A look at the wines from Portugal’s Vinho Verde region.
By Louis Marmon
Gazette Newspapers March 25, 2009
A search for food-friendly, value-priced quality wines leads directly to the white wines of Portugal’s Vinho Verde region. Translated as “green wines,” and pronounced “veen-yo vehrd,” their name is not derived from their standard yellow to golden color. They are called “green” because they need to be consumed young while still fresh with bright flavors. The name also could be a consequence of the lush, verdant countryside that extends north and west from the city of Porto along the Costa Verde toward the border with Spain.
The region is bowl shaped with a large opening toward the Atlantic Ocean and crossed by several rivers. The maritime influences are not mediated by mountain ranges like other areas of Portugal. The nine sub-regions are very moist, which predisposes the vines to rot and fungus. Over the centuries, local farmers have developed unique trellising methods to encourage air circulation to reduce the risk of crop loss. While more modern techniques have become standard, especially at the larger producers, vines still grow along wires stretched between trees or interlaced among the branches, requiring long ladders for harvest. Another sight is left over from the 16th century when the vines were segregated to tall frames along the periphery of fields to allow the planting of food crops in the middle.
Records suggest that wine has been produced in Vinho Verde since Roman times and has been exported nearly as long. One producer proudly displays a certificate his family estate won at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition celebrating the U.S. Centennial. Currently only 11 percent leaves Portugal, but that figure is expected to increase dramatically in no small part due to the adoption of screw-cap closures that assure the stability of the wines during transit.
Besides their crisp acidity and vivid fruit flavors, the Vinho Verde wines also have a bit of fizz. Before the advent of modern winemaking techniques, the wines would all undergo a slight secondary fermentation in the bottle and the locals consider any Vinho Verde without carbonation to be flawed. Believing this later fermentation adversely affects the flavor of the white wines, many winemakers prefer to add 1 millibar of carbon dioxide directly. The resulting occasional bubble adds to the lightness on the palate.
Both white and red varietals are planted in Vinho Verde, but the reds, which are rustic and can appear as dense as beet borscht, are not yet ready for prime time. The whites are much better; true bargains, they range in price from $6 to $10. They are a perfect accompaniment to shellfish, mild cheese, fruit, pasta, salads and other summer fare. Local regulations permit planting of 25 different white varietals with seven “recommended.” Many of the white wines sold are blends, although many of the 100 percent single varietals are also quite good. Popular varietals include Alvarinho, which can exhibit peach, lemon and tropical fruit flavors; the more aromatic and fuller-bodied Loureiro, with melon and floral flavors; the green apple and citrus flavored Azal, and the less acidic, peach and apple flavored Trajadura.
At these prices, it is worth trying several to find a style to enjoy. Producers to look for include Quinta Arcas, Adega, Hotel do Reguengo de Melgaco, Aveleda, Borges, Sogrape, Sezin, Montez, Casa Valle, Quintas Melgaco, Enoport and Alianca. Wisely, the Vinho Verde producers have instituted a system to help consumers unfamiliar with Portuguese identify these wines by placing an easily recognized circular symbol on every label along with a vintage date.