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Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape

Paradise Lost

Vinho Verde is the product of its micro-climate; the result of the richness and purity of the land which is the legacy of centuries of agriculture; a sandy, granitic soil that endows the wines with a special acidity and minerality: these are the main features of the terroir. A classic teinturier grape (see Alicante Bouschet and Saperavi) Vinhão is one of the oddities in which the juice from the flesh is crimson not clear. The red grapes, after being destalked go directly into fermentation vats or the “lagares” together with their skins, where they go through a process of maceration in order to maximize the extraction of colour and polyphenolic elements.

Dark as the inside of a coal mine at midnight the Afros Vinho Verde has impenetrable opacity, presents a slightly prickly sensation in the mouth and then bursts out smilingly with thick gobs of bramble jam and exotic black cherries and black raspberries. The tannins are chewy, agreeably abrasive, and, twinned with the angular acidity, create a pucker-sour-sizzle combination which confronts the palate with plenty of difficult textural adjustments. You can almost smell the colour of this distilled purple juice; it’s as if the skins had been freshly ripped off the flesh and just finished fermenting in the glass. The texture is part stalky and part bitter chocolate but it is the kinetic acidity that simultaneously drives the tannins over the gums and helps to alleviate their astringency.

This is a prime example where cultural context might provide the narrative necessary to appreciate the spirit of the wine. Served chilled with some slow cooked shoulder of pork or one of those artery-coating Asturian bean stews this wine’s snappy vitality would not only cut through, but dissolve, fat.  I can think of few better drinks to be supped al fresco, preferably in a carafe, where the thrilling, almost unreal intensity of the colour and the joyfully rasping rusticity would seem to laugh in the face of wine convention.

Instead I had to make do with drinking it on cold winter’s night with a sharp-fanged Thai curry, a surprisingly delicious combo. By the third glass the bottle had warmed up to room temperature and the wine had a rounder, fuller nose and was more vinous, more integrated, with softer tannins. It was still defiantly Vinho Verde capturing the essence of Keats’s famous lines from Ode to a Nightingale of a wine “cooled for a long age in the deep delv’d earth… With beaded bubbles winking at the brim/And purple-stained mouth"… and purple stained fingers (so I found) and purple stained wine glass…

So yesterday was the 50 Great Portuguese wines tasting - the 2009 installment where I got to choose 50 of my favourite Portuguese wines to show to the press and trade at large, hosted at the Ambassador's residence.

I was a bit nervous. While, of course, the wines speak for themselves, the selection I made did leave out some big names who might have expected to be there, and included some less well known smaller producers, who I think really deserved to be there, but whose presence was a bit of a surprise to many.

The tasting was really well attended, and even at the close there were still a lot of people still working their way through the wines. I got lots of favourable comments (mind you, who is going to be blunt enough to tell me they didn't like the wines), although I know some people couldn't get their heads around the Concieto Bastardo, which is a really pale red wine ('a bit thin', said one old boy who I think must measure the merit of red wine by its opacity), but one with amazing elegance and aromatics. The red Vino Verde (Afros Vinhao) also split the tasters: some really loved it, others didn't get it at all.
A few wines didn't show well, which was disappointing. I can think of three that didn't really justfy their presence on yesterday's showing, although my previous experience of them has been really positive. I was really pleased by the way the Alentejo line up showed - this included some less obvious choices (and a couple of notable omissions).

The tasting was followed by a dinner which included the Portuguese wine awards. Journalism prize went to Sarah Ahmed, who will pick next years Top 50, and they couldn't have made a better choice: Sarah knows Portuguese wines really well, and I'm looking forward to tasting her selection this time next year.

Finally, a word about ViniPortugal. They are widely recognized to be the BEST of the trade bodies of any wine-producing country, providing excellent support to both journalists and the wine trade. They're doing a really good job, and I hope that whoever is in charge of funding them in Portugal recognizes the important work they do.

On one of my trips to Portugal this year - in May - I made a brilliant discovery. [Of course, I'm not referring to my process of discovery as brilliant; rather, it was what I discovered that was brilliant.] It's red Vinho Verde. I'd heard it mentioned many times, but had never tried it. But I was curious, because most people seemed to think of it as an oddity verging joke status. So when I saw it on a wine list at the hotel I was staying at I ordered a bottle. It was absurdly inexpensive, and arrived chilled. I popped the cork and poured it - it was a deep, intense, vivid, youthful red purple colour, with a trace of spritziness. And it tasted beautiful: sharp, tannic, vibrantly fruity, juicy, slightly green but sweet at the same time, and a brilliant foil for most foods with its high acidity.

 

Then, a few days later, in a small restaurant in Guimaraes, I ordered a carafe of house red. The waiter came with a jug of darkly coloured, vibrant, youthful red Vinho Verde that tasted just like it had finished fermenting. It was dark, intense, fruity, tannic and acidic - and so full of life. And it cost just a few Euros.

