Despite its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Minho River, the Monção e Melgaço subregion of Portugal’s Vinho Verde DOC has a Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and mild, rainy winters. The horseshoe-shaped Gerês Mountains, home to Portugal’s oldest and largest national park, encompass the area in a natural amphitheater that opens northeast to the Minho River and the border with Spain.
The mesoclimate created by those mountains, which reach elevations of up to 1,550 meters, is utterly unique within the Vinho Verde region and is a defining factor in the character of the Alvarinho wines produced there. The peaks protect the vineyards from the cool maritime influence of the Atlantic coast and create a rain shadow that delivers 1,178 millimeters of rain during the winter months—less than half of the annual precipitation received by other Vinho Verde sub regions.
Average temperatures during the growing season in Monção e Melgaço are also warmer, resulting in an ideal climate for producing a range of styles of Alvarinho. The area’s soils—a combination of shallow, weathered granite and coarse sand from colluvial runoff and aeolian erosion—don’t have much water-holding capacity and are naturally high in acidity, with low levels of phosphorus. Winegrowers use terraces and natural fertilizers to enrich the soil, but the low vigor ultimately works in their favor.
Above 500 meters, the terrain is notoriously rugged and inhospitable,
so vineyards around the towns of Monção and Melgaço are typically
sited below 300 meters—Soalheiro, for instance, produces its aptly named
Alvarinho Granit from sites above 200 meters. Alvarinho, which originated
in the Minho River valley, dominates the plantings here, producing wines
with extraordinary minerality and physiologically ripe fruit character but
without searing levels of acidity.
The range of styles includes both light, fresh wines like the Adega de Monção
2020 Deu la Deu—offering lime and tangerine flavors and a suggestion of
pétillance—and richer expressions that show marked intensity and purity of
fruit as well as minerality, such as the Valados de Melgaço 2019 Alvarinho
Reserva laden with peach, apricot, and just-ripe tropical fruits; these can age gracefully for several years.
Winemaking techniques also play a role in the range of styles characteristic of the region. While most fermentation takes place in stainless-steel tanks, winemakers do allow higher-temperature fermentations that result in less overtly floral wines and greater focus of flavors on the palate.
The reserve wines typically undergo bâtonnage and aging on the fine lees to help build body and add complexity. Alvarinho produced in its native terroir is incomparable to expressions of the variety grown elsewhere. But it may ultimately prove to be on a trajectory similar to that of Pinot Gris, which is renowned for producing light, delicately floral wines in Italy’s Collio region and wines of great mineral intensity and fruit purity in Alsace. Time will tell.