What a Little Altitude Can Do – To An Alvarinho: Soalheiro Clássico and Soalheiro Granit

In the Monção e Melgaço wine-making region of Portugal, the alvarinho grape reigns supreme, but the wine can differ quite a bit depending upon how high up the vines are planted. A comparison of the winemaker Soalheiro’s Alvarinho Clássico and Alvarinho Granit.

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Vale do Minho
After writing about the differences between Portuguese alvarinho and Spanish albariño white wines, as well as the Vinho Verde DOC in general – Vinho Verde is a wine region in Portugal –  I thought of a follow-up that would make the perfect companion article.  I decided that I would explore one sub-region of the Vinho Verde DOC, and one winemaker in particular, which naturally led me to Monção e Melgaço and Soalheiro.
Monção e Melgaço (pronounced mon-SOW ee mel-GAH-soo) is the small, farthest most northern sub-region of the much larger Vinho Verde DOC. (DOC means denominação de origem controlada, or protected designation of origin, basically the appellation.)  This sub-region is named after the historic villages flanking its western and eastern boundaries, Monção and Melgaço, respectively, first settled back in the Middle Ages.  Nestled in the Minho River valley, which separates Portugal from Galicia in northern Spain, the microclimate of Monção e Melgaço is characterized by hot days and cool nights in the summer growing season, with little maritime influence from the Atlantic Ocean, unlike many other Vinho Verde vineyards near the coast.
Although alvarinho grapes had been cultivated in the region for centuries, Monção e Melgaço was not formally classified as a sub-region of the Vinho Verde DOC until about 20 years ago. Winemakers in the Monção e Melgaço sub-region had long held the exclusive legal right in Portugal to showcase the alvarinho grape varietal on their wine labels, meaning other alvarinho producers throughout the Vinho Verde DOC outside of Monção e Melgaço could not, even if they had used alvarinho in their wines.  However, an agreement was reached in 2015 whereby Monção e Melgaço lost this exclusivity, though it was granted a moratorium until 2021, giving the sub-region six years to build up and market the Monção e Melgaço alvarinho legacy.  This seems to have had the intended effect in Portugal, at least for now, since high-quality alvarinho is still widely associated with Monção e Melgaço.
Because Monção e Melgaço lies in a river valley, vines can be planted at lower altitudes closer to the river, or at higher altitudes up the mountain slope.  As a general principal, higher altitudes come with cooler temperatures, and grapes grown in these conditions ripen more slowly and produce more acidic wines, which typically come across as “mineral” or “fresh” on the palate.  This means that vineyards in lower-lying areas of Monção e Melgaço, roughly 50 to 150 meters in altitude (~164 to 492 feet), result in relatively less acidic, more fruit-forward wines than wines from grapes grown at vineyards 350 meters (~1,148 feet) or above.  The winemaker Soalheiro has capitalized on this variation to bring us the two wines I’m tasting today.
In my Same Maker, Different Wine series, I’ve been taking a look at similarities and differences between two reds or two whites made by the same winemaker or producer.  However, these aren’t highly scientific “apples to apples” comparisons of, say, the same varietal, from the same vineyard, with one aged longer than the other.  I am not a trained oenologist or sommelier, rather a casual wine drinker who has often stood in front of a shelf at a wine shop wondering how much difference it would make to spend more on this winemaker versus that in one harvest year or another.  Also, to really understand the question of terroir in winemaking seems to imply a vast, deep well of knowledge that the average wine consumer doesn’t have the time or patience to acquire.  At least, I often feel this way.  At my age, every new fact I learn seems to replace an old one in my long-term memory…
So, I wanted to shrink down the size of this question for a bit into something manageable for me, and, hopefully, for you. Homing in on the Monção e Melgaço sub-region and the winemaker Soalheiro seems like the best way to do so.
Soalheiro’s alvarinhos are a classic of the genre: light, minerally, with a touch of fruit, they bring to mind a less aromatic sauvignon blanc, though they aren’t quite as dry as a Greek assyrtiko.  The “Clássico” as Soalheiro refers to it comes from grapes harvested lower in the valley, while the Granit comes from higher-altitude grapes.  In Portuguese, soalheiro means “sunny” and the wine-making family behind Soalheiro started with a small, sunny parcel of land and turned it into a reference point for Portuguese alvarinho today.

