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Vinho Verde

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No other Portuguese wine region has swept through the U.S. market in recent years like Vinho Verde. But if the category first gained its reputation thanks to a specific light and fresh style, in recent years a new star has emerged within the region: Monção e Melgaço, known for producing profound, complex, even age-worthy expressions of the Alvarinho grape.

Map courtesy of Vinho Verde.
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Arguably Portugal’s greatest modern success story, Vinho Verde wine has exploded in popularity, largely thanks to its public image as a fresh, go-to sipper, custom-built for the poolside, picnic, or park bench. But this crisp, easy-drinking reputation accounts for just one aspect of Vinho Verde’s identity. As a new generation of sommeliers, retailers, and industry professionals has started to discover, the wines of Vinho Verde are capable of so much more.

This transformation hinges upon a crucial realization. Rather than a style of wine, as commonly assumed, Vinho Verde refers to a specific region of origin. A verdant viticultural oasis tucked away in the hills of the Minho district in Portugal’s rainy northwest, the area couldn’t be better equipped to produce an astonishingly diverse range of wines that rank among the world’s most versatile at the table.

And within that lush region sits Monção e Melgaço, a special subregion sheltered from Atlantic influences, allowing it to produce structured, age-worthy wines of great depth and complex minerality, sometimes even matured in oak or subject to extended contact with the lees for an extra layer of texture.

The unrivaled variety of Vinho Verde derives from several key factors—not least of all the region’s unique roster of native grapes. Here whites like Alvarinho (the star of the celebrated Monção e Melgaço sub-zone), Loureiro, and Avesso, to name just a few, share turf with red-skinned varieties like Espadeiro and Vinhão, among many others. While blends predominated in the past (and remain extremely popular), a movement toward monovarietal expressions has recently upended the region’s trajectory, and the Alvarinhos of Monção e Melgaço have become early standouts.

 According to Bruno Almeida, the U.S. ambassador for Vinho Verde, these wines signify the region’s current state-of-the-art. “You have this new generation of winemakers in the region that is keeping up tradition while also bringing different ideas and a more evolved sensibility in terms of winemaking,” he says. “They’re trying to express the identities of these different grapes, not just as blends but increasingly as extremely high-quality monovarietal wines.”

 As these sophisticated Monção e Melgaço wines make their way into the market, the next chapter of Vinho Verde’s development is already being written. Among the rich tapestry of various soil types and microclimates across the region as a whole, the particularities of Monção e Melgaço imbue a unique signature to the local wine styles. It all forms part of the wider evolution of a region that has emerged as a leading light of Portugal’s 21st century winemaking renaissance.

History

With a winemaking history that can be traced back to antiquity, Vinho Verde is one of the oldest regions in Portugal. Its earliest fans included none other than Seneca, the famed Roman philosopher, and the great naturalist Pliny, both of whom sang the area’s praises in their works.

During the Middle Ages, northwestern Portugal’s spreading population led to an increase in viticulture. By the 12th and 13th centuries, viticulture became a key component of daily life in the region. In the centuries that followed, with demographic expansion and growing agricultural commercialization, the cultivation of the vine emerged as a central area of economic activity for the region. In fact, historical records show that Vinho Verde wines were among Portugal’s first exports to European markets (including England, Flanders, and Germany), with the first references to trade appearing as far back as the sixteenth century. Monção e Melgaço wines in particular were sought after by the English, who would trade codfish for local Monção wine.

As the 20th century dawned, a renewed focus on quality—and with it, the effort to regulate and protect the region’s production standards—resulted in Vinho Verde’s demarcation as a wine region in 1908, eventually becoming an official DOC in 1984. The area of Monção e Melgaço—at that time just called Monção—was also recognized as an official subregion in 1908. At the time, Vinho Verde’s reputation rested primarily upon red wine—a situation that would continue through the 1960s. These days, however, whites reign supreme, accounting for around 85 percent of the area’s total output. 

In May 2016, a seal of guarantee for Monção e Melgaço was approved and launched to better emphasize the connection between the region and the wines produced there. This also distinguishes the wines that come from a specific and unique climate within Vinho Verde. A driving force in Portugal’s modern wine industry, Vinho Verde and Monção e Melgaço continue to pave the way for the future. 

Geography and Key Regions

Encompassing more than 16,000 hectares of vines (the rough equivalent of 15 percent of the country’s total winegrowing area) in a part of northwestern Portugal traditionally known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho, the Vinho Verde region takes the shape of a vast amphitheater extended outwards toward the Atlantic Ocean. This Atlantic influence (and the frequent rains it brings), along with the cooling the east-west orientation of the Douro and Minho Rivers and the region’s signature granitic soils, combine form an ideal incubator for a wide range of wine styles that share a unifying thread: the fruit-driven freshness, elegance, and chiseled minerality that make them perfect emblems of contemporary taste.

Within that varied and ideal climate, the one particular subregion enjoys a unique confluence of environmental factors that set it apart from the rest of the region: the celebrated area of Monção e Melgaço. Historically, it has been Vinho Verde’s epicenter of super-premium winemaking—and the latest generation of winemaking talent is making sure that Monção e Melgaço’s identity is being translated through today’s wave of subregion-specific wines that impart an indelible sense of place.

A product of its moderate Atlantic microclimate and pronounced continental influence, winters tend to be chilly but markedly drier than the rest of Vinho Verde, whereas summers can be characterized as hot and dry. The other key aspect of the area’s identity is the presence of the Rio Minho and its tributaries, which regulate temperatures during the growing season, with warm days leading to cool nights. The result? Optimal conditions for producing fresh, aromatic wines with great complexity and persistence of flavor. 

