Vinho Verde Winds Its Way Into Knoxville

Libacious: a new column about alcoholic beverages and those who consume them

Knoxville is a drinking town, and has been for most of its years. There were the grim days of Prohibition, of course, and my colleague Jack Neely tells me Knoxville actually jumped on the wagon about a dozen years prior, in 1907. But before and since, the city has been an oasis of intemperance in the dry landscape of East Tennessee (as even a casual glance through Suttree will tell you).

Until relatively recently, though, we didn't like to talk about it much. Drinking was done behind closed doors, whether in sketchy roadhouses, suburban living rooms, or the exclusive confines of country clubs. Jesus might have turned water into wine, but the Bible Belt has long been shy about tippling too conspicuously.

That has changed a lot in the past 15 years or so. The arrival of microbrews and brewpubs, combined with a growing awareness and availability of the many varieties of wine (beyond "red" and "white"), helped make at least some kinds of alcohol consumption seem hip, sophisticated, and refined. And more importantly, the city simply loosened up. Outdoor events like Sundown in the City and the Brewer's Jam turned drinking into something you could do in public—even with children around! The profusion of downtown restaurants and bars with patios means that it is now hard to walk through the center city on a warm evening without passing clusters of people of all ages (I mean, all legal drinking ages) happily socializing over ales, Chardonnays, and margaritas.

Hence this column, intended as a monthly survey and sampling of some of the astounding array of beers, wines, liquors, cocktails, hooch, booze, white lightning, and firewater available in our metropolitan drinking area. I'm no expert, just what you might call an enthusiast, so feel free to send me tips, tasting notes, recipes, or a Mason jar of your family's finest.

To kick things off, I thought I'd keep it simple. We're well into spring, and we've already had more than our normal share of hot, sunny days, so it's a good time to think about Vinho Verde. It is a fresh, slightly effervescent, generally low-alcohol wine that has been a staple of the Portuguese table for centuries but has made inroads in America only recently. By both custom and law, only wines from the Minho province of northern Portugal can carry the name. Portugal formally designated Minho as the "Vinho Verde Region" in the early 20th century. All of the Vinho Verde you're likely to find in the U.S. is white, but there are reds and rosés from the region, too. The whites are a blend of Portuguese grapes that include alvarinho, avesso, azal, batoca, loureiro, and trajadura.

The name translates literally as "green wine," a reference to its youthfulness; it is as close to fresh-off-the-vine as wine gets. "You want to drink the latest vintage Vinho Verde," says Shane Pack of Downtown Wine and Spirits on Gay Street.

And you can drink it cheaply. Because it is produced quickly and in huge volume, there is almost no such thing as high-end Vinho Verde. The major labels available at Knoxville-area stores and restaurants—Broadbent, Gazela, Casal Garcia, Famega—generally retail for under $10. You can also drink it fairly cold. Overchilling tends to murder the flavors and textures of more complex whites, but Vinho Verde's citrus simplicity stands up well to refrigeration. "It's almost at times one-dimensional," says Roger Killen, wine manager at Bob's Package Store in West Knoxville.

Which isn't to say there's no distinction among them. Pack notes the Gazela is the sweetest of the set, a good beginner's Vinho Verde (a co-worker of mine complained about a Sweet-Tart aftertaste); those seeking dryness would do better with one of the others, although a sort of green-apple tartness is endemic to the style.

In any case, the wine is clearly catching on. Killen says that in 2008, he sold just 27 cases of Vinho Verde. Last year that climbed to 150 cases, and it continues to sell well this year. Pack says his store has been promoting it during the warm months of the past few years, with good results. Some restaurants, like La Costa and Oodles on Market Square, have added it to their wine lists. On a sunny day on a downtown patio, you could do a lot worse.