I’m just back from Vinho Verde, the wine region in northwestern Portugal right against the Spanish Galician border, and I’ve found my ideas about wines from that region totally changed.
Most of the Vinho Verde wines I’ve had, even on previous trips to Portugal, have been delightful crisp light, low-alcohol white wines with a tiny spritz that makes them especially tasty with food and in hot weather. We tasted plenty of those, but the other wines were a revelation.
In the first place, the region produces hearty reds and rosés, but it also makes a wide range of more serious whites including wines from the alvarinho grape, called albariño across the border in Spain. This wine is a step up from most pinot grigios in flavor and complexity and is growing so rapidly in popularity that California growers are starting to extend their few plantings.
The region’s name is formerly pronounced “vee nyo ver dee,” but the locals call it “vinver.”
The wines aren’t green
The Vinho Verde region is nestled between mountains and rivers overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s lush and green. The name of the region – verde – comes from the green color that covers the entire landscape. It doesn’t mean the wines are green – the classic Vinho Verde is light straw white.
They are best drunk young, and some “experts” have even interpreted the “green” to mean young, like a green recruit.
The region has been a source of grapes and wine for millennia. The oldest historic references to the existence of wine from this region are from Romans Seneca and Pliny I the first century, and the first Portuguese wines popular in England were Vinho Verde, not Port.
The area has about 52,000 acres of vineyards, slightly less than Napa Valley, and represents only one-tenth of those in Portugal.
However, those acres are divided into 129,000 parcels split among 25,500 grape growers, so most are tiny. By contrast, the area has 600 wineries and 2,000 wine brands, so most don’t make it to America.
I should make it clear that it’s the white Vinho Verde wines that have attracted growing attention and represent two-thirds of production. The rosés, which are new products, deserve more attention.
The red Vinho Verde wines are interesting, but probably not likely to gain much attention outside their own area. They’re very dark in color and hearty, but seem like recently fermented juice and are typically drunk very young.
Interestingly, although Portuguese red wines from other areas are gaining a lot of attention, Vinho Verde represents about 40 percent of the total Portuguese quality wines other than Port (and Madeira from one of the country’s outlying islands) exported.
Exports total 30 percent of Vinho Verde’s output with the U.S. the largest market.
A familiar climate
The climate in Vinho Verde is fairly similar to coastal California. The winters are cold and rainy while the summers are hot and dry.
Being so close to the Atlantic Ocean, the area enjoys generally mild temperatures with no large temperature swings, though it is relatively humid due to the ocean’s influence.
The soil would be terrible for growing most crops, but is ideal for high-quality wine grapes: It’s derived from granite, and is sandy with shallow layers. It’s also moderately to highly acid, contains little phosphorus and has naturally low fertility.
The region’s grape growers traditionally used unusual vine training methods.
Because of the small plots most people owned and the need to grow grain, vegetable and fruit crops, they planted the grapes around the edges of their fields, often on very high poles or even trees, on arbors that extended even over cliffs and roads, and in overhead pergolas.
Intriguing and often picturesque, they were a major pain to tend and harvest though there’s no proof that they produced inferior grapes. The region’s modern vineyards look like those found elsewhere in Europe and the United States, however, and are easier to manage and harvest.
By far, the most popular wines found here are the basic and tasty Vinho Verde, often in tall, slim green bottles.
It’s generally made from a blend of traditional grapes though some are labeled with the variety under complex rules. This wine is superb with shellfish, other simply prepared seafood and other lighter foods. It also well matches charcuterie.
The wine is generally inexpensive and an excellent value. It’s low to very low in alcohol, perfect for a picnic on a warm summer day. The other wines are harder to find, more sophisticated and more expensive, but almost are all stall bargains.
As suggested before, alvarinho is the most popular. It generally has intense aroma, complex, fruity character (quince, peach, banana, passion fruit and litchi), floral (orange blossom and violet) and dry fruits (almonds, hazelnut and nut). It is always totally dry, and the alcohol levels are typically 12 to 14 percent, not the 7 to 10 percent of the basic wines.
Though harder to find, loureiro (pronounced almost “Laredo” in Portuguese) and trajadura are other excellent choices. Other white grapes are hard to find but make excellent wines; most are blended: avesso, azal and arinto.
The rosés are interesting as most are made from rosé-colored grapes rather than red grapes as is common. They include espadeiro and padeiro. Today’s rosés seem nothing like the spritzy sweet wines like Mateus and Lancer’s that were once popular in their distinctive bottles.
Red varieties include amaral, alvarelhão, borraçal and vinhão (The tilde over the vowel makes it nasalized, as in French). I wouldn’t look too hard for them.
Among the big producers are Quinta da Aveleda and Quinta da Lixa. Some excellent smaller wineries include Soalheiro, Quinta da Ameal, Quinta de Gomariz and Quinta da Carapeços, who are making higher-end wines, some innovative. A few ferment or age their wines in oak, not traditional but an attempt at attracting international consumers.
Certainly, the basic Vinho Verde wines are a great choice, particularly for spring and summer drinking, but it you find some of the more ambitious wines, they’re worth a try. I bet you’ll like them.