The Vinho Verde region of Portugal produces a rich vein for The Light Drinker to explore – typically lower ABV, naturally crisp dry wines with a delightful spritz, rounded flavours and an attractive calorie count. They are amongst my favourite drinks, especially as a refresher on a hot day or summer’s night.
The region is on the Atlantic and is the most northerly of Portugal, which is significant – the resulting cooler climate produces lower sugar content grapes, which in turn make wine which is naturally lower in alcohol but dry in taste. Their spritz traditionally came from the local production technique for which the name of the region, literally translated as “green wines”, is coincidentally apposite. The wines are bottled young (or “green”), typically after only three to six months fermentation which historically led to a second in bottle fermentation which produced CO2 and so spritz. It also gave cloudiness and today the spritz usually comes from adding a little CO2, at about 1 bar pressure. To put that in context, this gives just a light spritz – a typical sparkling wine has 5 or 6 bars of pressure.
The third element that produces these light wines are the traditional local grape varieties – most contain a blend of Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso, and Azal grapes, which bring flavours of blossom, melon, gooseberries apples and peaches which nicely complement the minerality that comes from the granite coastline at Atlantic air. A new entrant to the region is the Alvarinho grape, better known to Spanish wines drinkers as the rightly highly regarded Albariño. This grape makes a delicious wine but one that invariably has a much higher ABV. So beware, like their reviewers, not all Vinho Verdes are young, light and sparkling, and if it contains Alvarinho it almost certainly won’t be.
Vinho Verde’s have a mixed reputation, and perhaps rightly so. It is hard to buy a reassuringly expensive Vinho Verde. The traditional wine making approach was more peasant than polished and the early bottling left little time for sophisticated flavours to be developed. Both also produced cheap wines and the pejorative “cheap and cheerful” label still lingers although, frankly, I’ve always preferred cheap and cheerful to serious and over-priced. However, this history means that many wine merchants don’t carry these wines at all, or if they do they are the more modern, higher ABV kinds. So the field has been rather left to the supermarkets but they can deliver an excellent choice at a cheerful price: our particular favourites are the Co-op’s Vale dos Pombos, Sainsbury’s Alvorda and Tesco’s own label Vinho Verde, all which cost just £5 to £6.
Their quick production process means that these wines also need to be drunk young – they age badly! I tend to avoid any with a vintage more than a year ago and this tends to support buying these wines from supermarkets whose ethos is all about quick throughput.
Vinho Verde’s will appeal to the calorie conscious. They typically come in at about 60 to 70 kcal/100ml because they naturally tend to be dry, with both a low ABV and a low residual sugar level. By comparison, a normally dry but 13% Sauvignon Blanc or a sweeter but 8% Moscato both have typically 80 kcal/100 ml. The Light Drinker’s ultimate option is the excellent 5.5% Casal Garcia Vinho Verde which has just 40 kcal/100ml!
So far I’ve mentioned only white Vinho Verdes which is because that is generally all that can be found in the UK. There are rosés (and the Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Rosé is one fine example we have found available) and I read that there are reds and they are low ABV, but I’ve never yet found one to try. Apparently they are an acquired taste, often made from the Vinhão grape which has medium tannins and a bitter flavour. You’ll be the first to know if I find one.