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Vinho Verde: The white wine you should be drinking

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ARAMANTE, PORTUGAL — In Manitoba, our selection of Vinho Verde is on the modest side, to say the least. Typically made into light, crisp, low-alcohol white wines, we see just a few Vinho Verdes at Manitoba Liquor Marts and only a few more at private wine stores.

This isn’t surprising — Vinho Verde wines aren’t exactly taking the world by storm right now. But all the right ingredients exist for this wine to take off in popularity in a big way. First of all, Spanish wines are exploding in popularity right now, and by all accounts Portuguese wines could ride the wave to bigger global sales much in the same way Argentine Malbec did with Chile’s rise and/or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc did with Australia’s massive presence.

There’s also the fact that many wine drinkers are looking for alternatives to big, heavy, high oak- and alcohol wines right now — in that sense, Vinho Verde is the perfect alternative. The wines tend to be very light, fizzy white wines with modest alcohol content (anywhere from 8.5 per cent to 12 per cent) that are ridiculously food-friendly.

Finally, the increase in popularity of low-calorie wines (Skinnygirl, Skinny Grape and other regrettably watery wines I’ll rant about in the near future) fares well for the lighter Vinho Verdes — they’re relatively low in the calorie department while still delivering actual flavour.

The reason I bring all this up is because I’m in the Vinho Verde region right now. Located in the northwest corner of Portugal, I now realize there’s much more to Vinho Verde wines than I had originally thought based on the few wines I had tried.

While the Vinho Verde wines in our market are representative of the overarching popular/traditional style — fairly simple, spritzy whites made from a blend of indigenous grape varieties — there’s a movement toward making more complex wines of great character in Vinho Verde, often from single grape varieties rather than blends. In particular, the Alvarinho grape is a focus for many Vinho Verde producers. Generally made in a still (ie. non-fizzy) style and with more "normal" alcohol levels (between 12 and 13 per cent by volume, typically), Alvarinho wines deliver richer flavours, more body, and greater complexity. It’s a Viognier-like grape that’s brilliant when young and certainly intriguing when aged (as has been the case with the few aged Albarinhos we’ve tried on this trip).

Around here the locals eat a lot of rustic, heavy, hearty fish and pork dishes, and it’s no surprise that Vinho Verde wines — both the more typical blends and the more "serious" wines made from single varieties like Alvarinho, Loureiro, and Trajadura — work wonderfully with such dishes.

Anyway, I’ll have to leave it there for now (I’m typing this in a moving van that somehow has wireless Internet — we’re bumping along over cobblestone streets and taking hard corners in a way that’s nearly nausea-inducing). I’m heading to the Douro region to taste some port with one of my travelling companions tomorrow. I’ll have many more thoughts to share once I’m back in Manitoba and can process this so-far-unbelievable trip. In the meantime, I’ll be updating Twitter (@bensigurdson) as well as uploading pics via Instagram (instagram.com/bensigurdson) whenever possible.

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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