The trouble with Vinho Verde

Tuesday, 3. January 2017 - 13:45
Credit: Simon Woolf
Situated far up in Portugal’s northern extremes is the Monção region, where drivers who overshoot by a few kilometres will end up in Spain. Statistically it’ll be raining – this is Vinho Verde country, and it’s not called Verde (green) for nothing. 
At a T-junction in the main road through Monção is a nondescript entrance and car park. Behind it, the drab buildings look like they might house a funeral parlour.

There’s a small reception area with a hand-typed price list taped to the wall. This is the Adega de Monção, Vinho Verde’s largest and most important cooperative cellar. For three euros and some change it’s possible to buy a bottle of their Muralhas de Monção. The label looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since the first Marquis de Pombal walked the earth, but the liquid inside doesn’t disappoint – this is everything Vinho Verde should be. Fresh, spritzy and thirst-quenching, with zesty fruit and a lunchtime-friendly 12% alcohol.

Here is Vinho Verde’s blessing and its curse, perfectly encapsulated in 75 cL.
Shackled by image
The customer gets the blessing: The adega completely overachieves with their simple, bargain-priced offerings – all 5.5m bottles a year. Not only that, Muralhas de Monção is a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) wine, from a region first demarcated in 1908. The DOC was awarded in 1984.
The curse? For the small-but-increasing number of quality independent producers in the region, it can be difficult to escape the price shackles of “brand Verde”. Who wants to buy a Vinho Verde if it’s €10.00 ($10.75) a bottle? Worse still, Muralhas de Monção is far from being the cheapest DOC wine on the market. There are plenty on the shelves in Portugal for €2.00 or less. Most taste as one would expect for an overcropped, industrially made wine.
Visitors to ProWein 2016 were treated to a walk-round tasting with wines from 30 or so Vinho Verde producers with enough ambition to attend the fair. Wholesale prices were given per bottle, with many in the range of €0.90 to €1.50. Figures from the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (CVRVV) confirm these rock-bottom rates: 23.5m L were exported in 2015, at an average (mean) of €2.33 per litre (or €1.74 per 75 cL).
Price isn’t the only limiting factor. Producers making high-quality dry white wines in the region have to fight the notion, still popular in many European wine markets, that Vinho Verde means a slightly carbonated quaffer with a slug of residual sugar. Vasco Magalhães, in charge of sales and marketing for Anselmo Mendes, adds that this can lead to Vinho Verde being seen as a second-class citizen in the wine world: “When you go into a restaurant, the waiter typically asks, ‘Would you like wine or Vinho Verde to start?’”
There’s an even bigger branding issue, as Tony Smith, co-owner of Quinta de Covela, explains, “Customers in the UK and Germany think that Vinho Verde is a style, but it’s not. It’s a region. It means a wine made from grapes grown in that region. It’s not important that it has sugar or CO2 in it.”
Smith and business partner Marcelo Lima (together, Lima Smith investments) are, to date, the only foreign investors in Vinho Verde. Lima Smith acquired the renowned but abandoned Covela estate in 2011. Partly due to Covela’s location, straddling the Vinho Verde region and the Douro valley, discussions were had about whether to bottle the wines as DOC Vinho Verde or not. Ultimately, the team went with the DOC, instead of choosing the broader IGP Minho option.
Smith admits, “It’s a double-edged sword. We don’t have anything against frizzante Vinho Verde, but it’s not ours. It’s not what we produce. At the same time, Vinho Verde is one of the fastest-growing regions in Portugal in terms of sales, and being part of that has been really helpful for us to get recognition.”
Not everyone sees eye to eye with this assessment. Quinta do Ameal is one of the stars of Vinho Verde, situated in the Lima valley where the aromatic Loureiro is king. Owner Pedro Araújo is outspoken about what he sees as the CVRVV’s failure to market high quality: “Putting Vinho Verde on the label doesn’t help me sell my wine. The Comissão spent €30m over the last 10 years, but the average price actually decreased during that time.”
Araújo’s main issue with the Comissão is its perceived focus on promoting the large cooperatives and industrial-scale producers, and the idea of Vinho Verde as a cheap, fizzy wine. His solution? Remove the wording from front labels, and hide the DOC designation on the back. For the higher-priced Escolha (reserve) Loureiro, Araújo has gone a step further and voluntarily declassified the wine to IPR Minho.
This shunning of the DOC seems extreme – does putting ‘Vinho Verde’ on the label really harm sales and pricing? Vasco Magalhães broadly agrees. “Yes, it can be limiting – but so is having ‘Portugal’ on the label,” he says. “We need to promote our country more in general, so that people have a better image of all Portuguese wines.”
Magalhães highlights another issue with Vinho Verde’s marketing strategy: “It’s always positioned as a wine for hot summer days – but we want to be able to sell our wines all year round, not just in the summer!”
Style or profile?
Meininger’s asked Manuel Pinheiro, CVRVV’s president since 2000, how he felt the Comissão was addressing these concerns. He was adamant that Vinho Verde should maintain a recognised style (“It has to be light and fresh.”) while being well aware that there was work to do in raising the profile and the price. “We’re trying to build segments above the entry level.”
Pinheiro is a believer in varietal labelling as the way forward for Vinho Verde, even if that means less prominence given to brand Vinho Verde. “We want the customer to see a Portuguese Alvarinho, a Portuguese Loureiro on the shelf, and we want them to get to know the region through these new wines.”
He discredits Araújo’s analysis of the pricing, pointing to a modest increase in the average price per litre over the past two years. When it comes to the thorny issue of promotion, Pinheiro is frank. The larger producers and cooperatives (such as Monção) are responsible for most of the Comissão’s revenue, and cannot be ignored. However, he insists that smaller producers are not being sidelined.
Pinheiro speaks proudly of many of the Comissão’s achievements – some 700 ha to 800 ha of vineyards are being renovated each year, and a Vinho Verde academy has been set up to teach modern pruning methods, and English (a key selling tool) to producers. These appear to be broad-brush measures designed to bring the lowest-quality tier up to an acceptable level, but it’s questionable whether they can significantly enhance Vinho Verde’s global price and brand positioning.
Winemaker Pedro Barbosa, who makes a delicious Loureiro under the name Clip, has a more optimistic vision. “I had a dream that Vinho Verde could be the perfect region for low-alcohol wines, with good acidity,” he says. “Now I feel like I’m living that dream. We’re getting there thanks to the clutch of good producers in the region, and I don’t say this from the heart, but from my pocket – sales are up.”
Brother and sister Luís and Maria Cerdeira are also upbeat. Soalheiro, their estate in Melgaço, is considered to be Vinho Verde’s top property, and their basic Alvarinho retails for around €15.00. Although the family only owns 10 ha of vines, total production including bought-in grapes is now around 300,000 bottles a year. That their location in the Monção & Melgaço sub-region brings a key advantage: this part of Vinho Verde is, uniquely, allowed to mention Alvarinho on the label.
This might sound like a detail; however, Alvarinho is Vinho Verde’s premium performer – a variety that can give more fruit intensity, more concentration, and more longevity than any of its peers. Local wisdom holds that the variety only prospers in Monção & Melgaço, hence the strict DOC legislation.
The way forward
Pressure from producers in the other eight sub-regions has mounted, resulting in a lengthy evaluation/mediation exercise coordinated by the Comissão. The expectation is that varietal Alvarinho wines will be permitted to be labelled as such, across the whole of Vinho Verde, from 2027 if not earlier. Even this seemingly minor change provoked an outcry in Melgaço, and a small protest outside the Comissão’s offices in Porto. Such is Alvarinho’s cachet.
Along with Soalheiro, winemaker and consultant Anselmo Mendes is a key exponent of Alvarinho, having spent 10 years studying its fermentation before purchasing his own winery in 1998. Mendes produces some 700,000 bottles under various labels at his estate in Monção, and also consults to Quinta do Ameal and many others.

