Touriga Nacional is rightly considered Portugal’s flagship red grape variety, and it is now generally regarded that Alvarinho makes a worthy partner as the country’s premium white grape
Contenders for the title of Portugal’s flagship white varietal could be Arinto (excellent in the Bucelas region), Roupeiro in the Alentejo, and Encruzado in the Dão, but nothing can match Alvarinho for its intensity over a wide spectrum of fruit flavours, plus its ability to age well in the bottle because of its outstanding acidity and minerality. Alvarinho has come of age and is now considered a world-class white grape variety. Its home is in the north of the country, in the Vinho Verde region, more specifically from the two sub-regions of Monção and Melgaço. Just across the border, in the Spanish province of Galicia, the same variety known as Albarino, in the region of Rias Baixas, also performs extremely well.
In contrast to the standard Vinho Verde wines, which are the bread-and-butter wines of the region – mostly low-alcohol, thin, gassy and acidic -, the Alvarinho wines are more alcoholic, around 13º, and are well-balanced with good depth of fruit and tight-finishing acidity. But it is their wonderful range of fruit flavours and minerality that sets them apart. They range from tropical fruits, such as passion fruit and mango, through to stone fruits, such as peach and apricot, often coupled with floral citric notes.
The wines from Melgaço, with its higher altitude and stony soils, tend to have more minerality, adding to the complexity of style. The climate is cool, enhancing the fruit flavours that are especially intense and, coupled with the high acidity, allow the wines to age really well for up to 10-20 years in the bottle. In the vineyard, it is a vigorous variety with high fertility, although yields are generally low because of the small, open clusters and tiny berries. The grapes are thick-skinned and relatively tolerant to botrytis, but quite susceptible to mildew. Alvarinho performs best in cool climates, such as the Minho.
Success breeds success, and I suppose because of this, in the last few years, winemakers in the region have been experimenting with creating different styles of Alvarinho, more complex wines, and not just relying entirely on the fruit-driven styles that dominate the market. Soalheiro, one of the first producers of Alvarinho from Melgaço some 20 years ago, produces perhaps the most iconic and awarded wine in the region. A few years back they added Primeiras Vinhas to their portfolio, a wine based on their oldest vineyard plantings, showing incredible depth and intensity of flavour. Like many other producers, they also have an oak-aged version of Alvarinho, not my preferred style, as I like to see the varietal fruit flavours come to the fore, but if the oak is handled deftly, in some cases it can work.
The main pioneer however in this new wave of Alvarinhos is undoubtedly Anselmo Mendes. He has a range of wines, including Contacto, which gets its name from some skin contact prior to fermentation and then some ageing time on the yeast lees following fermentation, resulting in more full-bodied, richly-flavoured, more structured style of Alvarinho. This is followed by Curtimenta, the name deriving from fermentation on the skins after only partial de-stemming, giving the wine more colour and tannin. Extended lees contact with stirring gives a very full-bodied, unctuous wine, with great structure.
Parcela Única is another individual style of wine, based on a special single vineyard site, producing an extremely elegant, delicate and mineral wine with great purity of fruit. Finally, a more complex oak-fermented and barrel-aged version called Expressões, revealing some smoky characteristics. His more established commercial wines are Muros Melgaço, which again is a more complex style having been barrel-fermented after only partial cold settling of the must, and Muros Antigos, a very successful and commercially reliable well-balanced, fruit-driven Alvarinho.
Having mentioned the versatility of this variety, it is worthwhile highlighting an Alvarinho wine from Idealdrinks, Quinta da Pedra, which is only released following six months of ageing in the barrel, six months in stainless steel, and one year in the bottle. All in all, plenty to choose from, and a great time to be a wine consumer in this country. Alvarinhos can be enjoyed all year round, with the more straightforward, fruit-driven styles more appealing in the spring and summer months, while the new wave of barrel-fermented, lees-contacted styles are big and complex enough to be consumed during the colder months of autumn and winter.