New wave Vinho Verde changing region’s landscape20th March, 2014 by Patrick Schmitt
A new wave of drier, varietally-labelled Vinho Verde is boosting international sales for the Portuguese wine, but there’s a concern the region may be abandoning its traditional approach too quickly.
“Exports of Vinho Verde have been increasing because of the type of wines we are now producing,” said Manuel Pinheiro, executive president of the Commisão de Viticultura do Região dos Vinhos Verdes (CVRR), during a discussion with the drinks business yesterday.
He said there had been a stylistic shift due to a move towards varietal wines made with Alvarinho or Loureiro, which are higher in alcohol, drier, as well as “more complex” – and driving such change for a region best known for its spritzy, off-dry, high acid and low alcohol blends is a change in vineyard location and management.
In essence, growers are moving away from the old pergola trellis system to wire-trained vines planted on the region’s slopes rather than valley floors.
“We have made a huge effort to encourage producers to plant new vineyards based on our local varieties on the slopes, not the valleys, as well as manage their vineyards better,” explained Pinheiro.
Continuing, he said that this has led to the replanting on modern lines of up to 800 hectares of Vinho Verde each year – the region covers 20,000ha in total – helped by subsidies from the European Union.
“Before Vinho Verde was 9% abv, a bit sweet and a blend, but now it is 11-12%, varietal, drier and more complex,” he explained.
“We are not denying traditional Vinho Verde, but we are trying to create a second segment above it, one with a different quality which will naturally add more value,” he added.
Indeed, as a result of such a upwards trend in quality, Vinho Verde is seeing a growth in the value of its exports, with sales to the UK, its third largest export market after the US and Germany, up 20% from €1.3 million in 2012 to €1.5m in 2013.
As for the US, a new record of €9.5m worth of Vinho Verde was exported to the market in 2013 – a high figure Pinheiro attributes both to the quality revolution in the Portuguese region and a new base of consumers in North America.
“We have found new consumers in the US, because we have broken out of the Portuguese community, which was mainly in Massachusetts,” he said.
However, the success of Vinho Verde’s new wave of trellis-trained wines is having a negative effect on the region’s appearance, according to Pinheiro.
“The success we are having renovating our vineyards is changing the landscape because the pergolas are fast disappearing,” he said.
Continuing, he observed, “Because the small plots with pergolas are being replaced by linear vineyards, we are losing some of the personality of the landscape as well as the personality of traditional Vinho Verde.”
Consequently, the region has now secured EU subsidies from 2015 to protect its traditional pergola-trained vineyards.
Pinheiro explains, “We are now encouraging producers to keep a small amount of traditional Vinho Verde that will connect to the roots of the region, so there is a balance between progress and defending the tradition of the landscape.”
Currently, Vinho Verde receives an annual grant from the EU totaling around €3m, of which €2m is put towards marketing the region in key export markets, as well as domestically – 55% of Vinho Verde is consumed in Portugal.
A significant amount of the other €1m grant is put towards insuring all Vinho Verde’s 20,000 growers against adverse climatic conditions, according to Pinheiro.
“We insure 100,000 tonnes of grapes each year,” he said, adding, “And our insurer told us that this is the largest crop insurance policy in Europe, including cereals.”
Admitting that it costs Vinho Verde “a fortune”, he said the policy, which amounts to a €2.5m annual expense for the region, entitles every grower to free cover for their crop.
Finally, Pinheiro told db that he had a “positive outlook” for the future sales performance of Vinho Verde, and noted that the region would further benefit from changes to the legislation for regionally-produced sparkling wine next year.
“In 2015 the Charmat method will be authorised for Vinho Verde sparkling,” he said.
Previously, those producers making sparkling Vinho Verde had to use the traditional method.
Nevertheless, Pinheiro said that he didn’t want to overstate the impact of such a change to the laws of the region.
“Sparkling Vinho Verde is very small; we make less than 500,00 litres of sparkling, compared to over 50m of still wine.”