Wine Tripping Through Vinho Verde
Vinho Verde is still largely undiscovered by tourists, but a must-visit for wine lovers.
by Erin Henderson
In late 2021 I took my first trip to Portugal. A guest of the Wines of Vinho Verde consortium, I was stationed in Porto, the northern little sister to Lisbon, a charming city of only 300-thousand people, but brimming with soulful architecture, sandy beaches, enchanting restaurants, gorgeous shops – and that famous, rushing Duoro River. A city that masterfully straddles Old World whispers among modern conversation.
Vinho Verde (pronounced by locals as Vaird, not Ver-Day) is the neighbouring wine region just to the north of the city. Smallish by general wine region standards, but spectacular in diversity. Sitting in the north-west of Portugal, and divided into nine sub-regions, Vinho Verde runs west-to-east from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior mountains that act as a border between Vinho Verde and the Duoro Valley, home to Port production. From north-to-south, Vinho Verde begins at the Spanish border and runs south to the city of Porto.
It was here that I embarked on my first foreign adventure in 20 long, locked-down months. Days were filled with awe-inspiring winery tours winding through lush and hilly vineyards, long lunches set against a backdrop of soaring mountains, and twisting drives that followed the deep Duoro river, sunlight glinting like diamonds off its wavy surface.
The locals proudly boast that you will never go hungry – or thirsty – in Portugal. Here, a healthy reverence for life means a quiet break in the day for a satisfying lunch. Caldo verde, the hearty, yet light, Portuguese soup made of kale, spinach or other robust greens is a daily staple. The ubiquitous salt cod, caught in Canada’s waters, is a mainstay. And of course, pork, in all its forms and all its parts, makes up most meals. Blood sausage, tripe, stomach, heart, lungs, it’s all on offer. By Canadian standards, a sense of adventure is required as much at the dinner table as on the steep mountain roads.
Of course, Canadians are no stranger to classic Vinho Verde wine. The spritzy, inoffensive, mercifully cheap, pale white wine of our university days. Those wines still very much have a place, pioneers that should be respected for putting Portugal on the world stage. And heck, give me a sweltering summer day and a plate of fried calamari or fresh, briny oysters (I’ll pass on the sardines thank-you-very-much), and I happily guzzle the low-alcohol sipper. And I can walk away from lunch still functioning.
But this fizzy old-school style of Vinho Verde wines, while loved, appreciated, and happily visited from time to time, is exactly that: a heart-warming nostalgic nod to the past. Nowadays, like building a beautiful new quilt from favourite pieces of old cloth, a new generation of winemakers are pushing boundaries and creating exciting wines from familiar grapes.
There are more than 40 wine grapes grown in Vinho Verde, the lion’s share white, and of that there are about six dominating indigenous varieties: Alvarinho is king, of course, closely followed by Loureira, Avesso, Azal, Arinto, and Trajadura. For reds, there’s a few intriguing grapes, but one in particular caught my attention: the inky purple Vinhão, with both flesh and skin a hypnotizing violet, it’s a rare Teinturier Grape (there are only about 12 red flesh and skin grapes; the rest have white flesh and red skin.) The running joke is Vinhão wine is so deeply coloured, if you spill it on your clothes the only way to remove the stain is with scissors. The Portuguese serve it in white bowls, similar to latte bowls, so the sipper can really admire the swirling plum hue.
Granite soil runs deep here, giving terroir-focused wines a beautiful flinty, mineral quality to support the upfront fruit. And in the hands of skilled wine makers, there’s an elegance and depth the Vinho Verdes they produce. Chestnut barriques, clay amphora, steel eggs…. these are just some of the tools in the modern oenologist’s toolbox. Replacing cheap, Co2 induced Vinho Verde, is innovative pet-nat sparklers, orange wine, and oak-aged whites that are creamy and complex.
Alas, Ontario still isn’t seeing the great white wave of premium wines flowing from Vinho Verde just yet, but the trickle has started: at the time of this writing, three exciting new wines have landed on Ontario soil awaiting release to the LCBO shelves. This is just the tiniest tip of the mountain top, but so far, the view is excellent.
Some Stunning Wineries to Visit:
A&D Wines, Quinta de Santa Teresa, Rua de Arufe 530, 4640-34 Baião, Portugal
A&D recently acquired the Santa Teresa property in the mountainous sub-region of Baio, spitting distance from the Duoro. This area is where granite-dominated Vinho Verde starts to transition to the schist soils found in the Duoro. With vineyards that date back over 80 years, here is where the oldest Avesso vine in Portugal is found, a staggering 200+ years old that stretches out over 26 square meters.
The sprawling, mountainside vineyard offers meandering walks with breathtaking views. Dotted throughout the property are fountains, cement benches and statues perfect for taking a rest to contemplate the scenery or snapping that all important Instagram pic. At the top of the vineyard is a stylishly modern, square glass box; a tasting room offering a 360° view of the valley and misty foothills. A rectangular pool with surrounded by canvas lawn chairs allows for a relaxing respite with a crisp glass of Avesso
Quinta de Aveleda, R. da Aveleda 2, 4560-570 Penafiel, Portugal
Easily one the most whimsical, majestic, and extraordinary wineries I have ever visited.
The sprawling property, on which the Guedes family still lives in a Fantasia-styled, white walled chateau, is filled with strutting peacocks, 100 different species of exotic camellia flowers, an Alice-in-Wonderland teahouse sitting in the middle of a moss-covered pond, and soaring redwood and Japanese cyprus trees. It’s an utterly breath-taking and wonderful sight to wander. Aveleda has been making wines since the late-1800’s, when the family patriarch, Manoel Pedro Guedes, returned from travelling the world, bringing with him a rare aesthetic for global art, architecture, and structures. He set up the winery, impressing critics from across Europe, and today Aveleda is one of the biggest in Vinho Verde with exports to more than 70 countries.
Quinta das Arcas, 4440-392 Sobrado, Portugal
A family-run company that only began in the 80’s (just a baby by Portuguese standards), this winery is one of the more progressive and forward thinking I visited. Balancing tradition with innovation, Quinta das Arcas produces exceptional traditional method sparkling, oak-aged Avarinho, and deeply powerful Vinhao.
Monverde, Quinta de Sanguinhedo, 4600-761 Telões, Portugal
Known as the “winery experience hotel” we stayed an evening in this luxurious retreat, set in the centre of the vineyards of Quinta de Sanguinhedo. It was originally built to be a guest house for wine loving friends, but building continued it became a true destination for globe-trotting wine lovers incorporating a relaxing spa, cutting edge restaurant, and elegantly decorated, modern rooms.
Quinta de Raza, 4890-571 Celorico de Basto, Portugal
Located in the heart of the Vinho Verde, surrounded by soaring mountains, directly in front of the Quinta de Raza is one of the main sites of the northern leg of the famed Volta a Portugal cycling race. Steep and soaring, the impressive mountain looks like nothing I would want to cycle, so instead, I chose to have a glass of wine on Quinta de Raza’s rooftop terrace and thought nothing more of it. Quinta de Raza seems to be straddling past and present with carefully crafted wines of Vinho Verde’s heritage, as well as experimenting with natural wines, both still and sparkling.