Soalheiro: A Fearless Family’s Alvarinho for the Ages

Tip: You’d do well to remember the name Cerdeira — the family whose bold foresight helped jumpstart a revolution in Vinho Verde for sustainability, pushing viticultural boundaries, and growing alvarinho that seriously rewards patient cellaring.
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Kate M. Colby

2024 marks 50 years since Soalheiro paved the way for incredible alvarinho wines in Portugal’s Monção and Melgaço, a sub-region of Vinho Verde.

Did the Cerdeira family intend to start a revolution when they established Soalheiro? No — they simply saw the land’s untapped potential for producing exceptional alvarinho and set out to craft the best wines they could. And as a select group of industry press and trade members recently discovered, Soalheiro wines continue to disrupt outmoded perceptions of alvarinho, showing just how stunningly complex it can be with a little time in bottle.

They’re not the only ones coming to this revelation. Over the last three years, unit sales of Portuguese alvarinho wines have increased by 97.3% and dollar sales have increased by 96.9%, proving that the category has captured the interest of wine lovers across the U.S.*

António Luís, Palmira, and Maria João Cerdeira in vineyard - Soalheiro
Soalheiro is led today by António Luís Cerdeira, his mother Palmira Cerdeira, and his sister Maria João Cerdeira.

A Celebration of Age-Worthy Alvarinho

As part of Soalheiro’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Palm Bay International hosted a special tasting on April 12, 2024. Press and other trade members gathered at an upscale wine bar in New York City, where they were met by third-generation Soalheiro proprietor António Luís Cerdeira. Luís presented Soalheiro alvarinhos from two different decades to showcase the remarkable quality and ageability of his family’s wines.

The core of the tasting centered on three signature Soalheiro wines: Alvarinho Classico, Granit Alvarinho, and Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho. The latter is the estate’s flagship wine, crafted from organic grapes grown in the Primeiras Vinhas (“first vines”) vineyard next to the winery ... right where the Cerdeira family’s fascinating story began.

First, Luís introduced the most recent vintages of these wines — 2023, 2023, and 2022, respectively. Befitting their youth, they were beautifully fresh and flavorful. Then, Luís brought out three older vintages of these same wines — 2012, 2015, and 2012, respectively. How would they compare to their younger counterparts? Well, our article title gives it away.

António Luís Cerdeira at NYC media event - Soalheiro
Luís prepares to share his family’s amazing alvarinhos at our anniversary tasting event.

Unlike the simpler alvarinhos often associated with the Vinho Verde region, these wines have done more than just age gracefully. They put on an impressive display of vibrancy, structure, and balance. There is real tension in every sip, all framed by the complex tertiary characters which naturally develop with age. The excellence of these wines is not despite being nine or 12 years old — it is because of it.

Carissa Mastanduono, the Public Relations Associate for Palm Bay International who coordinated the tasting, sums up the afternoon: “Luis was a very engaging speaker, making us all laugh while detailing the region and each wine with care. He made us feel like we were tasting with him at the vineyard in Vinho Verde rather than in NYC. He connected with each guest personally, and everyone left saying that they wish the Portugal wine tours had a stop in the Monção and Melgaço region!”

A resounding success for Soalheiro and the Cerdeira family. But what, exactly, did they do to revolutionize alvarinho winemaking in Monção and Melgaço? And how have these efforts resulted in such exceptional, long-lived wines?

Well, it all started with those precious “Primeiras Vinhas.”

Pioneering the Single-Varietal Vineyard

Cerdeira Family in vineyard (1974) - Soalheiro
Since its founding in 1974, three generations of the Cerdeira family have overseen Soalheiro.

Let’s step back to 1974, when João António Cerdeira and his parents, António Esteves Ferreira and Maria Cerdeira, planted a small, 1-hectare / 2.5-acre parcel of alvarinho grapes. Following Portuguese tradition, they named the vineyard according to the land’s characteristics, calling it Soalheiro (“sunny place”) due to the long sunshine hours it receives.

Planting such a vineyard may be commonplace today, but at the time, it was a bold decision. Back then, viticulture remained secondary to growing cereal crops and raising livestock. Vines were typically used as land and field borders, and when they were planted, growers cultivated multiple varieties to make the “field blend” wines that were popular at the time.

