In a land where red varieties were once predominant, Vinho Verde, Portugal’s largest demarcated wine region and one of the most extensive in Europe, is home to an array of white wines, from lightly fizzed selections to layered, ageworthy bottlings. They range in body from light and easy drinking to structured and complex.
High-end white wines from the region continue to showcase the quality and versatility of many of the local grape varieties, as well as varying vinification techniques such as skin-contact whites and aging in oak or clay. According to the Vinho Verde Viticulture Commission (CVRVV), premium bottlings (generally greater than $10 retail) represent around 20% of the region’s production. Roughly 14% of Vinho Verde wine bottled between January and July 2021 was labeled by subregion, a figure that’s been on the rise as additional attention and distinction are paid to the varying offerings and microclimates found within the region at large.
Located in the northwestern corner of the country, Vinho Verde’s rolling hills stretch across nine subregions from north to south: Monção & Melgaço, Lima, Cávado, Ave, Basto, Sousa, Amarante, Baião and Paiva. A maritime to continental climate is impacted by fierce coastal Atlantic breezes from the west, while mountainous terrain shapes the east and south of the region. The influence of river channels and tributaries helps form different microclimates, which allow for varied indigenous grape plantings and expressions throughout the area.
The art of blending is a trademark of Portuguese winemaking, and Vinho Verde bottlings are no exception. However, monovarietal and single-parcel wines can showcase the region’s impressive potential, and provide a sense of place, cultivation systems and production.
Vinhão is the region’s most planted red variety. Purple-red in color, the grape offers acidity and wild berry flavors. Borraçal, a red grape with a ruby color, also has a fresh character and is grown across all the region’s communes.
But Vinho Verde’s white wines garner much of the attention. The region’s most widely planted grape, Loureiro, thrives in these microclimates in the lower and higher Lima Valley riverbanks. The grape yields high-quality wines and is recognized as an ideal cultivar for single-variety expressions.
In the moderate conditions of the Ave and Cavádo subregions, Loureiro produces light-bodied, refreshing and elegant wines. It transitions into richer expressions toward the interior by the Sousa subregion, where it’s not as exposed to the Atlantic.
Loureiro’s floral notes play along nicely with other grapes, including the sharp, citrusy edge of Arinto and delicate, low-acid Trajadura. These three grapes form a pivotal power trio that reigns in Sousa, along with the very promising red-fruited Espadeiro for rosés.
Intermediate altitudes with cold and rainy winters and long, hot and dry summer days give late-ripening varieties the chance to mature. In the South, by the Paiva subregion moving inland across the Amarante and Baião, which borders the Douro Valley, the vibrant Azal Branco grape, as well as the fruity and nutty Avesso, a rising star variety, yield promising wines with great potential.
The centralized, inland subregion of Basto is sheltered from sea winds. The white grape Batoca is found here and incorporated into offerings from the region, while the friendly Padeiro red grape and rarer Rabo de Anho variety yield structured red wines with fresh texture and rustic edge.
In the North by the Spanish border, which butts up to Rías Baixas, the Monção e Melgaço subregion is characterized by particularly sunny hillsides around the southern bank of the Minho river. The area’s wines are centered around high-toned Alvarinho, largely considered the king of the North, where it yields wines with complex aromas.
The scarce dark-skinned Pedral can bring fragrance when added to blends, while Alvarelhão can produce refined, mouthwatering light-bodied reds.