Mendes doesn’t take quite such an extreme position as his client Pedro Araújo, but it is abundantly clear that personal brand is the most important marketing tool for the Anselmo Mendes wines – far less the Vinho Verde designation.

Bottles from Mendes or Soalheiro provide ample proof: the words Vinho Verde do not appear anywhere on front labels. These estates sell their wine based on individual reputations built up over decades – and often via the varietal. Luís Cerdeira confirms, “For me, Vinho Verde is a back-label concept – Alvarinho is what we’re about.” Bottles also wear the ‘Monção & Melgaço sub-region’ badge with pride.
This invites comparison with other large, well-known wine regions such as Bordeaux. Top cru classé wines only mention their AOC or village name (for example, Pauillac or Pessac-Léognan) on the bottle. However, the issue for Vinho Verde is the lack of middle ground – where are the equivalents of the Crus Bourgeois or the over-performing Médoc AOC wines?
Vinho Verde currently has perhaps 10 high-quality independent producers, out of a total of 600 bottlers. These producers have managed to raise the bar for Vinho Verde, far more than the less-ambitious efforts of the Comissão. Where this leaves the other 590 bottlers isn’t certain. But come what may, the Adega de Monção will no doubt continue to produce its delicious, bargain-priced Verde for decades to come.
Simon Woolf