A dark, brooding Nero d’Avola with attractive aromas of cherry stone, black plum, and dried flowers overlying hints of wet earth and cedar. The palate is powerful and fleshy, with a concentrated core of orange peel, dark fruit, and savoury nuances. Finishes fresh, with chalky, ripe tannins. A big but balanced, vibrant red. Decant and serve slightly chilled.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($54.00, code: 15086599), agent: Bambara Selections

Gulfi Nero Bufaleffj 2017 – 94pts. LW

The Bufaleffj contrada has varied soils of mainly volcanic origin, with areas of black clay, red clay, gravel outcrops, and sandy areas. Vinification is similar for the three contrada, native yeast fermentation in stainless steel, followed by two years’ ageing in 500L tonneaux, and an extending resting period after bottling.

Matteo describes the Bufaleffj as “richer, rounder, and more powerful” than the Maccàrj and Sanloré cuvées. The 2017 vintage is indeed a commanding wine. Successive aromas of dark chocolate, baked black plum, cherry stone, blueberry, and almond essence play across the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied, and initially quite firm, with impressive mid-palate depth. Notes of wild herbs, tangy dark fruit, cocoa, cedar, and subtle meaty undertones linger on the bold, tannic finish. Decant, or if you have the patience, cellar for at least another 2 – 3 years.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($66.25, code: 15086610), agent: Bambara Selections

Gulfi Nero Sanloré 2017 – 96pts. LW

The San Lorenzo contrada is located less than 70 metres from the Ionian sea, just 15 metres above sea level. Matteo describes the cuvée as “an English gentleman; aristocratic, impeccable, understated and complex”. He goes on to explain how the area’s red, sandy soils give a softer tannin profile, while the proximity to the coast brings lots of freshness and a form of “marine salinity” that makes them very food friendly.

The 2017 vintage is definitely akin to Matteo’s description. Layered aromas of fresh red and dark fruit, dried citrus peel, wild herbs, and balsamic nuances gain in intensity with aeration. The palate opens with lip-smacking freshness that lifts and lightens the bold frame. Quite textural, with lots of tension, and attractive, fine-grained tannins. The finish is long, earthy, and vibrant with lingering bright fruit, savoury hints, and yes…even a hint of salinity. A highly elegant wine. Decant and serve marginally chilled.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($66.25, code: 15086601), agent: Bambara Selections

The final wine is not from a Pachino terroir. However, the new vintage has just been released and it is such amazing value that I couldn’t resist including it here!

Gulfi Cerasuolo Di Vittoria 2020 – 94 pts. PW

Cerasuolo di Vittoria is Sicily’s one and only DOCG appellation. The area of Vittoria is located due west of the Val di Noto, across the Hyblaean mountains, near the Mediterranean coast. Here, Nero d’Avola is joined by the lively, red berry scented Frappato grape. This cuvée is fermented and aged for just under one year in stainless steel, to preserve its youthful, fruity charm.

And charming it very much is! Vivid red berry, cherry, and floral aromas mingle with hints of nutmeg and cracked pepper on the nose. The palate is medium-bodied, with a supple, glossy texture perfectly balanced by lively acidity and juicy, persistent red and dark fruit flavours. A serious, yet ever so easy drinking red. Serve at 16°C to (max) 18°C.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($32.50, code: 14044848), agent: Bambara Selections

Reviews Wines

On Seven Estate Winery: Top Canadian Chardonnay

On Seven Estate Winery 2020 vintage

The top Canadian Chardonnay of twenty years ago were big wines. They were oak-heavy, high in alcohol, ultra-ripe, but also, often sharp in terms of their acid profile. In recent years, judging the National Wine Awards of Canada, and sampling many other top Canadian Chardonnay, it has been clear to see that the style has dramatically shifted.

Many great producers have emerged from coast to coast. In Niagara, wineries like Bachelder, Hidden Bench, Pearl Morisette, and Leaning Post – among many others – have ably shown the region’s potential to make exciting Chardonnay. Among the newer entrants, On Seven Estate Winery is a true stand out.

The property, “on seven” acres of abandoned vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Four Mile Creek area, was acquired by aficionados Vittorio & Sula de Stefano in 2009. After extensive uprooting, site analysis, and planning, five acres were planted in well-draining, clay loam soils with significant chalky deposits . No expense was spared.

After a lengthy wait, de Stefano was able to procure top quality rootstocks and clones directly from Burgundy’s highly respected Mercier nursery. Under the guidance of veteran viticultural consultant, Peter Gamble, On Seven estate proceeded to produce very low yields (1 – 2 tonnes per acre) of certified organic wines of impressive complexity and finesse.

The quality here is all the more noteworthy given the location of vineyards. Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to many of the warmest vineyard sites of the peninsula. Most vintners head for the benchlands, in the Niagara Escarpment area, to make cool climate Chardonnay. On Seven derives freshness from a combination of north-facing slopes, chalky soils, and higher acid Dijon clones.

The wines are made in a low intervention style, with gentle, whole cluster pressing, wild yeast fermentations, and lengthy ageing in low levels of new French oak. Tasting across the years, from the inaugural 2017 vintage, to the 2018s and now the 2020s, the quality is consistently high.

And now, the wines are finally available in Québec, though in minute volumes so get them while they last!

On Seven Estate “The Pursuit” Chardonnay 2020 – 94pts.

Initially reserved, with attractive green fruit, citrus blossom, almond, and brioche notes emerging with aeration. The palate displays lovely tension, with crisp acidity, steely structure, and subtly creamy core. Tangy orchard fruit and savoury nuance linger on the finish. Still quite youthful and taut, with a long life ahead. Decant an hour before serving.

On Seven Estate “The Devotion” Chardonnay 2020 – 95pts.

Sourced from their best plots, The Devotion is On Seven estate’s star Chardonnay. A mere 91-cases were made of the 2020 vintage. It is a hugely promising wine. Enticing aromas of anise, white flowers, apple, and hazelnut nougat define the nose. The palate is full-bodied yet lithe and silky in texture with an expansive, layered mid-palate. Finishes on a lifted, savoury note with subtle, refreshing salinity.

Given the boutique size of the winery and lengthy ageing (three years from harvest to bottling), it is not always easy to get your hands on a bottle. If you live in Ontario, I highly recommend getting on their mailing list for future releases. In Québec, the first allocation has arrived! Inquire with agent: Symbiose Vins