PORTUGUESE VINHO VERDE: GREEN WINE IS MUCH MORE THAN A SPARKLING WINE
You would have heard of red red wine, just like the song. Some people prefer white wine and, if we’re talking about the rainbow that spans the world of table wines, we can’t help but to mention summery rosés and the eye-catching rarer orange wines too. But then you land in Portugal and easily come across the so-called green wine. Is that a new type of wine you weren’t aware of? What if we were to tell you that green wine can actually be red, white or rosé? Confused? We would also be if we weren’t Portuguese and acquainted with the wonderful drink that is vinho verde, a typical beverage from the northern Portuguese Minho wine region.
If you’d like to immerse yourself in the world of Portuguese wine when visiting our country, verde wine is certainly one of the drinks we would recommend for you to explore. Don’t just sip it! Learn about it and, with a little context, we’re positive you can take your appreciation of green wine to the next level.
So, what is Portuguese green wine?
Simply put, vinho verde, literal Portuguese for green wine, is wine that has been produced in the DOC Vinho Verde wine region, which is geographically located within the Minho province in the north of Portugal. DOC stands for designation of controlled origin, a mark awarded by the EU. So only wines from this very specific origin, produced following regulated methods, can be labeled as vinho verde. This is what happens for example, with champagne from Champagne – only the sparkling wine from the homonymous region can be officially labeled as Champagne.
Most folks are quick to assume that green wine has to do with the color of the beverage – it has not! In fact, just like other table wines, green wine can be white, which is actually the most common variety you’ll come across, red or rosé. But green wine can also be a sparkling wine (once again red, white or rosé), and there are also green wine based distilled spirits (aguardente bagaceira) and, as a sub-product, even green wine derived vinegars.
Another false belief is that green wine refers to wine made with immature grapes, that it literally is green grape wine. Once again, that is not the case. Indeed verde wine is a young wine, but that has to do with the fact that most of it is meant to be drunk while still young, shortly after its bottled, and certainly not with grapes that haven’t fully ripened on the vine.
Green wine is known as a light, fresh wine, which many would consider easy to drink. But of course there’s a certain degree of heterogeneity within the world of green wines, and diverse blends of grape varieties as well as methods of production and even aging result in different styles of wine, which can be enjoyed on their own or with gastronomic pairings.
So, how did this particular wine come about? Let’s look into the history of Portuguese vinho verde, before we learn what varieties of green wine there are, the best way to drink it, how to pair it with food, and more!
The History of Portuguese green wine
Just like it happened with the beginnings of Port wine exports, wine from the Vinho Verde region was already being exported from the port of Viana do Castelo to Northern Europe as far back as the 17th century, in exchange for imports of codfish, Portugal’s “faithful friend”.
Vinho verde as we know it today, that is, within certain parameters of character and control, came about in the beginning of the 20th century, more precisely in the year of 1908. This is when the Região dos Vinhos Verdes, or Green Wine Region, was labeled and marked off as such. Since the moment the region was circumscribed, it included 9 different sub-regions, to recognize the singularities of each of them. The sub-regions within Vinho Verde wine region are Monção & Melgaço, Lima, Cávado, Ave, Basto, Amarante, Baião, Sousa and Paiva – and these are exactly the towns and cities you should look into visiting and/or staying at if you’d like to explore northern Portugal along the route of green wines. Wine tourism is alive and well in the verde wine region – look into Rota dos Vinhos Verdes, aka the Vinho Verde Route, and get inspired for your next trip!
Vinho verde refers to wine produced in this demarcated region, but it’s about more than geography. The Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (Commission for Viticulture of the Vinho Verde Region) was founded in 1929 precisely to regulate every aspect regarding the production and commercialization of green wine, so that vinho verde could archive DO status, that is, a product with denomination of origin – something that only actually happen later on, in 1973.
Until today, green wine is what a Portuguese law approved in 1929 clearly expresses: “One should only consider Vinho Verde that which results from the fermentation of musts from fresh regional grapes, very ripe, as they are the ones that within these conditions are capable to give origin to a wine with unique characteristics in the world and that, as such, the Law has defined at the time of the Regional Demarcation.”
