For the last eight years, we have routinely provided information on the ebb and flow of the viticultural year in Quinta dos Malvedos, along with other reports and updates from the Douro Valley and Vila Nova de Gaia. To our great satisfaction, our content appealed to a wide audience, from wine critics and writers, to wine enthusiasts and everyone with an interest in the wines of what is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world.
As such, after almost 650 posts, it is with some apprehension that we have decided to stop updating this blog and replace it with the Symington Family Estates’ blog. Of course, the Graham’s blog will remain online for some time, after which its contents will be archived on the Symington blog for future reference.
Who knows what platforms we will use to share our stories a decade from now, but we do know that many of the wines we produce, such as Graham’s 2009 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port, the first of our wines whose production was chronicled online, will still be slowly ageing, as they have been for generations.
This was the year to really know your vineyard in the Douro; each location and each variety developed at its own individual rhythm and winemakers had to be constantly in the vineyards. Deciding to harvest on a hunch or following fashion was definitely not a good idea in this special year. Intimate knowledge of the vineyards combined with patience has delivered the just reward of some beautiful Ports and Douro wines.
The viticultural year started well with a good wet winter, bringing more than double the rainfall of the previous 2014/15 winter and some 80 mm more than the average of the last 30 years. Warmer than usual temperatures advanced the vegetative cycle by 10 days in most areas. However, the challenge came when unexpectedly the wet weather continued into April and May, with three times the average rainfall for these two months. Locals were presented with the extraordinary site of the Douro in full spring flood. This made the river unnavigable and all boat traffic was stopped, resulting in countless tourists being unable to board their hotel-boats and cruise up the valley to Spain.
The wet and cool April and May made it absolutely necessary to work intensively to protect the vines. The Douro is not well suited to such a challenge, with its incredibly steep vineyards and its highly fragmented land ownership. The largest area of mountain vineyard on earth has 17,000 farmers owning less than one hectare of heavily inclined hill-side vines. Many are elderly and have neither the time nor the resources to undertake the necessary measures to protect the vines in such conditions, and it is estimated that the Douro will have produced at least 25% less wine than in a normal year. Those that were able to care for their vines during this period, emerged with a fine and healthy crop of grapes, although the lower temperatures slowed development.
June and July brought a return to more normal weather but August was unusually hot and this further slowed the maturation and put considerable strain on the vines. The miraculous, rare, and much-desired August rainfall fell on the 24th and 26th August, but was localized with little evident in the Pinhão valley. Useful amounts fell at Malvedos (18mm), Vesuvio (7mm) and Ataíde (12mm), exactly where it was most needed.
September started with an intense heat wave and a high of 43.0 ̊C on Tuesday 6th measured at Quinta do Bomfim. The Douro has become very busy with tourists this year and they could be seen crowding into the few air-conditioned locations to escape the heat, mixing with worried looking farmers in the cafés of Pinhão, Pesqueira and Tua. The stress on the younger vines, with their less developed root systems, was clear. However, the older vines were coping well, with fine green leaves and healthy looking fruit, their deep roots drawing on the humidity from the wet winter and spring. But ripeness for the vines was still some way off as they coped with the special conditions of 2016, and it was clear that a late harvest was desirable in order to bring the vines to optimal maturity. A hasty rush to harvest early for those who were not aware of what was really happening in the vineyard following weeks of intense heat, would be to miss a golden opportunity.
From 7th September the temperatures began to reduce and after weeks of careful monitoring of the vines, using modern analytical methods but also the ancient but utterly reliable method of tasting berries in each vineyard, Charles Symington set the picking dates for the 15th for some of our more easterly Quintas, and the 19th for the others. On the 12th and 13th rain fell across the entire Douro region, with 18mm at Cavadinha, 16mm at Bomfim, 20mm at Malvedos, 15mm at Canais, 12mm at Vesuvio and 13mm at Ataíde. Charles suspended picking of the best varieties, either sending the pickers home, or switching them to the younger or less important varieties. Following this well timed rainfall, the harvest resumed on our vineyards on Monday 19th once the vines had accommodated these refreshing showers and had adequate time to rebalance. Charles took another important decision on the 22nd September and delayed picking the Touriga Nacional until the 26th, as the vines were taking their own time to reach maturity. Since then the vintage has proceeded with perfect weather and cool nights. It is rare to be finishing the Douro harvest during the week of the 10th October having had four perfect picking weeks under blue skies.
