Portugal’s anti-port

Port might be Portugal’s most famous export, but with a more affordable price point and roots that are uniquely Portuguese, vinho verde is the wine to drink every day.

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 roots.

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.   

The anti-port
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 within a 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 to.

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.”

Interestingly, the 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.

After wandering 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.