Wine, Spilled: Vinho Verde
Welcome to Wine, Spilled, a weekly column in which EMD's Justine Sterling shares the myths, legends, tall tales, and short stories of the wine world, and recommends a couple bottles that won't break the bank. Today's wine: Vinho Verde.
As the sun begins to beat down harder every day and we spend more time soaking up heat in the great outdoors (or in my case, in the cramped, fenced-in park near my tiny Brooklyn apartment), we reach not for a hearty glass of red or a snifter of whiskey but for something that is going to refresh us, while leaving us with a slight, pleasant buzz as we slip into a hazy nap. We want something crisp and fizzy that will pair perfectly with spicy tacos or ceviche. In a word: beer. Light beer with a lime.
You might find, however, that after five weekends in a row spent with of buckets of Corona, you start to feel a little pull in your heart. That’s wine calling. Come back to me, it says. Wander to the wine store, ask for a recommendation, and you'll find yourself standing in front of a light, greenish bottle. It's vinho verde, and you have found your compromise.
Think there’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot summer day? Think again.
Portugal is usually known for the dessert wines Port and Madeira, but the country has been producing wonderfully dry, crisp wines since at least the 10th century BC when the Phoenicians arrived in the area bringing relatively modern wine making techniques and new varietals to the area. Ancient Greek kraters (vases used to dilute wine with water – it was crass to drink undiluted wine) have been found in Portugal, proving that they must have drunk the local wine. Jump forward to the Roman Empire, and there’s record of two major writers of the time, Seneca and Pliny the Elder, referencing the vines which produce Vinho Verde.
Though possibly first exported into England and Germany in the 12th century, the first record of export is not found until 1788. Even with this wine's long history, it somehow never caught on outside of Portugal. For example, I dare you to find a Vinho Verde on a non-Portuguese restaurant’s wine list. It is, for the most part, solely available in wine specialty stores. And while it is often requested by a select group of wine nerds, vinho verde doesn't seem to enjoy the widespread popularity it so richly deserves. Why? A couple of theories:
Blame it on Port. Portuguese viticulture’s claim to fame was all the rage with 17th century British soldiers, who called it “blackstrap” due to its dark color and strength. Port's popularity in the UK continues to this day, making it the primary wine associated with Portugal. Sweet, red, dark and rich, it's essentially the opposite of Vinho Verde, which makes the latter a hard sell.
Blame it on small production. In the 16th century, maize arrived in the Portugal and took over the agriculture industry, relegating the less profitable grapevines to the edge of fields. In order to continue to grow a crop substantial enough to producer wine, vintners thought vertical. They trained the vines up on trees, tall trellises, even telephone poles. This tactic was also useful because Minho, the main region for Vinho Verde production in the far north end of the country, is terribly damp, making rot, fungus and frost large threats to the vines. By raising the vines up the producers also maximize the vines' exposure to sunlight. This still means that the production level is fairly small and will continue to be as the region has no way of growing due to the country's viticulture regulations. But think about it: sky vines. How cool is that?
Blame it on oddity. Is it a white? Is it green? Is it a sparkling? Is it still? It’s like Jell-O: one of those odd in-between substances that is both nothing you’ve ever craved before and exactly what you want at the same time. It's rarely what you have written on your shopping list, and without Bill Cosby as the new face of the vinho verde marketing campaign, it’s not likely that it is going to be any time soon.
So, is it green? No. It’s white. A good portion of the bottles are green but the wine itself is of a light straw hue. The “Verde” in the name refers to the youthful quality of the wine. Vinho Verdes are not meant to be aged, they are meant to be drunk immediately, or at least within the year. So if you find a 1999 Vinho Verde in the corner of some dusty wine cellar, don’t yelp like you’ve found a Dom Perignon. It would probably be more like if you found a can of Coors from that same time. Buy it now, drink it now. That’s the Vinho Verde motto.
Is it sparkling? Kind of. Vinho Verdes are not technically sparkling, they are — and remember this word because it impresses people, I know from experience — pétillant, which means that they are lightly sparkling. Slightly fizzy. Somewhere between an over-orange-juiced mimosa and a fresh glass of Champagne, or between a can of Coke that has sat on the nightstand all night and a just cracked open can. They accomplish this quality by injecting a bit of CO2 into the wine just before bottling. [Photograph: Greything]
It’s understandable that these factors might be a little off-putting to some when a comfortable, well-worn bottle is right next to the oddity that is Vinho Verde — not to mention the idea of actually trying to identify the grapes that go into the wine, which have names like batoca, loureiro, and pedernã. Try and say those names three times fast, or at all. But here are some reasons why odd can be awesome.
It’s low in alcohol. Wait, don’t stop reading. That can be a good thing. Remember those tacos we were talking about earlier? Say you top those off with a spicy salsa. Lots of hot peppers. Well, alcohol has a way of intensifying spice. Pair those peppers with a heavy, hearty Malbec and you’re in for a world of pain. There’s a reason typically spicy fare (Indian, Mexican, Thai) is paired with beer: it’s low in alcohol, usually around 5%. Vinho Verdes traditionally run around 9% alcohol; higher than beer but less than other wines. The low alcohol also means you can continue to drink the barely bubbly beverage from early afternoon until late at night.
It’s cheap! Decent bottles can range from $5-11. Yeah. That’s less than a six-pack of Corona.
It’s citrusy and grassy. If you’ve ever had a Spanish Albariño you’ll know what I’m talking about. Mostly because Alvirinho, the Portuguese name for Albariño, is one of the main grapes in the Vinho Verde mix. These qualities make it very versatile: great on its own or with food, it’s acidic enough to get your taste buds going.
Tasty Vinho Verdes:
- JM Fonseca Twin Vines - Light with a hint of fizz, fresh unripe necartines and lime zest. Just put a straw in the bottle. (I'm kidding. Kind of.) $7
- Famega - Very light and dry, this minerally, limey, tipple is for those who want lime-tinged Perrier but also want some alcohol. $7
- Espiral - Known to most as, "that tall green bottle at Trader Joe's," this bottle is majorly affordable and dangerously quaffable. Excellent with citrus-marinated chicken or a tuna tartare spiked with jalapeno. $4
- Broadbent - Very fresh and floral. Spend the money you save by buying this wine by splurging on all the shellfish you can shuck, peel and crack. $6
- Casal Garcia - A fruitier choice, this is the ultimate afternoon aperitif. Peaches and citrus fruit make this a great match for carnitas and guacamole. $5