In a previous life – but on the same planet, or just about – when I worked for a private bank in Geneva, I had a colleague who was from Portugal. One day she started talking to me about the wines from her country. “Portugal makes a famous green wine”, she told me excitedly, “and it’s called Vinho Verde”. “The wine is so called because it is quite green in colour and is made from small unripe green berries”, she continued emphatically. I was going to question her but thought the better of it… I was quite surprised that she could think that green unripe berries would result in a beverage one would actually want to drink. Her words, nevertheless, left a lasting impression and Vinho Verde was never to be forgotten by me.
Vinho Verde is a region in the north-west of Portugal. It is bordered by the River Minho to the north, mountains below the River Douro to the south, the Atlantic to the west and a mountain range to the east. It is a pretty, verdant region, criss-crossed by lots of rivers. The soil is mainly granitic with sand towards the Atlantic and sediment in proximity to the rivers. The climate is very similar to that of neighbouring Galicia, in Spain. Winters are cold and rainy, summers hot and dry. Rainfall is quite high (1200 mm/per year) but it is concentrated between the months of October to April and thus does not affect most of the growing period nor harvest time.
Wines from the region can be labelled under the Vinho Verde Denominação de Origem Protegida (DOP) or, if they don’t meet the criteria, under the Minho Indicação Geográfica Protegida (IGP). The Vinho Verde DOP is the most commonly seen on labels and covers ninety percent of the region’s production. Under the new EU labelling laws DOP has replaced Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) and IGP has replaced the Vinho Regional (VR) but the old terminology is still widely used in Portugal.
If Vinho Verde does literally translate as green wine, the word ”green” is to be understood as “young” which is how the wines from the region have traditionally been enjoyed. Today Vinho Verde is famed for its white wines and these are fresh, fruity, aromatic, light in body, low in alcohol, often slightly sweet and with a fizz. Occasionally there is no indication of vintage as the bottle can contain a mix of wines from different years. These wines are perfect as an apéritif or as an accompaniment to seafood. The majority of Vinho Verde is white (84%) though some rosé and red is also produced i.e. 6% and 10% respectively. The vineyard surface only amounts to 21’000 ha – a little less than 10% of the country’s total surface (224’000 ha), but it accounts for 40% of Portugal’s exports, which are increasing (2014 figures from the CVRVV).
Many Vinho Verde white wines are blends of native Portuguese varieties, and the classic one is a mix of Loureiro (60%), Arinto (20%) and Trajadura (20%). Loureiro is the most planted white grape variety producing wines with fresh floral and fruity aromatics and refreshing acidity. It grows by the coast and in the sub-region of Lima where it originates from. Its Portuguese name “Loureiro” translates as laurel and one of its distinctive features is its aroma of bay leaves. Avesso is another interesting indigenous white variety that is found in white blends mainly in the southern part of the region. The best recognised white variety from north-west Portugal, however, is undoubtedly Alvarinho. It is grown in the sub-region of Monção e Melgaço, which borders Spain. This is in fact the same grape variety that is known in Spanish as Albarino and which produces some of Spain’s best white wines, notably from Rías Baixas. In Portugal Alvarinho is commonly blended with Loureiro and Trajadura and also made as a single varietal wine. Single varietal Monção e Melgaço Alvarinhos tend to be weightier in style, more alcoholic and more expensive than traditional Vinho Verdes. Proponents of the grape variety include winemaker Anselmo Mendes, and Luis Cerdeira, cellarmaster at Quinta de Soalheiro. Both make a range of Alvarinhos and believe in the ageing potential of the grape variety. Their pursuit of expression is achieved through such means as fermentation on skins, fermentation in oak barrel, lees contact and bâtonnage.
1. Casal de Ventozela, Espadeiro 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (11.5% alc.)
This Vinho Verde is a rosé, made from the indigenous dark skinned Espadeiro. It is the variety that is commonly used for rosé but it also makes light red wine in the region.
Light pink in colour, fresh, peachy, floral, with a slight fizz, zingy acidity, red fruit and a little sweetness on the finish.
