The most satisfying glass of wine I enjoyed in the past six months cost me a pittance and would likely draw snorts from big-game wine collectors. Heck, it wasn’t even red or old. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not ashamed to admit it: It was a Vinho Verde.
No wine says unpretentious like Vinho Verde (unless you consider Manischewitz a wine). It’s the quintessence of cheap and cheerful, northern Portugal’s gift to people who would rather drink than think on a hot summer’s day. Usually light in body and traditionally distinguished by low alcohol and subtle spritz, it is one of Portugal’s best-known traditional exports, along with port and an iconic little rosé called Mateus, which could be considered a wine category unto itself.
The name Vinho Verde, which refers to an appellation in the former province of Minho, across the border from Spain, literally means “green wine” but the more precise translation is “young wine.” That’s a reference to the fact it’s bottled soon after harvest, within three to six months, and is intended for early consumption. That quick-to-market imperative is in fact what produces the subtle carbonation. While other wines may undergo malolactic fermentation as they rest for months in large tanks or barrels following primary alcoholic fermentation, liberating carbon dioxide in the process, Vinho Verde often undergoes malolactic in bottle. The gas gets trapped until the cork or screw cap is removed.
Sadly, I can no longer recall my delicious wine’s exact name. Nor can I quote the precise retail price. That’s because it’s not available in Canada. I drank it on a rickety table set out on a narrow cobblestone street near the top of a hill at a terrific out-of-the-way restaurant named Arcada Comes e Bebes in the city of Coimbra, Portugal, while travelling from Lisbon to Oporto as part of The Globe and Mail’s first Douro river cruise last April. (I’ll be co-hosting a second Portugal cruise in a few weeks.) My receipt shows I paid €4 for the glass – roughly $6 – which is dirt cheap to me, if not rock bottom by Portuguese standards.
To be fair, it was not the best wine I’ve had in the past six months – at least not in the clinical point-scoring sense. That distinction probably goes to a 2010 Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. But good Vinho Verde is the right wine at the right time when you’re panting like a hound in the heat. Mine was so moderate in alcohol that I gleefully inhaled almost the entire pour before my cod-and-chickpea stew arrived. A regal red Bordeaux, by contrast, would have been baked into submission and become a shadow of itself in the sunshine.
And yet, I anticipated mine would be a particularly refined Vinho Verde. It was not on the tiny Arcada wine list, but had been recommended by the waiter after he discovered the wine I wanted was out of stock. “I’ll give it to you for the same price,” he said, offering to leave it off the bill if it didn’t rock my world. “Bring it on!” I said, never being one to decline discounted (or potentially free) booze.
Crucially, its front label bore the word “alvarinho.” That’s the name of the leading grape in the Minho region as well as Galicia in Spain, and it’s arguably the best of the 47 white and red varieties permitted in the Vinho Verde region (yes, 14 per cent of Vinho Verde production is either red or rosé). The other fine grapes include arinto, avesso, azal, loureiro and trajadura. By contrast, the cheapest wines of the region, costing $9 to $12 in Canada, generally are blended from multiple, lesser varieties that never get explicit billing (which is not to say they can’t be delectably refreshing).
As my fine green wine proved to me, Vinho Verde is moving up in the world. Historically, farmers in Minho focused mainly on growing grains and vegetables. They grew grapes only secondarily, training the vines to grow overhead in pergolas, like the huge vine growing above my neighbour’s porch, so as to spare the real estate below for corn and other crops. The grape bunches that dangled below the pergola canopy rarely achieved full ripeness because of the shadowy conditions, so farmers would leave natural fruit sugar in the wine to counterbalance its high acidity. An accidental, easy-to-guzzle style was born.
Then came 1986. Following the demise of decades of autocratic rule, Portugal entered the European Union, which ushered in a period of agricultural subsidies and freed-up investment. A growing number of producers began to compete in international markets. Quality, not quantity, became the new mantra.
Today, the finest Vinho Verdes are grown lower to the ground, on regular, waist-high trellises. They also mainly steer clear of spritz, for better or worse (I love the spritz). Prices, while still generally low, have begun to creep beyond $20. And I can attest that some of the best Vinho Verdes ever produced have yet to reach the marketplace.
