Two rivers flow through the green hills and mountains of northwest Portugal: the Minho and the Lima. They flow west from Spain out to the Atlantic Ocean. On their way, cutting through the northern area of the Vinho Verde region, they create optimal vineyard conditions for quality white-wine production.
In the valleys surrounding these rivers, two ancient grapes dominate production to make some of the area’s best wines: Loureiro, which populates the vineyards of the Lima Valley, and Alvarinho, planted primarily throughout the Minho Valley.
Though the two valleys are only part of Vinho Verde, they represent the change that’s sweeping over the whole region. Young producers have bucked the traditional production of inexpensive wines in favor of more concentrated, serious offerings. And, in turn, large producers are challenged to show that they can also produce dry wines of great quality.
These wines are not Vinhos Verdes as we typically know them. They’re not low alcohol, lightly fizzy or off-dry. Instead, they’re rich, intense and often bone-dry expressions of the terroir of these rainy climes that experience mild winters and hot summers. These are wines that can change the perception of what high-quality Vinho Verde should be.
Cool wines from lush Lima Valley
From the iconic Santuàrio de Santa Luzia church atop the Santa Luzia Mountain, a beautiful vista emerges of the port city of Viana do Castelo that lies directly below.
To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, the pathway that the Portuguese used for centuries to explore the world. To the east is the Lima Valley and the start of the Loureiro vineyards, which border each bank of the Lima River as it flows from the Peneda-Gêres National Park down through the lush, green valley.
The views offer insight on the region’s viticultural history. Not only did the port of Viana offer a way out for past adventurers, it attracted European traders who sought products like wine. The English, always thirsty and always at odds with the French, often came to Portugal, their oldest ally, to buy wine.
Visitors departed with cool, fresh wines for several centuries. However, this trade was abandoned when richer red wines of the Douro Valley were discovered to the south, leaving Viana and its wines to be largely forgotten.
What a change a new era brings. The region has experienced a boon, thanks in large part to recent restoration and development of classic sites.
Vasco Croft, the man behind Aphros wines, is one forward-thinking figure of the Lima Valley. His family has long owned the Quinta do Casal do Paço Padreiro estate that overlooks the patchwork of green fields, red-roof houses and forests that climb to the summits. The property was primarily used for summer vacations.
Croft took over the estate in 2004. He immediately began restoring the property to embrace a mixture of tradition and modernity. The estate now produces some impressive wines using biodynamic practices.
He uses an ancient cellar in his house to make small quantities of wine with open stone lagares, clay amphorae and a basket press. A modern cellar just down the road handles larger production needs, full of stainless steel tanks and concrete eggs.
His Loureiro wines like the Daphne and Reserve Bruto are intense and spicy. While they both taste like baked apples with a squeeze of lemon, the former proves that the grape can handle oak aging if it’s a small, discreet amount to retain the freshness of the climate and best express the granitic terroir.
When asked why Loureiro works so well in the Lima Valley, Croft points in the direction of the ocean, down the open valley.
The region has experienced a boon, thanks in large part to recent restoration and development of classic sites.
“It is something that happened organically,” he says. “The grape variety has adapted to the rainy, ocean-influenced landscape where other grapes failed. The two go together.”
Nearby, at the 18th-century Quinta do Ameal, Pedro Araújo celebrates Loureiro. His Escolha bottling shows the complexity possible in the grape, while his simpler Loureiro exudes a floral character that’s infectiously delicious.
Farther toward the coast, at Quinta de Curvos, Miguel Fonseca crafts Loureiro-based wines that exhibit lime and passion fruit flavors, as well as fine crispness.
Besides these three influential, exciting estates, there are two cooperatives that control a majority of production, found in Ponte da Barca and Ponte de Lima, two small towns where bridges have controlled the river crossings since the Romans.
Adega Ponte da Barca, farther up river, offers more innovation and diversity. The company’s lineup includes a sparkling wine, Espumante Branco Bruto, and a new barrel-aged release, Reserva de Sócios, made to celebrate the cooperative’s 50th anniversary.
Five Loureiros to Try
Adega Ponte da Barca 2017 Reserva de Sócios Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $20, 92 points. This new release was made to celebrate 50 years of the Ponte da Barca cooperative and to congratulate the co-op’s members. Lightly wood aged, it is finely balanced, ripe and intensely rich. Spice and juicy acidity combine with fruit to give a concentrated wine that could age further. Tri-Vin Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Aphros 2018 Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $17, 90 points. Intense and spicy, this wine with lees aging is rich and tangy. Made from biodynamically grown grapes, the concentrated texture is dense in baked-apple ripeness. Drink from late 2019. Skurnik Wines, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Quinta de Curvos 2017 Curvos Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $13, 90 points. From one of the top two varieties grown in Vinho Verde (the other is Alvarinho), this wine is fruity, packed with citrus, and with a zesty tight texture. The fruit is ripe while remaining cool and crisp. Drink this wine from late 2018. Regal Wine Imports. Best Buy.
Anselmo Mendes 2017 Muros Antigos Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $12, 89 points. Mainly found in the Lima Valley in the heart of Vinho Verde, this grape has produced a fresh, crisp but balanced wine. The balance gives ripeness as well as intense acidity, with some density from the lees aging. The wine is ready to drink. Aidil Wines/Old World Import. Best Buy.
