Drink

A Portuguese Wine Gains National Popularity

Simplicity and fizz bring vinho verde to the forefront

Emily Dietsch
Posted
Photo by Ashley MacLure

Ever heard of urban trickle-down theory? It works like this: a trend starts in a major metropolis, then moves to less-major metropolises, and finally lands in the rest of America. That’s the script for Providence in general, including its drinking scene. Plenty of forward-drinking barkeeps and barflies here lament an inability to innovate, or to keep apace of what’s pouring in cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco.

But vinho verde – a unique Portuguese wine – might be an example of reverse-trickle. In the past few months, major publications in those aforementioned metropolises have glommed onto the wine as the new, underground libation poised for “IT” status, like what rosé was before Hamptonites and rappers blew up its affordable insouciance. “Cheap and cheerful,” says The New York Times, for instance. “A refreshing new wave,” The Wall Street Journal tips its readers. By the numbers, America’s consumption leaped from 1.65 million bot- tles to 5.5 million in the past decade.

Except that, for most Ocean State residents, there’s nothing new or faddish about vinho verde whatsoever. Owing to a strong Portuguese influence, vinho verde has had a place on local restaurant wine lists, liquor store shelves, backyard barbecue setups and family tables for generations.

As a transplant to these parts thanks to college, I first encountered the stuff at Fox Point’s Madeira Wines, which is overseen by a warm set of women from Portuguese and Portuguese-American stock. After a few visits, I was smitten with the chief matriarch, who mothers anyone who will let her. I let her, gladly, and one day she recommended a vinho verde – which on good faith I took home in a crinkly brown sack.

Once it was chilled, I popped the cork and poured a glass, noticing immediately a light fizz and a vinegary scent, both unexpected. Both signaling spoilage according to my then-jejune wine knowledge.

Back to the shop I went. Setting my bottle on the counter, I leaned in and whispered, “Erm, I think it’s gone bad. It’s... a little fizzy.” Erupting in wry laughter, the proprietess explained, “No, no, that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

Well, then. Attention to nomenclature might have tipped me off: “vinho verde” literally translates as “green wine” in Portuguese but means something more like “young wine.” Meant to be drunk within a year of production, it originated as an easygoing, summertime refresher for domestic markets, rather than a status wine for export. Those bubbles that threw me? They owe to an in-bottle fermentation often viewed as a flaw in winemaking, but which producers kept since consumers happened to like it. That fermentation in turn contributes to a slight vinegary tartness of my first bottle, as does its typically high acidity.

Many producers nowadays have moved away from traditional methods, such as adding carbonation instead of fermenting in the bottle. Some romance was lost in the process, perhaps, but the trade-off are wines less rustic than before, and more consistent – but still wholly unpretentious.

This is good news for vinho verde’s sustenance in Rhode Island as our demographics shift. People without connection to the Portuguese enclaves that made it a mainstay still have reason to warm up to what was once a homely (albeit charming) wine category.

It means, too, that wine shops like my perennial favorite, Campus Wines on Brook Street, have cause to champion the stuff even though they cater to diverse customers united by an oenophilic stripe. Put simply, today’s vinho verdes cross all lines as a crowd pleaser. As one of the shop’s owners, Andrea Sloan, remarked, “We approach it as a fun little wine, easy to enjoy, not to be over-analyzed. Which, really, is how all wine should be enjoyed. You don’t need a PhD, just tastebuds and a sense of smell.”

Sloan and co-owner Howard Mahady stock a variety that ranges from familiar brands to, as they say, versions “nerdy enough to impress at a dinner party.” For neophytes or adventurers, they recommend Aveleda, Quinta da Aveleda, Casal Garcia (white and rosé) and Vera – and note that they’re continually on the hunt for new, innovative producers.

When asked what to avoid in the category, Sloan replied definitively, “the reds.” Duly noted. As Holly Golightly in a wine critic’s guise might have warned, nobody wants a case of the mean reds.