More than once, I’ve seen Portugal’s Vinho Verde referred to as a “cheap and cheerful” white wine for summer quaffing. To be fair, a lot of the big, widely distributed brands (think Gazela or Casal Garcia) fit this description — bright, maybe off-dry, lightly fizzy and refreshing. But Vinho Verde – which translates as “green wine” in Portuguese – is getting more serious, with more examples of non-fizzy single-variety wines. These are wines that are appropriate year-round.
Exports to the U.S. of Vinho Verde wines have risen steadily for the past four years, according to Portuguese government figures. And although the statistics don’t separate out the higher-priced wines from the “cheap and cheerful” ones, growth in the value of the wines has outpaced growth in volume, reflecting improved sales of higher-priced wines.
The Vinho Verde region is in northern Portugal, between the city of Porto and the Minho River, which forms the border with Spain’s Galicia region. Until about the 1980s, most Vinho Verde was red, but now more than 85 percent of the production is white. (There’s also a little rosé.) The whites typically are blends of grapes such as loureiro (the most widely planted), arinto and alvarinho (better known by its Spanish name, albarino).
Historically, vineyards have been small, often no more than a couple of acres. (“We are a country of growers of grapes,” says winemaker Antonio Sousa, who makes wine for several small Vinho Verde wineries. “Everyone has a garden of vines.”) The vines traditionally were trained high, on a pergola, with other crops grown beneath. Sometimes the pergolas formed a border for a field of corn, which used to be an important crop. But this system of vine training wasn’t conducive to high quality, so new plantings are on modern trellises. About 1,600 acres of the region’s 52,000 acres of vineyards are being renovated every year, according to Manuel Pinheiro, executive president of the commission that represents Vinho Verde.
The Vinho Verde region is marked by a series of east-west rivers, which leave it exposed to cool, damp weather from the Atlantic Ocean. But each of the area’s nine official subregions has its own climatic variations. Accordingly, each has grapes that perform particularly well. The best alvarinho, for example, comes from the Moncao and Melgaco subregion – which, not surprisingly, is just across the river from Galicia, where albarino thrives. Loureiro, though widespread, is particularly good around the Lima River, another northern area.
The first single-variety Vinho Verdes that started showing up here were made from alvarinho. (Alvarinho that is also labeled as Vinho Verde must be from Moncao and Melgaco; others from the region are labeled as Vinho Regional Minho.) The Anselmo Mendes winery is in Moncao; its 2015 Muros Antigos Alvarinho ($15) is creamy, with apple and apple peel flavors and a wet stone note. Winemaker Constantino Ramos notes that none of the winery’s whites are made in a spritzy style. “We are producing quite serious white wines,” he says. (In fact, the winery also produces several experimental wines, like its version of skin-fermented “orange” wine.)
The 2015 Alvarinho from Casa de Vila Nova ($20) is also from Moncao and Melgaco. The wine, which is just starting to be imported, is relatively full-bodied, with flavors of tangerine, nectarine, some floral notes, wet stone and a hint of lime peel.
As for alvarinhos with a Minho regional designation, there’s the 2015 Conde Villar Alvarinho ($17), which displays bright pear and a soft finish, and the 2015 Quinta da Lixa “Pouco Comum” Alvarinho ($15), a fleshy wine with golden apple, apple peel and wet stone notes. Quinta da Lixa also produces the 2015 “Aromas das Castas” Alvarinho-Trajadura ($14), a 50-50 blend that’s fresh and lively, with orange blossom, apple, citrus and a bare hint of sweetness.
At Aphros, the whites are made from loureiro – that variety and vinhao, a red grape, were planted on the property when Vasco Croft got there in the early 2000s. The property had been in his family since the 17th century but was semi-abandoned. Croft had an interest in wine but no formal training, and at first he worked with a consultant. “Some people go to enology school and then spend time trying to forget everything,” Croft says.
Croft, who farms biodynamically, makes a range of wines from loureiro, including a pet-nat, a traditional-method sparkling and one made with skin contact, in addition to more traditional wines. (“In 2010, I was making two kinds of wine, one red, one white. It was boring,” Croft says.)
You won’t find the more experimental wines in the States, but the 2014 Aphros “Ten” Loureiro ($16), for which the grapes are picked early, is very fresh and floral, with white grapefruit and citrus blossom, while the 2015 Aphros Loureiro ($19), picked 10-14 days later, is a little creamy but still bright.
Anselmo Mendes also produces an excellent loureiro, the 2015 Muros Antigos Loureiro ($12), which is floral and aromatic with racy green apple and some salinity.
A number of single-variety whites are available from Quinta de Linhares, one of the brands for which Antonio Sousa is winemaker. The 2015 Quinta de Linhares Azal ($15) smells a bit like sauvignon blanc, with bright passion fruit and pink grapefruit and a hint of lemongrass. The 2015 Arinto ($15) is bright and citrusy with a hint of spritz, a whisper of dried herb and nice snap. And the 2015 Avesso ($16) is fleshy and just off-dry, with pear, golden apple, a firm core of acidity and a slight flinty note. Sousa says that avesso – which is known for being low in acidity and high in potential alcohol – can be difficult to get right in the vineyard.
There are also some excellent blends that are dry and non-spritzy. The 2014 Cazas Novas Vinho Verde ($13), for example, is creamy and fleshy, with white stone fruit and some salinity. And the 2015 Portal da Calcada Vinho Verde Reserva ($14) is bone dry and racy, with apple and lime flavors.
All this is not to say that the cheap, spritzy Vinho Verdes don’t have their place. They offer a lot of refreshment and generally cost $10 or less. The added carbon dioxide, which is what gives the wines their fizz, reinforces the feeling of freshness. Sometimes the wines also have a touch of sweetness.
One wine that’s widely available is the non-vintage Casal Garcia Vinho Verde ($8), which is quite racy, with lime and lime zest flavors. The 2015 Aveleda Vinho Verde ($10) has a hint of almond. And the 2015 Caiu a Noite Vinho Verde ($9) tastes of citrus and green apple. Two that add a hint of sweetness are the 2015 Lago Vinho Verde ($11) and the 2015 Quinta da Lixa Vinho Verde ($10), which is also a little fleshy.
As production of red Vinho Verde has fallen, so have exports, so you won’t find many of the reds on shelves. (Some red grapes have been diverted to production of rosé.) One well-known red (relatively speaking, since red Vinho Verde is a little obscure) is the 2014 Aphros Vinhao ($20) – the first wine, Vasco Croft says, that gained attention for the winery. The wine is dark and glass-coating, with earthy red fruit and a slightly wild character.