The particularities of the Vinho Verde wine region
The Vinho Verde region spans a geographical area of about 24,000 hectares, which goes from the Atlantic coastline of northern Portugal to the more interior mountainous region, within the Minho district, but already on the border with neighboring Trás-os-Montes. Even though there are topographical and climate differences across the region, one thing the entire area does have in common is the existence of fertile lands where high rainfalls are frequent. Curiously, because these are soils rich in granite, they weren’t always particularly auspicious for agriculture, but thanks to human intervention, with climate and humidity aiding in this task, they have over the course of history become richer and more productive.
Viticulture for green wine making is quite peculiar. Vineyards are plants on the shores of the main rivers and affluents in the Minho wine region, which are known for their elevated soil acidity. Vines for green wine are usually planted according to specific vine management techniques, which may not be common elsewhere.
Bardo is the oldest vine planting system in the green wine region. It consists of a line of struts between 1.5 to 2 meters high, spread apart between 6 to 8 meters, which support 4 to 6 wires. The vines are usually planted in a tight space and flattened out, allowing them to give fruit pretty close to the soil. This type of vine organization allows for mechanical intervention for the upkeep of the plantation, something that naturally simplifies working on the vineyards with fewer people and in less amount of time.
Cruzeta is another vine structuring system, which was particularly common in the 70s, but it’s still pretty prevalent today. It consists of 2 poles, one vertical and another one horizontal, forming the shape of a cross, thus explaining the name of this technique in Portuguese. There are several crosses layed out in a line, with space of 5 to 8 meters between them, and wire connecting them all in line. The vineyards are pruned in a way which results in grapes only growing above the wires. This system isn’t as preferred as the ones above as the fruit isn’t always easy to get to and, as such, maintenance and treatments are more laborsome.
The cordão vine management system came after cruzeta and bardo, as a development based on its predecessors. It also makes use of crosses and wires, as to ensure that vineyards can grow supporting themselves on these wires before they even grow their own sturdy enough branches. The vines are planted similarly to the bardo method, in a row. This system has proved to be one of the more fruitful ones, quite literally, as the vines tend to give fruit just 6 years after initially being planted. On the other hand, cruzeta would only require 4 years, but it’s a more prone system to the spreading of diseases across the plants, and with cordão we would be talking about 8 years.
Independently of the vine growing system a given winemaker would follow, the vines for green wine making are usually planted vertically. This guarantees the planting density is higher, with greater competition between the plants, which translates into them developing deeper roots. This is also important for the plants to be able to breathe, something that decreases quite considerably the possibility of plagues and diseases and, consequently, translates into the lesser use of chemicals, which makes sustainable agriculture a reality.
Higher plant density also translates into a more robust soil and, because the vines give shade to this soil most of the year, the erosion is decreased. This is particularly relevant in the areas where vineyards are planted on slopes, in order to decrease the chances of landfall.
Vertical vine growing is intrinsically related with the terroir of green wines.
Why is it called green wine?
As mentioned above, green wine takes its name from the Vinho Verde region, which literally translates as green wine region. So vinho verde is simply the name of the region where green wine is made.
But why was the region labeled as such?
The first theory supports that the green wine region takes its name from the verdant part of Portugal that it calls home. According to this line of thinking, green wines are literally those from this area with high density of vegetation.
Another argument, which often becomes misleading, is that the name green wine is related with the fact that the grapes grown in the region have pronounced acidity resulting in more acidic wines too. These wines are therefore associated with being “green” wines, meaning, more immature. But in no way this means that the grapes are harvested when immature, that’s why we feel this explanation, even though common, can quickly become deceptive.
The main grape varieties used to make vinho verde
Many of the grapes used to make white green wine with denomination of origin status are considered autochthonous of this region, not because they literally originated here in all cases, but because they have been grown in this area for a very long period in history.
White green wine is indeed the most widespread variety of verde wine. The most common white grape varieties for white green wine include Alvarinho, Arinto (also known as Pedernã), Loureiro, Treixadura, Avesso, Gouveio and Semillon.
Alvarinho white grapes are particularly popular in the sub-region of Monção and Melgaço, just like it’s fairly used across the border, in the neighboring region of Galicia, in Spain, where it’s known as Albariño. Alvarinho vinho verde tends to be yellowish-amber, reminiscent of the color of hay, with intense aroma of citrus and fruit like peach, banana and lemon. Even though white green wines are mostly consumed young, that is, not long after being bottled, Alvarinho vinho verde has more possibilities than most green wines to make a positive evolution once bottled, with more potential for aging.