Although these qualities manifest across the area’s wines as a whole, terroir distinctions contribute to a wide range of variations within that stylistic paradigm. Generally, the lower-altitude areas closer to the river (generally ranging from 50 to 150 meters in elevation) produce fruitier wines with less acidity, whereas the higher hillside areas (which extend up to 350 meters above sea level) yield wines with greater minerality and a firmer core of freshness. The soils of Monção e Melgaço are mostly granitic, and in some places, there are strips of pebbles.

As in all parts of Vinho Verde, the area is known for producing plenty of crisp, floral blends (usually composed of Alvarinho and Trajadura) designed for immediate consumption. But for connoisseurs, the subzone’s fame has always been synonymous with the incomparable depth, complexity, and intensity of its prized single-variety Alvarinhos—the variety that almost always accounts for Monção e Melgaço’s most ambitious expressions.

Here too, the stylistic profiles on display encompass an enormous spectrum, ranging from exuberant wines with tropical fruit flavors and aromas to more delicate and citrusy expressions, focused on orange and tangerine-like notes, the best of which can mature and improve in the cellar for decades. Regardless of such variations, however, the whites of Monção and Melgaço share certain important common denominators, bearing the long-loved intensity, elegance, and extreme gastronomic compatibility that immediately conjures the territory in which they were born.

Unsurprisingly, the area today contains a huge concentration of viticultural talent, with more than 2,000 winegrowers carefully tending 1,700 hectares of vineyards annually. For an area long defined by its artisanal approach, many of these growers also produce their own wines. Merging the latest scientific innovations with centuries-old practices inherited from their ancestors, with a keen attentiveness to environmental sustainability and biodiversity, they embody the image of a wine region that has deftly combined tradition with modernity. Producers to look for include Adega Cooperativa Regional de Monção, Nenúfar Real, Valados de Melgaço, Cortinha Velha, MC Vinhos, Provam, Quinta de Soalheiro, Falua, and J. Portugal Ramos, among many others.


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Key Grape Varieties 

 At a time when the wine industry’s obsession with native grape varieties has thrust Portugal into the spotlight, Vinho Verde and Monção e Melgaço offer drinkers an array of discoveries. In fact, no fewer than 45 indigenous examples are permitted in the area. While it would be difficult to enumerate the specific qualities of each, here are a few of the key players that contribute to Vinho Verde’s dazzling multiplicity of styles.

Alvarinho

Though grown in other parts of Vinho Verde, Alvarinho is the star grape of Monção & Melgaço, where it achieves its ultimate expression, with a fuller body, riper fruit (sometimes veering toward the tropical side of the spectrum), and generally higher alcohol levels than many of the other grapes that call Vinho Verde home. Ranging in color from a pale citrusy yellow to an intense straw huge, the variety is known for its aromatic intensity and its intricately layered flavors of lemon, quince, and pear, developing passionfruit and even lychee-like notes in warmer vintages. 

A true chameleon of a grape, Alvarinho lends itself to a wide variety of winemaking techniques; more recently, producers have started experimented with oak aging (resulting in mature orange and hazelnut notes), as well as extended lees aging, which imparts a smoother, creamier mouthfeel with lingering flavors. Regardless of style, the variety consistently demonstrates great potential for storage and evolution in bottle, developing complex secondary and tertiary flavors particularly prized among collectors.

Loureiro

The highly aromatic Loureiro grape, which thrives in the area of Lima, among others, is now earning some serious industry buzz, thanks to its peach-like succulence and signature floral scents of honeysuckle, jasmine, and magnolias. Best suited to coastal areas, where it’s able to retain a bright wash of acidity, the grape historically figured into blends as a way to balance high acidity, but when crafted with dedication and care it shows enormous promise on its own—hence the recent rise of premium monovarietal expressions.

Trajadura

Delicate in aroma and naturally low in acidity, Trajadura is grown across Vinho Verde. Typically used in blends, Trajadura tends to add body and alcohol to the region’s notoriously light, fresh wines. It often carries ripe, mixed fruit notes and a round, smooth mouthfeel.

What’s Happening Today in Vinho Verde

As a potent emblem of Portugal’s progressive new era, Vinho Verde remains at the industry’s cutting edge, positioning itself as global leader for the 21st century and beyond. With that vision in mind, the region’s current cohort of winemakers have made it their mission to prove that “green” means more to them than simply their region’s name. Committed to the responsible stewardship of their land and increased environmental awareness, the region is investing heavily in greater sustainability and focusing on terroir specificity, mixing ancient methods with innovative and experimental techniques. A growing number, for instance, now practice integrated, organic, and biodynamic farming in order to promote biodiversity and ensure the health of their soils.

Coinciding with this deepened awareness, many have embraced a recent trend towards increasingly site-specific and often even single-vineyard expressions of Vinho Verde, which telegraph the minute nuances of place. Although the epicenter of this experimentation continues to be Monção e Melgaço, Almeida anticipates that it’s only a matter of time before other subregions jump on board. “I think we’re going to see this exciting movement toward terroir-driven, single-plot wines spread across the entire region of Vinho Verde,” he says.

Alvarinho’s signature diversity is on even greater display today in Monção e Melgaço as the next generation of winemaking talent increasingly takes the reins. As Almeida explains, within the past several years forward-thinking winemakers have taken to experiment with the variety, using techniques such as oak aging and lees contact to radically expand its range of styles, resulting in wines with the richer body, creamy texture, and intensity of flavor that these techniques impart. 

“Alvarinho is a great vehicle for that kind of innovation, because the variety itself is a very elastic grape that can mold itself to pretty much any style that you might want to make,” says Almeida. Defined by honeysuckle, pear, tropical citrus and stone fruit aromas and flavors, the top examples of Alvarinho from Monção e Melgaço demonstrate a remarkable ability to evolve in the cellar “even after ten years or more,” according to Almeida.

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