All posts by Cynthia

Free lance writer and translator

Tracking the Season – 20 June

Malvedos Touriga Nacional 20 June 16:41 and a view of the house and the stone terraces
Malvedos Touriga Nacional 20 June 16:41 and a view of the house and the stone terraces

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua were looking beautiful on the day before the summer equinox.

As has been the case most of the past month, the weather was clear, with slightly cool (for the Douro!) temperatures – mid to upper 20ºs C – and a warm sun.  Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, said there have been a few warmer days, and we have had one or two insignificant showers, but the trend so far this year of being generally a bit cooler than normal has continued.  That said, the outlook for the coming weekend is for plenty of sun and a rise in temperatures.

Alexandre showing the healthy grapes and foliage of Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua
Alexandre showing the healthy grapes and foliage of Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua

The flowering which was in progress when we last visited the quintas concluded well, we have seen a minimum of desavinho (abortion of fruit set) this year, and the young grape bunches look healthy and promising.  When we visited Quinta do Tua Alexandre stopped to walk through the Tinta Amarela plantation and was closely examining the grape bunches and foliage deep in the canopy.  He explained that this variety, which has compact bunches of thin-skinned grapes and lush dense foliage, is particularly susceptible to mildio.  Alexandre was pleased to find no sign whatsoever of disease.  This parcel of Amarela is planted at the top of the hill just behind Tua’s famous walled vineyards, and the site is quite level and airy and well exposed to the south and east, all of which is ideal for minimising the risk of disease.  Regular readers may remember that this plot of Amarela was the first to be picked for the 2012 harvest.

We have begun the gradual renovation of the plantings in the old walled vineyard at Quinta do Tua
We have begun the gradual renovation of the plantings in the old walled vineyard at Quinta do Tua

The other news at Quinta do Tua is in the old walled vineyards.  Many of the vines really are very old and reaching the end of their productive lives.  After some discussion over the past year Charles Symington, our head winemaker, and Alexandre agreed to renovate the vineyards gradually, to maintain as much as possible of the old vines mixed-vineyard character.  To that end, 3,000 pés (literally “feet” – the root stocks) were planted this winter, replacing missing or too-old vines.  These are American root stocks which should settle in and grow well this season so that next winter we can cut them down and graft in scions of our Douro varieties (learn more about field grafting vines).

Drip irrigation of the newly planted Sousão at Quinta dos Malvedos
Drip irrigation of the newly planted Sousão at Quinta dos Malvedos

Over at Quinta dos Malvedos the new plantations are settling in well, and we have begun the first irrigation.  In the Douro wine growing region irrigation is generally not allowed, the only exception being in the first year of a new plantation to help the young plants get established.  When the vines are planted, they are individually watered, which is labour intensive.  For subsequent irrigations we have a system of hose pipes which drip feed the water along the row of vines, and one man and quite a lot of black tubing can irrigate a hectare in a day.  The water is taken from a water tank at the western end of Malvedos (home to an immense golden carp that proved camera shy), which in turn is fed from a natural watercourse that comes into the property from a ravine further west.

Viticultural work continues steadily on several fronts.  We are just finishing the last of the ampara – the arrangement of vines into the trellis system – and next week we will begin the desponta – trimming the growing ends of the vine.  This will redirect the vine’s energy away from putting on more length and foliage towards maturing the grapes.  The “lawn has been mowed” in our organic vineyards to provide compost for the soil there, and in July we will finish the job of establishing the new vineyards by crushing the remaining large rocks on the terraces (see how that was done at Tua last year) and setting up the trellis system.

Our caseiro, Sr Arlindo, and Alexandre Mariz discussing the work at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua
Our caseiro, Sr Arlindo, and Alexandre Mariz discussing the work at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua

This weekend is the festival of São João and Alexandre said there are several traditional guidelines for viticulture to do with this date.  One is to do the desponta about this time, and another is that by São João you will know if your newly planted vines have “taken” or not.  On that score, our newest plantations at Quinta dos Malvedos seem perfectly safe, as we could see clearly the lines of green along the new patamares all the way down the hillside.

Overall, Alexandre is pleased with how the season is progressing, and he personally is optimistic about what kind of year this will be – he said we had a good winter (which in the Douro means a rainy one), the vines have been growing slowly and steadily and the fruit has set well, “muito semelhante dos anos antigos” which translates roughly as “very like the good old days.”  Given Graham’s two century old tradition of superb Port wines, that can only be a good thing.

A view of the western end of Quinta dos Malvedos taken from near the top of the new plantation
A view of the western end of Quinta dos Malvedos taken from near the top of the new plantation

Tracking the Season – 23 May

The vertical vineyards at the western end of Quinta dos Malvedos
The vertical vineyards at the western end of Quinta dos Malvedos

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua are looking absolutely beautiful, with the growth of the vines and the work in the vineyards both progressing steadily and well.

