This year the uncertainty in the vineyard was a constant, allowing in the end to reinforce a greater certainty: even in a year full of difficulties, our viticulture team and the more than 150 families of winegrowers who work with Soalheiro managed, once again, to produce grapes of unique quality resulting from the knowledge of generations that, together with the inimitable natural conditions, give rise to this unique territory and special wines made by so many hands.
Decision making is key in the vineyard, and to make good decisions you need to accumulate knowledge and know how to tackle new problems by innovating. Therefore, we are so proud of the close relationship and sharing that exists throughout the year between our viticulture team and the winegrowers. Of course, in addition to this, daily monitoring, and detailed knowledge of each plot by the winegrowers is essential. As they say around here: ``You have to talk to the vines every day``. It was precisely this care, this attention dedicated to the vineyard, to each plot and each vine, that made all the difference in this challenging year.
A difficult year from dormant vine to grape maturation
After a very cold December, with snowfalls in the highest part of the territory, in the first months of the year the temperatures were milder than usual, leading the first stages of the life cycle of the vine to be early. Budburst occurred in the first half of March and, already in the last week of March, the first inflorescences appeared. By this time, the life cycle of the vine was about one to two weeks earlier than usual in Monção and Melgaço.
April and May were colder months than usual, causing some shatter on the vines and difficulties during the flowering stage, which occurred in mid-May. In June there was a lot of precipitation that, combined with mild temperatures and some sunny days with hight temperatures, potentiated thereby the risk of vineyard diseases. Dewy mornings, unstable temperatures and heavy downpours meant that the attention of the winegrowers to the vineyard had to be redoubled. These weather conditions caused intense vegetative growth, which meant that the manual work of ``combing`` the vines (= disentangled the vine's throws from each other) had to be almost daily, to guarantee good aeration of the future bunches.
From véraison to several grape harvests
In July there were no persistent warm temperatures and the weather remained unpredictable. Therefore, the anticipation of the life cycle stages of the vine was no longer noticeable. Normally at the end of July the ripening phase begins, but because temperatures were lower than usual and because it rained occasionally, the véraison only occurred in early August.
From the first week of August the heat was intense, again accelerating the life cycle of the vine. These two weeks of very intense summer heat made it expected that the harvest would occur at the end of the month, but the last week of August brought cooler temperatures and rain, which again delayed the life cycle of the vine and created uncertainty about what would be the optimal time to harvest the grapes.
Due to the inconsistent weather during the ripening period, we have carried out hundreds of ripening controls this year, in collaboration with the winegrowers: each family has been collecting representative samples from the selected plots to be analysed week by week. It was important to let the grapes reach their optimal harvesting point and, at the same time, try to escape the rains that were announced for the month of September.
We started by harvesting Pinot Noir in the last week of August. Then followed Sauvignon Blanc, and at the end of the month and the first days of September we harvested Loureiro. All these grapes come from an Atlantic area of the Vinho Verde Wine Region, and it is fundamental, to ensure our wine profile, not to delay the harvest too much so that the grapes retain their characteristic freshness.
We were still following closely the maturation of the Alvarinho grape variety in Monção and Melgaço and, based on the information we were gathering and, based on the knowledge we have accumulated over the years about this grape variety and about the territory, we decided to start the harvest of this grape variety on September 6th. In fact, we started several grape harvests. We started with the plots in the valley, where the grapes for wines with greater aromatic expression such as Soalheiro Clássico are found; we harvested the oldest plots and other plots chosen especially for some specific innovations and blends, and finally, in the last week of September, we harvested the grapes from the higher altitude plots, destined for Soalheiro Granit.
The beginning of the vinification process
In general, we found that the grape musts this year have a moderate alcohol content and a great freshness - just our way. These first tastings also confirmed that the connection between the work in the vineyard and the work in the winery is increasingly direct, i.e., the profiles that we identify in the vineyard and that we isolate in each of the micro harvests, originate grape musts that are clearly differentiated from each other. In other words, the diversity of the territory and the vineyards are reflected in the diversity of the grape musts we taste at the winery.
