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5 March 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

Nip across the border to sample the ancient vines

Spain and Portugal may have settled their differences, but when it comes to grapes, it's not so simple.

By Nina Caplan

The vines that produce the kind of grapes you crush for wine can live a long time: I’ve seen gnarled plants on the island of Santorini that are over 150 years old and still producing fruit, although not very much of it. Most, however, get yanked out and replaced long before they’re eligible for a royal telegram; there is a delicate balance between the prestige of old vines and a field full of superannuated stalks with barely a grape between them.

I brought a bottle of old-vine Vinho Verde, a 2012 Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas, back from northern Portugal a couple of weeks ago, snuggled inside several jumpers in the hold and prayed over by its owner a few feet above although, contrary to the region’s name – Vinho Verde means “green wine” – the contents are a delicate yellow that would have inflicted only temporary damage on my wardrobe. And the Wine Society sells it for £20 a bottle. But this was given to me, and I can be as territorial as any conquering hero, when it comes to wine.

Its grape, Alvarinho, is now Vinho Verde’s trendiest, largely because of its success across the Spanish border in Galicia, where it is called Albariño. The vines are over 40 years old. I tasted this lovely wine in a beautiful glass-walled room on the estate in Melgaço, gazing through those huge windows at Spain. It feels peculiar to sit in one country looking at the other while tasting the wine that has largely replaced land as the root of their rivalry. It is a curiosity that most people view Vinho Verde as a style and not a region (it is both), and its grapes remain shrouded in mystery – even those, like Alvarinho and Loureiro, that are pretty well known in their Spanish incarnation.

Wine notwithstanding, relations between the two Iberian nations are mainly cordial these days. Luiz Cerdeira, Soalheiro’s owner, pointed out the benefits of nipping north for the midday meal: not only do the Spanish start later and lunch longer, but the time difference allows you to recuperate an hour when you return. This almost makes having an enormous, powerful neighbour worthwhile. Greedy Portuguese buying lunch is an improvement on acquisitive Castilians attempting to add Portugal to their roster of conquered states; I believe they call this progress.

With a short exception, the two have been separate since 1129, when Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself king. Afonso was an exceptional piece of work, rebelling against his mother at the age of 11 (in the 12th-century sense of taking up arms against her, not refusing to eat his bacalhau) and fighting all-comers until well into his seventies. He was a member of the House of Burgundy: truly an old vine from exceptional stock.

There are red, rosé and sparkling Vinho Verdes but it is the whites for which the region is famed, and if it is still trying to shake off a certain 1970s taint, quality is climbing, so it should succeed. After all, hardly anyone dislikes Vinho Verde; it is so gentle, so softly approachable, it would be like disliking daisies. Wines made from Loureiro usually have a stronger personality than the Alvarinhos: Quinta de Curvos makes a lovely one that nicely matched a rather delicious crab Marie Rose (maybe the 1970s were a better decade gastronomically than we’re led to believe). But it’s all relative.

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Strength and power also reside next door, however, and in this case the border is not political but geological. The Marão Mountains shield Portugal’s Douro from coastal rain and winds, entirely changing the landscape and its output: just miles from a land feted for its light whites, you get port. Truly, contiguity is complicated, especially when it is of long standing. The miracle is less that Portugal has remained separate from Spain than that the two countries now manage to be friends – despite their similarities.