While in Portugal, I sat down with Antonio Guedes, a fifth-generation member of the family that owns Aveleda, the most prominent winery in the region. He poured me several experimental bottlings based on select grape varieties from densely planted vineyards designed to yield much less – and therefore more concentrated – fruit per vine. A couple of them called to mind good Chablis or dry riesling for their complexity and mineral-like verve. Guedes couldn’t say when they’d be released or to which markets they would be exported. In fact, he wasn’t yet sure whether to label the wines “Vinho Verde” or the more generic “Vinho Regional Minho” so as to avoid the cheap-wine stigma.
Vinho Verde may not yet be as fashionable as rosé, or as chic as “natural” or “orange” wines these days, but it certainly is trending. Global exports jumped to 27.3 million litres in 2018, from 22.6 million in 2014, according to the Vinho Verde Region Viticulture Commission. At least in the summer heat, green would seem to have a rosy future.
Bottles to try
Quinta da Raza Alvarinho Trajadura Vinho Verde Grande Escolha 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.35
Grande escolha essentially means “grand selection,” implying that the grapes were hand selected and sorted to create a top cuvée. This tastes remarkably similar to a wine I thoroughly enjoyed at a restaurant in Coimbra this year on a gloriously sunny spring day. Medium-bodied, with a vaguely crackling effervescence, it offers flavours of lemon and pear, and a zesty, sour-candy lift despite its obvious ripeness. The liquid almost seems like it’s levitating above the glass. Available only in Quebec, sadly.
Quinta da Lixa Aromas das Castas 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $16.80
The “subtitle” to this wine is “Vinho Verde Grande Escolha Alvarinho Loureiro,” the latter two words referring to the premier grapes in the blend. Round, plump and energetic, this minerally white serves up a sensation of ripe stone fruits served on a hot stone slab. One could pay $40 for a Chablis with this kind of minerality and verve, or $20-plus for an alvarinho/albarino from Rias Baixas over the border in Spain. But why? Available in Quebec.
Aromas4U Alvarinho Vinho Regional Minho Edicao Limitada 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.55
On the heavier side of medium-bodied, it’s delectably oily, ripe and tangy – all at the same time. An abundance of orchard-fruit flavour is carried on good weight with great length. There’s also a touch of nutty tang here reminiscent of, say, a four-year-old Chablis. It hails from the Vinho Verde appellation, but the producer opted to classify this as a “Vinho Regional Minho,” referring to Portugal’s northern province, distinguishing it from more pedestrian Vinho Verde blends. Available for direct shipping to local LCBO stores in Ontario or at the LCBO’s Portugal destination store in Toronto’s Stockyards neighbourhood.
Covela Edicao Nacional Avesso 2016 (Portugal)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Grown at the southern border of the Vinho Verde region, where it overlooks the Douro river. Medium-bodied, with good flesh, this white shows notes of pear and peach, with stone dust, lemon and herbs. Excellent wine for the money. Available in Ontario.
Casal de Ventozela Vinho Verde Branco 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Light-bodied yet round and fully ripe. This is wine with a smiley face, silky, spritzy and juicy, with tropical fruit and citrus characters. Perfect balance. Available in Ontario at the above price. Big bargain.
Aveleda Vinho Verde 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $11.45
Aveleda makes several Vinho Verdes. This is the one in the tall, narrow, Alsatian-style bottle. Light and off-dry, with a rounded profile and faint spritz. The bottle itself makes the wine appear light green because of the label’s reflection, but it’s pale-straw in the glass. Rounded, with an apple-like flavour and lively acidity. Slightly sweet but well-balanced and very easy to sip, especially at a mere 9.5-per-cent alcohol content. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $12.04 in Manitoba, $10.95 in Quebec.
Casal Garcia Vinho Verde (Portugal)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $9.95
Very light, at just 9.5-per-cent alcohol content, and very bright, with the right level of classic Vinho Verde spritz. Typically a wine of such low alcoholic strength, such as many German rieslings, would be pretty sugary. Yet this one, despite an undeniably sweet core, finishes dry, at a moderate 11 grams a litre of residual sugar. The fresh acidity brings it all into balance. It’s like a lemony spritzer, only not as watery or aggressively effervescent. Don’t write it off until you’ve had a cold glass on a hot, sunny day. This wine makes me want to own an outdoor pool. Available in Ontario at the above price, $11.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $11.15 in Saskatchewan.
Join wine critic Beppi Crosariol and other Globe and Mail journalists, including culinary host Tara O’Brady, European bureau chief Eric Reguly and writer-at-large John Ibbitson, this July aboard The Globe’s second Portugal Cruise of 2019. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.