Since our last visit in late April the weather has continued a bit cooler than usual for this time of year, with days generally around 20º-23º C and cool nights.  We have had a few warmer days, but no sustained period of greater warmth, so the vines have continued to grow steadily but slowly.

There have been a few rain showers, but no really significant rainfall on any one day, though of course every drop is welcome.  Despite the heavy rains in early April and the odd shower since then, we have had no trouble so far this year with mildio.  Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, hesitates to be too optimistic yet, but we have been able to manage the timing of treatments versus the odd showers and so far, so good, the vines are healthy.

Before flowering yellow-tipped buds on the to-be grape bunches
Before flowering yellow-tipped buds on the to-be grape bunches
Flowering - each flower is as fine as a thread
Flowering – each flower is as fine as a thread
As flowering finishes, the husks fall away to reveal the 2013 grapes
As flowering finishes, the husks fall away to reveal the 2013 grapes

Altogether, the vines are developing steadily and well, though with the persistent cool temperatures (cool for the Douro!) Alexandre feels the viticultural cycle generally is running a week to 10 days behind normal.   Compare with our Tracking the Season post from 17 May 2012, when we had been enjoying temperatures in the mid 30ºs C!

Flowering is beginning and Alexandre showed me cachos (bunches) at each stage:

  • Just before flowering, when the tiny buds are fresh green and showing yellow at the tips,
  • Flowering when the delicate flowers – each no bigger than a thread – burst forth,
  • And after flowering, as the flowers die and the caliptras – the husks – fall from the bud to reveal the grape.

Calm, settled weather is important over the next week or more to ensure an even flowering, and the forecast is promising.  (If you want to see those photos more clearly, click on them to enlarge to full size, then use your browser back button to come back to the blog text.)

A range of jobs have been done or are ongoing in the vineyards, according to the age of each parcel.  The surriba (landscaping) of the high northwest parcel at Malvedos is complete and the area has been planted with Sousão and Touriga Nacional, which are settling in and putting forth their first leaves already.

At Quinta do Tua the vines planted last year are growing well, and a small stick has been affixed to the trellis for each and every vine, to help train the vines to grow straight upwards.  This will ensure healthier vines and also make our work in the vineyards easier for years to come, so we can pass down the rows without catching or damaging twisted or sprawling vine trunks.

Tucking the vines into the dual wires of the trellis
Tucking the vines into the dual wires of the trellis

The despampa – removal of extra shoots – is complete and we are now passing through all the more mature vineyards again to do the ampara – moving the shoots to grow in between the twin wires of the trellis.  This is another entirely manual process, but critical so machinery can pass through the vineyards without catching and damaging the vine shoots.  Additionally, it is an important part of our work of managing the canopy, the growth of vines and foliage, to strike a balance between providing adequate shade and protection to the grape bunches without being so dense as to encourage disease or pests.

Deep pink clover in the vertical vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos
Deep pink clover in the vertical vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos

At the western end of Malvedos the vertically planted vineyards have cover crops of bright dark pink clover which are an important part of the organic regime we are establishing there.  The clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, but also, when it is cut down in the next week or two, will provide much needed compost, keeping soil temperatures cooler, holding humidity in the soil, and finally as it decomposes it will add much needed organic matter to our Douro soil, which naturally is little more than ground rock dust.

Altogether a very busy, but very beautiful time of year at Quinta dos Malvedos, and the viticultural cycle seems off to a good start.

Newly planted vine - with spectacular view - at Quinta dos Malvedos.  I
Newly planted vine – with spectacular view – at Quinta dos Malvedos.

Tracking the Season – 19 April

Vertically planted vineyards at the western end of Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos
Vertically planted vineyards at the western end of Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos show thriving vivid green cover crops

At Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua the viticultural season is well underway and we are busy in the vineyards with a wide range of tasks, whilst the vines are growing well.

From the week before Easter through 11 April we had rain most days, which has been very welcome.  Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, is finally expressing cautious optimism that we may have had enough rain to see us through a typically hot, dry July and August.  After two and a half years of drought, the reserves deep in the soil had a lot of catching up to do.  There is no further rain in the immediate forecast.

The grape clusters are already formed, awaiting flowering and fertilisation sometime in May
The grape clusters are already formed, awaiting flowering and fertilisation sometime in May

Since the 11th it has been clear and warm – low 20ºs C – which is a bit cool for the time of year, but welcome.  Alexandre says the recent moderate temperatures have been good for two reason:  first, the moisture in the soil has a better chance of sinking in rather than simply evaporating in the heat, and second, it means the development of the vines since budburst has been steady, not wildly exuberant as it can be with a sudden hot sunny spell.  The result is that the vines are looking very healthy and already showing the nascent clusters of grapes-to-be.  Although we still need to get through the flowering and fertilisation period in May to know what kind of crop to expect, right now the signs are promising.

