“The greatest excitement in Vinho Verde today is how it has really come into its own as a more serious wine category,” says wine expert and Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein, “and is no longer the domain of just the spritzy, off-dry, forgotten bottles”.
Long saddled with a reputation for cheap and cheerful, slightly effervescent white wines, the Portuguese region of Vinho Verde is increasingly filled with diverse wine gems that break the stereotype completely.
A green region with multicolored wines
Vinho Verde, despite the common misconception, is so named for the verdant valley itself, rather than the leaner, greener styles of wine it became famous for. The Minho valley is a lush green river valley with more rainfall than anywhere else in Portugal, about 60 inches a year, on par with its Spanish neighbor Galicia.
In this cool, coastal climate, 40,000 acres of vines grow on mainly granite soils, where high acidity comes naturally and high sugars or alcohol are a struggle. That’s why refreshing, low alcohol at 9.5%, slightly spritzy wines are easy to produce, and they shot to fame in the ‘80s. Most notably of all, it was Aveleda’s Casal Garcia: an off-dry, gently effervescent wine that remains the world’s best-selling Vinho Verde, producing a whopping 15 million bottles a year. But Vinho Verde has always been so much more than that.
Historically, in fact, the region was better known for its red wines, which dominated until the 1970s. And these fresh red Vinho Verde wines are due a comeback. “Everyone thinks that Vinho Verde is focused around white wine, but in recent years growers such as Aphros or Márcio Lopes have been rediscovering the region’s traditional red grapes,” says Simon J. Woolf, author of Foot Trodden: Portugal and the Wines That Time Forgot, with Ryan Opaz. “Expect to see more of varieties such as Vinhão, Cainho, Alvarelhão, or Pedral. They’re all capable of producing very fresh and fruity wines, but with quite individual personalities and flavors. These super lightweight and sometimes rather pale colored reds were hardly in fashion a decade or so ago, but now there is a global audience that really appreciates this more delicate style.”
“Expect to see more of varieties such as Vinhão, Cainho, Alvarelhão, or Pedral. They’re all capable of producing very fresh and fruity wines, but with quite individual personalities and flavors. These super lightweight and sometimes rather pale colored reds were hardly in fashion a decade or so ago, but now there is a global audience that really appreciates this more delicate style.”
The upper tier
White wines are also making their mark in the new identity of top quality Vinho Verde. The traditional white varieties — Alvarinho, Arinto, Azal, Avesso, Loureiro, and Trajadura — are carving their own identity now for serious single variety wines with Alvarinho, also known by its Spanish moniker Albariño, rising to the fore.
“Single variety Vinho Verdes are impressive, and not just those from Alvarinho,” adds Evan Goldstein MS. “Some of the deftly oak aged, or heavily skin contacted examples have stood out as both innovative and game changing.” He says that while Soalheiro, Anselmo Mendes and Adega de Monção stand out, there are several other producers who do a great job, particularly when it comes to value, like Aveleda. “The fact that there are so many solid producers, brands, and styles increasingly available to consumers and the trade makes this category a go-to for people looking for refreshing whites that pair with a panoply of global dishes.”
Bright acidity, low alcohol, and fresh fruit flavors make these ideal food pairing wines, especially with Portugal’s diverse culinary offering. And Vinho Verde’s versatility on the table is increasing even further with the new wave of sparkling wines. From Sem Igual’s Baga and Touriga Nacional rosé pet-nat to Soalheiro’s barrel-aged, traditional-method, sparkling Alvarinho, innovation is bubbling over in Vinho Verde. And that’s not even to mention the growing legion of orange wine producers, or those using amphorae for aging, or the emerging trend for complex, non-vintage blends.
“Unfortunately for many decades, people talked about Vinho Verde as just one type of wine,” says winemaker Anselmo Mendes, known for his bone-dry, mineral Alvarinho wines, which earned him the nickname Mr. Alvarinho, as well as other single variety white, red, orange, and sparkling Vinho Verde wines. “But all the wines made in a wine region are unique. Vinho Verde is just a denomination of origin where there exists a great diversity of wines, with a great capacity to age.”
Vinho Verde’s incredible natural acidity means they can cellar for decades. “It’s one of our warming planet’s last true cool climate wine regions,” adds Woolf. “Also, because the region is still a bit of an insider tip when it comes to high quality wine, value for money is often outstanding.”
Although with the rising tide of appreciation for the b-side of Vinho Verde, the secret might already be out.
3 Vinho Verde wines to try:
Anselmo Mendes’ top wines are some of the most age-worthy Vinho Verdes out there, but start the journey up the scale with Contacto: a creamy, skin contact Alvarinho with floral and spice notes. It will cellar nicely for a decade — even with its bargain price tag.