Mateus and Lancers, both in fancy bottles, used to be the only Portuguese wines any of us knew about. More and better Portuguese wines are coming into the United States now, and with the changing of the seasons, it’s time to understand Vinho Verde.
If you’ve spent any time in the Portuguese section of your favorite wine shop, you’re a little bit familiar with Vinho Verde. If you haven’t spent any time shopping this section, why not? Get there for fantastic wines at great prices. Among them is a wine that most who’ve travelled to Portugal recall with fond memories. It’s called Vinho Verde, translated as Green Wine. It’s typically, but not always, a young, very easy drinking white wine, slightly sweet, a bit fizzy, and above all, cheap. Like under ten bucks a bottle cheap.
After a trip to Portugal where people basked in the sun at a beachside café, they often recall this magical and marvelously inexpensive wine. What they often recall is the memory of the moment and that it was the place and time that made this simple wine so special. Frankly, a lot of Vinho Verde used to be just simply OK. Now, Vinho Verde is experiencing a revolution that’s transforming this simple wine into something worthy of your attention.
Raise Your Consciousness About Vinho Verde
There are a lot of misconceptions around Vinho Verde.
The first thing people think about Vinho Verde is that the name refers to the color of the wine, or of the grapes that are used to make it. First, Vinho Verde wines can range from white to rosé and even to red wines. The reds, by and large, never make it out of Portugal. The grapes used for Vinho Verde wines are always fully ripened, so they certainly aren’t green.
Vinho Verde is the name of the growing area of the grapes used to make the wine. Named after the verdant rolling hills in the northwest corner of Portugal, Vinho Verde should really be more accurately translated as “wine from the green place.”
The next thing about Vinho Verde that people often misunderstand is the belief that Vinho Verde is “young” or wine that is not fully aged. This one is tricky. A lot of Vinho Verde is sold three to six months after harvest, but some modern bottling entails significant aging and can even be aged in small oak barrels that enhance the finished wines even further.
The Revolution Will Be Vinified
Much like Chianti and Rioja, the wines of Vinho Verde went through an era when they were little more than jug wines. But over the past few decades, winemakers became more interested in creating wines showing varietal characteristics, a sense of terroir, and quality vinification. Ultimately these efforts have breathed new life into a wine once deemed as no more than plonk.
The upside for the wine drinker is that these higher-quality wines are still low-priced. Sure, they’re priced higher than the few bucks per bottle consumers once paid, but you can find these new, dynamic, and very interesting wines for around $20 a bottle, sometimes less.
While you can still get that easy-drinking fizzy style of Vinho Verde, according to certified sommelier and Vinho Verde expert Bruno Almeida, “there is such diversity of terroir in the region, it’s great that winemakers can express the classic style, but it’s super exciting there are now producers willing to bring oak aging, single plot, and terroir-driven wines. It’s great to have a wide range of possibilities from a wine region that has so much history.”
The Rising Tide of Vinho Verde
You may not have heard of many of the grape varieties used in Portuguese wine, many of which aren’t grown anywhere else in the world. I like to say “Don’t worry about the variety, it’s Portuguese and delicious.” And while that’s true, there are a few grapes in Vinho Verde that you ought to know about.
While the DOC allows up to nineteen different grape varieties to be used in white Vinho Verde wines, two that are interesting enough to be made as varietals (wines made from a single grape variety) are Alvarinho and Loureiro. Rather than looking for specific labels, you might try to look for wines made from these two grapes.
Alvarinho—You may have heard this grape called Albariño, which is commonly used in nearby Rias Baixas, Spain, to make the varietal wine of the grape’s name. In Vinho Verde, we find the grape bearing the Portuguese name Alvarinho. This grape yields wines that are pale to straw yellow with aromas of peach, banana and tropical fruits. These wines are fuller in body, with hints of minerality. Today, some wine makers are barrel-aging this varietal and producing outstanding results.
Loureiro—This grape produces wines that are pale to straw yellow in color, but with aromas of lemon, tart green apple, and the distinct floral note of rosé and jasmine. On the palate, it also can show flavors of papaya and other tropical fruits. As it evolves, flavors of honey and beeswax also surface.
These two are only a sample of the varieties used in Vinho Verde. But others are worth exploring, and at the typically low price of these wines, I highly recommend you dig deeper.
If you’re looking for an alternative to rosé, head to the Portuguese section of your local wine shop and try a Vinho Verde. It’s sure to be fresh and delicious, and a perfect summer sip.