On the American map of Portuguese wines, dry wines are well in the boondocks. Of course, we all know Port, that deliciously fortified, intensely sweet and dense black wine popular since the days of yore. As tasty as this syrupy treat may be, its high alcohol content and thick texture make it rather inappropriate for the sort of weather we have experienced of late (short of a topping for ice cream, for which it can be fantastic). This fact considered, one may imagine that, for this time of year, Portuguese wines are right out. This is not necessarily the case.
Though I am a huge fan dry Portuguese wines, I completely understand why they remain relatively unknown. First off, the Portuguese language remains to me, as I'm sure it does to many, a complete mystery. Yo hablo Espanol, por que the hell can't I make a damned bit a sense of Portuguese? Thoroughly domesticated Port wine aside, Portuguese wines suffer from the same stigma as Greek wines, in that all those superfluous seeming letters and foreign looking constructions are more likely to deter than attract. Also, in labeling, the Portuguese are as behind the times as anyone, largely clinging to stodgy presentation and usually failing to name their varietals; when they do, the listed grapes are some most people have never heard of, and with way to many H's and U's in them, thank you very much.
But I digress; Portugal's dry wines, like every other country's, have the potential for greatness. If you have the interest but neither the capacity nor capital for the better reds this time of year, a great gateway to this country's fine table wines is Vinho Verde. Translated from the native Portuguese as "Green Wine," this appellation in the country's northwest is one of the most densely planted on the Iberian, which is a wonder considering it is also one of Portugal's most populated areas. The region is dominated by small farmers who number in the tens of thousands and sell their grapes to local wineries and cooperatives. Though a good amount of red and pink wine is produced, the region's principle and most well known product is its white. Made from a number of varietals, these wines are perfect for the current clime: light and lively, usually around 8 to 11% alcohol, slightly sweet, and just the tiniest bit fizzy.
The appellate does not refer to the beverage's color (which is usually a light straw yellow), but more to the wine's raison d’etre, which is to be consumed young. Some Vinho Verde sold stateside is vintage dated, but most bottles will simply proffer a time stamp giving the date of bottling. Whatever the indicator, it is unwise to purchase a Vinho Verde which has been around for more than a year; as the name implies, this wine is best consumed green, when it is at its freshest and brightest.
Flavors range from floral and lightly perfumed to a lemon-lime intensity reminiscent of Sprite, but almost all are blessed with a relatively high acidity. Another blessing of Vinho Verde is that it is invariably cheap, retailing between $5 and $12 a bottle. One of the most recognizable is Trader Joe's house brand, which unlike many of the store's exclusives (Two-Buck Upchuck, included), is actually quite tasty, and a steal at $5 or less. Neblina (pictured top left) is another well known producer, offering up a bit less sweetness and more balance than TJ's, for a meager $8 a bottle. Gatao (pictured right), a lesser known maker brought in by a local importer, is all the more recognizable for its Aussie-style "Slap an Animal On It" marketing approach; despite the cheesy label, the wine is quite distinctive, not the least bit cloying, and a great summer sipper for about $10. For a different take on Vinho Verde, try the Quinta do Ferro Avesso (bottom left, about $11). Made from 100% Avesso grape in the subregion of Baiao, the Ferro is an anomaly at 12.5% alcohol; being completely dry and full of apple and melon fruit, this wine is more than just an aperitif, and would make a great addition to any table featuring light seafood or summer salad.
With this unprecedented heat wave gripping our fair city, never has the time been better to experience these lightest of whites. Happy drinking, and let's all hope that next week I'll have impetus to suggest something a bit more weighty.