Global wine lovers know the Douro Valley. Often they know the Alentejo too now. But there’s much more to Portugal, starting with the region that’s the biggest in the country, one of the most beautiful and also probably the most misunderstood.
People around the world think they know vinho verde (literally “green wine,” in English, as in very young, and a specific style—cheap and cheerful, sweet and fresh and fizzy). But the first thing the Vinho Verde Winemaking Commission wants people to know is that there’s a lot more to it—they’ll tell you all 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 vividly green, thanks to its relatively mild climate and higher-than-average rainfall.
Like virtually all of Portugal, it’s a place with a long winemaking tradition, going back some 2,000 years (and it’s been a demarcated region with a DOC since 1908). Most homes today still have vines planted in their front or back yards for their personal wine production, or to grow grapes to sell to their neighbors or the local winemaking cooperative. One statistic has it that the region has 16,000 hectares (about nearly 40,000 acres) and 16,000 grape producers. The vines are that woven into daily life.
In some of the nine subregions, those vines have a very distinctive visual profile. They’re trellised some six feet high, freeing up the land beneath them for vegetables and other crops.
In recent years, creative winemakers have been moving in, often following their successes in the better-known Douro Valley. Meanwhile, established players—sometimes led by a new generation who’s just returned from agronomy school—are experimenting with new, more elegant wines that are more gastronomic and structured. They’ve knocked it off with the added sugar and carbon dioxide (done to mimic the second fermentation that happened in the bottle prior to modern winemaking know-how), and are making elegant white wines that often have aging potential.
In fact, many of the region’s wines are still very easy to drink. During 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 the wine tourism is getting better and better. Although there are a couple of tour-bus wineries, the majority are small family projects where the hospitality is genuine, the homestyle food is delicious, and the tours and tastings are informative and interesting for newbies as well as wine pros.
Lately, the marketers have been at work promoting wine tourism routes, which take in 28 wineries. Here are some of the standouts.
Quintna da Lixa and Monverde Hotel
For now, this is the best place to sleep in the vinho verde region: a place that opened in 2015 as a “wine experience hotel” with 30 rooms and has now grown to 46, some with private plunge pools or personal wine cellars. The rooms are low-lit and romantic, but the views are expansive. A highlight is the large-scale artwork over the dining room, consisting of 366 carved leaves (one in gold leaf) but artist Paulo Neves. The winery that it’s part of, Quinta da Lixa, produces a good variety of good wines using the main grapes of the region—“Winemaking used to be about doing things to the juice,” says winemaker and host Carlos Teixeira. “Now good winemaking is understanding what’s going on in the ground,” but he’s clearly having fun with different vintages and different vessels for fermentation, and he ended a pairing dinner with interesting Pet Nats rather than fortified wines. He also has a rule about leaving all the glasses on the table during those dinners—a (rather large) group of journalists recently ended up with 166.
One of the best-known wineries in the region, all the way up on the Spanish border in the subregion of Monção and Meglaço (look for it on labels), Soalheiro has 19 references (!) from a single grape—alvarinho—and a successful emphasis on wine tourism. Details are sketchy for now, but a nine-room hotel is in the works, and there’s already a simple guest house that sleeps six. For now, the tourism includes a mini museum—the original center of production, 40 years ago, in the winemaker’s garage—that has one of the chestnut barrels they used to use (oak being hard to come by) and a bottle from the original vintage, in 1982. Upstairs there’s a light-filled tasting room that doubles as a lunch table—“we want to be different from a restaurant,” says food and beverage manager Guilherme Augusto Alcantara Lobo—laden with area specialties like Bísaro pork, goat cheese, grilled sausages, tomato-and-onion salad and stewed lentils, all from neighborhood producers.
Quinta do Ameal
Although it was recently acquired by Esporão, one of Portugal’s biggest winemaking 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—won a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s Best Buy list. Since the beginning, in 1999, they emphasized quality over quantity—a radical idea at the time—and never added sugar or carbonation. The accommodations are no less easygoing and enjoyable. The three-bedroom Casa Grande and two-bedroom Casa da Vinha are simply but beautifully decorated with locally made items and a good access point for wine tastings but also walking in the 200-year-old forest or cycling or kayaking along the Lima River.
Quinta da Raza
Fifth-generation winery owner Diogo Teixeira Coelho is continuing his ancestral legacy while also 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 shut down in 2020—began with several Pet Nats, leading Coelho to explain that “we took the Pet Nat train that’s been going around the world,” but it’s also a nod to traditional vinho verde wines, in which a second fermentation happened in the bottle. “My grandfather said that if there are no bubbles, the wine is dead,” he recalls. In any case, the place is now full of life, especially during the convivial homemade lunch that can be shared with the family on the terrace, which might include rice cooked with one of the chickens on fhe family farm, or sausage made from one of the pigs.
Quinta das Arcas
The family-owned winery is relatively large for the region, and routinely 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’s also working to bring back near-extinct “forgotten” grapes and experimenting with varieties that thrive elsewhere in the country. Even his entry-level wine is balanced with good structure, roundness and ripeness. “Portugal has to overdeliver,” he explains, noting that the small country is competing with France, Italy and Spain.
Quinta de Lourosa
Owner Joana de Castro jokes that she began making sparkling wine at her family’s farm—her father, professor Rogério de Castro is considered a grandfather of Portuguese winemaking—when she discovered that she liked Champagne but couldn’t afford to buy it all the time. Now her sparkling is on par with the best bubbles in Portugal, and her wine tourism offer takes the form of a soulful seven-room bed-and-breakfast in an old house, parts of which date from the 17th century. Tastings are still held in the old stone-walled fumeiro, the room that was traditional used to cure meats—Castro prefers the rusticity to the newer facility beside the swimming pool.
Quinta da Santa Teresa
The flagship of A&D Wines (the project of Alexandre Gomes and Dialina Azevedo), Quinta da Santa Teresa occupies a prime spot on the border with the Douro Valley, making it a good choice for anyone who wants to compare terroir. The vineyards are organic, and largely planted in the terraced style of the Douro Valley. One vine—which they call the grandmother—is some 200 years old and spans about 280 square feet. The event spaces also have an impressive history, including vintage Portuguese tiles, and the glass-walled tasting room overlooks an inviting swimming pool.