One thing we know for sure: Vinho Verde wines are not green—citrine, pink or red they may be, but never green.
It’s possible these lively, thirst-quenching beverages acquired their vivid moniker because they typically are consumed “green”—young. Or the name may be an allusion to the color of the rolling hills where they originate.
Vinho Verde—Green Wine— denotes both a type of wine and the verdant region in northwest Portugal where it is produced. According to the regulatory authorities—the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes—the region traditionally was known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho. It is bounded by the Minho River in the North (the border with Galicia in Spain), the mountainous areas in the East and South (down to the Douro River) and the Atlantic Ocean.
There are nine subregions: Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Cávado, Lima, Monção e Melgaço, Paiva and Sousa. The names refer to rivers or towns, and they appear on wine labels occasionally.
Vinho Verde is a cool, damp region, its climate influenced by the Atlantic and by maritime breezes that flow up river valleys. Rainfall in this part of Portugal is nearly 60 inches each year. (Annual rainfall in Charleston is about 50 inches.) Mold can menace ripening grapes in rainy weather. Winegrowers must be vigilant.
In the past, farmers in Vinho Verde often planted vines vertically along the borders of their fields, training them on pergolas or even up and between trees. Planting vines this way left the balance of the fields available for other crops (corn, potatoes, beans) but required workers to harvest grapes on ladders, a risky procedure. A few farmers with small holdings continue the picturesque practice. But most vines in Vinho Verde now are “low-trained on wires, giving better exposure to the limited sun” and reducing the chance that precious fruit will be afflicted by plant maladies in damp weather.
Numerous varieties of white and red grapes are authorized for cultivation in Vinho Verde. They are unfamiliar to most Americans—except for Alvarinho (Albariño).
Grapes grown in a cool, rainy climate with limited sunlight— even when trained on wires— don’t develop a lot of sugar. As a result, Vinho Verde wines tend to be high in acidity and low in alcohol. (Alcohol in these wines typically ranges from 8 to 10 percent.) Some Vinhos Verdes are slightly effervescent. (Traditional winemaking practices fostered fizziness. Today, winemakers sometimes add carbon dioxide to their wines just before bottling to maintain the familiar style.) The long and the short of it is that these light, dry, effervescent, low-alcohol wines are ideal for summertime quaffing. As wine writer Eric Azimov put it, they are “fresh and lively, zingy, zesty, sometimes fizzy and above all, untaxing.”
Vinho Verde makes an excellent aperitif, but it really comes into its own when paired with light summertime foods—salads, seafood, fruit, light meats, and especially, tangy cheeses.
Portuguese farmers produce many cheeses, often from sheep’s and goat’s milk. Not surprisingly, Vinho Verde pairs well with them. Alas, it is almost impossible to find Portuguese cheeses in this country. Fortunately, we can obtain similar cheeses from Spain to pair with our Vinho Verde.
We tasted numerous Vinhos Verdes during the past few weeks, all of them delightful. As always, we tasted the wines over dinner, choosing fare that we knew would pair well with them. (The local cheesemonger was able to come up with one or two Portuguese products.)
Vinhos Verdes are not exactly well known, but they are readily available and generally economical. Pick up a few bottles, pop them into the refrigerator for a couple of hours and try them. These wines really are supposed to be consumed in their youth. Many do not carry a vintage label. Don’t worry. Drink them now. Here are notes on three wines that we particularly enjoyed, all available in Charleston.
Gazela White DOC Vinho Verde ($6) is a blend of unfamiliar varietals—40 percent Loureiro, 30 percent Pedernã, 15 percent Trajadura, 15 percent Azal. It is quite light in color, virtually clear, what the producer’s notes describe as “citrine,” the color of the citron fruit. Its bouquet is fresh and bright with a hint of yeast. Subtle flavors of lemon and lime and slight effervescence make the Gazela a truly refreshing wine. It is low in alcohol—9 percent. We paired it with a light snack of crusty bread and goat cheese.
Las Lilas Rosé DOC Vinho Verde 2014 ($10) is a beautiful cherry color, darker and richer in hue than the typical rosé. The bouquet reminds one of minerals and rhubarb with a whiff of yeast. The wine is slightly tart in the mouth, with elements of cherries, oranges, peaches and strawberries. Effervescence is apparent to the tongue but not to fading eyes. (Our fading eyes at least.) Sipping the Las Lilas Rosé is like biting into a slice of chilled watermelon on a hot summer afternoon. This is a blend—60 percent Vinhão, 30 percent Borraçal and 10 percent Espadeiro. Try this crisp and refreshing wine with a light salad of lettuce and hearts of palm or with seared scallops. Goat cheese on toast rounds is another good pairing option. Las Lilas Rosé offers 10 percent alcohol.
There is a white version of Las Lilas, which is also delicious.
Estreia Alvarinho Reserva White DOC Vinho Verde 2014 ($19) is 100 percent Alvarinho grown in the Monção e Melgaço subregion, apparently the only part of Vinho Verde where Alvarinho may be grown. It is a pale straw color, and its bouquet evokes flowers and minerals. The complex, fruity flavor smacks of green apples, peaches and white grapes punctuated with a dot of lemon rind. The wine has good body. Its delightful, bright flavor extends through a long finish. The alcohol level is 12.5 percent.
The Estreia Alvarinho represents what wine writer Lettie Teague wants to call Super Verdes, serious white wines made in Vinho Verde that are “minerally and dry, marked by notes of citrus and pear.” Generally they are higher in alcohol than the traditional Vinhos Verdes—12 percent to 13 percent, versus 9 percent to 10 percent.
Summertime: The livin’ is easy; fish are jumpin’; the cotton is high. The ambient temperature is high, too, and probably rising. It is the perfect season to sample some of Portugal’s easy-drinking, low-alcohol Vinho Verde wines.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.