This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.
Let's start with a question. What do you think of when you think of vinho verde?
Here are some quick terms to start: Portuguese wine. Bright. Spritzy, acidic blends. Refreshing. Most significantly, white. Or occasionally rosé.
Maybe you've caught wind of the increasing "seriousness" of these wines, from single-varietal versions to longer-aged bottles hitting the markets. Maybe you've learned that there's much more to this "cheap and cheerful" wine than $5 screwtop bottles perfect for day drinking in the park.
One thing you've probably not heard much, though, is the word red. As in red wine. As in red vinho verde.
Which is why it might strike you as surprising that, until the early 90s, red wine dominated production in the vinho verde region. That, culturally, red vinho verde is as essential to mealtimes as water (maybe even more so). That, in just over a decade and a half, red wine has dropped to a mere 9 percent of vinho verde wine sold.
The most traditional example of red vinho verde is made from the vinhão varietal (though there are a number of others grown in the region used for both red and rosé wines) and produces a highly polarizing wine. It's a deep, ruby red; is almost inky in appearance; and has a tendency to coat the glass into which it's poured. Traditionally, it's served in white, ceramic cups.
It's also intensely acidic and almost mouth-puckeringly bracing. My tasting notes when trying vinhão (Quinta da Lixa, 2015) for the first time read, "MUSK. Smells like brandy. Funk. FUCK!!" (I may have had a glass of wine or three by this point.) It's not the kind of wine you open to idly sip on—this is a wine that begs for food, specifically, the rich, hearty cuisine of Northern Portugal.
And in that context, I did like it. A lot. My tasting notes continue: "Acidic/tannic, but not aggressively so?? Clean finish. Pairing [pork loin with cornmeal fritters and mushrooms] totally mellows the acid. OK… yum."
Some more background: Vinho verde is a wine region found in the northwestern part of Portugal. It's notable for its lush, green landscape, cooler climate, and the granite quality of much of its soil. It has been a officially Demarcated Region, or Denominação de Origem Controlada, or DOC, since 1908.
Vinho verde is primarily known for its whites, which make up 86 percent of total sales. Those whites are known for being bright, acidic, and young—the "green" nature of the wines comes through in how quickly the wines go from the vine to the bottle, and the bottle to the market. (The wines that are allowed to age some are quite lovely, but that's another story.)
This white wine domination is a relatively new phenomenon, considering the region has been official for 100-plus years, and producing wine for much longer: 1992-1993 was the last year that red vinho verde production came close to white, but it was nearly halved in 1993-1994.
The "why" of this massive shift is relatively simple—red vinho verde wines simply weren't translatable to the export market. But the disparity is striking, considering how essential this wine is to the fabric of the region.
"We simply could not abandon the vinhão," winemaker Vasco Croft told me as we strolled the grounds at Aphros, his stunning, biodynamic vineyard near the Lima river. The property has been in his family since the 17th century; when Croft returned to the vineyard and restarted production in 2004, vinhão was one of the grapes that was growing wild on the property. "This is what the workers and farmers of this region drink," he continued. "They just drink white on special occasions." It's also worth noting that a great deal of vinhão was (and continues to be) produced at home, by families, for families.
This stark divide between the wines that foreign drinkers associate with vinho verde and the wines that locals are actually drinking certainly isn't unique to Portugal. Lauren Feldman, sommelier at San Francisco restaurant Cala, has seen similar examples through most Old World wine regions.
"There are almost always wines that are made almost entirely for the local market. When you look at parts of France, Italy, the islands—there's a divide between the wines made for locals, and the wines made for exporting."
Feldman believes that wines like vinhão could find a place on wine lists similar to the one she has curated at Cala.
"Much of our list requires being hand-sold," she explains. "I made the whole list obscure so you have to have a conversation about it."
The conversation about vinhão, of course, requires an explanation of the necessity of pairing this wine with food. As Croft says, "Vinhão's acidity, richness of fruit and vegetal notes, together with the lively color, make it the best combination for dishes with cod, sardines, pork, stewed beans, etc. It cuts through and balances any dish with oil or grease."
