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Alex Ulreich

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Vinho Verde: Portugal’s Lively, Youthful, Super Cheap Wine

Five new bottles to try

About the verde, or green, in Vinho Verde: this wine-making region in the north of Portugal boasts a particularly verdant landscape in an otherwise mostly arid nation; wine here was once made from underripe grapes; many Vinhos Verdes are the color of barely ripe lemons. Mostly, though, that verde is a tipoff that these wines are the opposite of aged. In white, rosé, or red, Vinho Verde is Portugal’s great picnic wine, made for drinking young. But lately the region has been taking itself more seriously, producing wines with greater complexity and, in some cases, even age-worthiness, while remaining true to the area’s youthful, elegant style perfect for warmer weather.

Founded by Celtic settlers more than 2,000 years ago, this northwestern corner of Portugal has viticultural roots that stretch back to ancient Rome. Vinho Verde became a demarcated zone in 1908, making it what is now called a Denominação de Origem Protegida, or DOP wine, its geographical boundaries identical to the Minho region, its grape-growing and wine-production methods restricted in order to ensure a recognizable Vinho Verde style. Often thought of in terms of fresh, grassy white wines, Vinho Verde is, in fact, home to rosados (rosé) and reds as well, all of which have a basic brightness and easy drinkability. Within those parameters, there is much room to play. And the region’s diversity—a medley of grape varieties, vineyard soils that range from mostly granite to bands of schist, and a climate that runs from wet and cool by the bordering Atlantic to warmer, drier inland areas cooled by river-guided ocean breezes—is increasingly reflected in what is being made there these days. Once marketed as under-$10 bottles in one simple white style, Vinhos Verdes now extend from exquisitely blended wines to single-varietal finds, from bone-dry to bottles with varying touches of sweetness. Many, but not all, gently sparkle. Flavors are variations upon color-based themes—citrus-y whites, strawberry-noted rosados, intensely berried reds—all fresh and young and excellent with food.

Portugal is famed for its hundreds of indigenous grapes, most rarely, if ever, planted in other parts of the world. And the Minho region is no exception. It is one of the world’s oldest continuous wine regions, with ties to the British market first recorded in the 12th century, with wines that would be recognizable as Vinho Verde making extensive appearances on the British market during the 19th century. Until the 1980s, Vinho Verde wines tended to be redmade from grapes like azal, vinhão, and espadeiroyielding tart, dry, rustic, and slightly sparkling juice. Then, the region’s whites, often made in a low-alcohol, high-acidity style braced by gentle fizz and sweetness, took over.

Once marketed as under-$10 bottles, Vinhos Verdes now extend from exquisitely blended wines to single-varietal finds.

Among the many native grape varieties in the Vinho Verde zone, there are 15 that producers generally turn to for making the highest quality wines. Most are grown in the backyard-size vineyards—about 29,000 of them—that make up the viticultural area’s more than 51,000 acres of vines. Much of the cultivable land in Minho was once wrapped in grapevines trained to climb stakes, telephone poles, or wallsaway from earth made cool and damp by the rain and winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, to escape the threat of grey rot.

Basic Vinho Verde wine is crafted throughout Minho and must clock in between 8 and 11.5 percent alcohol, but there are nine Vinho Verde subregions carved out from that land that offer more terroir-specific characteristics, including permission to tout up to 14 percent alcohol. Starting in the north, at the Minho River that separates Portugal from Spain, Monção e Melgaço is known for alvarinho wines with higher alcohol, quality, and price. Southward, along the Lima River, lemony floral blends of loureiro, trajadura, and arinto grapes take over in the Lima, Cávado, and Ave subregions. Avesso grape–based whites crop up in Amarante and Balão, in both crisp and, further inland, fuller-bodied styles. Meanwhile, fruity, rustic rosados and reds from red grapes like vinhão, borraçal, and alvarelhão are found in more southern subregions like Paiva. Many of these wines are blends, but there are single-varietal exceptions, most famously alvarinho—which is labeled Vinho Verde DOP only when grown and vinified in Monção e Melgaço, where the grape originated. But the loureiro, avesso, and arinto grapes are also capable of becoming quality varietal white wines, while the vinhão grape can produce intriguing reds. Wines that are made here without adhering to Vinho Verde regulation are labeled Minho IGP (Indicação Geográfica Protegida), an appellation that acts as a catchall for misbehaving bottles, some of which can offer fantastic value.