Malvedos Touriga Nacional 19 April 13:54
Malvedos Touriga Nacional 19 April 13:54

We have begun the despampa, a process of removing excess shoots from each and every vine by hand to leave two shoots from each bud.  Removal of excess vines and the odd shoots that sometimes spurt from the trunk or even from the Americano rootstock ensures good air circulation which is important to minimise the chance of fungal diseases.  Limiting the number of shoots also concentrates the vigor of the vine into those remaining, so we will have greater concentration of flavour and sugar in the grape clusters that ultimately do form.

The Touriga Franca planted a month ago is thriving
The Touriga Franca planted a month ago is thriving

The Touriga Franca vines that were being planted in the newly-re-landscaped parcel west of the caseiro’s house during our last visit to Malvedos are settling in and starting to sprout well.  In the other parcel which we are renovating near the top of the quinta, the surriba – landscaping works – are nearly done, with just a few more days of work to go.  Alexandre was hoping to start the planting sometime this week, with the five hectares divided between the Touriga Nacional and Sousão varieties.

As part of the work of re-landscaping our vineyards, we plan for drainage systems to handle the often heavy rainfalls in the winter.  We need to strike a balance between holding the rain on the terraces so it will sink into the hillside, and managing the safe run-off of excess water in a heavy rainstorm, without eroding the soil-banked terraces.  For this reason every line of terrace is subtly canted into the hillside, so water will gather at the back and sink in, but they are also arced so excess water can run down to one end and enter a system of drains which run alongside the access roads.

Massive schist slabs unearthed during the lanscaping works at Malvedos
Massive schist slabs unearthed during the lanscaping works at Malvedos
The confluence of the Tua and Douro rivers shows clearly the silt-laden golden water of the Douro
The confluence of the Tua and Douro rivers shows clearly the silt-laden golden water of the Douro

In addition we incorporate drains into the hillside to capture some of that flow and direct it safely into the river.  The pipeline is buried under the terraces and will end in a stone covered cascade further down the hillside, in a place which is a natural run-off.  As we have re-built the patamares massive slabs of unearthed schist have been set aside, and ultimately will be used to build that cascade and mask the end of the pipe.

And speaking of run off, the Douro is showing the golden-bronze colour for which it is named, a reflection – quite literally – of light off the silt from the schistous soil which has run off into the river during the recent rains.  Paul Symington was recently telling visitors it has been some years since he last saw the river this colour.  The river is high and running quite fast, with white water wakes streaming from the buoys that mark the safe channel.

So far, so good!

Tracking the Season – 21 March

Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Nacional 21 March 2013 15:58
Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Nacional 21 March 2013 15:58

We visited Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos again just as winter officially turned to spring with the passing of the equinox.  It was a brilliantly sunny day, and a good one for getting lots of work done in the vineyards.  Things are picking up pace now as the growing season gets underway.

Alexandre Mariz, viticulturist responsible for Malvedos and the nearby Quinta do Tua, confirmed that we continued to have rain in the Douro throughout February and so far in March, mostly intermittent showers which have allowed the rain to penetrate the soil and sink in, rather than running off in torrents as can happen with too-heavy rainfall.  So far, so good.  But after two very dry years we still need more to replenish the deep-soil water reserves – Alexandre cannot help but notice as the landscaping works go on that the soil just a metre and a half or two metres down is still bone dry.  After several dry sunny days, the outlook beginning Friday 22nd was for a week of rain.  Right now it’s a bit of a balancing act – we want the rain, but we have a lot of work to complete in the vineyards.

The landscaping of the upper plantation at Quinta dos Malveods is nearly done
The landscaping of the upper plantation at Quinta dos Malveods is nearly done

The landscaping of the 5 hectares at the high northwestern corner of Malvedos is nearly done, we expect it will be completed before the Easter holidays, weather permitting.  Meanwhile, in the parcel lower down, nearer the river and west of the caseiro’s house, we have begun planting the Touriga Franca.

Planting is – or can be – one of the most labour intensive and time consuming tasks in the vineyard.  This parcel alone is 4 hectares and will be planted with 12,000 vines.  Typically we would require 8 people who can plant about 1,000 vines per day.

