The spring rolls were wrapped, the fish cakes prepared, the squid and chicken marinated. It was time to start the summer 2012 vinho verde tasting.
For the uninitiated, vinho verde – literally green wine but more correctly it means young wine – is a national treasure. It’s a very old wine style unique to Portugal and only produced in the North (cold, wet) where it has its very own little DOC. The Minho is a spectacular region with a different look to the rest of Portugal. Granite is the predominant stone there – unlike the dark grey/clay schist colours of the Beira Litoral, where I am, the North’s houses are built with massive pale grey granite slabs – as are the roads, town squares, and pillars and posts that provide structures in the vineyards. There the grapes are grown very high off the ground on tall vertical pergolas. Originally these structures were designed to solve boundary disputes - aided by their high visibility and clear and permanent demarcation lines – but like the espigeiros they are now just a part of the grand Northern landscape.
Although vinho verde can come in red and rosé it is most commonly white, pale, fruity, acidic and with a light bubbliness which is a key part of its charm. Broadly speaking it has a lowish alcohol content which further adds to its conviviality. I first drank vinho verde on a cold November night in a small bar in Viana do Castelo where they serve it in little blue and white bowls. Like most novices I drank far too much and ended up with a wicked hangover. Bubbles, quaffability and a headache – that’s vinho verde.
It should have been obvious to me that as a party drink, the greens to not apply themselves well to a properly conscientious judging. I regret to say that the results make us look like a bunch of drunken buffoons, which we were, or else the pursuit of excellence in the vinho verde denomination is a total sham.
Here’s a list of things we did that you shouldn’t do at a serious wine tasting.
1. eat, although cheese is permitted, but only with reds
2. use the same glass, plastic ones
3. get drunk
4. tell hilarious stories and distract everyone from the job at hand
5. mix the wines with sticky Mississippi mud pie, a tart apricot flan and a spongy, gooey chocolate torte
6. forget to drink any water
I planned well, really. But it got out of hand. It’s not my fault. It just all went terribly wrong.
We started with a Casal Garcia. Medium priced, highly exportable, ubiquitous, Casal Garcia is a crowd pleaser of a vinho verde and a decent benchmark to sort the grass from the weeds.
Three or five glasses of that later we started on wine number two, which came out all red and was unanimously rejected. Vinho Verde Tinto, tautology in a cup, is an acquired taste. Revolting, I mean.
So with some anticipation came wine number three, named “Veronica do Lenço” for the occasion*, and she was all frothy which was generally thought of as a bad thing. The commentarios, yet earnest and legible, were unanimous – thin, sweet and low scoring.
The fourth wine, “Sangue” was a rosé and it delighted the punters with its pinky colour, raspberry-floral nose and its surprisingly well-balanced palate and dry finish. This wine defeated the reputation of rosés being sickly lolly-water. “Interesting, curious and very good” and with very high scores all round.
The next wine “Pedro” was generally well liked but received average scores. A guest named Jean Batiste Porquelin commented that it was good with seafood (perhaps the salt and pepper squid had been served) but Gary Busey thought it was too sour.
The entrance of “Agonia” caused somewhat of a stir and the bottle was finished on the first round. Perhaps that’s why the comments are rather thin and difficult to read. Muito vinho and very drinkable perhaps describe the moment best. Very high scores were given and while the rosé was already assumed to be Casal Garcia, this one got everyone guessing. Or showing off. Acting like wino afficionados. It was very Sydney for a moment.
I think this was when the lemon chicken was brought out, which I considered to be the best dish of the night. Everyone was happy, and the next wine was also a winner. “Os Ladrões” was described as perfect, light and sweet by Oscar Wilde and cheap shit but nice by Jason Donovan. High scores, although it was recognised as a cheapie.
From then on we were on a downhill slope. The next three wines lived true to their given names. “Madelena” was a whore of a wine and scores went plummeting. “A Queda” did indeed and “Gethsemane” was depressing.