Arinto grape variety, also popularized as Pedernã, is grown all over the region, being at the base of fresh and mineral wines, which grant a lingering sensation on the palate. After being bottled and slightly aged, green wine made with Arinto grapes tends to take on notes of peach jam.
Avesso grapes are mostly grown in the green wine sub-region of Baião, resulting in yellow-greenish colored wines. Flavor profile wise, Avesso wines offer a mix of fruity and floral notes, delicate yet complex.
Azal grapes are usually grown in the interior region of the green wine circumscription. They are mostly known for their minerality and citrusy-fruity taste, suggestive of lemon, lime, grapefruit and green apples.
Lands closer to the seaside are ideal for growing Loureiro grapes, which share the fruity aromas of Azal, but also have distinct floral characteristics, namely evoking roses and jasmine. This versatile grape variety tends to evolve after being bottled, developing honey-like undertones.
Last but not least, Trajadura grapes are all about mature fruit aromas, like peach, pear and apple. Curiously, in years that are particularly cold, green wines prepared with Trajadura grapes will take on more dominant apple notes. The aftertaste is long lasting and rather smooth.
Red and rosé green wines are made with the same grapes – the main difference between them is the amount of time the skin of the grapes is left to ferment along with the grape must, being able to affect the color and flavor of the final drink. The three main grape varieties used to make rosé and red green wines are Espadeiro, Padeiro and Vinhão.
Espadeiro is the quintessential grape used to make vinho verde rosé. With a salmon to orange like color, green wines made with Espadeiro grapes are super fresh, take on notes of red berries, and even a slight touch of tropical fruit. They are intense, fruity, jammy, and offer a lingering fresh sensation on the palate.
Padeiro grapes are particularly grown in the sub-regions of Basto, Ave and Cávado. Besides the aroma of red berries, Padeiro grapes result in wines with candy-like attributes, truly flavorful and persistent.
Vinhão grapes help produce the most intense red green wines. Not only are they more acutely red in terms of tonality, they are also more intense flavor wise, bringing forth the taste of dark berries such as blackberries and gooseberries, plum and violet. Vinhão wines are perhaps the most gastronomic of all red green wines, ideal for enjoying with your meal.
Most vinho verde is prepared using a blend of grapes, even though monovariety green wines are also available in the market. Single grape white green wines are more common than reds or rosés, namely made with the grapes Alvarinho or Loureiro.
What is Portuguese green wine like?
The world of vinho verde is fairly diverse. Generally folks would say that green wine is refreshing and somewhat light, but the truth is that the green wine region also produces more complex and full bodied wines, with great minerality.
The characteristic of freshness usually associated with green wines refers mostly to young green wines. Those tend to indeed be bright and fresh, with low alcoholic volume – these are the classic green wines.
But there are also green wines with more aging potential, which could, to a certain degree, be regarded as more elegant and sophisticated. Those are generally more intense and complex.
These general qualities of green wine apply both to green table wines, as well as sparkling green wine, even though sparkling green wine is generally perceived as overall more nuanced both in terms of aroma and tasting experience.
Demystifying green wine
If there is one type of Portuguese wine which has a bunch of myths surrounding its production and characteristics, that is definitely vinho verde! If we already know that not all green wine is white, nor the wine is actually green… should we look into other common misconceptions surrounding green wine?
Is green wine always low alcohol content?
Most vinho verde is fairly low alcoholic, but not all vinho verde has little alcohol volume. On average, most green wine has a volume between 8.5% and 11%. This has to do with the low sugar content present in grapes used for winemaking. Because during fermentation these sugars turn into alcohol, lesser sugar naturally translates into lower alcoholic volume. This is why vinho verde is generally more on the acidic side.
The more alcoholic green wines tend to be those prepared with Alvarinho grapes, often referred to simply as Alvarinho wines, which would most commonly have between 11.5 and 14% of alcoholic volume.
Is green wine always sparkling?
Green wine is very often slightly fizzy. We’re not talking about the sparkling wine variant, but literally about green table wine. Even though vinho verde is regularly lightly effervescent, that is not always the case.
The spritz which many have come to associate with green wine, initially came about accidentally, as small quantities of carbon dioxide would get trapped inside bottles. Because folks have come to love these subtle bubbles, now-a-day producers add artificial carbonation to green wine.
