As the weather warms up, you may find yourself walking into a wine shop and instinctively grabbing for a tall, thin bottle, tinted green and sealed with a screw top, anticipating the satisfaction of the light, bubbly, crisp white wine known as Vinho Verde.
On a summer afternoon, it’s really the perfect drink, and can take you into the evening by becoming a fantastic dinner wine. Although Vinho Verde’s popularity in the last decade has surged, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about this affordable and versatile wine. In fact, there’s far more to Vinho Verde than a little spritz — and Portuguese wine culture in general is full of history and intrigue. Surprise your friends at the next barbecue by serving them some knowledge about Vinho Verde as you fill their glasses with the wine.
What is Vinho Verde?
“Vinho Verde” is not a grape, or a blend: It’s a region. In the lush, green, rolling hills of northern Portugal, dotted with the orange rooftops of family households, is the region where Vinho Verde wine is produced. Although there are several origin stories behind its name, including the idea that it is harvested early and should be drunk young, many people in the region suggest that the name comes from the verdant natural setting.
Comprised of nine sub-regions in the Douro Valley, each with unique micro-climates but generally dominated by granitic soils, the Vinho Verde wine region starts just below the Portuguese-Spanish border, and extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, where it meets with the city of Port (where most port wine is made). The region is also fairly wet and rainy, as two rivers run through it, the Douro and Minho.
The wines we see in the U.S. from Vinho Verde are typically blends of white grapes that are indigenous to Portugal. You’ll also find some nice rosés made from the red grape Touriga Nacional in the U.S., from the Vinho Verde region.
Portuguese Culture Is Virtually Synonymous With Winemaking
When the Romans arrived in Portugal around 2,000 years ago, people were already making fermented drinks. Wine in Portugal is part of daily life, and many families have a small plot of land where they grow grapes alongside vegetables and citrus trees. All over the Vinho Verde region, you’ll see grapevines hung in the beautiful Pergola style, draped high above where the cool breeze protects them from moisture and mold, arranged in a square around a family or neighborhood garden.
In recent decades, the European Union has funded the modernization of Portugal’s vineyards, so the commercial producers have upgraded their trellising systems. But the traditional style of grape-growing is in place in small towns all over Portugal. And here’s a fun fact: While many producers do grow the white grapes that make most of the Vinho Verde we drink stateside, it’s red wine that most Portuguese drink at home. Traditionally, they would drink it in ceramic bowls, and it’s considered an essential accompaniment to any meal. The red Vinho Verdes are difficult to find abroad, but if you travel to Portugal be sure to try them. They are often made from the grape Vinhão, which has low alcohol, medium tannins, and an inky texture with some sour flavors; you might love it or hate it, but it’s worth a taste for sure.
The Story Behind That Spritz (Hint: It Isn’t Natural)
Many of the Vinho Verde wines out there have a light fizz that can be extremely refreshing. Originally, this occurred when carbon dioxide, which is a natural byproduct of fermentation, was trapped alongside the freshly fermented wine during bottling. But these days, winemakers add it through a boost of carbon dioxide because they know that drinkers abroad have come to associate Vinho Verde with light bubbles. Because of this, the wine has become known as a sort of “soda pop for adults.” Which is totally fine, if that’s what you’re after in a wine. There’s always a time and place for “cheap and cheerful.”
But many Vinho Verde wines don’t have any spritz at all, and if you try them you’ll find that the acidity and minerality of the wines shines through even more when those bubbles aren’t present. If you see Vinho Verde in a Burgundy-shaped bottle (the rounder bottom, as opposed to the thin Bordeaux-shaped one), this is an indicator that it won’t have spritz; as well, you can ask your retailer to recommend a small-production Vinho Verde and it also will not have spritz, as it is mainly practiced by the large, cooperative bottlers that export en masse.
Single-Variety Vinho Verde Is Killer, And It Is Age-Worthy
Most Vinho Verde is a blend of white grapes, all indigenous to Portugal, but there are two predominant grapes that winemakers are starting to see as more interesting than the others: Alvarinho and Loureiro. You may be familiar with Albarinho, a different spelling but essentially still the same grape, from northern Spain. In Spain, Albarinho tends to be somewhat rounder and softer than its Portuguese counterpart. Alvarinho displays tropical aromas and an overall lemony character and is high in acidity; Loureiro is more floral, and also acidic.
Many winemakers in the Vinho Verde region have begun making single-varietal Alvarinho and Loureiro, with very good results. It turns out that these wines age very well, and respond nicely to oak aging, developing complexity and character. But it’s very hard to find these wines on the market. Here’s why: The image of Vinho Verde as a young wine has caused importers to pressure Portuguese producers to deliver wines as soon as they are bottled, in early spring. They don’t really get the chance to hold their wines back. Perhaps this will change in coming years, but in the meantime, if you visit Portugal, be sure to look for aged Alvarinho and Loureiro wines.
There Is Organic And Biodynamic Vinho Verde
Organic viticulture is not easy in humid climates like northern Portugal, but some commercial wine producers there have managed to do it, and a few are even biodynamic. Organic wine is made without pesticides or non-natural fertilizers, and biodynamic wine takes this even further by implementing a holistic farming system that nurtures the grapevines with local herbs and forbids the use of industrial yeasts; both approaches tend to produce very alive wine that it definitely worth exploring if you’ve never tried it. For organic Vinho Verde, look for the producer Casa de Mouraz; a wonderful biodynamic producer to try is Aphros Wine. Large brands like Arca Nova are also starting to experiment with organic Vinho Verde.
Compared to Other Wines, Vinho Verde Is a Bargain
The average bottle of Vinho Verde, from any one of the main producers, will be around $10 at your local retailer. It’s a wine for drinking anytime. And if you want to try one of the biodynamic or single-varietal Vinho Verde wines, it still won’t cost you much more than $18–$20. Why so cheap? Portugal’s economy has suffered from the global downturn more than any other Western European nation, so land and labor prices are relatively low. But on a positive note, all of the recent investment in the wine industry, and the rise in Vinho Verde’s popularity abroad, could provide a boost to the nation, providing jobs and improving prospects for the future.
Vinho Verde Pairs Well With Food
All over Portugal, seafood is the dominant cuisine, particularly the meaty white fish bacalao (cod). One of the most typical regional dishes is creamy rice with hunks of cod or monkfish, or shrimp. White Vinho Verde is high in acidity, which makes it ideal for pairing with all forms of seafood, particularly when complemented by a rich sauce or a coating of fried breadcrumbs; pork and potato dishes are also quite common. The fact is, Vinho Verde is great by itself, but if you are looking for an affordable white wine that’s delicious with light foods and all manner of sea creatures, you’ll definitely have a perfect pairing with this crisp, bright juice.