Wines from Vinho Verde Delight and Surprise
By: Paul Franson
Most of the Vinho Verde wines I’ve had – even on previous trips to Portugal – have been delightfully crisp, 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.
The region naturally produces hearty reds and delicate 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.
Albariño is red hot, and for good reason. It’s a step up from most Pinot Grigios in flavor and complexity and it is growing so rapidly in popularity that California growers are starting to extend their few plantings.
The region’s name is formally pronounced “vee nyo ver dee,” but the locals call it “vinver.”
The Vinho Verde region is nestled between mountains and rivers overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The name of the region – verde, which means “green” in Portuguese – comes from the green color that covers the entire landscape. It doesn’t mean the wines are green in color – the classic Vinho Verde is light straw white.
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 they represent only one tenth of the vineyards in Portugal.
Vinho Verde represents about 40 percent of the total Portuguese quality wines other than Port exported.
The climate in Vinho Verde is fairly similar to coastal California. The winters are cool 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 acidic, contains little phosphorus and has naturally low fertility.
The region’s grape growers traditionally use unusual vine training methods.
Because of the small plots most people own and the need to grow grain, vegetable and fruit crops, they plant their grapes around the edges of their fields, often on very high poles, trees, or arbors that extend even over cliffs and roads, and in overhead pergolas.
Quite intriguing and often picturesque, they are a major pain to tend and harvest though there’s no proof that they produce inferior grapes to more modern schemes.
By far the most popular wines from Vinho Verde are the tasty Vinho Verdes, often in tall, slim green bottles.
They’re generally made from a blend of traditional grapes though some are labeled with the variety under complex rules. The wine is generally inexpensive and an excellent value. It’s low to very low in alcohol, typically 7 to 10 percent, and is perfect for a picnic on a warm summer day.
This wine is superb with shellfish, other seafood and lighter foods. It’s also good on its own and with appetizers like charcuterie.
The other white wines from the area are harder to find, more sophisticated and more expensive.
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.
Though harder to find, Loureiro (pronounced almost “Laredo” in Portuguese) and Trajadura are other excellent choices.
The rosés are interesting as most are made from rosé-colored grapes rather than red grapes as is common in most places. They include Espadeiro and Padeiro.
Red varieties include Amaral, Alvarelhão, Borraçal and Vinhão.
Among the big wine 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.
Certainly, the basic Vinho Verde wines are a great choice, particularly for spring and summer drinking, but if you find some of the more ambitious wines, they’re worth a try.