Do not expect this subtle effervescence to be present in all green wines, no matter if white, red or rosé. Unless we are talking about a sparkling green wine, the fizz, subtle or more pronounced, is certainly not a given and should not be associated with the overall quality of the wine.
Is green wine always white, or does red green wine exist?
As we have explained above, when it comes to green table tables, there are different types of green wine, namely white, rosé or red. But there’s even sparking green wines in these same 3 varieties.
There is no one best vinho verde – the type of green wine we’d recommend for you to drink would have to do with the occasion, with what you are eating (if you are eating) and, of course, your general preference and taste when it comes to wines.
How to store and drink Vinho Verde
How to store green wine and ideal temperatures to serve it
If you purchase green wine to take home, and we think you should, as this is the type of Portuguese wine you’d hardly ever come by outside of our borders, make sure to store it properly. Store green wine in a cool dark place, preferably in a spot where temperatures stay stable. Ideally, green wine should be stored between 12 and 14°C, that is 53-57°F, with humidity levels below 75%. Just like most wines, bottles of green wine must be kept lying down in order to keep the cork always in contact with the wine, thus preventing oxygenation which will deteriorate the beverage over time.
Once open, a bottle of green wine will keep well in the fridge for 1 or 2 days, as long as you close it with a vacuum wine stopper used to pump out the excess air from inside the bottle.
Prior to serving green wine, make sure you bring it down to the recommended temperature to enjoy vinho verde at its full potential:
– White green wine should be served between 8 and 12°C, or 46-54°F
– Rosé green wine should be served between 10 and 12°C, or 50-54°F
– Red green wine should be served between 12 and 15°C, or 52-59°F
– Sparkling green wine should be served between 6 and 8°C, or 43-46°F
White vinho verde or red vinho verde: which one should I choose?
We love having a glass of chilled white green wine as an end of day drink on a warm summer day. It’s just so refreshing! But we certainly don’t just drink white green wine. Rosés are beautiful on their own too, but also paired with food, as we will explore below.
When we’re feasting on delicacies from the Minho region or enjoying a range of petiscos (small platters ideal to share) while socializing with friends, we may go for a red green wine. We confess we’re partial to red green wines made with the Vinhão variety of grapes. They have a certain rusticity we appreciate and their high acidity makes it a wonderful wine to enjoy with certain dishes – more on this in the food pairing section of this article coming up next.
Vinho Verde food pairings
If we love the region of Minho because it has given birth to green wine, we must declare our love to it too because of its immensely rich gastronomic repertoire. The traditional cuisine of Minho is hearty, rooted in peasant cooking, very much revolving around pork, goat meat, salt cod, bread and legumes.
Drinking green wine doesn’t mean pairing it only with Minhoto style food, of course. In fact, when most people, even Portuguese, think about green wine, they often picture seafood platters, which go well with the most widely spread of all green wines, which is undoubtedly white vinho verde.
Green wine is much more versatile than most would think of at first. As such, the possibilities for food pairings with verde wine are virtually never ending. But, of course, just like with any other type of wine, there’s a good green wine which will pair better with a given dish.
Opt for a light green wine to pair with light dishes, such as salads and cold appetizers. Likewise, dishes with high acidity (such as those featuring tomatoes or citrus notes, for example) would also combine well with green wines with pronounced acidity. White green wine, generally speaking, would pair well with fish and seafood, as well as with lightly seasoned vegetable dishes. Dishes with particularly rich sauces will also enjoy the company of white green wine, which can help ease out the heavy feeling caused by the high fat content on the palate.
Vinho verde rosé pairs surprisingly well with Asian flavors, such as those from Japanese or Chinese food, which tend to be on the salty side, but also Indian food, which is usually heavier in condiments and spices.
Red green wine, just like most red wines, is often associated with meat dishes, particularly red meats. The high protein foods have the potential of balancing out the pronounced tannins present in red green wine, making the beverage more smooth on the palate. Of course you can drink any type of green wine on its own or with food, but red green wines are undoubtedly gastronomic wines, that is, they are the type of beverage best enjoyed with food.
