Finally there is a glimmer of spring in the air. Already my mind is shifting gear to lighter wines – perhaps a refreshing Vinho Verde? The quintessential, light-bodied, crisp white wine from northern Portugal.
For many years I had almost written off Vinho Verde wines, as memories of thin, tart and often unpleasantly off-dry wines lingered in my mind from the mid 1980's. Thankfully, so much has changed in the region, which I am now happily discovering. Today Vinho Verde wines seem to offer a wealth of diversity – still crisp, but lively and with character, whilst still retaining their signature charming spritz.
For those of you not familiar with the region or the wines, Vinho Verde is a wine from the Minho region in Northern Portugal. And no, Vinho Verde does not mean 'green' wine. Rather 'verde' refers to it being a young wine, and it can be red or white. They are best consumed within a year of harvest while they still retain their youthful exuberance.
The Minho region is quite beautiful, in a rugged, rural way. It hugs the Atlantic coast, and so can be quite cool, resulting in wines that are crisp, fairly light-bodied and low in alcohol. Hence the acidic, thin wines of yore. That said, modern viticulture has enabled the grapes to reach more consistent and better ripeness levels, whilst retaining youthful fresh fruit and crisp acidity.
Today, my focus is on the white wines of Vinho Verde, as they tend to be the most easily found internationally. I was particularly interested to find out that the United States is the region's most important export market. So, while we may like our oaky Chardonnay, we also seem to have quite a fondness for youthful, crisp wines.
The Vinho Verde DOC
The Vinho Verde wine region was legally demarcated as far back as 1908, and regulations regarding its production were set in place by 1929. However, `it was only in 1984 that it received the official DOC Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) designation and it is actually Portugal's largest winemaking region with over 33,000 hectares of vineyard.
While the DOC regulations do allow for quite a few different grape varieties, the predominant varieties used for white Vinho Verde are Alvarinho (same as Albariño across the Spanish border in Rias Baixas) Loureiro and Trajadura. The DOC allows for both varietal wines, which are typically made from Alvarinho and labeled 'Vinho Verde Alvarinho DOC' as well as blends, which are simply labeled Vinho Verde DOC.
The region is sub-divided into nine official sub-regions, which may be indicated on the bottle. Ones that I have come across are Amarante and Monção e Melgaço.
The Famous 'Spritz'
Vinho Verde wines are fresh, unoaked wines. They are typically recognized by a slight 'spritz' or tingle on the palate — just a nuance of sparkle to tease the palate. This 'spritz/ or sparkle is achieved either through the release of CO2 (a natural by-product of fermentation) during malolactic fermentation, or more commonly by suppressing malolactic fermentation and adding a little CO2 before bottling.
For those interested in the technical terms – 'malolactic fermentation' is a stage in winemaking. It occurs naturally, after the primary (alcoholic) fermentation whereby the more tart malic acid in the wine is converted to a softer lactic acid, resulting in a fuller and creamier mid-palate. While practically all red wines go through malolactic fermentation, it is suppressed in many white wines when the aim is to make a crisper, fruitier style.
The Taste and Versatility at the Table
I've typically considered Vinho Verde white wines as great apéritif wines, because of their crispness, light-body and spritz. They are also quite low in alcohol – ranging from 9% to about 12.5%. These wines are delicious with all sorts of nibbles – smoked almonds, roasted chickpeas and an array of chips and dips. Moving on, these are great wines with shellfish – clams, mussels, oysters or whatever takes your fancy. I've also noticed how well the acidity works with cured meats, cutting through the fat and richness. Some of the fuller, rounder styles can work throughout the meal. We recently enjoyed an Alvarinho/Loureiro blend with an Indian chicken and okra dish. So there are certainly plenty of options at the table.
My notes on a number of Vinho Verde wines recently tasted:
• 2009 Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde, 11%, $12 - Youthful and exuberant with a delicious tangy spritz. Crisp, with lots of citrus, peach, nectarine and mango flavors with an overlay of fresh flowers and a nice mineral backbone.
• 2009 Varanda do Conde, Alvarinho / Trajadura, Vinho Verde, 12%, $10 - Enticing layered nose of mineral, fresh flowers and citrus tang. Delightful tingle on the palate with ample youthful flavors of tangerine, apricot, passion fruit and grapefruit. Nice palate weight and good length.
• NV Broadbent Vinho Verde, DOC, 9%, $10 - A blend of Loureiro, Trajadura and Pedernã. Tangy, lively spritz, and very refreshing, this is definitely for lovers of high-acid wines. Nice medley of citrus and floral notes. Paired really well with some cured smoked ham.
• 2010 Aveleda Follies, Vinho Regional Minho, 50% Alvarinho, 50% Loureiro, 11.5%, $10 - Crisp and tangy with refreshing flavors of citrus, guava, apricot and a sutble floral note. Fairly light-bodied with a zesty lingering finish.
• 2009 Portal do Fidalgo, DOC Vinho Verde (sub-region of Moncão Y Meloaço), 12.5%, $16 - Strong mineral aromas layered with tropical fruit. Crisp, with a slight spritzy, creamy tang. Medium-bodied with good mid-palate weight. Packed with intense flavors (citrus, stone tropical) that linger, giving way to a lively, long finish.
I would love to hear from other fans of Vinho Verde wines - what have you been sipping?
Until next week enjoy!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman)