Badass Sommelier: Let’s Drink Some Vinho Verde

How the perfect summer wine is also inherently flawed. 

It has been torture getting good, cheap Vinho Verde this summer. Somehow, between the tumultuous weather of 2012 and the strengthening Euro (right? I don’t know how finance works), I keep finding shitty Vinho Verde for extravagantly high prices.

Let me put things in perspective real quick. When I say “extravagantly high” I don’t mean “compared to bottles of Bordeaux that cost more than a car*,” I mean “compared to going to the movies on a Sunday afternoon.”

What I’m getting at is that when presented with a $15 bottle of last year’s Vinho Verde I don’t just balk, I laugh like there’s a Benny Hill marathon and I’ve been awake for 40 hours.

Here’s a good rule of thumb, kids. Don’t pay more than $10 for a bottle of Vinho Verde, and don’t get anything more than a year old.

Cheap is Beautiful

Vinho Verde is cheap. That’s, like, fundamental to its fucking appeal. It is inherently flawed and that is the entire point.

So let’s take a minute here and talk about what it even is.

Vinho Verde comes from the Minho region of Portugal, bordering the Minho River that cuts through Portugal and neighboring Spain. The grapes used for Vinho Verde (namely Alvarinho, but also Loureiro, Arinto and like a dozen other grapes that only grow in Portugal) tend to be sturdy and versatile, the kinds of grape that are suited to growing in inhospitable conditions. Appropriate, because it gets hot in Minho.

I mean, it gets hot throughout all of Portugal anyway. That’s part of what makes Porto and Madeira so successful. But Vinho Verde isn’t fortified, and an overly hot climate tends to result in overly cooked wines.

Winegrowers in Minho cleverly avoid the heat by using the unique enforcado system in the vineyards. Essentially, this entails training the vines high, to be less affected by heat reflected from the ground, and planting cover crops to protect from the sun**. This does, however, mean that the ladders come out during harvest time.

But Vinho Verde isn’t just a cheap white wine. No, Vinho Verde is a cheap white wine that’s gone wrong.

Outside of Champagne, secondary fermentation in the bottle is a serious problem for winemakers, and one that calls for careful precautions. Besides generating an unpleasant effervescence (bubbly isn’t always better, hate to say), the secondary fermentation cuts into the residual sugars and unbalances the wine. But it’s even worse when the dormant yeast wakes up and starts eating up the acids in the wine.

This is called malolactic fermentation, and if it sounds familiar it’s because it is what gives new world Chardonnay that creamy, buttered-toast flavor. Unwanted malo is usually a serious concern, especially in white wines that rely on acidity for balance and texture, but the winemakers in Minho found that the ensuing slight fizziness caused by this flaw actually made the wine more palatable.

In the staggering Portuguese heat, zesty Vinho Verde became the refreshment of choice.

That zest, though, will fade over time. The settling effervescence doesn’t make a wine bad, technically, but it does make it feel wrong. Have you ever drunk soda that’s been open too long? There isn’t actually anything wrong with the flavor, but the texture is so completely alien that it becomes unpalatable. The same is true for sparkling wines. Flat Champagne doesn’t taste right because it doesn’t feel right. It ends up as really dull Chardonnay. And the same is true for Vinho Verde.

This, and the youthful acidity that makes the wine so refreshing in the first place, is the reason we look for young Vinho Verde. Age does not treat these wines well. This, coincidentally, is also what makes these wines so inexpensive. They are wines that should be priced to move because otherwise there ends up being a ton of last year’s wine floating in the market, not being sold.

That youthfulness, by the way, is actually where the wine gets its name. Vinho Verde translates to green wine not because of the color (it isn’t green) but because it is meant to be drunk young.

So what even is going on with high-priced, poor quality, old Vinho Verde is beyond me.

Better than Lemonade.

Anyway. At their very best, Vinho Verde are some of the most perfect summer wines. They are light and pretty, and with low enough alcohol (somewhere between 8% and 10% by volume) to be ideal for quaffing. Which is good, because that’s what you’ll be doing with it. They’re great for all-day drinking, more refreshing and relaxing than a tall glass of fresh-squeezed.

Lovely lovely citrus notes and a pleasant cut grass thing on the nose are nice, but this is not a particularly fruity wine. It’s light and easy and refreshing and a little effervescent. Vinho Verde is, as far as I’m concerned, definitively summery. It’s great on its own, but really shines with summer salads, grilled chicken, turkey burgers…anything light and easy. It particularly excels with seafood, where it gets to stretch its legs and show off a little.

So pick up a bottle of Vinho Verde on a sunny afternoon, get it good and cold, and find a beach or a park bench or a backyard barbecue and make a day of it.

*The average price of a car, I mean. I once bought a car off a friend, an ’89 Subaru Legacy, for $50 and a case of beer. I drove the thing from Baltimore to New York, then down to Miami and back. The poor thing was held together with duct tape and wishes, the power-steering had long since given up the ghost, and the engine would flood in the rain (or when driving over a puddle, or when it goddamn felt like it). It finally died somewhere outside of Charlottesville. I sold it for parts, made $100, and hitched the rest of the way back home. I loved that car.

**Keeping the grapes from getting overly hot is really just a side-effect of training the vines high. The real purpose of getting them off the ground is to make sure there’s enough room to grow, you know, food.