Every hot summer day calls for a cold beverage with a little sparkle. In Nova Scotia, we are blessed by local wines with beautiful bubbles, but last week's summery Sunday had me feeling international, so I decided to go Iberian, and bought a bottle of Vinho Verde.
It has been a long time since I've tasted this wine, and doing so, I now realize why people compare our own Tidal Bay wines to Portugal's Vinho Verde. Light, refreshing, aromatic, high in acid and low in alcohol, the wines are very similar in style, so if you like those from our backyard, you'll like Vinho Verde. The Portuguese wine has an added bonus: a slight fizz gives it a joyful little boost.
Vinho Verde is both an appellation — a small wine region — and a wine style that can be made outside that region. Wines made in Vinho Verde — which lies in northwestern Portugal between the Minho and Douro rivers — are varied in style, but the rich, high alcohol Vinho Verde made from the Alvarinho grape is harder to get and more expensive. The vast majority of Vinho Verde made for export is light, flowery, fizzy, under 11 per cent alcohol and very affordable. I picked up a bottle for $13 at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp.
Portugal's varied climate allows it to grow a vast range of wines, from light, refreshing whites to dark, rich reds to the famed fortified wines of Port and Madeira. The country has a long history of high-quality wine production made with an eye to export. In 1703, Britain, valuing its political alliance with Portugal and loving the country's Port, signed a treaty to remove import taxes on Portuguese wines entering Britain. In the 1930s, local wine grower Antonio de Oliveira Salazar created an organization to protect grape growers and guarantee Portuguese wine quality. By the 1960s, Portugal was exporting 1,000 times the amount of wine it imported.
Most families in the densely populated rural region of Vinho Verde are farmers, and the vast majority of farmers grow grapes. In order to make the most of the cramped agricultural family plots, grapes in this region are grown overhead on pergolas, leaving the ground beneath free for other crops. As a bonus, this style of viticulture keeps mildews and rot off grapes, which is helpful in the humid region.
Vinho verde names a style of wine that embraces youthful freshness, as opposed to Portugal's vinhos maduros, or mature wines. Vinhos verdes can be white, red or rosé, but the reds and rosés are prized locally and rarely make it out of the country.
Vinho verde, directly translated from Portuguese, means "green wine." However, in English, "green" has negative connotations of the unappealing flavours of unripe grapes. And, vinhos verdes can be red, rosé or white. As is so well put by H. Warner Allen in André L. Simon's 1967 book Wines of the World, the English, who were the largest importer of Portuguese wines in the 1600s up to the mid-1900s, translated the verde in vinho verde as "eager, since though they may be red, white or pink, they are never green. They are light and acidulous, to be drunk young, and eager really expresses better than green their zest and youthful lightness."
For the etymologically minded, "eager" also delightfully hearkens back to the French "aigre" from which the English word is born, and which means pungent and acidic, falling somewhere between sour and bitter and therefore embodying neither meaning. Taken full circle, we can follow this term past the prime of a mature wine to its final state: vin-aigre.
The sparkle of Vinho Verde is an "agreeable prickle of slight secondary fermentation" (Allen again). Traditionally, Vinho Verde was allowed to go naturally through malolactic fermentation, which turns harsh malic acids into soft lactic acids with a byproduct of carbon dioxide, which was retained in the wine. Today, most Vinho Verde, at least the stuff we get here, is injected with carbon dioxide before bottling.
Vinho Verde is also traditionally fermented bone dry, but wine made for export is sweetened to appeal to the sweet tooth of New World wine drinkers.
Nova Scotia liquor stores usually stock at least one Vinho Verde and rarely more than two, but that's OK: Vinho Verde is a simple style that asks no great investment of money or devotion.
I decided to pinch my pennies purchase and Gazela's Vinho Verde ($13), cheesy label and all, as opposed to Quinta da Aveleda's $14 bottle. Gazela's aromas were floral and fruity, of blossoms, cantaloupe and, rare for grape wine, grapes. A light wine at nine per cent alcohol, its acidity pulls up short, reined in by a small amount of sugar, now imperceptible. The slight fizz added to its refreshing flavours; this is a pleasant, go-down-easy wine. Great for welcoming old friends home with a trout on the grill.