First Up: Soalheiro Alvarinho 2023

  • Varietal: 100% Alvarinho grapes
  • Alcohol Content: 12.5% vol.
  • Average Price: US $25.99
Soalheiro Alvarinho 2023
The bouquet is a subtle peach, with a faint touch of citrus, though peach dominates.  This pale-yellow wine is lightly fruity but dry, mineral, and satisfyingly tart on the finish without being astringent.  Soalheiro’s own tasting notes for this vintage describe salinity on the palette, but I personally didn’t pick up on this like I have with some Spanish albariños from vineyards near the Atlantic coast. 
For deliveries in the United States, find the Soalheiro Alvarinho here at wine.com.

Next Up: Soalheiro Granit Alvarinho 2023

  • Varietal: 100% Alvarinho grapes
  • Alcohol Content: 12.5% vol.
  • Average Price: US $27.99
Soalheiro Granit Alvarinho 2023
Basically the same color as the Clássico, the Granit has a slightly oily or leathery bouquet, and more of it, though still quite subtle.  Notably more acidic and less fruity than the Clássico – which is not very fruity to begin with – the Granit also has a dry, mineral freshness but a softer finish.
For deliveries in the United States, find the Soalheiro Granit here at wine.com.

How the Wines Are Similar

Besides being made from 100% alvarinho grapes from the Monção e Melgaço sub-region of the Vinho Verde DOC, both the Clássico and the Granit are certified vegan, which means no animal products were used to clarify the wine or in any other wine-making process.  (See my article Organic and Natural Wines in Portugal for more on this topic.)
The Clássico and the Granit come in as a bit above-average in retail price for Portuguese consumers – and higher still for the average bottle of white wine in the United States – but the price difference between the two of them is close enough that if you prefer a drier wine, that extra dollar or two for the Granit won’t make much of a difference to your pocketbook.
Both the wines tasted here are 2023 vintages, and 2023 marked Soalheiro’s earliest ever grape harvesting.  Historically, early harvests signified higher-quality wines, but climate change has created difficulties for growers in predicting which will be banner years and which won’t.  For both the Clássico and the Granit, at least, 2023 seems closer to the former.   
Unlike previous decades, wine quality overall has been pretty consistent in the last 20 years, so you’re unlikely to get a truly “bad” alvarinho vintage these days even if you can’t get a bottle of 2023.   For the most part, only committed oenophiles or people working in the wine industry are likely to be able to detect differences between vintages.

How the Wines Are Different

The main difference here is that the Granit grapes are grown at about 400 meters in altitude (about 1,312 feet) compared to only about half that much for the Clássico.  This results in a drier, more mineral wine in the Granit.

The Takeaway

I usually have a bottle of Soalheiro Clássico in the house as a go-to bright white wine, which I especially enjoy in the warmer months, of which there are many in Portugal.  This was the first time I tried the Granit, and initially I was surprised to find it much less bone dry than I was expecting.  However, as my glass sat out longer, the wine became even drier still and more to my liking.  I realized that the bottle came straight from the fridge, which was probably too cold.  Wine experts often say that people over-chill their white wines, which can helpfully mask the poor quality of cheap wine but tends to flatten out higher quality ones.  This was another reminder to gift myself a little wine refrigerator one of these birthdays…
For me personally, I prefer structure and texture and richness and body and all the wine words out there when it comes to red wine, not white.  So, a bright, minerally alvarinho that doesn’t linger on the tongue is right up my alley. However, if you prefer a bit more heft to your whites, or something that has a creamier finish, you might prefer what the Portuguese sometimes call brancos de inverno, or winter whites, from the Douro, Dão, or Alentejo DOCs.  I’ll be exploring those in future editions of this series.  If you’re not sure either way, give the Soalheiro Clássico a go so you can experiment. 
Now, you be the judge!
For more wine comparisons like this one, check out our other posts in the Same Maker, Different Wine series.
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