Harvest is always a time to celebrate, it’s the time to reap the fruit of a whole year’s work. For us, this year was even more special because it’s our 40th anniversary. In 1982, João António Cerdeira created, in the family garage, the first Alvarinho brand in Melgaço: Soalheiro. After that, family members, neighbors and closest friends got gradually convinced that Alvarinho was the most sustainable path for the small agricultural plots they owned and so they started to grow, they started to join. Our Viticulturists Club was born there. There are already more than 150 families who, most of them having their own jobs, commit themselves to Alvarinho at the end of the day and on weekends, managing to obtain some extra income. Now, Soalheiro wines are born in small plots scattered throughout the territory, a patchwork where each plot tells the story of a family, just like ours. The will is repeated every year, each one with its own particularities.
From a year in which temperatures were very high and water was scarce, in which we continued to evolve and refine the various harvests we have been carrying out for some years, some conclusions can be drawn:
- Diversity brings balance and consistency | as nowadays Soalheiro wines are born in small plots scattered throughout the territory, the diversity is very great. There are plots facing north, cooler, and others facing south, more exposed to heat. In addition, there are plots where the lack of water is more noticeable and others where it is not. Wetter soils by nature and others drier. From all this, a balance is born, even more clearly in these extreme years.
- Diversity brings knowledge of the place | each of these plots is treated, by the more than 150 families of winegrowers that are part of our Viticulturists Club, like a garden. A good example is what is called here, a time-consuming and manual job required by the most common way of handling the vines in our territory, the simple pendulous cord, which reflects well how the attention to each vine helps us to deal with such a hot year. The vines are combed after flowering – which this year happened around May 25 -, that is, the canes are freed so as to air the bunches and some leaves are removed. To the east, the vineyard opens up more, which does not happen to the west, as the sun shines more. There are also differences between plots: in those most exposed to the sun, the vines open less. Close and careful care helps to protect the plants in extreme years, but for that you need knowledge of the place and permanent attention. As they say around here, “talk to them every day”.
- Preservation of old vines improves stress management and water consumption | Soalheiro, the vineyard that gave our brand its name and which was the first continuous Alvarinho vineyard in Melgaço, has been a place of learning for us, through continuous study and in collaboration with various academic projects, on how to preserve the best way possible the older vines in a territory where this tradition did not exist. We have been doing this work of raising awareness and sharing knowledge with our Viticulturists Club as we strongly believe in the potential of old vines and in fact these resist much better to dry and very hot years because the roots are implanted much deeper in the soil; soils are more stable.
- Altitude brings balance to the valley classics | Alvarinho in our region was born in the valley, but the commitment to altitude Alvarinho led to winegrowers starting to plant vineyards ever higher on the slopes of the mountains that surround the valley of Monção and Melgaço. For every 100 meters we climb, the temperature drops, on average, one degree centigrade. Even if the ditches that bring water from the mountain to the valley have less flow, in years of drought it is easier for the water to reach the higher plots. For some years now, we have planted an experimental vineyard in Branda da Aveleira, at 1100 meters above sea level, with the idea of studying how Alvarinho evolves in a limit scenario in terms of altitude. The characteristics of this Alvarinho, more mineral and austere, help, in years like this, to provide the valley classics with balance.
THE VINEYARD CYCLE
A VERY DRY YEAR FROM THE BEGINNING
In winter, the level of precipitation was already well below normal in the region – this is a time in which, although the vineyard is dormant, the water reserves are filled, which will then allow watering the vineyard in the summer months, when precipitation is usually scarce. There was a shortage of water here a few months later. Bud break occurred in the second half of March, about two weeks later than in the previous year. After the first inflorescences appeared, already in April, full bloom occurred in the fourth week of May – around May 25 – about 10 days later than last year. After the scarce precipitation in winter, in spring and summer it hardly rained. If in terms of available water it did not help, it ended up contributing to a year of very little disease in the vineyard. In our territory, vine diseases are directly linked to high humidity, which this year was more moderate. Despite this, as usual, there were some very foggy mornings in June, followed by days of strong sunlight, which brought a challenge for winegrowers – at this time, when the vegetative growth was already being noticed, it was essential to air the bunches, combing the vines, unraveling canes so that humidity wouldn’t concentrate among the vegetation, being meticulous so as not to expose the bunches too much and prevent them from burning in periods of extreme heat.
