Vinho Verde (Portuguese for green wine) is arguably the country’s second best known wine in the world after Port.
By João Barbosa
If you’ve chosen to have grilled fish, while sitting outdoors in a Portuguese restaurant overlooking the beach and basking in the sun, ask for a seafood entree to start with. If you want the full experience, don’t hesitate: try some vinho verde to go with it. Have you heard of it? It is a wine that only exists in Portugal, and it’s one of the country’s traditional products better known around the world.
However, being known doesn’t mean being (truly) known. In fact, there is a great lack of knowledge about the region where it comes from – the north-western corner of the country, covering the old provinces of Minho and Douro Litoral.
The first major misconception, one which is almost taken for granted nowadays, is that vinho verde is a type of wine, made from grapes which haven’t fully matured. If you pick up the wine list in a Portuguese restaurant you will see that wines are almost invariably divided into “greens”, “whites” and “reds”, and sometimes also “rosés”.
Even if you call the waiter over and have him take notice of the mistake, everything will remain the same. It is even likely he will argue with false wisdom. No, and truly no, vinho verde is not a type of wine, it’s a region; the vinho verde region.
It’s green because it’s fresh
Vinho verde gets its name from its freshness, derived from the acidity that conveys a certain notion of being a little immature. However, there is a reason for this characteristic. This is first and foremost due to climatic conditions, as the north-west benefits from the influence of the Atlantic and a higher average rainfall than the rest of the country, has many rivers and is located at a higher latitude. On the other hand, the characteristics of its soil give it acidity. However, these are not the only factors responsible for shaping its character.
Wine is, or at least was for many years, one of Portugal’s main staples, its people often being nourished with nothing more than a bowl of wine with bits of bread soaked in it, commonly known as “sopas de cavalo cansado” (literally, tired horse soup). This might be the reason behind the custom of drinking wine out of a bowl at meals in this region, although glasses are also commonly used. It is something well and truly rural. It was the foods from the American continent that boosted the creation of more acidulous wines.
Crops such as potato and maize corn took over fields once used for vineyards. It must be taken into account that the north-west is the most densely populated region of the country, where very small-sized properties are the norm. The solution was thus to place vines, a climbing plant, in structures that would raise them from the ground, creating the typical trellising systems. The shade cast by the leaves does not allow grapes to concentrate as much sugar, and thus vegetable and acidulous notes predominate.
With the rural exodus, some land was concentrated into larger properties, increasing the cultivation areas and enabling more orthodox vineyards. With the new taste trends, vinho verde‘s profile has been changing a little. Still, the freshness of the climate, the conditions of the soils and the varieties don’t allow the wines to lose their identitarian characteristics. Green wine is, however, more palatable.
There is also red vinho verde
Another fact often ignored is that there is also red vinho verde. Until a few decades ago, probably until the 1990s, the most consumed type of vinho verde in the region was red, with white being the most preferred by national and international consumers.
If the white is acidulous, the red is almost, nearly always… unpalatable. Only the regional tradition justifies this preference. The red vinho verde is strange, only endured by non-natives in somewhat ethnic environments, with traditional dishes from the north-west, such as rojões (a fatty dish of diced pork) or the different preparations of lampreia (lamprey eel).
Yet, once again, traditions are beginning to change. In recent years some very acceptable reds have appeared, acceptable to the palate of those who don’t come from the north-western region. This is the case of the Afros and Plainas, but not many others.
Although the vinho verde occupies the entire north-west of Portugal, there are several sub-regions, each of these with its own identifying characteristics and preferential varieties. There is a total of nine smaller demarcations: Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Cádavo, Lima, Monção e Melgaço, Paiva e Sousa. Of these, the better known and most reputed is that of Monção e Melgaço.
This sub-region, located in the far-north and bordering with Spain, is the birthplace of the Alvarinho variety, which is also present on the other side of the border. With this grape, Monção e Melgaço produces sweeter wines, with notes of tropical fruits and citrus fruits. It is considered by many as the best Portuguese white variety. For those who regard it as Iberian, the north-west has another icon, which is exclusively Lusitanian and which is known locally as Pedernã – or Arinto, in the rest of the country. But vinho verde is also Loureiro and Trajadura… the list of varietals is extensive in the region.
Often produced with a light fizz, known as agulha (literally, needle), vinho verde, characterised by its lightness and low alcohol content, is the ideal summer wine, savoured after a day at the beach or during an afternoon by the pool. For these same characteristics, the white is the perfect companion for fish and seafood dishes, which in Portugal are of supreme quality, while the red goes well with fatty meats, despite being light and low on alcoholic content.