Aphros 2015 Reserva Bruto Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $21, 89 points. With its maturity, this sparkling wine also has nutty flavors to go with its lemon fruitiness. It’s bright and poised, with an elegant style that shines through the tangy texture. Drink now. Skurnik Wines, Inc.
Rich and exciting wines from Minho Valley
If you head north from the Lima Valley over the mountains toward Spain, the next major river valley is the Minho. On its northern bank, Spanish producers grow Albariño. On the southern bank, the Portuguese cultivate Alvarinho. It’s the same grape, but there’s more difference between the expressions than just spelling.
“The Spanish have more acidity in their Albariño, with salinity and minerality,” says António Luís Cerdeira, winemaker at Quinta de Soalheiro. “Our Alvarinhos are fuller, more smoothly textured and richer.”
Cerdeira’s estate, which he runs with his sister, Maria João, is across the river from Spain. His winery is modern, with a glass-lined tasting room that looks down on the valley.
Alvarinho is grown throughout the Vinho Verde appellation, but the Minho Valley is considered its true home.
“See that mountain there,” he says as he points to the west. “That’s the reason we can grow Alvarinho here. It protects us from the direct ocean influence, keeps the rain at bay and gives us regular diurnal [day-night temperature] differences, even in the summer.”
It also makes the Minho region drier and less lush than Lima Valley.
Alvarinho is grown throughout the Vinho Verde appellation, but the Minho Valley is considered its true home. It’s the only part of the Vinho Verde Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) where producers can make wines exclusively from Alvarinho and label them as such.
Within the Minho Valley, the towns of Monção and Melgaço form a subregion, Monção e Melgaço, which can be indicated on a wine’s label. It’s an area full of exciting producers, both small and large.
The region’s most influential producer is Anselmo Mendes, who owns large vineyard tracts and consults widely throughout Portugal.
His family hails from Monção, and Mendes started making wine in Melgaço from a property he purchased in 1997. He shocked the locals when he employed wood aging with an Alvarinho, and he has only continued to turn the staid world of Monção e Melgaço on its head.
Mendes’s most recent project is the development of 135 acres throughout a contiguous stretch just outside Monção. When planting is finished, the property plans also include a visitors’ center, guest house and tower. Hence its name, Casa da Torre.
The extensive range of Anselmo Mendes wines includes selections made with long skin contact (the mineral Contacto), aged in large wood (spicy Expressões), a single-vineyard wine (Parcela Unica), a bottling that combines skin contact and oak aging (the wonderfully textured Curtimenta) and yet another that employs carbonic maceration and oak aging (Tempo). Every wine is a star in its own right, and the range illustrates the extreme versatility of Alvarinho.
Young winemakers like Joana Santiago of Quinta de Santiago and Miguel Queimado of Vale dos Ares are members of the Vinho Verde Young Projects consortium who also craft small quantities of intense Alvarinho. The bottlings highlight the variety of terroirs found in this valley. Expressions can show ripe tropical flavors or herbal and lemon characters, depending on where the grapes were sourced.
Abel Codesso, a winemaker at Provam, takes his experiments with Alvarinho to the extreme. His wines are Alvarinho with attitude, like a solera-styled offering produced in a glass demijohn that tastes a little like amontillado Sherry. Codesso places an emphasis on freshness, and he harvests early to retain the grape’s floral freshness.
“In Vinho Verde, there is confusion between freshness and acidity,” he says. “Leave the grapes another week and they will become bland.”
While winemaking in the Minho Valley is still rooted in an appreciation for the region’s terroir, the willingness to try new ideas speaks well for the region’s future.
Five Alvarinhos to Try
Anselmo Mendes 2015 Curtimenta Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $35, 94 points. This wood-aged, partially whole-bunch fermented wine is a complete unexpected departure for Vinho Verde. It has flavors of exotic fruits, a slight oxidative character and ripe spicy power. The wine has begun to lose some fruitiness but has gained great depth, toast flavors, almonds and a touch of nutmeg. This is an impressive wine that is ready to drink. Grape2Glass. Editors’ Choice.
Quinta de Soalheiro 2017 Reserva Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $40, 94 points. Fermented and aged in oak, this is very different take on Alvarinho. The wood softens to acidity, which instead emphasizes the creaminess and ripeness of the rich fruit. It’s ready to drink, although it will certainly age. Wine In-Motion.
Provam 2017 Portal do Fidalgo Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $15, 92 points. Pure Alvarinho from one of the top producers in the Monção and Melgaço sub-region of Vinho Verde, this wine is ripe, full of fresh green and white fruits, and is well structured. There is a zest of minerality going through the palate which adds intensity. Drink from 2019. Dionysos Imports Inc. Best Buy.
Quintas de Melgaço 2018 QM Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $24, 90 points. Clean, with a pure line of lemon acidity, this is a lightly spicy, immensely refreshing wine. Its ripe flavors are developing well, which introduce a smooth edge to the tangy, textured fruits. Drink from late 2019. M Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
Valados de Melgaço 2017 Reserva Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $25, 90 points. This 100% Alvarinho comes from the Monção and Melgaço subregion, which is recognized as the homeland for this grape. The wine is superripe, beautifully structured and packed with rich fruits. Juicy apples dominate this floral wine with its great acidity and fresh, textured aftertaste. Drink from late 2019. Sommtable.com.