Maturation began at the end of July and we carried out the first controls at the beginning of August 7. As we have the plots of all the winegrowers located and characterized (area, vineyard age, altitude, training system, type of soil…), we started from a representative and exhaustive sample with the objective of marking the harvest in the most judicious way possible for each plot, including it in one of the several groups we defined, in one of the various harvests we carry out. In the maturation control on August 7, we were about 5 days behind compared to the previous year. After a week, an evolution was already visible, and on August 21 we decided to set the start of the harvest for the end of the month. We ended up starting the harvest at the end of August and earlier than initially planned.
As in almost all harvests in Minho, we have one before the rain and another one afterwards. As we anticipated, we ended up harvesting most of the grapes in dry weather. This year, for the first time, we scheduled harvests/received grapes at the cellar on Sundays. We made this decision because the family culture of Monção and Melgaço leads many winegrowers to ask us to harvest at the weekend, to have family and friends available to help – we manage to receive much more grapes than usual on weekends. Compared to usual, this decision ended up helping us to have a much larger part of the harvest done after two weeks, which meant that the possible acceleration of maturation with the rain that fell during the harvest was not felt.
QUALITIES AND QUANTITY
At this point, there are already some conclusions that can be drawn about the qualities of this 2022 harvest. The alcohol will be, on average, higher than that of the previous harvest, but despite the high temperatures that were felt this summer, the acidity drops were more moderate than expected. The rise in alcohol was due, in part, to the dehydration of the grapes. In addition, the heat and little rain also led to a concentration of acidity because with high temperatures and no humidity in the soil, the photosynthesis of the plant is reduced, which leads to less degradation of acids. To sum up, with the schedule of an early and swift harvest, combined with the subsequent work in the cellar, we are convinced that it will be a harvest where we will achieve the balance we look for in Soalheiro: wines that reflect the territory, with elegance and precision.
The amount of grapes in our Viticulturists Club has grown organically, steadily, harvest after harvest. In that sense, this was a very particular year: it was a year of healthy and perfect bunches, but smaller and lighter than usual. Comparing the same vineyard area with the previous year, there were average losses of 10% related to the weight of the grapes being lower due to the scarcity of water. However, as there are many winegrowers who have been increasing the area, who have plots they grew a few years ago which are starting to produce, currently growing new ones, and there are new winegrowers who are joining our club, it turned out to be a year where we once again had a steady increase in the amount of grapes received during harvests. Valuing the territory, Alvarinho and winegrowers meant more families linked to Alvarinho and also growth in the business of each of these families – this sum of small growths has ensured a great diversity of grapes and the usual quality. It is the consequence of a valorization strategy we intend to continue in Monção e Melgaço.
THE SEVERAL HARVESTS
As far as Alvarinho is concerned, we started on August 31 with some plots of organic Alvarinho, in the ascending system, where the grapes, due to being more exposed to the sun and showing great well-being, were quite early. On September 1 we harvested our plot of Pé Franco and on September 2, for the first time, a plot close to the river, which caught our attention due to the very particular characteristics of the soil. The first great days of the Alvarinho harvest in the valley plots took place on the weekend of September 3 and 4 – the harvest in the valley went on for the next two weeks, and every day we differentiated pressings and musts depending on the particularities of the plots and the purpose for which they were intended. We focused on three main categories in Alvarinho: valley, altitude and old vines. The big day for the harvest of old vines was September 15, the always remarkable day on which we harvested Soalheiro, a vine grown in 1974 and that gave our brand its name – today, there are already several plots which are over 30 years of age in our Viticulturists Club, thickening a potential we are truly motivated to explore. Regarding the harvest of altitude Alvarinho, the big days were the weekend of September 17 and 18, and it should be noted that nowadays there are already winegrowers with plots planted at 400 or 500 meters, which would be truly unthinkable a few years ago, proving that the pioneering bet on altitude Alvarinho in 2015, the Granit, opened new horizons in the territory.
Concerning other varieties, we harvested Sauvignon Blanc on September 2, Pinot Noir on September 5 and Loureiro for ALLO on September 6, 7 and 8 – all these varieties come from a more Atlantic area of Vinhos Verdes, vintages where we intend to keep as fresh as possible. We only harvested Loureiro, from old vines to Germinar, on September 14, in search of greater complexity. Alvarelhão was harvested and trodden in the mill on September 16. To end the harvest, on September 19 and 20, we harvested some plots where there is a mixture of indigenous red grape varieties, some centuries old, to work in a kind of Field Blend.