Americans have grown accustomed to the flavor profile of Spanish Albarino---crisp acidity and bright citrus flavors laced with exotic tropical notes. Many of them don’t realize that the same grape variety reaches its zenith just across the border in Portugal.
Portugal’s famous white is Vinho Verde, a reasonably priced, bone-dry wine with a slight effervescence. The country’s best whites are produced in the north, near the Spanish border, in the regions of Monçao and Melgaço, from the same grape variety (Alvarinho) found in Spain. The wine here has the same lean force as its Spanish counterpart, but with an extra dimension of amplitude and complexity. In the hills of Melgaço, within sight of the border, lies one of the finest estates of all: Quinta de Soalheiro.
Soalheiro was founded in 1974 by Antonio Cerdeira, who planted the first Alvarinho vines in the region. Today the estate is in the capable hands of his son, Luis, who runs the property along with his sister. Energetic and dynamic, he has preserved the traditions of the past while experimenting with some popular trends in the international wine market.
One of his innovations is the Soalheiro Alvarinho Reserva ($30), aged in oak to give the wine a roundness and suppleness not normally found in this grape variety. Another is Docil, a project in collaboration with the noted Port winemaker Dirk Niepoort. Composed of Loureiro, a different grape variety also native to the area, this low-alcohol wine has a fragrant, floral nose along with intriguing hints of tropical fruit on the palate.
The regular Quinta de Soalheiro Alvarinho, which retails for around $20 in the U.S., is the standard-bearer of the estate. Light and charming, the wine displays sensual flavors of plump citrus that wrap around the palate, with a strong hint of minerals on the finish. During my visit to the property in June, I was fortunate to be able to sample a vertical of Soalheiro Alvarinho going back to 1997. Although Alvarinho is typically not regarded as a candidate for long-term aging, the older examples were riveting. They displayed ripe flavors of melon and tree fruit, along with petrol notes reminiscent of mature Riesling.