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The summer pleasures of Portuguese vinho verde

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Every now and then, it's good to step out and see what the kids are smoking.

Apparently, these days, it smells like strawberries. I caught a big whiff of Glenwood South nightlife last Saturday evening when an old friend came to town and my gracious husband volunteered to babysit at the last minute. We found ourselves at Mosaic Wine et Lounge in Raleigh (517 W. Jones St., 829-5886, www.mosaicwinelounge.com), where the aroma of fruit-scented hookah smoke filled the warm patio air. Gaggles of 20-something women in shoulder-baring tops snapped pictures of one another surrounded by fragrant white clouds while young men in T-shirts and jeans puffed the pipes and adopted contemplative poses.

At this point in my life, hitting a hookah that smells like lip gloss seems slightly silly, so we skipped it and ordered a bottle of Santola vinho verde, one of my favorite warm weather wines. Because my 4-year-old prefers quiet weekend nights at home, it had been years since I had been in a bar at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and I felt a little underdressed in my jeans and Target top. But I am still hip enough to order Portuguese wine, although I have to say that paying $32 for a bottle of it wasn't the coolest thing I've ever done. The Santola surprised my friend with its effervescence and green-apple tartness, but she warmed up to it after a few sips.

Vinho verde won me over a few summers ago when a friend brought a bottle of the slightly fizzy, citrus-tinged wine to a cookout at our house. Since then, the Portuguese favorite has become much more widely available in the Triangle and across the United States, as the Commission of the Viticulture of Vinho Verde, a Portuguese marketing group, has upped its promotional efforts.

"Vinho verde" translates to "green wine," and the name refers not to the color but the freshness. You're supposed to drink it while it's new and very cold. It's also supposed to be pretty cheap. Winemakers traditionally use indigenous Portuguese grapes such as alvarinho, loureiro and trajadura to make vinho verde, and they top it off with a dose of CO2 to create tiny bubbles. It's a great wine for sipping on long, hot summer nights because it is light and bright with a fruity nose and a zingy finish. It also goes well with seafood.

In 2010, U.S. consumers drank more than 30 percent more vinho verde than they did in 2009. The wine's success is a double-edged corkscrew, though. I love being able to pick up a bottle of Twin Vines vinho verde at the Harris Teeter when I replenish household stores like apple juice and Goldfish, especially when the grocery puts it on two-for-$10 special. But I hate to see Portugal run the risk of becoming the next Australia by flooding the market with mediocre product that could eclipse its better wines. Those $5 bottles of Twin Vines are easy to drink on a hot afternoon, but they aren't hitting any benchmarks for quality.

Lucky for us, some of our wine sellers seem to be keeping this in mind. I have found some well-made vinho verdes on local shelves that make an extra stop on the way home worth the trip. At 3CUPS (227 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill, 968-8993, www.3cups.net), you'll find Muralhas de Monaco Vinho Verde, 2008, for $13.99. It's a blend of alvarinho and trajadura grapes and has peach notes followed by a dry, tight finish. Seaboard Wine Warehouse (802 Semart Drive, Suite 118, Raleigh, 831-0850, www.seaboardwine.com) has a 2009 rosé vinho verde from Muralhas de Monaco, for $11.99, that is a lovely interpretation of Portuguese varietals, with lots of summer fruit and a dry finish. And at Wine Authorities (2501 University Drive, Durham, 489-2884, www.wineauthorities.com), you can pick up the Fuzelo Vinho Verde, 2009, for just $8.99 a bottle. It's also a blend of alvarinho and trajadura. Like the others, it's light and refreshing with floral notes and tree fruits on the tongue.

You can taste two vinho verdes on Friday, April 28, from 4 to 9 p.m. at Sip ... A Wine Store (1059 Darrington Drive, Cary, 467-7880, www.sipawinestore.com) during the first day of its two-day anniversary party. Tastes are free, or you can buy an all-access pass for $25. Part of the sales will go to the N.C. Disaster Relief Fund.

What sets these wine store vinho verdes apart is they have great body. They are light, as vinho verde lovers have come to expect, but they aren't lightweights when it comes to mouth-feel and flavor. Plus, they can all be had for less than $14. And honestly, if you pay more than that for vinho verde, you're probably smoking something.

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