Get ’Em While They’re Cheap

(Originally published February 2009)

It’s still winter here in Hanes’s new home of North Carolina but living in the Great South is supposed to get one thinking about spring, summer and shorts sooner than back in New York City. This in turn makes Hanes think about all the fun summer barbecues and outings he would attend if he wanted any friends in Charlotte. The next step in this trail of thought is what fun, light, crisp summery wines will Hanes drink safely alone at home as the weather soon regularly reaches the 70’s?

And the answer might very well be white wines from Portugal! Why not, there is diversity, food friendliness and affordable prices. Plus, few people know what the hell they are so you look even cooler when you bring some to a friend’s place and wow them with your new find. Or, in Hanes’s case, impress his cat Meow-Meow with his wine knowledge and savvy.

The most well recognized of the white wines of Portugal are those known as “Vinho Verde.” This translates into English as “green wine” and refers to the fact that they are “green” in the sense of young and fresh. Albeit, there may be a greenish tint to the actual wine but this is not regulated by the Portuguese authorities. It should be noted that here in the United States we can refer to Vinho Verde as a white wine whereas in Portugal there are “Vinho Verde” wines which are categorized as rosé or red wines. What, you say, this cannot be! Alas, it’s true. At the present time so few rosé or red Vinho Verdes are imported into the U.S., it is silly to mention them. Gosh, Hanes is silly in mentioning them. But thorough. Maybe more will be imported in the future but who can predict such things?

Vinho Verde is produced in the northern part of Portugal which stretches from the famous city of Oporto and the Douro River northward to the Minho River and Spanish border, an area also known as Costa Verde, or “Green Coast.” The Vinho Verde DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) is the largest in all of Portugal. The qualities most associated with Vinho Verde are low sugar content and thus overall dryness, a slight fizzy pétillance which contributes to its liveliness, above average acidity, and a light, easy-to-drink body and mouth weight. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, depending on which grapes the producer uses in the final blend. The most common grapes allowed to go into Vinho Verde are Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal. Only rarely will the “cépage” be listed on the label since no one knows these grapes anyway. Customers are more attracted to Vinho Verde by the like $4.99 price tag than by a hankering for some Trajadura.

That said, there are more “high end” Vinho Verde wines coming into the U.S. These typically come from the Monção area near the Spanish border and are made from the Alvarinho grape. This is not crazy surprising since Alvarinho is actually the same grape called Albariño in Spain. And Albariño wines are now getting popular in the U.S. See how it all fits together? The labels may say “Vinho Alvarinho” but they are still technically from the Vinho Verde DOC. Additionally, with each vintage there’s more 100% Loureiro white wines too and these will probably be labeled as such.

As with many traditional, if underdeveloped, wine regions most of the grapes in Vinho Verde are grown by small farmers who then sell to cooperatives or larger winery entities. As a result, to-date there are only a few “brand names” of Vinho Verde that are capable of saturating more than a couple of U.S. markets at once. One day we will have the Gallo of Vinho Verde but we’re just not there yet. Rome was not built in a day. Until then, feel free to try random bottles you find, they will probably be cheap enough as an experiment.

Vinho Verde can be pleasingly aromatic and floral with light citrus tones and pale white fruit and apple flavors. Perhaps even a certain stream water minerality. It would be a freak scene for any to see new oak (seeing as they are intended to be drunk in the first year or so after bottling) so no oak flavors. They’re not aged long enough to even develop a lees-based creaminess. Most malolactic fermentation is arrested early. What you see is what you get, no sealed court records of past steroid use needed.

No other wine region in Portugal is “known” for their white wines as is Vinho Verde. But most regions do produce some white wines and some can be pretty gosh darn good. And still on the cheap side of things.

In the Dão region of central Portugal there’s fine quality wines made from the local Encruzado grape as well as experimentation with non-indigenous grapes such as Malvasia. The same for the Terras do Sado region in Southern Portugal where Muscat (aka Moscatel) reigns and makes for some attractively floral and fruity wines. There’s plantings of grapes like Riesling and Gewürztraminer too, so maybe Terras do Sado will make a splash here by using grapes at least a few people know.

Oddly, the home of Port wine, the Douro, still seems to be having trouble making consistently good white table wines. The red table wines’ quality is there (even if the prices are sometimes higher due to the association with Port). In the Douro they grow Gouveio, Rabigato, Viosinho, Fernão Pires, Arinto and Malvasia Fina among others. Here you are most likely to see white wines which spend time in new oak as the Port houses have the cash for the oak as well as the desire to match the international palate. So, the Douro will likely represent the most expensive white wines imported to the U.S.

Hanes likes Rabigato because it means “cat’s tail.” That is cool. Maybe Meow-Meow would like some Rabigato too.

Still kinda not there yet are white wines from places like Alentejo (from grapes such as Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro or Perrum). The quality of reds from here (often labeled Alentejano to confuse you more) are rising rapidly so maybe one day the whites too? Hanes would probably put the Ribatejo region in the same boat as Alentejo. As always, feel welcome change his mind with bottles of free wine.

Overall, from Portugal you’re likely to find lighter bodied wines with more freshness than complexity or “wow” factor. Which is a good thing to Hanes. Higher priced Portuguese wines today will translate to more weight and power and intent to impress. Probably higher alcohol percentage too. When the median for white wines from Portugal passes $15 you’ll know they have “arrived” and it’s time to find some new wine to drink.