Green is good for these Portuguese wines
Portugal's vinho verde (literally, green wine) offers just the right high-acid, crisp spritz for summer sipping. With low alcohol levels, they offer a thirst-quenching lightness that goes well with the lighter fare of summer. Among the standouts is the 2009 Arca Nova Vinho Verde.
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TODAY MIGHT not be the last gasp of real summer, but it's getting close. There's no better time to seek out crisp, high-acid white wines, those briskly fresh, mineral-driven wines that are the drinking person's equivalent of a dive into a cool, mountain pool.
I've long been a fan of Spanish albariños, whose aromas are infused with salty ocean air and flavors are bone dry. The mouthfeel is lightly pétillant (spritzy) and bracingly tart. But some wines go a step further and seem to take you right to the ocean's edge, where you can taste the spray. These are the Portuguese white wines labeled vinho verde.
Vinho verde (literally green wine) comes from a designated region in the northwest corner of the country. Traditionally known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho (between the Douro and the Minho rivers), it is a broad bowl bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Minho River in the north, and mountains in the east and south. Such conditions mean that the weather will be cooler, the growing seasons shorter, and the maritime influence quite pronounced.
Though it is made in both red and white versions, I have yet to see a red vinho verde, and the very term seems like an oxymoron. Often the white wines have a green tinge, though some can be even lighter — as pale as lemon water. Light and thin though they appear, they are not without flavor, and with alcohol levels as low as 9 percent (remember, these are dry wines), they are fine thirst-quenchers on a warm day.
Many grapes can be used, but I wouldn't worry about the particular mix, as vinho verde is quickly bottled and released, intended to be consumed as close to harvest as possible. The combination of light spritz, laser-sharp acidity, low alcohol and delicate flavors of cucumber, celery and citrus make it an ideal sipping wine or a fine companion to soft cheeses, shellfish or sushi.
I have always thought of these wines as being pretty far out on the edge as far as most consumers are concerned, but I was told by a friend who is the sales manager for a local distributor that it is one of his best-selling summer wines, with some brands selling as many as 1,000 cases over the summer. This was confirmed by a visit to www.vinhoverde.pt, the website of CVRVV (Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes), the regional wine commission. Here it was noted that the U.S. is the major export market for vinho verde, and the numbers are increasing.
At the lightest end of the flavor scale, try the Fâmega Vinho Verde ($8), citrusy and sparkly, finished at just 9.5 percent alcohol. In its clear bottle, with a shimmery, watery appearance, it seems like wine with training wheels, yet the sipping pleasure is undeniable.
A step up is the Ouro Vinho Verde ($8), with more of a cucumber than a lemon flavor, also in a clear bottle, and lovely when chilled. But for a dollar more you can try the Arca Nova Vinho Verde, a bit more substantial at 10.5 percent alcohol, with citrus and grapefruit flavors joining the celery and cucumber. Buy the 2009 vintage for optimal freshness. All three are distributed by Unique.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.