One of Portugal’s lesser-known but much-savoured wines is vinho verde, so called because the grapes are picked young and the wine is mostly drunk just a year or two after bottling. These days it’s a description that applies to all three types of vinho verde table wine – red, white and rosé – all made in the lush, green regions of northern Portugal.
The largest demarcated wine region in Portugal, vinho verde country is sandwiched between the River Minho on the border with Spain and the majestic River Douro running east to its source in Spain from the ancient city of Porto.
With a climate that’s generally mild and wet, vinho verde wine-makers in the north-west of Portugal require an unusually hot summer to ripen all the grapes, resulting in a wine of high acidity and relatively low-sugar levels.
Vines follow the valleys and tributaries of the Rivers Minho, Lima, Cavádo, Ave and Douro that slice a long and winding passage all the way through to the rugged Atlantic coast from the wild mountain regions of Portugal’s north-eastern provinces.
Vinho verde wine is very popular with the Portuguese as a natural accompaniment to freshly-caught fish and seafood dishes, while it also serves as a refreshing aperitif, particularly in the heat of high summer.
It’s a little-known fact that around twenty per cent of Portugal’s population live within the vinho verde demarcation, assuring good local demand for one of Southern Europe’s tastiest and most refreshing wines.
Due to the limited amount of cultivable land available, vines have been trained to grow high above the ground, in some cases scaling walls, scrambling over roofs and even climbing trees.
There’s method to this as rot is endemic in the warm summer months and raising the vines above ground reduces the risk of damage by allowing the air to circulate freely in the vineyard canopy.
And picking the grapes young in northern Portugal’s humid atmosphere following a long, hot summer creates a secondary ‘malo-lactic’ fermentation process in the bottle, which in turn gives vinho verde wine its wonderfully light effervescence.
It is generally a dry wine and normally drunk not long after bottling, hence the name verde (which in this case means young, not green) and each of the three types (red, white and rosé) is enhanced with a slight natural sparkle.
Vinho verde’s several sub-regions are distinguished from one another by the different grapes that go into making the wines.
Monção, on the northern border with Spain, produces one of the most prestigious vinho verde wines from the much sought-after Alvarinho grape which produces a fine wine of fragrant, flowery aromas.
The Lima Valley to the south, along with parts of the Atlantic coast, is home to the Loureiro grape, which is more abundant than Alvarinho and makes light, aromatic dry whites similar to a German Riesling.
High-quality vinho verde wine is also made in the vineyards around Amarante and further south towards the banks of the River Douro, where the Avesso grape tends to ripen to fuller flavours.
For the majority of visitors travelling through vinho verde country, it’s a trip down memory lane along narrow, hedge-lined lanes often cobbled with locally-quarried granite.
Much of the region is linked to Portugal’s earliest recorded history, most notably the ancient city of Guimarães which is considered the ‘cradle of the nation’ due to the fact that it was Portugal’s first capital.
And close by, besides being the seat of the archbishop, Braga is Portugal’s chief episcopal centre and a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of devout Christians, particularly during the annual Holy Week festivities.
A well-signposted multi-lingual wine route known as the Rota dos Vinhos Verdes helps tourists find their way around one of the most picturesque parts of Portugal, with the odd glass or three waiting to be savoured along the way.
Besides offering a rare form of highly-personalised accommodation, a great number of manor-houses (known locally as quintas) produce small quantities of their own vinho verde wine, much of which is offered to their guests.
Many of Portugal’s most interesting quintas are located in the around the towns of Ponte de Lima (indicated on the map below), Ponte da Barca and Arcos de Valdevez.