The vineyard planting trailer designed by Symington
The vineyard planting trailer designed by Symington
A furrow is opened for a man to plant a vine, and is then gently closed around the vine
A furrow is opened for a man to plant a vine, and is then gently closed around the vine

With the same combination of imagination and engineering skills as resulted in Symington’s modern lagares, our viticultural team have developed a new solution for planting.  A trailer, which we designed and built, has a plough at the leading end which opens a furrow for planting as it is drawn along the terrace by the tractor.  A man sits atop the plough share and inserts a – the plant – into the furrow.  Just beyond his reach there is a mechanism to close the furrow around the quite gently, then a second mechanism to close it more closely and firmly.  When the last planted passes a marker on the trailer, the plantador knows to insert the next one, to ensure even planting.  Three men can plant 4,000 vines in a day with this trailer.  We trialled it last year with the new plantation at Quinta do Tua, made some improvements and adjustments, and are using it again this year at Malvedos with great success.

After we have planted, we irrigate by hand – someone walks down the line of vines with a hose, just as you do in your own garden – to give the plants a good long drink to settle the soil and help them get established.

The pés are made from scions from our own plant stock, in this case Touriga Franca selected from Quinta do Vesuvio.  When we pruned at Quinta do Vesuvio during the winter of 2011/2012, we selected certain canes and left them on the vine to mature a little bit more before cutting them and sending them to a nursery, where they were grafted onto our choice of rootstock.  The grafted plants have been growing at the nursery throughout 2012, and have now been delivered to us for planting.  The red wax protects the grafted join, and will gradually fall off as the plant grows.

Elsewhere in the quinta, we are grafting new vines in-place:  where we have lost an odd vine in a mature plantation, we plant a rootstock and let it grow for a year to establish itself, then the following year cut down the rootstock, and insert a scion, again cut from our own vines, and complete the graft by wrapping it with raffia to hold it snug so the plant material can grow together.

Budburst - the emergence of the first leaves of the vines - at Quinta dos Malvedos (Touriga Nacional)
Budburst – the emergence of the first leaves of the vines – at Quinta dos Malvedos (Touriga Nacional)

Most important viticulturally:  we have bud burst – the appearance of the first buds of leaves on the vines.  Alexandre said it is a bit later than usual this year, but this is not a concern, as once the weather warms up, with the moisture in the upper soil from recent rains, the vines will grow rapidly and make up any lost time.

Many more plants are blooming including fruit trees, lavendar, gorse, and the aromatic esteva which you can often recognise on the nose of Graham’s ports.  We even have tadpoles spawning in a puddle from a tractor print on the road into the vineyards.  Spring is definitely making itself felt throughout our quintas.

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Tracking the Season – 9 February

Quinta do Tua 12:47, 9 February, a beautiful sunny winter day
Quinta do Tua,  9 February 12:47, a beautiful sunny winter’s day

The weather for our most recent visit to Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua could not have been more different from January’s visit:  instead of overcast and low fog, we had some brilliant warm sunshine and mostly clear blue skies, though the moment the sun dropped behind the hills opposite it felt sharply colder and wintry once again.

In January we had plenty of rain – over 100mm at Malvedos.  Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, is very pleased, but still wants more before he will feel really confident  about deep water reserves and prospects for the coming year.  In another example of the intense, almost bizarre, micro-climatisation here in the Douro, he mentioned that the quinta on the south bank of the river directly opposite Quinta do Tua received almost 30mm more rain than we did at Malvedos just slightly down river on the north bank!

The pruning is all done, and a small team was working to pull down from the trellises the last of the cut vines for shredding and turning into the soil.  Alexandre’s main concern right now is the surriba in the upper part of Malvedos, where we are re-landscaping 5 hectares of hillside.  Because of the heavy rains in January we lost 8 days’ work, and we need to complete the landscaping and soil preparation in time for planting later in February or early March.

Earlier this winter we planted the cover crops in between rows of vines in the vertically planted vineyards on the western end of Malvedos, and already the mixture of legumes and grasses have begun to sprout and you can see a fine haze of green between rows of vines.

Malvedos Touriga Nacional 9 February 14:36
Malvedos Touriga Nacional 9 February 14:36

For 2013 we will again monitor a single vine to exemplify the season, and we have chosen a young Touriga Nacional, one of a large parcel planted in 2005 on the hillside that forms an ampitheatre behind the house, facing the river.  As a more recently planted vine, it is trained in a single cordon along the lower wire, and last year’s shoots have been pruned down to leave just two buds on each spur.

Touriga Nacional is perhaps the most well known of the grape varieties used to make Port wines.  It has an extraordinarily complex flavour and aroma profile, with black fruits such as cassis, mulberry and raspberry predominating, but it can also bring floral notes such as violets and rockrose.  It has strong tannins and balanced acidity which give its wines great structure and ageing potential.

The almond trees have begun to blossom at Malvedos, a sure sign winter will be drawing to an end soon.

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Tracking the Season – 10 & 11 January

Last week we we made our first visit of the new year to Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua to check on the viticultural progress in our Douro quintas.   In addition, we were able to visit Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, in the Douro Superior, which also contributes grapes to the Graham’s blends.

