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Vinho Verde Is No Longer Green

Vinho Verde Is No Longer Green

A wave of still, complex, and age-worthy wines are popping up in the U.S. How do they compare to the fun and fizzy wines the region is known for?

Vineyards in Vinho Verde | Photo Credit: Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes

Americans have come to love Vinho Verde’s light and bright, slightly effervescent profile. Known for its low alcohol and quaffability, this style of wine from the Vinho Verde region in Portugal has become a staple for retailers and restaurants and those looking for a reasonably priced and refreshing sip. However, there’s more to the region than inexpensive, easy-drinking white wines.

“Vinho Verde wines are changing, and they’re really incredible at an incredible value,” says Jeff Harding, former wine director at Waverly Inn in New York. “There’s the classic style of cheap and cheerful, but they make this newer style that can be still and very complex, sometimes single varietal, and a much more serious wine.”

Awareness of Vinho Verde has grown exponentially in recent years. That recognition can be attributed to successful marketing campaigns, amplified education, and increased tourism in Portugal. The messaging has essentially imprinted a singular style of Vinho Verde into the minds of drinkers worldwide, but particularly so in the U.S., which is the biggest export market for Vinho Verde, according to data from the Vinho Verde Viticulture Commission

Contrary to common understanding, Vinho Verde is a region that produces a range of diverse and versatile wine styles, including the more premium, complex, structured, and mineral-driven wines with age that are popping up on menus and shop shelves in the U.S. Some producers in the region hope that the success Vinho Verde has seen with the fizzy and fun styles of white wine can translate to the other offerings of the region.

Vinho Verde Is an Appellation, Not a Style

Map of Vinho Verde and Sub-Regions | Photo Credit: Wines of Portugal

An established Designation of Origin in 1959, Vinho Verde’s lush and green region resides in northwestern Portugal, where vegetation covers rugged mountain peaks and interior valleys and extends to the Atlantic Ocean. The oldest and largest wine-producing region in the country, Vinho Verde is home to nine subregions: Ave, Amarante, Baião, Basto, Cávado, Lima, Monção & Melgaço, Paiva, and Sousa. While soil composition and elevation vary, overall, the region features a coastal climate heavily influenced by the Atlantic and the many riverways that keep inland areas cool and breezy. But within each sub-region, there are mesoclimates where rainfall varies, and temperatures may be hotter or colder than others, allowing Vinho Verde to produce a variety of wines that can be light and refreshing or full-bodied and complex. 

“There are areas of elevation where people are making fresh wines,” says Harding. “You’d think they’d all be character wines that are hot and flat, but they’re not. They have a lot of big grapes with big, luscious textures that are fresh and refreshing across Vinho Verde. The acid is still there, and they’re delicious.” 

Grape varieties are just as diverse, and used to make various wine styles, including red, white, rosé, and sparkling. 

An Emerging Style

Orr Reches | Photo Credit: Orr Reches

Alvarinho may be the most widely recognized grape variety in Vinho Verde and is often used to create the young, light, and fizzy wine the region is known for. However, producers in the growing subregion of Monção & Melgaço use it to make 100% still, full-bodied, aromatic, and age-worthy wines. “Luis Seabra [who makes Granito Cru Alvarinho] has one vineyard he works with in Vinho Verde, in Monção & Melgaço,” says Orr Reches, managing director at Olé & Obrigado, which imports Portuguese and Spanish wine. “It’s 100% Alvarinho that he puts in a barrel with no SO2 for a year, even more if it’s needed. And that is an Alvarinho that sells for about $50 on the shelf, and we cannot keep it in stock. It’s in all the Michelin star restaurants.” 

Loureiro is prevalent in areas like Lima, Cávado, and Ave, though some winemakers use Arinto and Trajadura. The grapes result in fresh and aromatic wines and often display floral characteristics and notes of citrus. Meanwhile, Avesso is the grape used to make rich white wines with plenty of mineral vibrancy in Amarante and Baião. Paiva, in the southernmost part of Vinho Verde, specializes in producing red wines, while the regions of Basto and Sousa work with several indigenous white and red varieties to produce fresh wines with lower alcohol. 

At Vinhos Sem Igual, located in the Sousa sub-region, winemaker and owner João Camizão uses blends of Azal and Arinto that have grown on his family’s property for more than 100 years to create still white wines, some of which are aged for two years or so in bottle before release. “[Sem Igual] is a wine that is still very fresh, even after a couple of years in the bottle,” says Camizão. “It has some complexity, some layers, some structure. The finish is quite long, and it’s a wine that you can enjoy with food. That’s something that we really wanted to do.”

João Camizão | Photo Credit: Sem Igual

Camizão, who launched Sem Igual in 2012, was the first to realize the terroir in his family’s vineyards was prime for winemaking. However, instead of focusing on the traditional style of Vinho Verde that’s meant to be enjoyed young, he wanted to produce something that could showcase the bounty of what Sousa has to offer and what some native varieties could do with a bit of age. 

“We’re focusing on the modern Vinho Verde. The classic style is something of value that is very well established. It’s important for our region,” says Camizão. “But for me, I was thinking about Vinho Verde 2.0. We have great terroir to produce world-class wines. I wanted to do something different to really show that.”

With newer winemakers entering the fold, coinciding with fewer co-ops and larger companies making an ocean of inexpensive Vinho Verde, mixed with more general consumer interest in Portuguese wines, there’s no better time than now for producers to show the region’s versatility.