Before this year, the only thing I knew about Portuguese wine was Vinho Verde. Well, and port wine, but even then, I knew very little about port wine. My friend, Jackie, introduced me to Vinho Verde a few years ago, as a fun, crisp drinkable wine. I promised her that during our travels I would find a way to go Vinho Verde wine tasting.
It was a promise I figured I could keep.
During our earliest trips to Portugal, we ordered Vinho Verde by the glass, or by the bottle. We knew none of the producers. I didn’t even know the grapes involved. Sometimes, when looking for a very cheap glass of wine, our Vinho Verde wine tasting in Lisbon involved a sweet, almost sparkling wine, served from a tap, right next to the Portuguese beer. I figured there had to be more to Vinho Verde.
What is Vinho Verde?
Once I started learning more about Portuguese wine, though, I learned more about Vinho Verde, and more importantly, what makes a good Vinho Verde. And for good Vinho Verde, there must be Alvarinho.
To learn about Vinho Verde, we drove north from Porto, to the edge of Portugal into Minho. Once in Minho, we focused our Vinho Verde wine tasting on the Alto Minho, or high region of Minho. It’s so far north, and set on such high hilltops, that it’s possible to see Spain. There are only two villages in Portugal where the white Alvarinho grape is officially produced. Together, these two regions, Monção and Melgaço, form the Alto Minho.
Alto Minho is separated from the sea on the west by mountains. It is more of a continental climate, not an Atlantic Ocean climate, which gives the Alvarinho grapes their unique character. The mountains and forests that surround the Alto Minho shelter the grapes and provide a natural acidity, which is a key characteristic of Vinho Verde. The Alvarinho grape is also grown in Spain, but is of a different characteristic.
Because there are only two small regions growing Alvarinho, the price per kilogram of grapes is much, much higher in comparison to Alentejo. During our Alentejo wine tours, we noticed just how big Alentejo is. The region covers about 1/3 of Portugal, and produces an amazing amount of wine. The Alto Minho, though, is the complete opposite.
In Alentejo, grapes are often bought for between $.15 and $.40 a kilogram. They are less expensive because Alentejo is huge. There are large tracts of land in big open spaces, providing more grapes that are easier to harvest in large quantities. The Alto Minho, however, includes a series of small producers, on smaller tracts of land, producing much smaller quantities. Thus, a kilogram of Alvarinho can fetch more than $1 a kilogram. This is why the Alto Minho is a perfect boutique wine producing region.
Vinho Verde Wine Tasting Tour – The Monk of Minho
We only had a couple of days in Minho, and wanted to focus on a Vinho Verde wine tasting. Although I learned a good amount about Vinho Verde from the bartender and wine manager at Hotel Minho, where we stayed, it always helps to get out and tour a wine region, to help understand the wine better. Francisco, of Bliss Tours, picked us up at Hotel Minho, and escorted us in his Mercedes to the Alto Minho, with the first stop to see the Monk of Minho.
Prior to meeting the Monk, though, we stopped on the top of a small mountain, to look over the wine producing valleys below, and Spain in the distance. Despite being surrounded by hills and mountains, the Alvarinho grape is only grown in the valleys. This makes it unlike the Douro Valley, where vineyards scale the mountainsides. From the hilltop, we peered down on the Monk’s house. From my vantage point, it looked anything but an austere monk’s abode.
Miguel, of Vale dos Ares, has been referred to as the Monk of Minho. His mother is from the area, but he has been living in Lisbon most of his life. About eight years ago, Miguel returned from Lisbon to Minho and renovated their 17th century family home. He lived without a family in this large home, and started to produce wine. Hence the nickname the Monk of Minho. Of course, now, Miguel has a girlfriend, so the monk moniker might not last for much longer. It still produces a cute story.
Although some of his Miguel’s vines date back 40 and 50 years. The family has been growing grapes for generations. In the past, they would sell the grapes to a cooperativa, who would then manufacture the wine. Once Miguel decided to produce his own wine, he continued to cultivate the old vines, but also planted new vines, over the last ten years, to be able to increase production.
We sat down in the dining room of Miguel’s restored country home. We talked wine, and engaged in our first Vinho Verde wine tasting of the day. The wine was only Miguel’s third vintage, and it was phenomenal. Many of the cheap, mass produced Vinho Verde wines we previously drank were blends. Miguel produces 100% Alvarinho, and does so in a way that is so crisp and clean, without the fizziness of the cheaper bottles.
Currently, Miguel produces about 8000 bottles a year, but hopes to slowly increase that amount in the future. He sells his amazing Alvarinho under the Vale dos Ares label for only €9 a bottle at his estate. Although it is more expensive in shops and restaurants. This makes it an incredible value.
Our conversation focused on the quality of the Alvarinho coming out of the Alto Minho. Miguel, along with some of his fellow winemakers, are attempting to revamp the image of Vinho Verde, and demonstrate that it can be a higher end wine. Similar to Lambrusco in Emilia Romagna, so many producers have made a living off of selling cheaper, bulk wine. It’s diluted the brand and the image of the grape. Miguel hopes to erase that image by selling good quality Alvarinho. I think he’s off to a good start. Most notably, I loved seeing the passion in his eyes. We made an instant connection.
As we often do when meeting wine makers, particularly ones that make great wines, we wanted to buy a bottle of Vale dos Ares before leaving. Miguel walked us back to his garage, where the magic happens, and grabbed us a bottle. Of course, when we tried to offer to pay the €9 he vehemently refused.
Unfortunately, for us, we had a long day of Vinho Verde wine tasting ahead of us, and only spent less than an hour at Miguel’s home. He is one person, though, I would love to spend more time with. We made a quick and easy connection with him.
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We were hosted by Hotel Minho on our Vinho Verde wine tasting experience with Bliss Tours, but all views are my own. Tours with Francisco and Bliss Tours start at 190 Euros for up to 3 persons. Our tour included a visit to Vale dos Ares, a larger wine company called Quinta de Pedra, lunch at the Hotel Convento dos Capuchos, and a tapas and wine tasting at Hotel Monte Prado. It was a pretty full day. Francisco works with other wine tourism partners, including some hotels, to create unique Vinho Verde wine tasting experiences for travelers to Minho.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.