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Known as Vinho Verde, the wines from this appellation often surprise wine lovers with their variety: they can be fresh and light, or rich and creamy, or structured yet slightly tannic; they can have a tinge of sparkling or be lees-aged; and they can be among the most terroir-transparent wines around. Match this with Vinho Verde’s ability to improve with age, support a variety of cuisines, and remain undeniably affordable, and you have a class of wine perfect for all occasions.
“Vinho Verde is for the consumer who wants to engage, experience and explore,” says advanced sommelier Erik Segelbaum, who is based in Washington, D.C. and is founder of the wine consultancy Somlyay. “It is for someone who wants a wine to go with their food, not their ego.”
For all of its winning traits, Vinho Verde remains a sleeper on the American market. “I don’t think people know how versatile and how incredible [Vinho Verde] is from a standpoint of belonging on the table,” says Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS, founder and chief executive officer of Corkbuzz, New York City.
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Let’s take an in-depth look at premium Vinho Verde and how wine professionals are embracing this category of wine for its diversity, depth, versatility, and value.
A Varied Flavor Profile
The name Vinho Verde—which translates literally to “green wine” in Portuguese—is at once descriptive but also rife with misconceptions.
Hailing from one of the largest demarcated wine regions in Europe—the rain-kissed Minho province in Portugal—the name conjures images of the rolling hills where the vineyards reside. “The landscape is very much like the name suggests,” says Maniec Fiorvanti, who has visited the area several times in pursuit of its wines. “It is very green and verdant.”
The wines themselves are fresh, but not green in color, nor do they come from green grapes. In fact, Vinho Verde can be white, rosé, red, and sparkling. There is even Vinho Verde brandy.
The spectrum of aromas, flavors and textures from these wines draws their unique properties from a selection of grape varieties native to the area: Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro, and Trajadura lead the way for white wines, while the rare red wines are made varietally from Vinhão and can also be a blend of such grapes as Alvarelhão, Borraçal, and Rabo-de-Anho.
“Alvarinho is an intriguing grape because it handles lees contact quite well,” says Kansas City, Missouri-based consultant and author Doug Frost, one of only four people in the world to earn the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles. “It has a bunch of faces to it: it can be lovely and lush or powerful, and it can age well or be easy to drink young.”
Frost also commends the wines from the Loureiro grape, which yield rich tones of apricot and peach blossom, as well as Avesso—another white variety that ages well.
Meanwhile, the rosé wines of Vinho Verde—often with Espadeiro as a backbone—cover a broad color spectrum and are increasingly known for their crispness and vivacious personality. Maniec Fiorvanti notes they are a little fruitier in style than reference-point rosé wines, like those from Provence, but they lend themselves better to a variety of cuisine pairings, particularly spicy dishes.
However, for cool-hunting wine buyers seeking the next big thing in wine, Vinho Verde’s red wines are answering the call. Segelbaum lauds this category of wine for their “chalky, creamy tannins” and lack of astringency. He compares them to Beaujolais, not in terms of taste and structure, but in terms of the mood they strike and their exceptional versatility.
Finally, the category of wine designated as Espumante de Vinho Verde shines for its class and elegance. Frequently made from Alvarinho grapes grown in the Monçao and Melgaço subregions, these wines can range from Brut nature to Sweet, and have three designations based on lees aging in bottle: Reserva (between 12 and 24 month), Super-reserva or Extra-reserva (between 24 and 36 months), and Velha reserva or Grande reserva (more than 36 months).
An Icon of Food-Friendliness
It may be no surprise that Portugal’s seafood-dominant cuisine finds a willing partner in the wines of Vinho Verde.
“Pretty much anything that lives underwater is going to go really well with Vinho Verde,” says Segelbaum, who adds that charcoal-grilled sardines and fried anchovies are two of the standout pairings he has encountered in his travels through the region. But Segelbaum emphasizes that Vinho Verde’s adaptability extends to traditionally difficult-to-pair cuisines focused on spice, such as Thai and Indian.
Frost agrees and adds that the richer white wines from Alvarinho can be a tremendous partner with sushi. But the entire realm of Vinho Verde is adaptable to a larger macro trend in cuisine: a desire for healthier dishes.
“Especially these days when people are trying to cook lighter with more acids and vinegars and things like that, these are the kinds of wines that are quite content at the table,” says Frost.
Surprising Complexity and Age-Worthiness
Vinho Verde’s complexity has long been a well-kept secret within the industry, and today, savvy sommeliers are increasingly turning to premium Vinho Verde to give their guests a riveting new choice.
“One of the misconceptions about Vinho Verde is that they are all meant to be consumed immediately,” says Master Sommelier Laura Maniec Fiorvanti. “They’re known for a cheap and cheerful vibe. But it’s much more than that. That’s like saying that ‘all Italian white wines are like Moscato d’Asti.’ It doesn’t represent the whole.”
Maniec Fiorvanti has had the opportunity to taste not only the breadth of Vinho Verde wines, but also numerous aged versions which have stood the test of time—a hallmark of any fine wine. She likens these aged versions to the great Rieslings of the world in terms of texture and tone. “It is incredible how you get petrol, minerality, and apricots, and this texture … even within five to 10 years [of vintage].”
Frost agrees, adding that “the high-quality, premium Vinho Verde being made today is far more likely to age successfully than even the wines of 10 to 20 years ago.”
This affords wine buyers a compelling option as they build their programs, for they can introduce their guests to the possibilities of aged wines similar in profile to Burgundy, Sancerre, the Mosel, and Rioja, but made from exciting native grapes completely unique to Portugal.
Over-Delivering on Value
Because of their complexity, their variety and versatility, the wines of Vinho Verde can be counted on to satisfy a wide range of palates. The fact that, even in the premium sector, they are affordable and well-priced is an added bonus for wine buyers.
“It is incumbent upon us as an industry to inform people of these wines,” says Segelbaum. He notes that when many people open a wide-ranging wine menu, Portugal may not be the first page they turn to, but from a value-to-quality standpoint, it ought to be. “As a sommelier, I am absolutely driven by value, and by that I mean quality that delivers on price. I can think of few regions in the world that nearly 100% of the time—no matter the producer, no matter what expression—is always a value. And Vinho Verde is on the top of my list for that.”
Because of this, the wine is ideally suited for these challenging times, says Frost. “People still want to play. They still want to have fun. It’s just that there are many who are limited economically [right now]. So the best thing in the world we can do is bring them crazy values like Vinho Verde. That’s pretty good news for most people.”