Or: Northern Portuguese food. Hearty pork and goat dishes, rich preparations of the ubiquitous bacalau (salt cod), and oily, briny fish are all well-served by vinhão—particularly versions like Croft's, which, in addition to the obvious acidity, is a nicely balanced, light red, with deeply savory notes and a clean, fresh finish.
But even with the hand-sell, vinhão continues to have an uphill battle in the US. It's both hard to find (Feldman notes that there are very few available on SevenFifty, a comprehensive, online resource for restaurants, bars and distributors), and hard for American drinkers to understand.
Santiago Pesantez, the general manager at Lupulo, George Mendes' Portuguese-style cervejaria in Manhattan, knows the hurdle of the American palate all too well.
"When I came onboard at Lupulo, vinhão was one of the very first wines I was interested in introducing," he says. "And I tried! But the American palate… it's just not ready for this wine."
Pesantez believes that the problem primarily stems from expectations—when we see a dark, inky red wine, we think we're going to be drinking something very different. "People think it's going to be it's a nice, sweet wine like a cabernet. And you taste it… and it's sharp, full of acid! They're like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, there's something wrong here!'"
While he found that some diners ordered the listed vinhão—the same Quinta da Lixa that I tried—very few finished it.
"What I ended up doing was giving it away. When diners would order sardines, I'd give them a small glass and explain that this was traditional, this was how people would do it in Portugal."
Diners might be interested, but they weren't biting. "For now… it's all, 'I want something white. I want a rosé.'"
Charlotte Meyer, the sommelier at Aldea (Mendes' upscale, Spanish-Portuguese restaurant, also in New York) remembers the challenge of Quinta da Lixa at Lupulo well, and caused some hesitation when considering including vinhão on Aldea's more extensive wine list.
"I certainly wouldn't say no. I would give it a chance on our list," she says of similar reds from the region. "But, the fact is, I'm inundated with so many beautiful wines from Portugal. There are so many I want to put on the list."
Meyer and Pesantez agree that, perhaps even more than a hand sell, a tasting menu experience is the way for diners to really understand vinhão.
"A lot of people that come to Lupulo and Aldea, and are interested in trying Portuguese wine and cuisine, don't know the grapes. They're looking for guidance. And you want to give them the best recommendation possible."
For Meyer, that could include vinhão, though it's not her top priority right now. This could change, particularly if more diverse examples of vinhão make it to the U.S. market. Quinta da Lixa's is a great example of a traditional style done right, as is Croft's version out of Aphros, which has had great success in British markets; he believes this was thanks to "a certain rustic character, a lively irreverence unique to this terroir."
But winemakers are riffing on tradition, too. Anselmo Mendes, a leader in more complex approaches to vinho verde (both reds and whites), has a vinhão with intense smoky notes, hints of grappa, and, if you believe my ever-trusty tasting notes, "scorched earth."
Or take Quinta das Arcas' vinhão Eschola. It's only produced in years when the grapes get particularly ripe—thus far, in 2007 in 2014. The result is an incredibly smooth, more traditionally drinkable red, which, according to Antonio Monteiro (his father founded the winery 30 years ago; he handles exports along with his brother, Marco), was the goal.
"We wanted to produce a wine that could be enjoyed in other regions. We're breaking the traditional concept, and creating an international wine, but keeping the red vinho verde DNA." They're introducing the wine to their US importer this month, and hope to see some traction with it.
All told, increasingly diverse wine lists, passionate producers, and drinkers curious for something new and different (as the explosion of orange wine might suggest) bode some promise for red vinho verde stateside. Then again, perhaps the best way to enjoy it really is on its home turf.
"I think it's kind of cool that we don't have that much access to it. That's why it's so good," Feldman posits. "Sometimes, it doesn't make sense to take things like this out of the local environment. If you're in that place, having that food, with people speaking the language around you… it's a whole contextual experience."