Piers Gallie scratches his head and surveys the damage done by the recent heavy rains. "The harvest will be really down this year," he frowns.
Gallie owns Quinta da Franqueira, and he's one of Vinho Verde's top producers. Along with the rest of northern Portugal's grape growers, he's having a tough time. Wine-makers roll their eyes and curse El Ni¤o for all the rain that has fallen since March. If the sun doesn't shine soon, he'll have to fight off the neutral tendency of these grapes, not to mention the rot.
Forget the bottles of sweetened, lightly fizzed plonk downed on holiday in the Algarve. The region is capable of great finesse, from the heady Alvarinhos in the far north to the steely, grapefruity Vinho Verde proper that makes a great aperitif and marries well with all things fishy.
You can forget the reds, though. Nearly half of all Vinho Verde's production is a chewy, fizzy red with a cloying strawberry finish, like bad Beaujolais.
Vinho Verde is Portugal's largest DOC region. It stretches from the hills south of the River Douro to the River Minho in the north. Star grapes are Loureiro and Trajadura, which flourish in the cool, damp maritime climate and granite soils. It has the highest rainfall of anywhere in Portugal, so problems with mildew and botrytis abound.
Organic is not a buzzword here, and growers spray up to 12 times a year. There is, however, a growing group of wine-makers that uses safer sprays, and EC subsidies are on hand for just this purpose. Growers also use the damp-combating pergola training system like the one used in the neighbouring (and equally soggy) Spanish region of Galicia.
The wine produced here is called Vinho Verde ("green wine") because it's best drunk young - in the year after the vintage. Many bottles still don't carry a vintage date because it's assumed to be from the most recent harvest.
Vinho Verde is bottled with a slight spritz after an injection of carbon dioxide. The top producers like to point out that the better the wine, the less the fizz - or"needles" as they say in the trade - with the finest almost completely still.
Alvarinho, on the other hand, will go on for a couple of years or so. In the extreme north of the region, the Alvarinho grape produces a lush, aromatic white wine that is coveted by its home market. But it's difficult to secure a case over here. The most loudly applauded, Brejoeira, could be found through D&F (0181-838 4399), but supplies have dried up for now. A worthy substitute can be found through Vinhos de Portugal (01865 263305) - Sogrape's Morgadio da Torre (£63 for 12).
The story of Vinho Verde, and indeed the rest of Portugal, is inextricably linked to the rise of the quinta, or single estate. Co-operatives had dominated Portugal's wine production since the 1940s, but some growers grew restless, proud of their carefully nurtured fruit, eventually choosing not to sell it on, but to make the wine themselves. According to (varying) statistics, it's still very much backyard stuff, a step up from the cabbage patch.
The Portuguese Chamber of Trade and Commerce has totted up 45,000 grape growers in the Vinho Verde region, while the Oporto-based Commissao de Viticultura declares there are still more than 70,000 growers, farming 25,000 hectares of vineyard between them. Of these, nearly 30,000 are producing less than two 550-litre pipes of wine.
The good news is that quality control has tightened up considerably. As individuals like Gallie build up an international reputation for their wines, the co-ops have had to clean up their act. Not wanting to be outdone, co-ops are monitoring the vineyards and scrutinising grapes at harvest time. The result is an increasing array of cleanly made, crisp dry and semi-dry whites that are continuing to attract overseas buyers.
It's the region's single-estate wines that restaurants should really bother about. With the exception of Alvarinho, they are naturally lower in alcohol - 8% to 11% - which should win a few votes from the abstemious lunch crowd. Their easy quaffability and modest case price should also boost the profit margins. But there's still a long way to go to educate the diner.
Vinho Verde is not just a supermarket own-label, generic wine. It's not all sweetened, although you have to search for it (it's mostly drunk bone-dry in Portugal, but for some reason it is felt that the export market wants a sweeter product), and it's not all suffering from a heavy-handed dose of sulphur dioxide. The next trick is to get consumers to pay a couple of quid more for the better stuff, then get diners to pay three times that in restaurants. Average price in the high street is £3.50.
Image is everything
The old school wants to keep the original, Alsace-style bottle going. The new generation thinks a Bordeaux bottle, or something similar, will attract a new breed of drinker and show the region in a new light. In its home market, the latest trend introduced by the larger co-ops is Vinho Verde on tap, supplying restaurants and bars with beer-type kegs complete with a hand pump. Some see this as an irreparable blow to its image.
There is much work to be done to give the right exposure to the best producers. Labelling, for one, could do with a re-think. Granted, a restaurant wine list should tell customers how it tastes, but how does the consumer know whether it's a sweeter style or bone dry? There is not much evidence of back labels or explanation of grape varieties, so get tasting.
After Trajadura, Loureiro and Alvarinho, Pedern‹, Azal and Avesso make up the principal white grape varieties. Gallie uses the chunkier, tighter-knit bunches of Trajadura to boost the alcohol in his wine, leaving the distinctive, almost Muscaty, nose of the softer skinned, loosely bunched Loureiro to add aroma.
The vineyards were planted in 1981 and, after an EU subsidy at the end of the 1980s (still the mainstay of Portugal's progressive wineries), the winery was built. Gallie says the secret of achieving maximum fruit and aroma is to keep the fermentation cold. "Fifteen degrees or so, and keep it constant," he says. "You can't do that in a huge co-op. You have to have good equipment, and everything must be clean."
The Vinho Verde of yesteryear had a stalky, cheesy taste that went disturbingly cloudy in the bottle. Gallie believes there's still room for improvement in the region.
Like Quinta da Franqueira, Casa de Sezim is on the new Vinho Verde Wine Route. The only problem is that signposting on the main roads has been refused so tourists get hopelessly lost in the tangle of country roads. The 600-year-old family property and accompanying wines are worth the trek, though.
Made by former ambassador Ant¢nio Pinto de Mesquita, with a little help from his winemaker son Jose, the wines have a gentle acidity and are lower in alcohol. Loureiro rules here, accounting for about 90% of production. Trajadura, Azal and Pedern‹ make up the rest. Jose believes that the eight hours of skin maceration he introduced two years ago contributes significantly to his wines.
Sezim is the most experimental of the Vinho Verde wineries. A new lab is being built and plantings of Sauvignon Blanc are going in - another first for the region. Mesquita believes that it will add structure and body when blended with Loureiro.
If you want to try 100% Loureiro or Trajadura, look no further than Quinta da Aveleda, the region's biggest privately owned producer. It belongs to the Guedes family and production tops 12 million bottles a year, with big-seller Casal Garcia heading up its portfolio. Restaurants should also take a look at its top-of-the-range wine Grinalda, which uses the best grapes, a blend of the above, from their older vines and smells like a Hawaiian garland. n