I have seen more than a few wineries in Napa built to resemble Bordeaux châteaus, and in Bordeaux itself I've seen some modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles. But until I visited Portugal's Vinho Verde country and its largest winery, Quinta da Aveleda, I had never seen one that looked as if it were laid out with Alice in Wonderland in mind.
Although Aveleda is one of the most modern wineries in Portugal, it is also arguably the most whimsical. Amid its formal, French-inspired gardens stand such structures as a stone goat tower and a thatched goose cottage. Even the 19th-century estate house (with more than 20 bedrooms) has its idiosyncrasies. "My grandfather designed it so that no two windows are alike," says Antonio Guedes, scion and president of Aveleda. His father added a few touches of his own, such as a fountain with the faces of Antonio's four aunts, each one personifying a different season.
Yet with all this to distract and amuse them, visitors to Aveleda are as likely to request a tour of the winery's bottling line as a walk through its fantastical grounds. Although it's hard to imagine the appeal of something as mundane as bottling machinery over, say, a Victorian teahouse (the estate has a charming one), Vinho Verde, in the northwestern part of the country, is a region of contradictions. To begin with, the area's eponymous wine literally means green wine--though it's actually a light, dry, somewhat effervescent white wine, made from a blend of grapes, most notably Trajadura and the aromatic Loureiro. Green refers not to its color but to its youth, since Vinho Verde is best drunk soon after wineries release their bottles in the spring.
To complicate matters further, there's also red Vinho Verde. In fact, more red than white Vinho Verde is produced, and practically all of it is locally consumed. (Still, when the Portuguese refer to Vinho Verde, they invariably mean the white, not the red.) Also, Vinho Verde is almost never vintage dated, though many producers print codes on their bottles indicating the month and year of their release. (These codes, however, are virtually indecipherable to anyone save the producers themselves.)
Aveleda makes several different types of white Vinho Verde, ranging from the simple, soft and slightly sparkling Casal Garcia (which, at $5 a bottle, has to be one of the world's best wine bargains) to the more austere Vinho da Aveleda. There are also two single-varietal wines, made only in the best years from Trajadura and Loureiro grapes. (These two wines are, in a break with regional tradition, vintage-dated.) All of Aveleda's Vinho Verde bottlings are marked by a characteristic high acidity and freshness of flavor.
Aveleda doesn't sell a red Vinho Verde, but a few years ago the estate did start bottling Charamba, a red wine that is a blend of grapes from the neighboring Douro region, where port is made. "The port producers aren't interested in making table wines, so we were able to buy grapes from top growers," Antonio says. "But we got there just in time. I think port producers are waking up to the Douro's possibilities."
It's not surprising that the Guedeses are among the first table-wine producers to exploit the potential of the Douro; they have been innovators in their native Vinho Verde for generations. Antonio's great-grandfather was one of the first to try new winemaking techniques in this very traditional region. "People used to ride the train that ran through our property and look out the window to 'see what that madman at Aveleda was doing,'" Antonio says. Years later, Antonio's father took the unprecedented step of hiring a French enologist who had told him, "You're producing awful wine."
"My father recognized that we needed technology," Antonio says. One change introduced in his father's time was the trellising of grapes in the orderly manner of the French, rather than the centuries-old Vinho Verde method of enforcado, which calls for training vines along pillars, posts and fences, allowing cabbages to grow or animals to graze beneath the vines. While it was certainly picturesque, enforcado was decidedly impractical. No tractor could negotiate such crowded vineyards, so all the grapes had to be picked by hand.
When Antonio and his late brother, Luis, took over, they mechanized the operations and replanted most of the vineyards, which had a hodgepodge of grape varieties. "The wine we sell today is not the wine we sold 50 years ago," Antonio says. "It is much better." But, he adds self-effacingly, "With all the technology currently at winemakers' disposal, only a stupid person will not make good wine."
Today, Aveleda not only makes better wine but also makes a lot more wine--close to a million cases a year. Yet Aveleda remains family owned. Antonio's brother Roberto handles the finances. The two men seem to trust each other deeply. Both hope that their children will be a part of the business someday, but Antonio says that even those Guedeses who don't work in the company "live it."
Many family members are now scattered between the estate and the nearby city of Porto, where several of Roberto's and Antonio's children attend university. But no matter how disparate their lives are, they all get together in the spring and summer. Which means many lunches and dinner parties at Aveleda.
On the day I visited, Roberto, Antonio and five other family members were having lunch in the dining room of the main house. The meal consisted of a long list of family favorites, beginning with a tart and continuing with poached sea bass and pork roast. The two first courses were accompanied by Vinho Verde. It's the perfect lunch wine, Antonio says: "It's lower in alcohol than most table wines. You can drink it and still go on with the day."
Emilia Augusta Magalháes and Maria Jose Cabral, the cooks who prepared lunch, have been at Aveleda for years and are considered part of the family. They each live in one of the estates' 90 houses, as do most of the people who work at Aveleda. It's an arrangement that extends a feeling of family well beyond blood relationships. To Antonio, family is anyone who lives and breathes Aveleda. "When people come to Aveleda," he says, "they tend to stay for life."