Trás-os-Montes is the obscure within the already globally obscure world of Portuguese wines. (There’s even a wine from the Trás-os-Montes aptly named, The Lost Corner.) This is a consequence of many historical factors, including vine diseases, phylloxera, alien mildews from the new world, wars, poverty, and a dictatorship; you know, the typical European wine region challenges. Also, the commercial wines in Trás-os-Montes perhaps are and may have always been too rustic for the American wine consumer weaned on fruit-forward domestic wines, other more enologically polished wines from famous European regions, as well as various new world wines with more common grape names and familiar euro-phonetics found inside American culture.
After moving to Portugal in 2019 I quickly came to realize that American’s nearly non-existent references to Portuguese culture and language plays a major part in the lack of presence of Portuguese wine in the US market. While every other major wine-producing country in Western Europe contributed a lot of immigrants to North America who brought their cultures along with them—citing especially France, Italy and Spain—whose Romance languages and cultures are ubiquitous throughout the county, Portuguese wine fame is mostly limited to Port wine and to a lesser degree, innocuous bargain white and red still wines.
The wines of the Trás-os-Montes are well known for tasting like not much more than liquid fuel made for the purpose of keeping the field workers going. But before you click away based on this description, there’s hope! Hope in the form of wines like the heroine of this story, Aline Domingues. Her wines bottled under her label, Menina d’uva, are not at all like the wines historically grown in this region. Just as Aline, a Parisienne by birth, sticks out in the area, and so do her wines. But before we dig into her wines, a little foundational material might be useful.
The Trás-os-Montes is located in the far northeastern area of Portugal and is bordered by Spain to the east and north, to the south by Portugal’s Douro Valley, and to the south and west by Vinho Verde. Aside from the overarching classification of the wines as the Vinho Regional, Transmontano, it’s subdivided into three main DOC subzones, and spans from the center of Portugal’s northern border to the easternmost area of the country.
Chaves is the smallest of the three DOCs and is located in the most northwestern section of Trás-os-Montes, just across the border from Galicia’s Monterrei wine region, home to the famous and talented Galician pioneer, Jose Luis Matteo, who makes extraordinary wines bottled under his Quinta da Muradella label. In the middle is Valpaços, with a lot of soft hills and waterways, and the DOC subzone furthest to the east and on the border of Spain, is Planalto Mirandês, which sits on a plateau known as Serra do Mogadouro.
Menina d’uva’s vineyards are located in this easternmost subzone, the Planalto Mirandês, just outside and above her new hometown, Uva. This area borders the famous Douro River (known in Spain as the Duero) on the east/southeast side, just across from the new (since 2007) Spanish wine region, Arribes, named after the national park, Arribes del Duero, or Arribas do Douro, in Portuguese. The general landscape of her territory is mostly rolling hills and small valleys created by waterways, like all of Uva, where a small stream continues to flow right by the front of her cellar door.
The climate is dramatically affected by the neighboring Portuguese appellation, Vinho Verde. Between the Atlantic and the Trás-os-Montes (which literally translates to “behind the mountains”), and throughout the Vinho Verde wine region, is a series of low-lying mountains that act as a rain shadow that gently squeezes Atlantic clouds before passing through. These mountains, with the highest around 1500 meters but most much lower, cut the precipitation to around two-thirds or less of the average of the Vinho Verde.
While it rains a lot, with an average of more than seven hundred millimeters annually, most of it during around nine days per month between October and May, but it rains an average of three hundred and fifty millimeters on Aline’s vines, so quite a difference! Yet the area manages to be quite arid in the late spring and summer, when there’s an average of only two to four days of rain. There’s also a large topographical variation between more mountainous zones, riverbanks and the plateau. However, in this region they are mostly quite exposed to the elements, especially on the plateau, and in the warmer months there is little influence from the Atlantic. This allows for fewer vineyard treatments than in other wine regions with summer and early autumn rains that result in higher humidity and therefore more mildew pressure. The long, warm and arid summer days are the reason why the wines in the area are notoriously weighty and higher in alcohol compared to those from neighboring Vinho Verde, and are more closely related to Spain’s Duero wine regions toward the east. However, the cool nights that sometimes drop twenty degrees Celsius bring the possibility of freshness to the wines, which Aline capitalizes on and clearly demonstrates in her range.