Besides green table wines, as we have explored above, there are also green sparkling wines, digestives and other particular wine styles such as late harvests (known in Portuguese as colheita tardia), which are particularly high in sugar content, as they are wines prepared with very mature grapes, which are naturally sweeter. Amaze your guests by serving a green wine late harvest with dessert, as it will go wonderfully with puddings, chocolate and fruit tarts.
Enjoy sparkling green wine as you would enjoy champagne or any other bubbly wine, for instance, as an appetizer drink, keeping in mind that there are brut (seco) and sweet (doce) sparkling green wines, classified as Reserva (reserve) or Grande Reserva (big reserve) according to the aging time the wine has done once bottled.
Aguardente de vinho verde, a distilled drink, is a potent after-meal digestive. When choosing a green wine brandy, know that there are also several varieties. Non aged green wine brandies are indeed more common in the Vinho Verde region. But you will also be able to find 1 year old Aguardente Bagaceira Velha or 2 year old Aguardente Bagaceira Velhíssima, which have a more amber shade and more pronounced wooden notes. VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) refers to green wine brandy which has spent at least 4 years aging inside a wooden barrel, and XO (Extra Old) is the labeling done when that time increases to at least 6 years.
Looking to pair green wine with very typical Portuguese dishes? Here are some quick pointers:
White and rosé green wine (best young, up until 2 years after bottling): codfish fritters (pastéis de bacalhau), fishermen style tew (caldeirada), peri-peri chicken (frango de churrasco), fried codfish – join our Original Lisbon Food & Wine Tour and taste this wonderful match by yourself!
Red green wine (best until 5 years after bottling): grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas), beans and meats stew (feijoada), braised chicken rice with blood (arroz de cabidela), spit-roasted suckling pig (leitão – even though the folks from Bairrada wine region would argue their local sparkling red wine, which is undoubtedly wonderful too, is the one for this), oven roasted duck rice (arroz de pato), cheese platters such as those featuring intense Portuguese cheeses like raw sheep milk specialities from Azeitão or Serra da Estrela.
Where to taste green wine in Lisbon?
You can buy green wine in most Portuguese supermarkets. Commonplace brands include Casal Garcia, Muralhas de Monção, Gazela, and Soalheiro. Many of these are of good quality and fairly affordable. In Portugal, if you have a 10 euro note, you can easily leave the store with more than one bottle of wine!
To purchase a wider range of green wine while in Lisbon, we recommend visiting a specialized wine store. Garrafeira Nacional, in the central Baixa-Chiado district, is always a safe bet for vinho verde and other Portuguese and international wines.
When in Lisbon, you can also taste vinho verde at wine bars or restaurants. In tascas, no frills tavern style eateries, often run by families from the Minho region who have settled in the Portuguese capital, don’t be surprised when they serve you green wine by the jar. These are often wonderful home wines, made from grapes harvested by the family itself. Otherwise, you can always order a bottle of green wine, something that seafood houses will particularly keep chilled for those ready to pair this summery and refreshing Portuguese wine with, for example, grilled fish, seafood rice (arroz de marisco), or steamed crustaceans.
Some of our favorite wine bars in Lisbon where you can, along with a selection of other wines, also drink vinho verde, include Terraço Editorial (Rua dos Fanqueiros 276, 8th floor), Black Sheep (Praça das Flores 62) and 111 Vinhos (Rua da Sociedade Farmacêutica 20 A). To enjoy green wine with typical Portuguese food visit traditional restaurants such as Verde Minho (CC de Sant’Ana 17), with comforting home style food; Da Prata 52 (Rua da Prata 52), where they serve a wonderful red green wine inside porcelain mugs, that is, old school style; or Adega Solar Minhoto (Av. Rio de Janeiro 29), an unpretentious venue with seriously good honest food.
Green wine is inherently linked with the food & beverage culture of northern Portugal and it’s a much beloved drink a little all over the country. So much that the band Despe e Siga has a song called Festa (Portuguese for party) whose lyrics go something like “I bought a bottle of Casal Garcia [a famous brand of green wine] / To drink along with Maria / We’re planning a party / Tonight is going to be a celebration” – trust us when we say lots people in our country known the words to this song!
International visitors who travel to Portugal and get to try green wine are usually positively surprised too. So, if you haven’t tried vinho verde yet, we hope to have awakened your curiosity so that you also open a bottle of green wine soon… and celebrate Portuguese style!