Vinho Verde: Perfect For Summer Sipping

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Most of us know vinho verde as a fairly simple white wine — crisp and fruity, usually with a little spritziness – that’s often perfect for sipping on its own or with light, summer food. Apart from its other virtues, it tends to be low in alcohol, and that’s a big plus in the summer heat.

Vinho verde (pronounced VEE-nyo VERD)  means ‘green wine’, and there are several theories as to why it has the name. One is that the white wine has a greenish tint, another is that the wine is meant to be drunk young, or green. A third, suggested when I was in Vinho Verde country recently, is that the ‘green’ refers to the lush, verdant landscape of the region, which stretches north from Porto to the border with Spain.

Take your pick. Frankly, none of these explanations seems particularly convincing to me, but if I had to choose, I’d go with the second.

Vinho Verde Region

Vinho Verde Region

Vinho Verde is not only a style of wine, but a designated appellation – the largest in Portugal. To be labelled ‘Vinho Verde’, a wine has to be made from grapes grown in the region, and from about three dozen varieties. One of the most common white varieties is alvarinho – the same grape as albariño, the variety generally associated with Rias Baixas, the Spanish region just across the border from Vinho Verde. Other prominent white varieties are trajadura, loureiro, avesso and arinta.

Although 85 per cent of vinho verde is white, reds are also produced, many from the vinhão variety. They tend to have fairly high acidity and dense, pungent flavours. (Some are a bit reminiscent of baco noir.) A very small volume of vinho verde rosé is produced,.

Most of the vinho verde wines on the market have quite low alcohol levels of around 11 or 12 per cent – something that could a real selling-point these days, when there is some concern about rising alcohol levels in wine – and the alcohol level of vinho verde is strictly regulated. Generic vinho verde must have a minimum of 8 per cent alcohol but must not exceed 11.5 per cent. If it’s labelled as one of the nine designated sub-regions of Vinho Verde, the minimum is 9 and the maximum 14 per cent. Finally, vinho verde made from alvarinho must have at least 11.5 and at most 14 per cent alcohol.

Most of us wouldn’t think of 14 per cent as low in alcohol, and it suggests that there’s more to vinho verde than the easy-going whites we’re used to. Not only are there variations according to variety and sub-region, but winemaking practises like barrel-aging and letting wines rest on lees contribute different textures to wines. You can hardly fault producers for wanting to improve quality and create distinctive wines, but it could be counterproductive if they lost sight of the fact that vinho verde’s success rests on its being straightforward and uncomplicated.

One constant is that vinho verde wines – which we would think of as perfect candidates for screwcaps – are sealed with natural cork when they’re destined for the local market. That’s hardly surprising, when you think of the importance of cork to Portugal’s economy. But producers are ready to use screwcaps for exported vinho verde.

Although vinho verde is very popular in Portugal, where 70 per cent of it is consumed, it’s making solid gains elsewhere. Fifteen per cent of production was exported in 2000, and that has doubled in a decade. Canada is vinho verde’s fourth most important market, and we should expect to see more and more wineries represented here. Right now, you’ll find producers such as Aveleda, Lixa, Gomariz, Muros Antigos, Aliança, and Morgadio da Torre.

Click here to find Vinho Verde available at the LCBO.

Vinho Verde