 

But when I visited Vinho Verde in November, I had to ask producers to show me their red wines. They just didn't think foreign journalists would be interested in such a 'local' taste. Indeed, it's hard to find the wine outside the region - even in Lisbon you just don't see it, despite the fact that quite a bit is made.

 

Vinhao is the principal grape that red Vinho Verde is made from. It's also known as Sousao in the Douro, and its distinctive characteristic is that it is a teinturier, a red fleshed grape. This explains the incredible intensity of colour that these wines have. Generally, I really like wines where the grapes struggle for ripeness and only just achieve it, as the Vinhao does in the north of Portugal.

 

I don't know why the Portuguese are so apologetic about Vinhao. It's an extreme taste, with high tannins and acidity, but this is offset by the amazing fruit presence, and the youthful character of the wines. They have rough edges, but so do many interesting people. Vinhao should be cherished as something unique, delicious, and thoroughly gastronomic.

 

Two Vinhaos have prompted this post. They are both from the same producer, Afros: one is still and one is sparkling. They're utterly brilliant wines, but not for everyone. The estate is being run biodynamically, with Rui Cunha (Covela) as the consultant winemaker.

 

Afros Vinho Verde Tinto Vinhao 2007 Portugal
Remarkable stuff, and pretty refined by Vinhao standards. Opaque inky-dark red black colour with a purpe rim. Intense, sweet but savoury pure raspberry and cranberry fruit nose. The palate has a slightly spicy spike under the intense, pure, cherry, raspberry and plum fruit with a spicy, tannic bite. Brilliantly vivid, savoury and moreish with a gastronomic character. Great fun, but with a serious side. I love it. 92/100

 

Afros Vinho Verde Tinto Espumante 2006 Portugal
Another Vinhao, this time the sparkling version. Really deep red/purple in colour, this sparkling red is really food friendly. There's nice vivid dark fruit here with a hint of chocolatey richness and a trace of meatiness. Lovely acidity and some delicious tannic grip. But it shows some refinement, too. This is delicious stuff that would work brilliantly with a wide range of foods. 91/100

http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/2009/01/vinhao-amazing-stuff-and-woefully.html

The highlight of the whole trip for me was our visit to Afros (www.afros-wine.com), also known as Casal do Paço, where we met owner Vasco Croft. In producer terms, this is a small-scale, handcrafted operation. Vasco has a 20ha farm and only 7ha under vine, cultivated biodynamically and producing 20,000 bottles a year (5,000 litres), although he aims to increase this to 100,000 bottles eventually. Although the family have owned this property since the 17th century they are new to wine production and this is only their 4th vintage.

Perhaps it was the pervading sense of calm and peacefulness that made this visit so attractive, together with the warmth, hospitality and slightly spiritual air of our host who had more than a passing resemblance to Richard Gere. Vasco Croft


Or perhaps it was the beautifully rustic surroundings of the family dinning room accompanied by Vasco's family (bother, sister in law and young daughter) and the delightful lunch which started with a very fresh and fragrant sparkling wine aperitive and a colourful salad of wild flowers, goats cheese and figs, followed by delicately flavoured black pasta with cream and ham.

What stood out as well of course was the obvious high quality of the wines; it all made for a special occasion. The white wines had a lovely purity and delicacy and the reds were a revelation.

Vasco also made a very useful broad comment on Portugal – “The north is cool and, the colours are all green and blue, the soils are granite and the people are traditionally more right-wing; the south is hot and the colours are red and yellow with limestone soils and it is politically left-wing."

 

Vinhão

According to Vasco, Vinhão (the deeply-coloured red variety widely used in Vinho Verde) “is like a wild flower of the forest. You need to give some finesse to its wildness. It is a challenge to work with and to drink”.

For me, the red Vinho Verde 2005 here made from Vinhão was the best red wine we tasted on the whole trip. It won a silver medal at the Decanter Wine Awards - a surprise for everyone involved as Vinho Verde reds are not supposed to be suited to the British palate.

Afros Vinhão 2005 – Still very youthful opaque purple core and narrow rim – smoky, leathery notes on the nose are followed by spice and dried rose petals and perfume notes. Very smooth initial attack on the palate with a good weight of creamy, dark berry fruit and dried roses and floral notes – smooth, powerful and long. Vasco certainly tamed Vinhão’s wildness in this one.

We also tried the 2007 Afros Vinhão which was a bit impenetrable and very young but also smooth and densely flavoured. There was also a sparkling red Vinhão which was a big success with many of our group. Bright purple in colour, with rubber and mint notes and lively raspberry and blackberry fruit. Unusual but very enjoyable.

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