Weather Conditions

From Quinta do Tua low clouds moving over Quinta dos Malvedos
From Quinta do Tua low clouds moving over Quinta dos Malvedos on Friday

The two days were pretty typical mid-winter Douro weather:  at river level and the first 200 or 300 metres above we were in fog and the day was overcast.  But above that, from perhaps 400 metres or so, we could come out above the capacete, the cloud cover, and enjoy the real weather, which was a mixture of sun and clouds on Thursday and on Friday rather more sun.  In fact, on Friday Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, said it was the first proper sun – strong enough to cast a shadow – that we had had up there since before Christmas.

The rain fall the past month or two has been around the long term averages, but both Mário Natário, our viticulturist at Vale de Malhadas, and Alexandre said we need a lot more rain before they will be satisfied that the deep-level reserves, which are critical to enable our vines to keep going throughout the hot summer, have been replenished.

Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua

We are just about done with the job of pruning our vines at these two quintas, just a few parcels to go, notably the young Sousão at Quinta do Tua.  These vines were planted just three years ago and have so far been allowed to grow straight upwards.  This year, when they are pruned, we will be training them along the lowest wire of the trellis in a single cordon formation.  This is a specialist job, as the health and production of these vines for the next two or three decades depends a great deal on their being properly pruned and trained now.

Quinta do Tua 11 January 12:11 pm
Quinta do Tua 11 January 12:11 pm

As we looked across the parcels of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca planted last winter at Tua, you can see quite vividly the thick green herbage which has sprung up in response to the winter rains.  Any gardener will know that after double digging long buried weed seeds will come alive, and that is exactly what has happened here.  Actually, Alexandre could not be happier about this lush growth – all of that will be ploughed in and add much-needed organic matter to our soil, which is fundamentally little more than xistous rock dust.

Landscaping to replant northwestern parcels of Quinta dos Malvedos
Landscaping to replant north-western parcels of Quinta dos Malvedos

At Malvedos we have completed the surriba – the landscaping – of the terraces west of the caseiro’s house and are already well along the landscaping of another parcel for re-planting.  At the north-western edge of Malvedos, at one of the highest points in the quinta, we have taken out another 5 hectares of old, not terribly productive parcels of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, and are sculpting new terraces, which will be re-planted with Touriga Nacional and Sousão.

Vineyards on western side of Malvedos now under organic management
Vineyards on western side of Malvedos now under organic management

From that area we had a spectacular view of the vineyards added into the western side of Malvedos last summer.  If you look at the photo, you can see clearly above the cluster of buildings a broad swath of vertically-planted vineyards.  Below them in the centre of the photo inside the curve of the road is a narrow band of vineyard terraces and a large area of uncultivated land and olive groves on terraces, and to the right of those, more vineyard terraces which continue down and to the right out of sight into a narrow valley.  All of that area, since harvest, has been managed organically, and in three years time we hope to achieve organic (or produção biologica) certification for these vineyards.

Vertically planted vineyards on eastern side of Malvedos for organic management
Vertically planted vineyards on eastern side of Malvedos for organic management

Over on the north-eastern side of Malvedos is another area of vertical plantations, in three parcels of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca respectively.  These parcels are also being managed organically since the 2012 harvest.

One of the first steps in establishing our organic management regime has been the recent planting of cover crops between rows of vines.  These crops serve two purposes:  first and foremost to help prevent the erosion of soil down the hillside of these vertically planted parcels, and secondly to naturally enhance and balance the nutrients in the soil, by the planting of a mixture of leguminous plants and cereals.  When a plant is healthy and in equilibrium it is much less susceptible to attack by pests or disease, so maintaining soil quality for healthy vines is fundamental in an organic regime.  You can learn more about the importance and benefits of this practice in our feature article about Cover Crops in the Vineyards.

Malvedos Touriga Franca 11 January 14:05 pm
Malvedos Touriga Franca 11 January 14:05 pm

Finally, we paid one last visit to our Touriga Franca vine, which has been pruned.  We seem to have come full circle since we first began our tracking last March, looking at a dormant vine with just short spurs waiting for warmer weather to burst into life.   Beginning next month we will monitor progress in another part of Quinta dos Malvedos, and another grape variety.

Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

In the Douro Superior just east of Quinta do Vesuvio is Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, which is privately owned by three of the Symington cousins, and contributes grapes to the Graham’s blends (consult a map of Symington quintas).  Here again, the winter’s work is well in hand, and the team were working on the last of the pruning.  I noticed that while most of the vines had been pruned and the cuttings left on the ground, a few vines still had some neatly trimmed spurs in place.  Mário Natário, our viticulturist, explained that these were being left to grow a little thicker and sturdier, and would soon be harvested and used for enxertas, or grafting-in-place.