All this coincided with the fried spring rolls and their exquisite sweet chilli sauce, sending many guests into eulogies of sloppy rapture. Was it a major food/wine faux pas?
Fortunately the next wine saved the night. “Sireneu” was described by Matt Damon as inspiring, Pussy McVibie liked the nice bubbles, Gargantua thought it was leve and muito euti havel and Penelope Keith was under the table. Kyle (Broflovski I presume, going by the handwriting) called it sweet and sour, which was good, but Molière said it was like formaldehyde. Nevertheless, high scores.
Then disaster struck.
The biggest fattest Mississippi mud pie arrived. A chocolate marshmallow sludge bath of decadence and mortal sin. The One and I had two gross helpings and then sat back looking like Jabba the Hut twins. Not to be easily satiated though, we then went all healthy and had a whopping section of awesome Apricot pie, the acid perfectly cutting the rich mousse of the mudster. And then came the chocolate torte, quite light and spongy on top but moist and dense underneath. It was like a quality mattress that I wanted to spend the rest of the night lolling about on.
The next two, final wines, made everyone pull ugly faces, gesticulate, gag and some guests even rushed to use the neighbours’ spittoon/garden ornament. Horrivél, antifreeze, nasty, poisonous, acid, vile and a whole lot of portuguese bad words peppered the commentary with neither wine beating a score of 2 out of 10. Total. From 15 judges.
Luckily it was all over then. Or so I thought. In the morning I found one bottle that was left behind. Label-less. Even with a murderous hangover I instinctively felt that this was the one that got away, the rightful champion of the night. But how would we ever know?
the wines the scores the prices
crucifixo casal garcia 41 €3.29
pilates ponte de barca tinto 19 €2.29
veronica de lenço via latina 22 €2.29
o sangue casal garcia rosé 44 €3.29 FIRST
agonía campo de gruta (lidl) 43 €1.69 SECOND
pedro gazela 37 €2.99
os ladrões aldeia do sol 40 €1.29 FOURTH
madalena arinto quinta de santa maria 30 €3.60
a queda torre de menagem 21 €2.99
gethsemane campelo 33
sireneu coop agricola de felgueiras 41 €1.59 THIRD
chicotear loureiro muros antigos 20
maria adega de monçao 14 €2.59
Frankly I’m shocked, appalled and horrified that, outside of the respectable Casal Garcia we chose the very cheapest as our favourites. I had no such pretensions about the how-low-can-you-go whites or reds, and the co-op felguerias is even The One and my own Wednesday wowser. But, but, I drink a lot of vinho verde and I’ve come to think that there is a difference between the cheap and the noble and price being no object I’d choose to drink an alvarinho Deu la Deu over a cooperativo any day. I’ve become a vinho verde snob, you see. I should’ve made the tasting rule to be only expensive vinho verde. But how would the results be skewed if there were more alvarinhos on the list?
You see there are vinho verdes and vinhos verde. The grapes permitted in the denominação are Loureiro, Azal, Trajadura, Arinto (Pederña) and Avesso, which are most commonly blended – nearly everything on our list was blended.
Then there’s the alvarinho grape, which is only grown in the sub-region of Monçao and Melgaço. Alvarinho grapes are never included in a blend and vintage has more importance, making these wines more expensive. Of the other grapes only Loureiro and Arinto are used as varietals.
This makes finding your own vinho verde easier. Just find out which grape you prefer – some labels, like Via Latina, make a blended, a loureiro and an alvarinho, which would make for a fair night’s testing, more or less. The Aveleda label has the same range.
In final tippage, vinho verde is green wine. It is meant to be drunk young. Unless you really know your label and vintage, don’t bother choosing anything more than 2 years old. Age is no friend to this drink and nor is serving it anything other than very, very cold. After opening a bottle, chill it, or by the end of the bottle you’ll be wondering where all the charm has gone.
*shall I explain why all the wines have new testament names? Actually no I don’t think so, because in the end they were not necessary because everyone arrived at the same time and therefore the stations of the wine idea never eventuated. A decent party is an organic beast.