Wine lovers all over the world know the Douro Valley. Often they also know the Alentejo now. But there is much more to Portugal, starting with the largest region of the country, one of the most beautiful and also probably the least known.
People all over the world think they know vinho verde (literally “green wine”, in English, as very young, and a specific style: cheap and cheerful, sweet and fresh and sparkling). But the first thing the Vinho Verde Winemaking Commission wants people to know is that there’s so much more to it than that: they’ll tell you about it at their visitor center in Porto. It’s not a style; it’s a region – the far northwest of the country – that happens to be bright green, thanks to its relatively mild climate and above-average rainfall.
Like virtually all of Portugal, it’s a place with a long winemaking tradition, dating back around 2,000 years (and it’s been a demarcated region with a DOC since 1908). Today, most homes still have vines planted in their front or back yard for their personal wine production, or to grow grapes to sell to neighbors or the local wine cooperative. According to one statistic, the region has 16,000 hectares (about nearly 40,000 acres) and 16,000 grape growers. Vines are woven into everyday life.
In some of the nine sub-regions, these vines have a very particular visual profile. They are trellised about six feet high, freeing up the earth beneath them for vegetables and other crops.
In recent years, creative winemakers have settled in, often following their successes in the better-known Douro Valley. Meanwhile, established players, sometimes led by a new generation fresh out of agronomy school, are experimenting with new, more elegant, more gourmet and structured wines. They’ve knocked it down with the added sugar and carbon dioxide (done to mimic the second fermentation that happened in the bottle before modern winemaking know-how) and craft elegant white wines that often have a aging potential.
In fact, many wines from the region are still very easy to drink. On a recent whirlwind tour of the region, more than one winemaker used the term “pool wine” during a tasting. One described a “breakfast wine”. And wine tourism is getting better and better. Although there are a few hop-on, hop-off wineries, the majority are small, family-run projects where the hospitality is genuine, the home cooking is delicious, and the tours and tastings are informative and interesting for beginners as well as wine professionals. .
Lately, traders have been working to promote wine tourism routes, which pass through 28 wineries. Here are some of the stars.
Hotel Quintna da Lixa and Monverde
For now, this is the best place to stay in the vinho verde region: a place that opened in 2015 as a “wine experience hotel” with 30 rooms and now has 46 rooms, some with private pools or personal wine cellars. Rooms are dimly lit and romantic, but views are expansive. A highlight is the large-scale artwork on the dining room, made up of 366 sculpted leaves (one in gold leaf) by artist Paulo Neves. The winery it is part of, Quinta da Lixa, produces a good variety of good wines using the main grape varieties of the region. “Now good winemaking is about understanding what’s going on in the soil,” but he’s clearly having fun with different vintages and different vessels for fermentation, and he finished a pairing dinner with some interesting Pet Nats rather than fortified wines. He also has a rule of leaving all glasses on the table during these dinners – a (quite large) group of journalists recently ended up with 166.
One of the most well-known vineyards in the region, high up on the Spanish border in the Monção and Meglaço sub-region (look for it on the labels), Soalheiro has 19 references (!) from a single varietal – Alvarinho – and a successful focus on wine tourism. Details are sketchy for now, but a nine-bedroom hotel is in the works, and there’s already a simple guest house that sleeps six. For now, tourism includes a mini-museum – the original production center 40 years ago in the winemaker’s garage – which has one of the chestnut barrels they used (oak being hard to find) and a bottle of the vintage original, in 1982. Upstairs there is a light-filled tasting room that doubles as a lunch table – “we want to be different from a restaurant” , explains catering director Guilherme Augusto Alcantara Lobo – loaded with regional specialties like Bísaro pork, goat cheese, grilled sausages, tomato and onion salad and stewed lentils, all sourced from neighborhood producers.
Quinta do Ameal
Although it was recently taken over by Esporão, one of Portugal’s largest wine companies, Quinta do Ameal doesn’t seem to have lost its artisanal soul. The wines, made from the Loureiro grape, have good complexity and balance, and the entry-level Bico Amarelo – their “pool wine”, in the words of wine tourism supervisor Mariana Brandão – has won a place on Passionate about winefrom the best buys list. From the start, in 1999, they prioritized quality over quantity – a radical idea at the time – and never added sugar or carbonation. The accommodations are no less easy to live with and pleasant. The three-bedroom Casa Grande and the two-bedroom Casa da Vinha are simply but beautifully decorated with locally made objects and are a good access point for wine tastings, but also for walking in the 200-year-old forest. or go biking or kayaking along the Lima River.
Quinta da Raza
Fifth-generation winery owner Diogo Teixeira Coelho continues his ancestral legacy while taking risks and experimenting with new expressions of vinho verde wines. A tasting in the new glass-walled tasting room – the winery invested in wine tourism when the world closed in 2020 – began with several Pet Nats, leading Coelho to explain that “we took the Pet train Nat that goes around the world,” but it’s also a nod to traditional vinho verde wines, in which a second fermentation took place in the bottle. “My grandfather used to say that if he didn’t there are no bubbles, the wine is dead”, he recalls. Anyway, the place is now full of life, especially during the convivial homemade lunch which can be shared with the family on the terrace, which may include rice cooked with one of the family farm chickens, or sausage made from one of the pigs.
Quinta das Arcas
The family winery is relatively large for the region and regularly wins awards for its wines. Like Carlos Teixeira of Quinta da Lixa, winemaker António Moneiro says his philosophy is minimal – “the best wines come from the best grapes”, and he is also working to bring back nearly extinct “forgotten” grapes and experiment with varieties that thrive elsewhere. in the country. Even his entry-level wine is balanced with good structure, roundness and maturity. “Portugal has to provide too much,” he explains, noting that the small country is in competition with France, Italy and Spain.
Quinta de Lourosa
Owner Joana de Castro jokes that she started producing sparkling wine on the family farm – her father, Professor Rogério de Castro is considered a grandfather of Portuguese viticulture – when she discovered that she liked champagne but couldn’t afford to buy it all the time. Now its bubbly is on par with Portugal’s best bubbles, and its wine tourism offering takes the form of a soulful seven-bedroom guesthouse in an old house, parts of which date back to the 17th century. Tastings still take place in the old stone wall smoker, the room that was traditionally used to cure meats – Castro prefers the rusticity to the new installation next to the swimming pool.
Quinta de Santa Teresa
A&D Wines flagship (the project of Alexandre Gomes and Dialina Azevedo), Quinta da Santa Teresa occupies a prime location on the border with the Douro Valley, making it a good choice for anyone wanting to compare terroirs . The vines are organic and largely planted in the terraced style of the Douro Valley. One vine – which they call the Grandmother – is around 200 years old and spans around 280 square feet. The event spaces also have an impressive history, including vintage Portuguese tiles, and the glass-walled tasting room overlooks an inviting pool.