Portugal's Vinho Verde region is in the enviable position of selling nearly every bottle of wine she can produce.
There's good reason for Vinho Verde's popularity. The wines (also named Vinho Verde and almost exclusively white) are light, bright and crystal clean. They are easy on the pocketbook, retailing from less than $10 to about $20. They are easy to enjoy too, whether from a wineglass or -- as the weather warms -- in a poolside stadium mug complete with ice and straw.
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Quinta de Soalhiero
Vinho Verde, Portugal
• Suggested retail and availability: About $28 at fine wine shops (distributed by Wine-o-Rama, Chicago)
Soalheiro ("sunny place") is the first quinta to plant Alvarhino in Vinho Verde's northern Melgaço subregion. Mountains bar cold ocean winds and rainfall from vineyards, creating a rain shadow of sunshine for optimum ripeness. Winegrower João Antonio Cerdeir's wines express pure, tropical fruit flavors accented with firm minerality and long, acidic finish. For elegance he vinifies to low, 12.5 percent alcohol levels. Enjoy Soalheiro Alvarhino as a rich aperitif and complement to seafood, Asian seasonings, lighter meats and arroz Malandro, the "vagabond's" rice dish featuring tomatoes and sweet peppers.
But Vinho Verde is more than adult lemonade.
Throughout the previous decade, Vinho Verde has applied growth (22 percent in the US alone) to fund quality as well as quantity.
The classic style is widely available at groceries, liquor chains and wine shops offering lemony refreshment with a delicate effervescence that dances flavors across the palate, all for under $10. These values are often blends of vintages, so eschew dusty bottles or wines with brownish tinge. Look for labels Broadbent, Casal Garcia, Cruzeiro and the Whole Foods' exclusive, Orlana.
With additional production standards, producers may label with any of nine subregions -- such as Vinho Verde-Monção e Melgaço -- to identify unique flavors expressed by their vineyard's altitude, proximity to the sea and other growing conditions, especially granitic soil.
"Granite is our history," explains one guide during my Vinho Verde tour. "Look at our grandparents' homes, our oldest pots and stoves. They are granite. It was once so plentiful, we made everything from it. Now, it is a signature of our wine."
Indeed, the finest wines reflect the compelling minerality of other mineral-driven styles -- including white Burgundy and fine German Riesling -- that sell for twice the price.
The top Vinho Verde tier follows the international trend of varietal labeling.
The region's grapes read like a sommelier exam's stump question: Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro, Trajadura … 18 in all, including Alvarhino.
No, that's not a typo. Alvarhino is the grape's name in Portugal; it's Albarino across the Minho River in Spain. So, who came first?
It's hard to say. According to one Vinho Verde producer, "In the 15th century, many Portuguese considered Vinho Verde to be Spain because we are so far north.
Also, the Spanish crossed south over the river to buy our grapes because our grapes ripen with richer flavors. We have always given prime importance to Alvarhino because of its potential for complexity and aging."
At Quinta de Soalheiro in Melgaço, I was treated to a 1997 Alvarhino, with the rich yellow of August sunshine, earthy complexity, concentration similar to white Burgundy with an added vivacity of stone fruit. I dreamed of a portobello omelette, grilled lobster or a version of paella -- arroz a Valencia.
For a current vintage, look for Muros Antigos Alvarhino, dynamic but not overly rich, with flavors of just-ripe stone fruit, creamy texture highlighted by firm minerality. (About $25.)
Bordered by the ocean and crisscrossed by rivers, seafood is a staple at the Portuguese table, even if the table floats on the water.
Says one local, "The best place for caldeirada de peixe (fish stew) is on a fisherman's boat; they catch the seafood and cook it right away in wine." When I mention a nervous stomach aboard small craft, he sniffs, "Well, at least, never go far from the pier."
We have some piers in Chicago, and even if Portuguese sardines aren't available, Lake Michigan smelts are. We may be short of bacalao -- the cod that's a mainstay of Portugal's diet -- but crabcakes are the pride of many local cooks.
Portuguese enjoy their chourico and linguica sausage; this "hog butcher for the world" relishes in cured meats and our treasury of porcine-based dining establishments.
And while it may be hard to find nigiri sushi, guacamole, gravlax and a well-stocked salad bar in Vinho Verde, we have plenty in Chicago waiting for us and our bottle of Vinho Verde.
• Contact Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at email@example.com.