Something about August makes summer’s days feel numbered, though here in California the hot weather often lasts all through October. The combination of the back-to-school buzz and department stores’ jump-start on fall fashions gives you the sense that summer is already a thing of the past. And while I’m a big fan of autumn’s allure, there’s also much to be said for enjoying the radiance and candor of a summer day. And what better way to complement the delicious spirit of waning summer than with a picnic and a cold bottle of Vinho Verde?
Vinho Verde is Portugese for “green wine,” but there is nothing wet behind the ears about this varietal, which has been grown in the Minho region of Northwest Portugal for centuries. Vinho Verde is Portugal’s largest DOC, and the nearby Douro region is home to the oldest appellation system in the world, established nearly 200 years before that of France.
Vinho Verde gets its name from the practice of harvesting its grape varietals slightly before they are mature. It is also meant to be drunk when it’s young. The flavors of Vinho Verde are unique, influenced by the native varietals that are used to make it, such as Alvarinho (also known as Albarino when it is grown in Spain), Azal Branco, Loureiro, and Trajadura.
Crisp and delicate with a low alcohol content– typically hovering around 10%,– Vinho Verde’s character is equally affected by the various microclimates and soils of the verdant province from which it hails. The Minho region is home to various rivers, forests, bays, and beaches, and the weather is strongly influenced by the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Here, winters are wet and summers are hot.
In spite of summer heat, the region’s unique growing techniques yield wines that are light and fresh, with low sugars and high-acidity. In the traditional method of growing Vinho Verde, vines are trained to grow on host trees bordering crop fields. The trees used for this purpose, such as Portugese oaks, poplars, and wild cherry trees, can tolerate heavy trimming, grow fast, and are long-lived. The trees form natural pergolas and the grapes grow in the shade of the vineyard’s canopy.
The fertile ground underneath is used to plant grains, legumes, or vegetables. This age-old method of vertical agriculture fosters biodiversity of beneficial birds and insects, which does wonders for pest problems, requiring little to no pesticide use, while the shade cover helps considerably with weed control. While Portugese viticultural practices have become increasingly mechanized in recent years, with many winegrowers converting from traditional agroforest systems to monoculture methods, others continue to practice the tried and true traditional methods which give their wine its special character.
The character of Vinho Verde is as unpretentious as can be, with a semi-sparkling finish due to a second fermentation that occurs naturally in the bottle. Red and rosé Vinho Verdés are made as well, but they are difficult to find here in the U.S.. Although 40% of all Vinho Verde produced in Portugal is red, but only 1% of it is exported. Vinho Verde “Tinto,” from what I’ve gathered, is very tart and acidic, and goes best with rich foods, in particular suckling pig and sardines. Vinho Verde of the white variety complements light fish, salads, and seafood stews, and it is inexpensive enough to buy a few bottles at a time, just to see which one you like the best. Like each day, summer or otherwise, it is meant to be enjoyed now.