With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, thousands of wanna-be Irish are donned in green gear or sporting a shamrock while wetting their whistles with green beer in a misty-eyed celebration of Irish culture. In the misty far north of Portugal, the emerald amphitheatre-shaped landscape of the Minho region could easily be mistaken for ye Irish hills except that it produces Portugal’s most popular white wine, Vinho Verde. Vinho Verde means “green wine”, but the wine is not green, just meant to be consumed while it is very young, or “green.” Vinho Verde is a simple, light, half-nut’n’ (inexpensive) low-alcohol wine featuring a bubbly spritz. Because the wine was traditionally consumed almost immediately after harvest, a few fermentation bubbles often lingered in the wine. These days the characteristic spritz is usually derived from a shot of carbon dioxide before bottling, just like Sprite or Coca-Cola. While Vinho Verde is primarily known as a white wine, in fact the region also produces plenty of “green wines” that are red, but they are rarely exported. With bright purple-pink color and tongue stripping acidity, red vinho verde is an acquired taste, though a good foil for the region’s oily codfish dishes.
Vines in Minho were traditionally trellised upon picturesque overhead arbors or up trees, in part so that breezes could deter mold in this humid maritime climate, but also to make best used of farmland under the vine crops. With some 700,000 growers managing 25,000 vineyards, quality can be variable, but encouragingly, modern producers are now trellising their vines to be capture wine quality rather than quantity. The wine can be produced from any of twenty-five indigenous grape varieties, but the finest are typically derived from four varieties: alvarinho, loureiro, trajadura and pedernã. Loureiro and alvarinho are amongst the best of these varieties and being closely watched by wine connoisseurs.
St. Patrick’s Day revelers might meet this with mixed-feelings, but one of Vinho Verde’s greatest features is that under local regulations, its alcohol levels may not exceed 11.5%. Its light body, low alcohol and a zesty acidity make this a wine that screams for a seafood outing to Lamma Island. At its best, Vinho Verde is a fresh vibrant, tart wine with hints of floral scented, citrusy and peachy fruit, though many are made as a simple, neutral wine designed to wash down fishy sardines or bacalhau (salted, driedcodfish) dishes.
Vinho Verde is not for aging and should be drunk quickly, within the harvest year. With many producers not putting a vintage date on the bottle, over-the-hill wines can linger on dusty shelves in cities where Vinho Verde doesn’t ‘’turn’’ much. The Vinho Verde producers developed a series of seals to help control the quality of stock on the shelves, but they were mainly designed with the shop-keeper in mind, not consumers, so it is important to work with trustworthy suppliers who can attest to the wine’s age. Lam & Ceveira is a good local importer specializing in Portuguese wines. Or, who could resist a Portguese wine specialist on this most Irish of weeks with the oh-so-gaelic moniker, Hagan Wong.