Below, five picks for getting a serious, yet budget-friendly taste of Vinho Verde, thirst-quenching wines for a more luxurious picnic.

Vinho Verde Bottles to Try

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: Anselmo Mendes
Wine: Vinho Verde, Alvarinho, "Contacto," 2014
From: Minho, Portugal
Retail: $20

Made in Monção e Melgaço, the appellation’s northernmost subregion, this white Vinho Verde is all alvarinho, the acacia-scented grape traditional to this area that makes some of the region’s most complex and longest-lasting wines. Anselmo Mendes is one of Monção’s top producers, mixing his legacy as the son of a local grower with a flair for experimentation. For this bottle, he turned to a red winemaking process, leaving the grape skins in the must briefly after crushing, for a touch of tannin, structure, and intense floral notes. The skin contact makes this wine age-worthy, too. With a creamy texture, and complex aromas that run from lemon juice and pith to subtly fruity citron, with tart unripe peach, bay leaves, and hay mixed in, the wine also channels a sweeping saltiness and minerality. This golden-hued Vinho Verde is built to last for up to a decade. Pair with briny shellfish, lobster, and scallops.

Producer: Aphros
Wine: Vinho Verde, Loureiro, 2014
From: Minho, Portugal
Retail: $16

This white Vinho Verde is from the subregion of Lima, which runs along the river by the same name just south of Monção e Melgaço. Here, the main white grape is loureiro, a thin-skinned, aromatic one responsible for this area’s best wines. Accordingly, this bottle is 100 percent loureiro, grown in granitic soils and fermented by native yeasts for a luscious wine with heady notes of jasmine, wild grasses, lime, and peaches. It shows a steely acidity, rounded out by a full, creamy body. Go the grilled route: vegetables, crawfish, asparagus.

Producer: Quinta de Covela
Wine: Vinho Verde, "Edição Nacional," Avesso, 2014
From: Minho, Portugal
Retail: $13

In the Baião subregion, in the region’s south, hot dry summers and cold winters indulge late-ripening grapes like avesso, the white variety native to this area that gives Baião its claim to quality wine. This single-varietal avesso wine is Covela’s first Vinho Verde, grown organically in granite-rich soils along the Douro river, then harvested by hand and fermented naturally by ambient yeasts. The avesso grape tends toward higher alcohol levels than other Vinho Verde grapes, resulting in fuller-bodied wines that beg to be served alongside food. This one displays an atypical cutting acidity, and ultimately yields a balanced, structured wine with tangy lemon and grapefruit notes, plus wisps of bitterness, peach, and sage. If hunger strikes, fried seafood croquettes or a well-herbed salad are the proper match.

Producer: Caves Campelo
Wine: Cruzeiro Minhoto, Vinho Verde, Rosado, 2014
From: Minho, Portugal
Retail: $7

A mix of three Portuguese red grapes—borraçal, azal tinto, and vinhão grown in granite soils and picked by hand—this rosé Vinho Verde combines several subregions in one wine. It likewise highlights the area’s penchant for tiny holdings (vineyards are rarely larger than 5 hectares), and well-regarded winemaking co-operatives, like Caves Campelo. Each grape variety is vinified separately, for a final blend that references older Vinho Verde styles: refreshing acidity and low alcohol, with a touch of sweetness and bubbles. Flavors of strawberry, orange, and thyme, with a steely, stony texture, make it a wine for deliciously easy drinking at aperitif time, or alongside simple Portuguese-inspired dishes like baked cod and potatoes.

Producer: Quinta da Lixa
Wine: Vinho Verde, tinto, 2015
From: Minho, Portugal
Retail: $9

This quinta—the name for winery in northern Portugal—is located in the southern, inland Amarante subregion, where hot summers and altitudes well above 100 meters allow for deeply ripened grapes, especially red ones, for which this subregion is known. The vinhão grape is a specialty here, and this red Vinho Verde translates to a frothy, violet-ruby-color wine, with fresh, deep flavors of blackberries, rosemary, candied violets and damp earth, plus bright acidity and soft tannins. It’s a mouthful: dry, refreshing, and made for sweet and savory dishes like barbecue pork, or Portuguese roasted goat.

Editor: Kat Odell

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