In the 1980s when the cooperativas (co-ops) started their collapse, many grape growers replaced their vineyards to mostly olive trees, the primary agricultural output of this area. Others replanted vineyard land from the historically local grape varieties to more international versions. The move is an understandable one, especially given the highly adaptable blank canvas the Trás-os-Montes offers to the commercially dominant grape varieties, most particularly for reds. With a global market dominated by the now ubiquitous French single varietal wines, any sensible businessperson in search of solutions for a market outside of the country’s impoverished domestic market would consider these international grapes as an option, especially after generations of rigid dictatorship that finally ended in 1974. In fact, the climate and landscape of Trás-os-Montes is quite similar to much of California, so it would make perfect sense to dream bigger and follow the footsteps of the state’s very successful modern wine industry. But one major difference is that California’s consumer populations can single-handedly support most of its wine production and all of the extraordinarily high costs that come with it. The people of Portugal have never been able to follow suit, nor has the country really been able to compete on the world stage to support such a switch. And so the move toward international varieties was short-lived and in the last decades most new vine plantings have been made with indigenous Portuguese grapes. Interestingly, white wine production has been on the increase and has steadily grown from 10% of the region’s output some decades ago to now close to 30%. A lot of these new white grape plantations are at a higher altitude and on hillsides rather than flatter areas.
So what about the local Portuguese grapes with the greatest marketing potential? Well, their first hurdle is that they’re a mouthful us to simply pronounce correctly. Add to that the fact that most of them are a mystery to even Portuguese wine specialists and winemakers; those within specific regions know their own grapes, but because there is so much blending in all the regions it’s difficult to know the specific nature of specific grapes from other appellations. There are literally hundreds of these indigenous grapes that are unknown to all but a few people outside of Portugal.
Here are common Trás-os-Montes whites (you’re on your own with the pronunciation): Viosinho, Arinto, Rabo de Ovelha, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio (Verdelho), Códega do Larinho, Fernão Pires, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Síria. Some reds: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Francesa, Tinta Cão, Bastardo (Merenzao in Spain; Trousseau in France), Tinta Amarela (Trincadeira), Tinta Barroca, Marufo, and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). There are many more, but this is a good start.
Menina d’uva’s Uvas…
There is a somewhat large supporting cast of grapes that go into Aline’s field blended wines, a result of the random plantings within the three hectares of vines she farms. The whites are Malvasia, Bastardo Branco, Formosa, and Poilta, while the reds are Negreda, Uva de Rei, Bastardo Preta (Trousseau), Moscatel Preta and Moscatel Roxo. The most important grapes to her wines are Negreda and Bastardo Preta (Trousseau) for the reds, and Malvasia for the white. Her rosé is a mixture of these red and white grapes.
Negreda, also known as Juan García, Mouraton, Tinta Gorda, and other names, was (until Aline came around!) a grape that was previously considered uninteresting because it didn’t produce wines balanced with firm structure, palate weight, and substantial alcohol during its optimal maturity on the vine. But as it turns out, this is quite interesting for today’s wine drinker who favors elegance over power. In general, this indigenous variety with compact clusters and big, rounded juicy grapes is a vigorous plant that also offers a good yield. Interestingly, the biotype in Aline’s vineyards don’t have much natural tannin, despite dark pigmentation and thick skins. If farmed and picked when the acidity is vibrant, like Menina d’uva’s, it’s fresh, bright and aromatic, despite its misleading darker hue. This is the principal grape variety in Aline’s Palomba wine, and makes up a good chunk of her other red, Ciste, and the rosé.