On the left you can see spurs left on the vine to be cut later for use as grafting scions
On the left you can see spurs remaining on the vine to be cut later for use as grafting scions

One of our tasks for late winter is the replacement of the odd dead or missing vines; every vineyard has a few of these each year.  Our routine is in the first year to remove the dead vine and plant an americano, an american root stock.  The following year, when we are satisfied that that has taken well, we trim down the americano to its stump, then split the stump and insert a scion – a length of matured vine such as those we saw at Vale de Malhadas – of our choice of indigenous grape variety.   The details of this process are fascinating, see our article with a step by step photo gallery about grafting new vines for more details.

Each year Charles Symington, our head winemaker, and our viticultural team estimate our grafting needs and then select the best source vineyards of plant material for each variety.  As we do our pruning we select and set aside lengths of matured vines from our own vineyards to do this in-situ grafting.  In this way we can slowly and surely improve our vineyards by selecting stocks that have performed well both in terms of their hardiness in our vineyards and in the quality of grapes and wines they produce.

Touching up the terraces at Vale de Malhadas before re-planting
Touching up the terraces at Vale de Malhadas before re-planting

At Vale de Malhadas we also have a re-planting project underway.  On the eastern most hillside face we had 4.5 hectares of Tinta Roriz which was old and ready for replacement.  Luckily, the patamares, the terraces, were generally in very good condition so we have not had to do the work of smoothing out the entire hillside and starting over, as at Malvedos.  Instead, the bulldozers are just correcting and refining the shape of the patamares as needed, particularly to ensure that the level terrace surface in fact cants slightly back into the hill, so any rainfall run off will run back into the hillside, where it can soak in.  In this easternmost part of the Douro an average year sees only 400 – 500 mm of rain, so capturing every drop in the soil is critical.

All told, the winter’s work is well in hand at our quintas, and we are looking forward to the new year.  The only thing we could wish for is some more rain.

Which Port Did Johnny Symington Enjoy This Christmas?

Johnny Symington at the launch of the Graham's 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port earlier this year
Johnny Symington at the launch of the Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port earlier this year

Just before Christmas our Vintage Port Site blogger asked the Symingtons and colleagues around the office what Ports they would be enjoying with their holiday feasts.

We only heard from Johnny Symington the morning after Christmas, but wanted to share his story with you:

Sorry not to reply earlier, I only decided on Christmas eve.

Having had a Pre launch taster of the Graham’s 1952 at last years Christmas lunch (before it was the Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port and before it was approved by the palace and served at the Sovereign Heads Lunch at Windsor Castle). I decided on Christmas Eve this year that I would finish the Diamond Jubilee year with the same wine and celebrate and reflect on the outstanding PR success  that this wine has had for Graham’s.

The Graham's 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port
The Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port

So as I sipped and reflected at our Christmas Dinner this year the overwhelming thought was “no wonder it was such a success, the wine is so delicious and over delivers in every respect”.

As we go into 2013 this wine becomes a collectors’ item of great rarity and significance.

You can read more about which Ports we enjoyed during our holiday festivities on The Vintage Port Site blog.

How about you? What Ports have you enjoyed this holiday season, or are looking forward to in the coming week?  We would love to hear from you!

Tracking the Season – 29 November

Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 29 November
Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 29 November

A month has passed since our last visit to Quinta dos Malvedos and Tua, and whilst the grass is much greener and a few vines still have brightly coloured leaves clinging, the vineyards generally appear more barren as the leaves have fallen and we have begun the annual pruning.

The train trip was a good study in localised climate:  in Vila Nova de Gaia it was clear and quite cold (beautiful full moon and stars visible as I walked), at Campanhã train station on the other side of the river in Porto there was a thick mist which more or less persisted as we got up into the mountains around Marco de Canaveses where, in addition to the mist, there was thick frost on the ground.  As we came out of a tunnel onto the Douro River west of Regua there was no sign of frost and the sun was starting to penetrate the mist, and before we reached Regua the sun through the train window was strong enough make you wish for sun cream.  In the morning as we walked through Quinta do Tua it was warm enough to shed the coat.  Welcome to winter in northern Portugal.

Quinta do Tua 29 November 12:13
Quinta do Tua 29 November 12:13

Our viticulturist Alexandre Mariz says November’s weather pattern has been pretty normal – meaning, we have had some rain most weeks, as evidenced by the rather lush grass in our terraced vineyards.  Compare our photo of the new plantation at Quinta do Tua 1 June – very green vines, but utterly barren brown soil – with Thursday’s photo – the vines are invisible without leaves and the Touriga Nacional in the foreground has been pruned, but each terrace is carpeted in green.

The focus of our work in the vineyards is now the pruning.  To give you an idea of the scale of the task:  our annual labour costs in the quintas work out roughly one-third harvest, one-third winter pruning, and one third everything else all year round.

