My favorite story about Vinho Verde comes from a sommelier colleague of mine in Chicago, who was tasked with creating a wine list focused on powerful red wines to match the restaurant's Argentinean steakhouse theme.
While red meat with Malbec is hard to beat, the restaurant's other featured menu item was ceviche, a raw seafood dish popular in Central and South America.
I'm of the school of thought that people should drink what they like, but there are a few “rules” of food and wine pairing that are best not tampered with. One of those rules is to avoid combining tannin (the gripping sensation found in red wine) and fish oil, which yields an unpleasant feeling of biting into a piece of tin foil.
My sommelier friend came up with a brilliant solution. He always kept a bottle of Vinho Verde on hand and poured it for the ceviche course.
Vinho Verde, meaning “green wine,” is not actually green at all. The name comes from northern Portugal's lush, green hills where it is grown. Most Vinho Verde is white, though red and rosé are also produced in small quantities. It is always crisp and lemony with low alcohol, typically ranging from 8.5 to 11 percent.
Vinho Verde usually has a light and refreshing sparkle, accomplished by an injection of carbon dioxide before bottling. It's not a wine for long aging and it's always best to buy and drink this wine as young as possible.
Not all Vinho Verde wines are bottled with a vintage date on the front label, but a good tip is to look for Vinho Verde's secret code. On the back of the bottle is a serial number, then a slash, then a date. The date tells you when the wine was bottled and the vintage will be one year earlier. If the number reads 123456/2012, then you know the wine is from the 2011 vintage, perfect for drinking now.
White Vinho Verde is produced from local grape varieties like Loureiro and Trajadura, with a few subzones specializing in the Alvarinho grape from neighboring Spain. These grape varieties might not roll off the tongue as easily as Pinot Grigio, but they've adapted well to the region's wet, maritime climate and they produce exactly the type of wine the Portuguese love to drink with their local cuisine.
The locals will insist you try bacalhau, their national dish. Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for codfish, and for historical reasons, it is almost always dried and salted. The fish is rehydrated in water and rinsed of some of its saltiness. It is prepared in an endless number of recipes but often includes potatoes and onions and can be baked or fried.
There is something magical about pairing the salty fish with a refreshing glass of Vinho Verde, almost as if the wine serves the same purpose as a squeeze of lemon, kicking up the food's flavor by several notches.
Most Vinho Verde is produced on a large scale and is therefore very inexpensive. Its price and easy drinkability make it an attractive wine for a picnic, a light lunch or as a prelude to dinner.
Vinhos Sogrape Gazela Branco, Vinho Verde, Portugal
Remember Mateus, the fizzy and slightly sweet rosé bottled in the flask-shaped bottle? It's a product of Sogrape, one of the several large wineries in the Vinho Verde region. Sogrape also produces Gazela, a zippy and refreshing Vinho Verde that works great with sharp or salty ingredients like greens dressed in a vinaigrette or vinegar marinated anchovies. Available by the glass at Pitch Pizzeria, $6.25 per glass.
Opala, Vinho Verde, Portugal
This is another great example of typical Vinho Verde, light and citrusy with just a touch of sparkle. You won't find a vintage date on this bottle, so look for the secret code on the back label so you know you're buying the freshest available. Try it with fried fish or even a bowl of potato chips to experience Vinho Verde's special counterbalance to salty foods. Available at Whole Foods, Regency Circle, $7.99 per bottle.