Thou Shalt Judge: Portugal’s Vinho Verde Awards

The city of Oporto
From the time I can remember my parents taught me to not judge others (even though they talked smack about our neighbors). And whereas we should be magnanimous towards people and their idiosyncrasies, wine is an entirely different matter. I have been a judge at wine and food events for years and was invited to be the only U.S judge on a 6 member international panel to award the Best of Vinho Verde Awards in Portugal. So this posting is about Portugal’s wines, and a wee bit about what it’s like to judge wine.

At the awards ceremony
Wine has been made in Portugal for centuries, but most people can’t name a single grape from the country, with the exception of port, and that’s not a grape, it’s a city (actually Oporto). But Portugal has several wine regions and among white wines it is known as Vinho Verde located in northern Portugal bordering Spain. Prior to my arrival a group of Portuguese judges rated 300 wines therefore when us fancy international judges showed up (U.S., Canada, Brazil, England, Germany and Norway) we only contended with the top 30 wines, eventually awarding the best five. The palettes of the Portuguese and international judges were remarkably similar, and in light of some discussion about wine judges’ having “regional” palettes, we were kinda surprised to see that everyone from diverse backgrounds were in general agreement, and that a bad wine is a bad wine. The awards were presented at the beautiful Palacio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange building and a national landmark built in 1842, with 400 people present, a three course dinner and live music. It was a bit surreal.

Prior to the awards ceremony I spent four days meeting 16 different wine producers and tasted through about 150 wines. What is loosely termed Vinho Verde (literally “green wine”) constitutes the main white and some red wines of Northern Portugal. The name suggests green, but it means “joven” or young; wines meant to be consumed within a year or two. The main white grapes are Alvarinho, Loureiro, Trajadura, Azal, Arinto and Avesso, which sounds more like a misfit group of superheroes, not grapes. Though these grapes make simple wines, to make a good wine is not a simple process. “When the fruit is ripe you have to pick fast or the acidity will drop quickly,” says winemaker Paulo Rodrigues. And that acidity is the fundamental element in Vinho Verde wines. It is what makes these wines so easy to drink, well and the lower alcohol, and the Vinho Verde wines, though white can easily stand up to roast suckling lamb and pig. At Afros, owner Vasco Croft employs biodynamic winemaking to support a small portfolio of wine which has clarity and depth. Quinta de Gomariz is probably the best expression of where the wines of Vinho Verde are heading. The demographics of wine drinkers are changing and these wines reflect minimal residual sugar, lots of acidity and a slight effervescence, making them young, bright and fresh.

Vasco Croft and I discuss biodynamic farming

My judging cubicle

After our tour we were taken to the Comissão de Viticulture da Região dos Vinhos Verdes, the governing body of the wine region, housed in a building overlooking the city of Oporto. People in white lab coats took us to a sterile room with white cubicles to quietly sniff, slurp and spit, and it looked more reminiscent of my yearly physicals than sucking on white wine. Glasses of wine in different categories were presented blind (unidentified) and we rated them directly onto a computer screen, an efficient, but lonely process.
Most wine judging I do are in the context of animated discussions with other members of a small panel, usually a winemaker, restaurant owner, a media-type (like yours truly) or wine distributor. We award medals or points, occasionally argue, re-taste, chew on bread then horse trade, but here solitude was the defining factor. That evening we helped hand out the awards. It was fun, informative and I’d love to get back to Portugal. Vinho Verde wines are inexpensive: 2 to 5 Euros in Portugal; $10 and $15 in the U.S. I strongly recommended these and you’ll be immensely pleased with the quality in your glass. Check out Afros, Provam, Quinta de Regueiro, Quinta de Avaleda, and Quinta de Gomariz.

The beautiful Avaleda winery

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