The irony of Portugal is that, though wine has been made here for centuries, most wine drinkers cannot name a single grape from the region, with the exception of port. When one hears Portugal, one tends to think of port wines and the city of Porto. But Portugal has varied wine regions within its coastal influences. Among white wines, it is broadly known as the Vinho Verde region.

Armed with that information I went to Porto, Portugal’s best known city outside of the capital of Lisbon, in May of 2010 to explore the diverse wine region which grows about 75,000 acres of grapes, and to be the only U.S judge on a six-member international panel to award the Best of Vinho Verde awards. A group of Portuguese judges rated about 300 wines, therefore when the international judges showed up (from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, England, Germany and Norway) we were confronted with the top 30 wines, which we eventually awarded the best five. Interestingly, the palettes of the Portuguese and the international judges were remarkably similar, and in light of some discussion about wine judges’ “regional” palettes, we were surprised to see that the bottom line is that a good wine is a good wine and judges from diverse backgrounds can easily determine that.

But prior to the awards ceremony, I was able to spend four days meeting about 15 different producers and tasting through some 150 wines. What is loosely termed Vinho Verde (literally “green wine”) constitutes the main white and some red wines of Northern Portugal. The name suggests green, but in reality it means “joven” or young wines; wines meant to be consumed less than a year after bottling. The other irony is that many of these young wines are better with age, even up to five years. Yes the joven wines are light, bright and crisp with a sharp acidity, but time in bottle allows them some maturity which softens them and drops their acidity. Overall the white wines here are not complex wines but that does not mean they are one-trick ponies either. The main white grapes are Alvarinho, Loureiro and their blending partner, Trajadura. In addition there are grapes like Azal, Arinto and Avesso. Though these grapes make simple wines, to make a good wine is not a simple process.

“When the fruit is ripe you have to pick quickly or the acidity will drop quickly,” says Paulo Rodrigues of Quinta do Regueiro, located in the most northern part of Portugal. And experimentations are still going on to determine. At Quinta da Aveleda, one of the most beautifully landscaped winery’s you’ll see in Portugal, I tasted through experimental bottlings, not released to the public. Enologist Jose Domingues pulled out wines that included specific blocks that have been irrigated and non-irrigated, with nitrogen added to the soil, and a sample without nitrogen; blocks with more canopy management in the form of leaf pruning and a sample without. The goal for this major winery is to continue to find what works best. And sampling these different test bottles, you begin to realize that subtle differences, specific choices have a direct effect on what’s in your glass.

Producers who are sincerely creating the best of the region include Afros, Provam, Quinta do Regueiro, and Quinta de Gomariz. Even a brief drive through the region, north of Porto, you’ll notice that vines are everywhere and it seems like nearly every back, front and side yard has plantings on them. And this is partly true. The wine region covers about 75,000 acres and there are roughly 30,000 grape growers. Many of the old trellis systems are still in use, arbors and arched systems routinely 10 feet off the ground or more. And then there are the vineyards planted in the last 10 years which more closely resemble traditional Western vineyards with the ability for machine harvesting. You will see some oak and barrel programs on the young white wines and by and large these do not succeed as the oak seriously mutes the inherent fresh, light quality of the wines. It’s best to stick with what Vinho Verde does best.

 At Afros, owner Vasco Croft employs biodynamic winemaking to support a small portfolio of wine which has clarity and a depth to them many producers do not achieve. Quinta de Gomariz is probably the best expression of where the wines of Vinho Verde are heading. The demographics of wine drinkers are changing and these wines reflect that. There is a minimal residual sugar, lots of acidity and a slight effervescence, making these wines young, bright, and fresh, easily drinkable and very compelling. Additionally these wines are inexpensive: 2-5 Euros in Portugal, making them between $10 and $15 in the U.S. They are strongly recommended and you’ll be pleased with the quality compared to the price you will find in your glass. Back at the awards ceremony, the top five Best of Vinho Verde winners for 2010 were as follows:

Casa de Vilacetinho, (Arinto)
Corga da Chã, (Arinto)
Quinta da Levada, (Azal)
Quinta de Gomariz, QG (Avesso)
Quinta de Gomariz, QG Branco (Alvarinho and Trajadura)

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