About three years ago I had the good fortune of being able to travel on a most-expenses-paid trip to Portugal to visit its wine regions. Although only one-fifth the size of California, Portugal produces half as much wine, meaning that tiny country is virtually wall-to-wall with vineyards and wineries, grape growers and vintners. Its unique, isolated history on the edge of Europe and relative poverty for much of the 20th Century meant that Portugal’s unique wine industry remained largely intact and highly regional while other nations globalized, internationalized, and standardized their wine making styles.
The highlight of a trip made up entirely of highlights, was a visit on a rainy summer’s day to the northernmost edge of the country, to a region called Vinho Verde.
That’s right, I said a region. Although the name means “Green Wine,” that is also the name of the Portuguese D.O.C. (Denominação de Origem Controlada, somewhat similar to the American A.V.A. or American Viticultural Area) where these wines are made. Driving north from Porto, green, rolling plains slowly rise until they hit the low granite mountains that abut the Minho River. The river forms the border between Portugal and the Spanish province of Galicia. This cool, foggy region region is home to, to my mind, the absolute best summertime wine that world viticulture produces.
Vinho Verde (pronounced with a hard “d” and no Spanish accented “e”) does produce small amounts of red and rose wine, but white wine predominates. Made with local grapes Arinto, Loureiro, and Trajadura in blends of roughly equal parts, the wines are light, crisp, sometimes ever-so-slightly sweet, and are typically bottled with a touch of carbonation to give them a fun fizz.
As you get closer to the Minho, you start to find a more serious style of Vinho Verde made primarily from the Alvarinho grape (which is the same grape as Albarino across the border in Rias Baixas) and a small handful of these wines are made in a style meant to be aged in the same way as a good German or Austrian Riesling or White Burgundy and I consider these wines to be of the same caliber as those other esteemed white wines. That being said, nearly all Vinho Verde is meant to be drunk young–in the current vintage of bottling, ideally within the first six months of release–so have no qualms about cranking through bottle after bottle all spring and summer long.
Steer clear of very cheap Vinho Verde–some bottles can be had for $4 or less–and instead look for ones in the $7-$10 retail range. Also, make sure you look for vintage-dated Vinho Verde (current releases are 2013 vintage), as most undated Vinho Verdes are bulk-produced and there’s no clear way of knowing how fresh the juice in the bottle is. For $15-$20 you can find an Alvarinho-dominant Vinho Verde from the northern subregions of Moncao and Melgaco which retain the refreshing crispness of the plural blends but bring a bit more seriousness and depth and can easily hold their own against their Spanish neighbors.
As always, please shop at your friendly neighborhood wine shop if you can–they should all have a couple Vinho Verdes on offering for most of the summer–but if you’re in a pinch, large chains like BevMo, Total, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods all carry more than acceptable selections as well. Grab a case to enjoy while watching your favorite Lusophones battle it out in the World Cup later this month.