So, by planting a continuous vineyard to only alvarinho vines, the Cerdeira family inadvertently started a new era — for their family and for the Vinho Verde region. As Tim Jackson, MW, writes on, it is “in the sub-region of Monção and Melgaço… that single-varietal alvarinho Vinho Verde has taken root. Soalheiro has been at the fore of establishing this sub-region’s reputation, and with that reinventing Vinho Verde.”**

Prime Territory for High-Quality Alvarinho Wine

The Cerdeira family officially turned to winemaking in 1982. From that groundbreaking vineyard, João António crafted the inaugural vintage of the estate’s flagship Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho and established the first “brand” of alvarinho in Melgaço. Its quality proved that, as the family had predicted, Soalheiro’s terroir is perfectly suited to growing ultra-premium alvarinho.

Vineyards aerial shot - Soalheiro
The hillside around the Soalheiro winery is now planted to vineyards.

Soalheiro lies in Monção and Melgaço, one of the nine sub-regions of Vinho Verde, situated at Portugal’s northernmost point. The region has an inland, land-locked position, with mountain ranges that protect vineyards from the cool, rainy conditions near the Atlantic Ocean. This distinct microclimate is less maritime and more continental and offers ideal amounts of rainfall and sunshine along with a large diurnal temperature shift that extends the growing season and gives grapes ample time to ripen. It also locks in alvarinho’s delicate aromas and maintains freshness. Well-draining, granitic soils create concentration in the grapes and impart trademark mineral notes to the wines.

Today, third-generation siblings António Luís and Maria João, along with their mother Maria Palmira Cerdeira, run the estate and tend its vineyards. Out of respect for this pristine terroir, they converted their vineyards to certified organic farming in 2006. Spearheaded by Maria João, a nature lover and veterinarian by trade, the organic conversion was a pioneering initiative for the region. Few estates used organic viticulture at the time, but today, many have followed Soalheiro’s example.

In 2015, the Cerdeira family aimed even higher — literally — in search of greater terroir. They sourced grapes from high-altitude vineyards (400 meters / 1,312 feet), which yield wines with even more complexity and intensity. From these grapes, they crafted Soalheiro Granit Alvarinho, and the wine’s success inspired the family to plant the highest-altitude alvarinho vines in Portugal. This process has helped the vineyard teams combat the warming climate, as well as enabled Soalheiro to produce more elegant, gastronomic wines.

A Family of Family Growers

Continuing this spirit of sustainability and exploration, the Cerdeira family made yet another bold decision. In 2018, they enlisted 150 other local families into a growers’ “club.” Most of the members work regular jobs and tend their tiny parcels of land in the evenings or on weekends, treating their vineyards like personal gardens and manually harvesting all the fruit. Of course, this dedicated, hands-on approach yields top-quality grapes.

Producers club - Soalheiro
Soalheiro’s Club of Producers has been vital to producing alvarinho wines with very different expressions.

Soalheiro’s Club of Producers has established a wonderful symbiotic relationship.

The Cerdeira family are granted access to some of the oldest vines in Monção and Melgaço and they enjoy greater control over parcel selection. Because each family’s vineyard has its own terroir, each produces alvarinho with unique characteristics. This allows the Cerdeiras to tailor the recipe for Soalheiro wines, as well as make strategic decisions about future projects.

In return, the growers receive financial support, as well as the education and resources to practice eco-conscious viticulture. This economic and environmental sustainability expands out to the wider region, securing the longevity of the land, people, and culture for future generations of wine lovers.

A Smart Investment

And the future certainly does look bright for Soalheiro.

In 2021, Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho 2019 became the first-ever “Best in Show Vinho Verde” at the Decanter World Wine Awards. The judges raved.

“Haunting and tenacious … with the presence and force of character which typifies its Monção e Melgaço origins. That impression of a cool, wet granite landscape somehow conveyed by the wine lingers right through the long finish.”

Bottles from media tasting event - Soalheiro
The full lineup of alvarinhos from the Soalheiro 50th anniversary tasting event hosted by Palm Bay International.

It couldn’t be clearer. The pristine terroir — whose potential for fine alvarinho was first recognized by the Cerdeira family — shines through in the glass. As does, of course, the quality-focused practices of Soalheiro’s Club of Producers.

As Soalheiro continues to raise the profile of alvarinho, demand for their incredible wines has skyrocketed. Over the last year, unit sales have increased by 85% and dollar sales have increased by 65.6% for Soalheiro Alvarinho 750ml.*

These market trends show that customers are now recognizing what the Cerdeira family has known for decades — that Soalheiro’s alvarinhos offer that elusive, best-of-both-worlds kind of enjoyment: gorgeous in their youth and positively transcendent as they age. They are, without a doubt, wines every savvy, quality-focused retailer should have in their portfolio.

*Nielsen xAOC + Liq Latest 52 Wks - w/e 05/18/24

**Soalheiro Alvarinho 2019 Vinho Verde, Monção e Melgaço. April 9, 2021.

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