It takes a discerning nose, disciplined devotion, and an encyclopedic palate to be a respected oenophile. I arrived in Portugal’s Vinho Verde wine region possessing none of the above. Fortunately, that’s forgivable in a land where vintners are as friendly and easy to like as the wines they make.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Portugal, from its sandy beaches, cultural riches, flavorful cuisine and mild climate, to its lost-in-time pace of life and inexpensive cost of living. But in the Vinho Verde region of northern Portugal, a lush area of emerald hillsides carpeted with vineyards, it always comes back to the wines.
The vine occupies some 135-square-miles of land in a region where the unique alchemy of cool Atlantic breezes, a fertile landscape with 22-centuries of wine growing history and 30,000 wine growers, produce 1,000 brands of fresh, light aromatic wines known collectively as Vinho Verdes.
Armed with a steno pad and a Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck pedigree, I managed to hitch my curious self to a visiting group of erudite US and British wine tasters, sommeliers and importers. For four days I would sip, spit, swill and swirl close to 150 varieties of Vinho Verdes.
Although it has been producing Vinho Verde - ‘green wine’ named for its youthful freshness rather than its color – since Roman times, until recently, the remote viticulture area was still relatively undiscovered outside of Portugal. Today, it’s an emerging destination prepared to welcome visitors. Now, tucked among the historic manor houses and mansions, is a smattering of boutique hotels, artisan wineries and casual yet sophisticated restaurants, each lovely but seemingly void of tourists.
That’s good news for travelers. As we wandered from winery to winery, I felt like an intrepid explorer discovering an up-and-coming wine country that is still largely undiluted by the mainstream masses.
Vintners here, whether hip young aristocrats turning the family estate into an international business, large industrial producers or regional cooperatives, are aiming high these days and courting a sophisticated global audience.
Adventurous winemakers willing to try new things, like bio-dynamic producer Vasco Croft of Afros Wine, are seducing connoisseurs worldwide with pure crisp Loureiros and sexy refined Vinhãos - a tart, tannic red variety historically unpalatable to foreigners.
Unlike other countries that succumbed to commercial demand by uprooting their traditional grape varieties and replacing them with the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Vinho Verde producers stayed true to the charm and history of their distinctive Portuguese grape varieties – Loueiro, Trajadura, Arinto, Alvrinho, Azal, Espadeiro and Vinhão. The result is wine that is the unique expression of the region’s characteristics: granite soils, intense rainfall, high humidity and the acid richness of the grapes.
Not all Vinho Verdes, I discovered, are created equally. Each is as varied as the man or woman who makes it. And here, in the Portuguese outback, often as not, you’ll find the producers themselves behind the bottle pouring favorites, telling their stories, explaining the intricacies of micro-climates and pruning practices, or inviting you in for a tour of the family home.
Case in point is Francisco Dias Costa of Casa de Vila Verde, a 13thcentury noble estate. “We love to receive visitors, show them around and pour them a taste,” he says inviting us into the historic manor house kitchen for a glass. Although his ancestors had been making wine for private consumption since the 1600’s, the passionate young entrepreneur describes his business as a ‘start up’ and is busy transforming the family vineyards, built over roman ruins, into one of the regions most advanced production facilities.
Eyeing the multitude of cutlery and wine glasses adorning the substantial linen covered table at Cozinha do Convento, an elegant restaurant in an ancient monastery leaning over the Minho river, I figured we were in for a treat. For the next three and a half hours, I didn’t move from my seat, take notes, hail a waiter or want for anything. And after the last espresso had been served and the final brandy savored, I realized that I’d been shown what Portuguese hospitality boils down to: good food, fine wine and the sheer joy of sharing a meal.
If you go…
So many wineries so little time:
The Vinho Verde wine region is home to nearly 1,000 brands. Most of them offer terrific wine. And many of them are willing to pour you a taste. Whether you’re on the wine trail in Portugal or exploring new tastes at your neighborhood wine bar, here are a few names worth your attention:
Quinta das Arcas – A family company divided in four estates between the Vinho Verde region and the Alentejo region. Fresh, floral, mineral and beautifully balanced, their Arca Nova White retails for $9 US and was named a Wine Spectator Best Value (October 2008) and Wine Enthusiast 100 Best Values of 2009. If you visit, be sure to try their homemade cheeses and don’t miss the Mozinho Roman and Pre-Roman ruins that border their Villar Estate. Quinta das Arcas: 4440-392 Sobrado – Portugal; Tel: (+351) 224 157 810; www.quintadasarcas.com
PROVAM: A small, high-quality cooperative in the sub-region of Monção, the 2003 PROVAM Portal do Fidalgo (100% Alvarinho) we tasted shattered the misperception that Vinho Verdes must be consumed young. For those who enjoy a mature Riesling, the aged Portal do Fidalgo presents an intriguing alternative. PROVAM: 4950-045 Barbeita – Portugal; Tel: (+351) 96 123 47 47; www.provam.com
Afros: One of three bio-dynamic vineyards in the Vinho Verde region, Afros is the ultimate ‘green’ wine. Both harmonious and pure, the citrus color, fruity aroma and crisp minerality of the Afros Loureirois is a true Vinho Verde standout. Mountain horses, sheep and bees are part of the agricultural team at Quinta do Casal do Paçco, the 16th century country estate that is home to Afros wine. You won’t find these single-estate hand-crafted wines on your supermarket shelf, but it’s worth the trip. For equally eco-friendly lodging nearby, check out Sobre Natura and Casas de Alem. Afros: 4970-500 Arcos de Valdevez -Portugal; Tel: (+351) 251 534 207; www.afros-wine.com
Aveleda:Aveleda is an example of a successful family business (producing more than 1 million liters per year) fueled by passion for more than three centuries. Picture-perfect and tourist-ready the winery grounds include a vine-covered mansion, private chapel, lush gardens, miles of rolling vineyards, woods, an ancient wine cellar, a modern bottling facility, tasting hall and gift shop. Their lively, fruity wines are known for their freshness, intense aroma and affordability. The popular Casa Garcia white and rosé sells for a recession-friendly $6.99 US. Quinta da Aveleda: 4560-556 Penafiel - Portugal; Tel: (+351) 401 723 05 90 www.aveleda.pt
Quinta da Lixa is the outcome of the passion and commitment of the Meireles family. Since entering wine business in 1996, the modern-minded winery now produces 3 million bottles, 40% of those exported overseas. Their popular Monsenhor is everything Vinho Verdes are known for – it’s young, fresh, effervescent and as easy to like as its price, $4.25 US. Quinta da Lixa: 4615-658 Lixa – Portugal; Tel. (+351) 255 490 590; www.quintadalixa.pt
Porto Basecamp: Tiara Park Atlantic Porto is located just 15km - less than an hour - away from the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city is also renowned for its Port wine, museums and cultural attractions, historic quarters, and contemporary architecture. Tiara Park Atlantic Porto: Tel: (+351) 226 072 500; www.tiara-hotels.com
View more Vinho Verde Wine Trail recommendations on this Google map.
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