Bastardo Preta, not a very kind name for such a fabulous grape (preta means black, and you can probably figure out the meaning of the other), has many other names, but is most famously known as Trousseau, from France’s Jura wine region. Keeping in mind that there are likely other biotypes of this grape with different properties, Aline’s vines produce small, lightly colored berries, despite what the name suggests, and to add to the irony, the variety is known for its perfumed aromas and medium-colored wines, depending on the extraction level. However, with most red grapes, substantial structure and color is possible if that’s what a producer wants, while others simply don’t have big tannins or acidity by nature. Most of Aline’s Bastardo Preta is grown on igneous and metamorphic rock-derived clay topsoil, which commonly imparts more roundness and flesh despite her very lightly-hued wine called Ciste, an equal blend of this grape with Negreda, in addition to a couple other varieties, including a white.
The white grape, Malvasia, is somewhat well known throughout Portugal and other parts of Europe, but less so in the US. There are a lot of different grapes called Malvasia, and it is likely that many of them are not related; in Portugal and Italy alone there are about a dozen or so grapes associated by this name. In Portugal, it is found in vineyards north to south, with a solid representation grown close to Lisbon, especially within Colares, home to a sandy terroir of own-rooted, ancient vines, both red and white. While perfumed, the grape takes on wonderful textures, and in the case of Aline’s it is not overwhelming, but rather charming and wonderfully textured. The textures in her wines are an unusually strong asset. Perhaps they have something to do with the ground they’re grown on as much as, or more, than on Aline’s winemaking or the grape itself?
Geologically, the Trás-os-Montes is part of the Iberian Massif, a remnant of Pangaea, Earth’s last supercontinent that was composed of all of the current continents, a few hundred million years ago. It’s geologically similar to France’s Massif Central (Northern Rhône, Beaujolais and many more) and Massif Armorican (western Loire Valley), and many other European wine regions. Like those areas, it is largely composed of igneous and/or metamorphic bedrock. There are also a lot sedimentary alluvial depositions, especially in the Chaves DOC, which are most often found in and around the small tributaries and the main river, Tâmega, known for its hot springs (so naturally the Romans left traces in the area), which starts in Galicia and eventually joins the Douro, to the south.
Within the Chaves DOC subzone, vineyards up and outside of the river’s influence are mostly composed of igneous granites or granodiorites (a rock that looks like what we commonly call granite, but differs slightly in its mineral makeup), and a smaller proportion of metamorphic rocks, perhaps predominantly graphite schist. Because the Chaves DOC ends at the northern border where Spain’s Monterrei DO begins, the bedrock can be similar in Monterrei from an overall geological perspective, but there is an increase of metamorphic rocks found here in addition to the intrusive igneous rocks, like granite or granodiorite.
Menina d’uva Vineyards
Valpaços (an evolved compound spelling of Vale de Paços) has a large variation of vineyard settings with a mixture of some on very flat areas and others on softer sloping hillsides with high desert landscape. The range of vineyard altitude is between two hundred and seven hundred meters. The area as a whole has a broad geological diversity typical of the area with most of the bedrock either igneous or metamorphic, the latter predominately quartzite and graphite schist. Like the majority of Trás-os-Montes, Valpaços most commonly produces sturdy, rustic wines, while a few others take a stab at international varieties.
Planalto Mirandês is where the geological fun begins, not only because we have two winegrowers there in somewhat close proximity, but also it seems to have a different energy and quite a different setting than the other two subzones in general. The other winegrowers we work with is a dynamic duo Aline introduced us to who also started their project not too far from her, but on a completely different geology and topography of vineyards, called Arribas Wine Company. I understand why three young, globally minded wine fanatics in search of a place to set up shop might choose to go there. Nature abounds. It’s serene. It has a beautiful countryside with a big sky. There also seems to be endless possibilities with such fabulous dirt and weather for grapes, and a multitude of grapes to choose from. And many of them are ancient vines that quietly survived through the years while others were replaced with international varieties, or varieties from other Portuguese regions.