Thus, and progressively, the main function of the vinification process is to respect the work of Nature and of the winegrowers and to respect diversity and enhance it.
Another certainty that we have, year after year, is that climate change brings a great inconsistency to the growth cycle of grapevines. Every year this life cycle presents variations; each year has its harvest particularities, each harvest is a specific harvest. This year, with the evolution of fermentation, the vintage is proving to be cooler, with moderate alcohol, thus creating the ideal conditions to work on a characteristic that we increasingly value: precision.
We have long realized that to be consistent and innovative, and having bet essentially on two white grape varieties - Loureiro and Alvarinho, it is essential to work with the diversity of vineyard plots and with the diversity of characteristics of their grapes. Without the heterogeneity of our territory this diversity would not be possible to obtain. And to make the most of those grape varieties, namely the remarkable elasticity of the Alvarinho, we characterize in detail the variables that influence the differentiation of the grapes, such as age of the vines, altitude, type of soil, conduction system, among others and we always innovate.
We believe that knowledge is the basis for consistency, for differentiation and for innovation, and that it is at our disposal to increase the quality of our wines. The precision with which we look at the vineyard will be the precision we can have in each of our wine profiles.
This year we continue to develop new ideas in our Innovation Winery: ideas coming from friends who join us, as well as those coming from our own team.
Both in cases where we want to keep consistent the profiles of our wines and with which we have been working for many years, and in situations where we want to face the unique challenges that we have in each harvest, for all this, it is essential to experiment and always diversify the knowledge.
I. Budburst, when buds start to appear after winter dormancy, occurred in the first half of March, more than two weeks earlier than average in this region. The advance in the initial phase of the cycle occurred because the winter was less rigorous and cold than normal. This can have different consequences in such a heterogeneous territory, namely in the different landscapes of the valley and the mountains. The responsible for monitoring the vineyards of the Soalheiro’s Club of Producers explains: “in the highest part of our territory, our vineyard at 1100 meters of altitude, there was less snow than usual, in the valley the temperatures were milder”.
II. During the vegetative growth phase precipitation was abundant and temperatures were low. As Miguel Alves explains, this “ended up delaying the advance of the cycle, causing the veraison, the phase when maturation begins, to start mid-July, about a week earlier than in a conventional year”. The month of July and the beginning of August were characterized by very high temperatures during the day and the absence of precipitation. In mid-August, there were some light rains that “favoured the quality of the grapes and helped the vineyard to recover the reserves”.
III. The end of August was milder, with temperatures of around 30°C during the day and nights with temperatures around 16°C. This high thermal amplitude was due to the protection from Atlantic winds by the mountains surrounding the Alvarinho valley. For António Luís Cerdeira, winemaker of Soalheiro, this end of the cycle “led to a slower maturation with the maintenance of aromatic and gustatory freshness, a major characteristic of our wines”.
It is always important in our wines, be it Loureiro for ALLO or Alvarinho for the remaining wines, to find the best balance between alcohol and acidity. 2019 was slightly cooler than 2018, which we like a lot, and also with moderate alcohol. Finally, the expectations are great, but as the saying goes “even washing the baskets is vintage” so we will strive to ensure that the wines are perfect and live up to the great quality of the grapes.
The rainfall in winter was lower than average. In January, the rainfall increased and was very heavy, with an average ambient temperature that was also higher than usual. Overall, the winter was hot, which led to a slightly early budburst with regular flushing. The spring was rainy and cold in the months of March, April, and May, which resulted in irregularity and delay in the vegetative cycle. Flowering took place two weeks late, which reduced setting, allowing for better distribution of production over each vine and a resulting increase in quality. From June onwards, the rainfall reduced drastically, and average temperatures rose. The months of July and August were hot and very dry, with high average temperatures and practically no rainfall. September followed this trend, contributing to an early harvest that started in its first week, a clear recovery from the delay observed in spring.