Every vine is pruned by hand, using electric secateurs
Every vine is pruned by hand, using electric secateurs
Pruning leaves two buds on each spur to become next year's growth
Pruning leaves two buds on each spur to become next year’s growth
Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua shows the results of good pruning last winter
Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua shows the results of good pruning last winter

To prune, we make three passes through all our vineyards.  First, the pre-pruning is a mechanical process, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the entirely manual job of pruning each and every vine, and then pulling off the remaining pieces caught in the trellis and leaving them on the ground.  Finally the third pass is the cane shredding, where a tractor tows a device that breaks up and shreds the old canes lying on the ground.  This shredded plant fibre is left to break down and add much-needed organic matter to our rocky soil.  In some of the old walled vineyards where we cannot pass through with a tractor, the pre-pruning is manual and the cut canes are not shredded, but collected by hand and burned.

At Malvedos and Tua we have a gang of six who do the manual pruning.  Each worker has electric secateurs which make the job much easier on their hands, and much faster generally.  Their red vests contain a battery pack to power the secateurs, which are strong enough to cut through an old thick vine if need be.

The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but to select and trim down vine spurs with two buds which will become next year’s vines.  When well done, the vines grow in neat pairs along the length of the spur from the main trunk, and this is the best time of year to appreciate the stark beauty of a well-trained vine, before it has been pruned.

Pruning will continue through February, with the youngest vines done last, as they need special attention to begin shaping them properly.

The Douro DOC region is defined by its schist soil – and in fact our “soil” is fundamentally rock dust, hence the need to plough in our pruned and shredded vines each year to add organic matter to the soil.  People wonder how the vines can grow in near solid rock.  Our answer is that schist is layered – try to imagine something like phyllo dough but stone – and the roots of the vines actually penetrate between those layers.  At Quinta dos Malvedos we have been doing some landscaping work to re-build terraces, and the bulldozers uncovered this outcropping of schist where you can see clearly roots emerging from between the layers of stone.  Our Douro grape varieties are nothing if not determined!

Roots penetrate the layers of schist
Roots penetrate the layers of schist

Tracking The Season – 26 October

Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 26 October

It is just three weeks since we finished the harvest at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.  The leaves are turning colour and the Douro is every bit as spectacular as the fabled New England autumn landscapes.  The foliage on the Touriga Franca vine we have been monitoring since late March is turning deep red now.

It is a very quiet time in the Douro – not only are we all resting after the extraordinary work of the harvest season, but the vines are going through their final maturation before shutting down for the winter.  Ideally we do not want to start pruning until the leaves have fallen and their nutrients been re-absorbed into the vine, but we cannot leave it too late either, as we have a lot of vines to prune – especially after this year’s acquisition of Quinta do Sibio.

New terraces sculpted from the hillside at Malvedos

Until we can start the pruning in another week or two, our focus is on the new plantation at Malvedos, where we are re-landscaping 4 hectares of vineyard.  We began in late August, first “erasing” the old terraces from the hillside, then carving new earth walled patamares from the smoothed-out hill face.  The terraces here are noticeably broader than the ones created at Quinta do Tua – they will be planted with two rows of vines on each terrace, versus the single row on each at Tua.

In the past three weeks we have had some showers in the region.  As is typical at this time of year, northern Portugal gets a lot of squally weather spun off the back end of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, and Porto has been drenched a few times.  As is also typical, only a small fraction of that rain has made it over the Marão mountain range and as far east as Malvedos or our quintas in the Douro Superior.

After drenching Malvedos a small but heavy shower moved on over Tua 15:19

On Friday between noon and 18:00 we “enjoyed” thick cloud cover right down to ground level at the top of the quinta, a few very heavy showers that lasted just a few minutes each and plenty of blinding sunlight and deep blue skies in between.  We are grateful for the rain after two very dry years and are hoping for a more normal wet Douro winter.  You can follow the vicissitudes of the day’s weather in our photo gallery below.

In addition to visiting the works at Malvedos Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, was checking the drainage systems of the new plantation at Tua to ensure they were doing their job.  He was very pleased to see evidence of good runoff in the canals dug alongside the roadways and some puddles standing at the backs of the terraces, where the water can soak slowly into the soil where it will do the most good.

At 17:30 the sun was already low and golden across Quinta do Tua, and as the leaves are turning colour the young vines seem to disappear into the landscape.