From a geological perspective, depending on location, most vineyard bedrock and soil is igneous granite or granodiorite, and the all-star cast of metamorphic rocks: mostly schist, but also a lot of slate and gneiss. The real difference here is the locations. The steep, southerly- exposed barren granite hillsides where Arribas Wine Company’s vines overlook the Douro are quite the opposite of Menina d’uva.
A Deeper Geological Dig
Valpaços just touches on the eastern side of what geologists refer to as the Morais Complex, while the Eastern half of the Planalto Mirandês DOC sits inside this geological formation. On geological maps of the area, there are two “complexes,” the bigger of the two, a concentric (circular) in the south, called the Morais Complex; and in the north, an ellipsoidal (oval) formation, called the Bragança Complex. Both complexes are allochthonous, a term that simply means these formations originated somewhere else and were moved to where they are today, usually by mountain forming events, which geologists call orogenies. We’re in deep now, and geological terms like these will pop up more along the way as we dig into other regions, too.
The Morais and Bragança Complexes were part of an oceanic plate underneath the ancient Rheic Ocean. The Rheic was between the two supercontinents, Laurasia (home to today’s North America, Europe and Asia, minus India) and Gondwana (Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, India). During the millions of years of smash-up between these two continents most of the oceanic plate below was destroyed. However, some parts of that plate survived and were uplifted and scattered through northwest Iberia. What’s left are complexes like the Trás-os-Montes, and the Cabo Ortegal and Órdenes Complexes are on the northern most area of the Galicia, by the cities of A Coruña and Ferrol.
So, why bother with these complex complexes? Well, because they have very different rock types than the rest of Iberia! Some of these rocks unique to this area are mafic igneous rocks, like gabbro and basalt. These rocks are darker in color due to their mineral makeup, and have an alkaline pH—the latter being a little unique in this igneous and metamorphic land dominated by rocks with acidic pH levels. Surrounding the Morais Complex are the remnants of the Gondwana and Laurasia collision, which generated a broad range of schist, slate and gneiss formations related to this event.
Back To Aline’s Vines!
Menina d’uva’s vineyards are on the furthest eastern edge of the Morais Complex, largely atop metamorphic bedrock. The vineyards are on rolling hills and soft slopes, with deeper topsoil than what is found on more extreme hillsides. Most topsoil between her many parcels is composed of severely eroded metamorphic rocks that have remained in place, while other topsoils are clays and other depositions originating elsewhere. The soil grains of her vineyards range from clay, sand and various sizes of broken up schist, slate and gneiss. This mishmash of bedrock and topsoil grains with variable depths bring a broad range of textures and weight to Aline’s wines, despite their soft extraction.
Many of her vineyards have olive trees planted in or around them, and other crops close by. With respect to a quality of biodiversity standpoint, Menina d’uva’s vineyard land is a model to follow in areas where crops cover the landscape wherever vines aren’t planted. Arribas Wine Company is another contrast to this in that most of their vineyards are alone in the wilderness with its neighboring land consisting of mostly abandoned vineyards reclaimed by nature—a different biodiversity but of equal contribution for those in search of authentic wines with a clear terroir voice beyond the grape, vineyard composition and cellar tinkering.
Aline On Her Terroirs
“In 2018, Menina d’uva produced its first wines by bringing back to life three plots of old vines owned by other village residents. Since then, three additional vineyard plots from neighboring villages, supplement the production for a total of 3 ha (~7 acres).
The old, native vine varieties around Uva and much of the Trás-os-Montes are deeply adapted to the climate and soil, and between thirty to sixty-five years of age. They mainly grow on schist and quartz soils, which allow for deep root infiltration. Some plots are located in the occasional sedimentary cover of the region. These soils have less depth, but are more fertile, characterized by increased water circulation and retention.
At an average altitude of five hundred and fifty meters, the old vines benefit from a continental climate, marked by long, cold winters and warm, dry summers. The large variations between daytime and nighttime temperatures promote slow grape maturation.” -TV
Menina d’uva’s wine details are covered on each product page.
Thank you to Ivan Rodriguez, MSc Geologist (with a PhD en route! Go Ivan!), for his contribution with some of the geological content.