Vinho verde is wine we only thought we knew. Fruity and refreshing with a hint of fizz, most of these budget-friendly, low-alcohol wines from northwest Portugal offer tasty, albeit simple, sips. But recently at The Blue Room in Cambridge's Kendall Square, we tasted two beautiful bottles that opened our eyes to what vinho verde (pronounced "veeng-yo vaird") can be. We just had to meet the right producers.
Pedro Araujo, owner of Quinta do Ameal, explained how vinho verde wines were traditionally produced by small estate farmers. Grapes were picked young, even a bit unripe (hence the descriptor "verde" which translates as "green"). Naturally occurring bubbles cushioned the rustic acidity of these wines. Today, he says, and doesn't seem particularly happy about this, the region is dominated by big companies whose methods of mass production leave unexplored the character and potential of these wines. When he began making wine in the 1990s in the subregion of Lima, using the indigenous loureiro grape, he was determined to farm organically and reduce yields for better fruit. "This region can produce the greatest of white wines," he insisted. "This," he said, pouring his Quinta do Ameal Branco Seco 2011, "is a serious white." Pale yellow and silvery in hue, this wine has no bubbles. Aromas are fresh with floral and mineral notes. Acidity is moderate -- restrained compared to the rollicking acid of other styles from the region. Subtle and refined, this is serious winemaking indeed.
We also met Jose Diogo Teixeira Coelho, winemaker at Quinta da Raza, and chatted with his wife, Mafalda, a petite force of nature. Their estate, located in Basto, the most inland of the Vinho Verde subregions, has been at the center of the family's winemaking since the 1860s. About 20 years ago, they relocated their vineyards to hillside slopes for better sun exposure and made cellar improvements. Their Raza Vinho Verde Branco 2011 is crafted from native grapes arinto (for complexity) and azal (for citrusy tartness). Day-bright in the glass, this white conveys aromas of lemongrass and pear with a citrusy palate of spritz. The winemaker called it "an honest wine" that expresses the best these grapes have to offer.
A warm spring evening found us at Oleana, chef Ana Sortun's homage to flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean in Cambridge. Lauren Friel, wine director, is offering the Raza Vinho Verde as a "blackboard wine" for $9 a glass. These special pours change with the seasons and are on offer only at the bar. Paired with crisp battered fiddleheads on creamy tahini and crostini of spring peas and octopus, the wine complemented these dishes winningly, playing well with fragrant spices like coriander and cumin. Soon after our first sip, we opted for a bottle of this honest wine. It was too good for just one glass.
Quinta da Raza Vinho Verde Branco 2011 available at Formaggio Kitchen South End, 268 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, 617-350-6996. Quinta do Ameal Branco Seco 2011 at Concord Provisions, 73 Thoreau Street, Concord, 978-369-5555; the Branco Seco 2010 at Social Wines, 52 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-268-2974.