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The 2012 Douro Harvest

Paul Symington reviews the 2012 Harvest in the Douro:

Touriga Franca fruit set, 1 June 2012

The Douro vines and its vineyards have an extraordinary way of surprising even the old-timers in the mountain villages of Sabrosa, Alijo and Provesende.  In 2011, the region had a huge 40% drop in rainfall and this year 54% less has fallen than average to the end of September.  When a vineyard receives just 217 mm in 9 months, which was the case of the Quintas around Pinhão, the consequences are to be feared.  Many predictions of disaster were to be heard from farmers in the village squares on Saturday mornings before the harvest.  But yet again the Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Barroca, Roriz and others, showed that they are the real masters of our geography.  These Douro varieties can turn the little green berries of May and June into lovely dark red and ripe fruit, even when it has rained so little for the last 21 months.

The first three months of 2012 were really concerning with just 16.4 mm falling over 90 days; there was no effective winter rain from 1st January this year till April (we should have had over 200 mm).  It seemed that the gods were against us, because we then had 128 mm in April and May, just when the crucial flowering and fruit set takes place.  But the low bud-burst, in part due to conditions in the spring of 2011, was what we needed; relatively low quantities of fruit so that the vines would have fewer bunches and berries to ripen.

A burst of intense heat hit the Douro over the weekend of 23rd and 24th June.  Exactly the same had occurred over the same São João weekend in 2011.  Maybe the Port producers and farmers have to stop going to the traditional all-night festa on the 23rd June, with consequential hangovers, and stay in their vineyards during São João and shade their vines.  This sudden heat caused sunburn and raisining to some of the more exposed grapes.

Touriga Nacional at Quinta do Tua 16 August 2012

July and August were relatively mild with average temperatures of exactly 23.7ºC in both months.  The 21 year average for July is 25.0ºC and for August 25.3ºC.  So these moderate temperatures had a profound and positive impact on the quality of the fruit and the wines.  Charles Symington, responsible for winemaking at our Quintas, commented that this year showed beyond doubt that excess heat before the harvest is more worrying for our vineyards than drought.  The Douro grape varieties will somehow find any humidity that there is deep down in the soil.  What they cannot cope with is extreme heat that will raisin their berries. In general there was very substantially less raisined fruit this year than we have had in the last two harvests.

Devastating hail, the result of a thunderstorm, hit the Pinhão valley on the afternoon of Wednesday 25th July and swept over towards São João de Pesqueira.  This was one of the worst hailstorms of recent times and totally destroyed some vineyards (this storm knocked over the 83 year old mother of the writer of this report, breaking her rib).  As usual neighbouring vineyards simply got a welcome drenching.  A little rain fell again on the 15th August.

Brilliant blue skies over Quinta das Lages 9 October 2012

Picking started some 10 days later than normal this year on the 13th September at Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta dos Canais, on the 17th at Quinta dos Malvedos and on the 20th at Quinta do Bomfim and the Rio Torto Quintas.  The lead-up to picking had been complex, as Charles and his viticultural team analysed the relative ripeness of the different vineyards and grape varieties.  The drought caused the ripening to follow a somewhat erratic pattern, with cooler days causing sudden increases in sugar readings, it was important to have a very clear picture of what each variety and each vineyard was doing.   Heavy rain came from the Atlantic and over the Marão on the 23rd September with 20mm and again on the 25th with a further 23mm.  This rain brought far cooler night and daytime temperatures.  Previous to this it had been rather hot, requiring extensive cooling of the musts in the lagares.  Inevitably the water was swiftly taken up by the vines and some dilution occurred in the following days, not the harbinger of great wines.  Charles decided to suspend picking at the top vineyards on the 29th and 30th in order to allow the vines to recover their equilibrium and to concentrate the sugars.  This was a risky thing to do as the September equinox normally brings unsettled weather and we could have had a disaster on our hands if the rainy weather had persisted.  In fact the gamble paid off wonderfully and the Touriga Franca picked last week, and up until the 10th October, was harvested in perfect condition under clear skies and moderate temperatures.

Yields were remarkably low with many vineyards in the Douro Superior recording drops of up to 40%. Malvedos gave an average of just 0.65 kgs per vine, 50% less than average. This is an incredibly low yield of about 14 hectolitres per hectare (final figures need to be calculated over the coming weeks).  Other great vineyards elsewhere in the world will give 40 to 50 hectos or more per hectare on a regular basis.  The accountants will not be happy with 2012, but the winemakers and tasters certainly will be.

Noticeably smaller bunches of smaller berries this year at Malvedos

The Douro grapes this year were in lovely condition, with small berries giving excellent colour and flavours and the musts looked really first-rate. Early tastings confirm considerable acidity and freshness in the samples.  Not all vineyards produced great wines as the drought caused some stress to the more exposed vines and to the drier parcels, but overall this year was a remarkable example of how our Douro vines can cope with drought, as long as it is not too hot.

This year three young members of the 5th generation of the Symington family worked with the winery teams during the harvest, getting their first experience of hands-on winemaking.

Paul Symington,
Portugal, 16th October 2012.