There were nine
musicians in all – playing horns, guitars, accordions – and that's if you didn't count the rest of us, improvising artful
sounds with hands, feet and lips. The rain
clapped down on the street next to us, but we danced on to the impromptu gypsy music under the protection of one of Lisbon’s many arcade
roofs. It was one of those magical, spontaneous nights that could only have
manifested at that exact place and time. Smiles were all around, but my friend
Joana Teixeira, a Lisbon-native, looked pensive.
“None of these musicians
are Portuguese,” she lamented. “Portugal used to be a great country. We had so
much talent and so much power. Now we’ve lost everything.”
To an outsider, the
birthplace of the musicians seemed irrelevant, but her concern had deeper roots – it was about a nation that was once one of the most powerful on Earth,
managing a colonial empire that has left some 250 million Portuguese speakers
worldwide in its wake, and losing much of its influence in the world – and much
more recently, falling victim to economic disaster.
Searching for a legacy
The next morning the trains
were on strike, a fairly typical experience in this new, modern-day Portugal, but I was determined to
catch one of the few buses travelling from Lisbon to the city to Porto, home
to the fortified dessert wine that made Portugal’s second city world
famous. Considering port wine’s high price tag and wide-spread availability
around the globe, it seemed to be one of the few remaining marks Portugal continues
to make in the world.
Little did I know – even Portugal’s most famous export has British
Port is produced from
grapes grown in the Douro Valley and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, a city
just a short walk across the Douro River from Porto. When it was first
developed in the 16th Century, it was light and dry; the rich, sweet wine we know today was
conceived in 1703, when the Methuen Treaty between Portugal and England ensured
that wine from Portugal would be less heavily taxed than wine from France. This
resulted in heavy English investment, and stronger regulation. And in order to
ensure the wine would keep well on the long journey to Britain, producers began
fortifying the wine using aguardente, liquor produced from grape must, giving port its high alcohol content
(18% - 20%) and distinct flavour.
Of the 90% of port
wine that is still exported today, many of the major producers — such as
Taylor’s, Sandeman’s and Cockburn’s — retain their
British names; an outward marker of their international heritage.
Portugal’s most famous export
may be port wine, but its most common is vinho verde, a wine produced in the Minho region,
which begins about 30km north of Porto. Yet for nearly its entire history – vinho verde vines are so ancient that Seneca
the Younger and Pliny the Elder both referenced the grapes as far back as 96 BC
– the wine was nearly impossible to find outside of Portugal. Now, because of its affordable price tag and
refreshing taste, vinho verde is finally starting to make a name for itself abroad.
In many ways – at least in terms of age, colour,
alcohol content and cost — Portugal’s less famous wine is the anti-port. For one, this "green wine” (called so in reference to its age, not it’s light, bright colour) was traditionally made with young, even unripe grapes and is supposed to be consumed
year of production. It’s also quite
low in alcohol (while most wine typically doesn’t exceed 14%, and port reaches
18%, vinho verde is typically no stronger than 11.5%). Then there’s the price: many Portuguese can
only afford to drink port wine on special occasions. Vinho verde, which
generally ranges from three euros to 25 euros, is the everyman’s wine.
I drove 28km east from
Porto to Quinta
da Bela Vista, a vinho verde vineyard in the village of Parada de Todeia,
for a small sampling of what the roughly 21,000 producers in the region were up
Even in winter, the
surrounding terrain was lush green, another reason sometimes given for the
wine’s name. Shortly after arriving, we
sat to lunch of soup and – of course – bacalhau,
or salted cod, Portugal’s national dish cooked in a seemingly infinite number
of ways. The vineyard’s Todeia vinho verde was fresh, crisp and like many of
its relatives, slightly effervescent. On my first and only sunny afternoon in
Portugal, it was incredibly refreshing.
“Vinho verde is
unique because you can only make it here,” the winemaker’s son, José António
Leão, explained. “Port wine, you can make it anywhere. You just can’t call it
port wine.” The grapes for vinho verde — which are generally a blend of arinto,
azal, loureiro and trajadura — are all uncommon to other wine regions.
Despite its clean,
refreshing qualities, vinho verde typically does not have a great reputation
internationally. Even within the country, I heard multiple times that vinho
verde “isn’t that good”. According to Leão, this is because at one time, before
port and some of the excellent table wines made in the Douro Valley – such as barco
velha – existed, vinho verde was the only wine produced in Portugal’s
north. Nearly every family bottled its own recipe, which led to many
substandard wines. Vinho verde producers were also famous for forcing their vines
to grow high off the ground, allowing more grapes to grow at the expense of the
quality, using anything from trees to fences to telephone poles.
“This is why green wine has a bad reputation,”
Leão’s father, José Augusto, said. “These are the kind of mistakes people did
to make bad wine… some people still do this, but mostly we have learned. We
train the vines correctly, low to the ground, and the wine is now much better.”
effervescence commonly found in vinho verde was originally a result of
fermentation that took place in the bottle, and was actually considered a flaw.
The process has since changed, but after discovering that people found it
refreshing, some producers have started artificially adding carbonation during the
tank fermentation process.
And people are
finally starting to realize just how good vinho verde can be. From 2008 through
2012, the number of exported litres grew 42%, and from 2001 through 2012 grew 137%.
Still, the majority of vinho verde stays in Portugal.
through the vineyards, I met Leão and his father, their workers and friends
back in the kitchen. It was Friday and the work week was over, so it was time
to share a celebratory drink. In this case, vinho verde tinto – or as Leão
called it, “red green wine” – almost purple because the juice ferments the grape
skins attached. It was extremely tannic, but still light and crisp. As I toasted
with new friends, I looked at the plates of bread and cheese in front of me and
the bottle of aguardiente being passed around. If this was the best the
Portuguese have to offer the world, I thought, the world is lucky to have it.