2. Solar de Serrade, Alvarinho 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (13% alc.)
The winery is located in the subregion of Monção e Melgaço, where Alvarinho finds its best expression. Alvarinhos from this subregion are often richer in style and higher in alcohol than the average Vinho Verde. Standard Vinho Verde wines usually range between 8% to 11.5% alcohol.
Pale lemon green, a bright clean nose with wafts of pears and sweet sherbet. Light in body, with a high acidity this aromatic wine has flavours of pears and white peach with a touch of the grape’s signature bitterness.
3. Quinta da Lixa, Alvarinho, Loureiro, Trajadura Escolha 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (11.5% alc.)
A classic Vinho Verde blend of three grape varieties. The wine is light, elegant, perfumed and fresh. A light fizz and a swirl of pears, peaches and nectarines tailing off nicely to a wet stone finish.
4. Casa Senhorial do Reguengo, Tinto Bruto, 2014, Basto, Portugal
Not what one might expect today from the Vinho Verde region: a sparkling (“espumante”) red wine. Nevertheless, this wine is a typical example of traditional winemaking from the region. Vinho Verde used to mainly produce red wines in a dry and fizzy style with native red varieties such as Vinhão, Padeiro and Espadeiro. It is only in the last thirty years or so that the region has shifted the focus of its production to light white wine, often with some residual sugar and a naturally occurring fizz.
The wine has deep damson-coloured legs, its nose is milky, savoury and grapey with notes of balsamic vinegar. On the palate its bubbles are suffused with light red fruit, muscat grape and hints of marmite. The predominant grape variety is here the teinturier Vinhão from the Basto subregion.
5. Casa Santa Eulália, Plainas Branco 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (11.5% alc.)
Located close to Vila Real, Casa Santa Eulália’s Plainas is a white blend from the Azal and Arinto grape varieties. Santa Eulália, with their consultant Anselmo Mendes, produces an exciting palette of wines from the other Portuguese grape varieties of the region. Plainas is their classic range.
Refreshing yet not overly acidic, this pale lemon-green wine enchants with its softness and flavours of citrus, apple, pears, white peach and white blossom.
6. Caves Campelo, Tapada do Marquês, Alvarinho 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (12.5% alc.)
The wine is labelled as an Alvarinho from the subregion of Monção e Melgaço. The winery itself is based south of the Cavado River and makes a range of wines covering other regions of Portugal.
A light Alvarinho, quite fizzy with fairly high acidity. Pears, boiled sweets and citrus fruit.
7. Adega, Ponte de Lima, Loureiro, Colheita Seleccionada 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (11.5% alc.)
Sweet, fragrant nose, aromas of white flowers, hawthorn, ripe pears and citrus over good acidity, minerality and a prickle.
NB. All above-mentioned wines were tasted in March 2016 at the Vinho Verde Wine Day in Stockholm, Sweden.
Aveleda, Casal Garcia, Vinho Verde, Portugal (8.5% alc.)
(57 SEK, SB 2596)
Anselmo Mendes, Alvarinho Contacto 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal (13% alc.)
(119 SEK, SB 6707)
Pictured above are two of the three white Portuguese wines on the shelves of my local Systembolaget wine shop in central Stockholm, Sweden. These wines are in contrasting style. The Casal Garcia at the low price of 57 SEK and with no indication of vintage is a blend. It is light, frothy, high in acidity with some citrusy notes. It is apparently the biggest selling Vinho Verde. According to Aveleda’s website the Frenchman Denis Dubourdieu has been their consultant winemaker on this wine. Probably not in his remit, but he should have told them to drop the cheap, non carbon-friendly plastic box…
The Alvarinho Contacto, made as the name suggests, by leaving the juice in contact with grape skins for a period of time, is richer both in texture and in aroma whilst retaining lightness of being. Pear, melon, apricot, white peach, with some salinity, good acidity and bitter citrus. At SEK 119 it is a steal and a definite summertime staple.