Harvesting grapes for Vinho Verde
(Photo: Feliciano Guimarães)
Think of Portugal, think of Port. At least, that’s what people used to say
decades ago when Portugal was known for little else. Except Madeira of
course, that other fortified wine that graced many a British dining table of
times long past. Sadly, outside their own country, Port and Madeira have
rather fallen out of fashion these days, especially with the younger
generation. This really is a shame, because both these wines have so much to
offer. On a recent hunting and foraging expedition in town, I could find
only one rather ordinary bottle of Port and not a single bottle of Madeira.
Portugal has another claim to fame: that sweet and fizzy Mateus Rosé that
became hugely popular in the 1970’s. It appeared in characteristic
flask-like bottles, many of which ended up as table lamps. And you might not
know that another of Portugal’s contributions was producing corks for wine
bottles. Not so long ago, before synthetic corks and screw closures became
popular, Portugal dominated the world’s cork production.
Today, Portugal has a
great deal of interesting wine to offer especially some of the reds from the
Douro Valley. They’ve been making table wines there since ancient times and
the country has its own cast of grape varieties too, exotically named things
that might raise an eyebrow if you haven’t heard of them before. They
include grapes like the Alfrocheiro Preto, the Bastardo, the Castelão
Frances, the Encruzado, the Fernão Pires, the Mourisco and the Esgana Cão,
but there are dozens more. The last one by the way, means “Dog Strangler”
which possibly refers to the fiercely astringent wine that it produces.
Both these Casal
Mendes wines are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Port and Madeira
and they come in traditional, tapered liqueur-style bottles. This popular
brand is produced by Aliança, a distinguished Portuguese company founded in
1927. Aliança currently exports to over sixty countries and specialises in
both table wines and high quality brandies.
Casal Mendes Vinho
Portugal (Bt. 600 @ Wine Connection)
Even if your
Portuguese is not so hot, you’ve probably guessed that Vinho Verde
translates literally as “green wine”. The name refers not so much to the
wine’s colour, but to its fresh and fruity youthfulness. It does actually
have a pronounced greenish tinge, but so do most very young wines. There is
also a red Vinho Verde but it’s not exported, which is probably just as well
because few people outside Portugal would be enchanted with its sour,
unwelcoming taste. Some of these reds can be so acidic that you feel that
your teeth are about to self-extract.
Vinho Verde (VEE-nyoh
VEHR-deh) comes from the Minho in the North-West of Portugal - a land of
fertile rolling hills up near the Spanish border and one of the most
agriculturally productive areas in the country. Vinho Verde is normally a
fairly basic, low alcohol wine and intended to be consumed as soon as
possible after production which is perhaps one reason that many producers
don’t put a vintage year on the label. In a Portuguese household, an old
Vinho Verde would not be a particularly welcome guest. Many growers train
their vines high off the ground up trees, fences, and even on telephone
poles. This prevents the grapes from becoming too hot and also creates space
to cultivate other crops below the vines but ladders are needed to harvest
Vinho Verde can be
made from any of a couple of dozen local grape varieties. This one, from
Casal Mendes is made from a blend of the yellow, high-yielding Azal grapes
and the less well-known Pedernã variety. It has an attractive, fresh yeasty
aroma which wafts out of the bottle as soon as you open it. There are also
hints of citrus, pomelo, herbs and white flowers. Although it’s not
technically a sparkling wine, there’s plenty of characteristic youthful
fizz, produced by a crafty dose of carbon dioxide added just before
The wine is quite
sharp on the palate and you’ll get a whoosh of fresh acidity too.
It’s light and citrusy and there’s a surprisingly long fruity finish. At
only 10% alcohol content, it would make a terrific apéritif - plenty of
acidity to kick the taste buds into action and low enough in alcohol to have
a couple of glasses before the butler arrives with the soup.
Casal Mendes Rosé
(pink), Portugal (Bt. 600 @ Wine Connection)
If you’re looking for
a light-hearted summer wine, this is a real winner. It’s made from a
Portuguese dark-skinned grape variety known as the Baga, which incidentally
is also used to make Mateus Rosé. It’s hardly known outside the country but
even so, in Portugal it has twenty-four different names including Bairrado
Tinta, Baya, Carrasquenho, Carrega Burros and Goncalveira.
The wine is a vibrant
light pink-orange and has a refreshing fruity aroma of strawberries and
raspberries, with a faint aroma of herbs, bananas and pineapple in the
background. It’s only slightly dry and very light-bodied, with delicate
fruit on the taste and just the faintest hint of sweetness. “Off-dry” would
perhaps be the best description. There’s a good dash of refreshing acidity
too, giving it a zesty lively mouth-feel.
This wine has a lively
spritzy quality and there’s an attractive peppery finish with a dash of
strawberry. Casa Mendes is the third largest rosé brand in Portugal and it’s
a superbly made wine yet at only 10% alcohol, a delightful easy-drinker. The
thing is, you really need to serve this very cold indeed - straight out of
the fridge would be fine. Even then, I’d be tempted to stick it in the
freezer for ten minutes down among the fish fingers and chicken nuggets just
to perk it up. Served really cold, it would make an exciting and interesting
apéritif, but it would also pair well with many Thai and Chinese dishes too.
wine-writer Oz Clarke recently wrote in Portugal Food & Travel Magazine,
“What a rosé! Strawberry and pepper, with a good hint of spritziness this is
a perfect accompaniment to a hot summer’s day. It has a cleansing finish
with a final zip of that strawberry fruit.” And incidentally, the recent tax
hikes have added another Bt. 200 to what this wine coast last year.
Honestly, it’s enough to turn you to drink.