With this year’s special conditions, the vines chose their own rhythm and it was absolutely necessary to understand what was happening in the vineyard after the hot summer. There is no doubt that this year the vines took far longer to regain their all-important balance. This knowledge could only be acquired by many hours of careful analysis amongst the vines. It is only necessary to see the lagares of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and of old mixed Douro vines, currently ending their fermentations, to see what an exceptional result awaited those who did the essential work and had the necessary patience.
“The weather throughout the vintage has been exceptionally good and this has allowed for maturations to develop perfectly. We have been able to decide when to pick without the concern of the weather changing, having stopped the vintage at different properties to allow for ideal ripening to be achieved when necessary. The lagares have been giving balanced Baumés and exceptional colour and the Touriga Franca may well be the best wine of the vintage. The wines have wonderful freshness and elegance as well as structure.”
In this tenth video of ‘A year in the vineyards’, the last in the series, we look at traditional treading at Quinta do Vesuvio, where the grapes are foot trodden in granite lagares.
The vintage · Traditional treading
The time-honoured traditional foot treading in large, shallow tanks made of granite called lagares, survives in just a handful of properties in the Douro Valley, among them the Symington family’s Quinta do Vesúvio. Inside the winery built in 1827, teams of 50 people, known as rogas, tread each lagar. The first stage is called the corte during which two to three rows of men and women, arms interlocked, march up and down the lagar with military precision, their discipline ensured by the head of the roga who resembles a drill sergeant as he bellows, ‘left-right, left-right, left right’. After about two hours, once the grapes have been thoroughly trodden, the treading team break up the rows and tread at random to their own rhythm, often dancing and joking to the sound of the local village band. This stage of treading is termed liberdade or liberty – for obvious reasons.
In this ninth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the winemaking at Quinta dos Malvedos, whose winery is fitted with three modern lagares.
The vintage · Winemaking
Once grape harvesting gets under way it is a non-stop marathon of round-the-clock activity in the vineyards and in the winery. At the Malvedos winery as in all our other specialist wineries, the grapes are still trodden; today in modern stainless steel lagares, which are simply an evolution of the time-honoured traditional foot treading in large, shallow basins made of granite, called lagares. The modern variants of these at Malvedos were installed in time for the 2000 vintage and they have worked extremely well ever since, making consistently outstanding wines. The lessons learnt here were then used in our other wineries up and down the valley where modern lagares have also been installed, namely at Quinta do Bomfim, Quinta da Cavadinha and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.
In this eighth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the start of the vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos, the culmination of a year’s work in the vineyards.
All grapes have to be picked by hand in the Douro as the mountainous topography with its very steep gradients renders mechanisation impossible. Teams of pickers, known as rogas, gather at the Quintas, some travelling from other areas of Portugal to supplement their incomes. In some vineyards, the same rogas return year after year, sometimes over several decades, through a sense of belonging and pride towards ‘their’ Quinta.
The grapes are gathered into small, shallow tray-like boxes and swiftly transported to the wineries on small tractor-drawn trailers. In the wineries the grapes are sorted, de-stemmed, gently crushed and conveyed to the lagares — traditional or modern — in readiness for treading and fermentation.
Over the last couple of weeks, harvest conditions could not have been better. Dry, sunny days have been followed by cool nights meaning that the late ripening Touriga Franca, one of the most important varieties for Port, has benefited from balanced maturations: good sugar graduations matched by very good phenolic development. With its late ripening cycle, the Touriga Franca is often the most vulnerable of the Douro’s varieties exposed as it can sometimes be to the unsettled weather which normally sets in towards the end of a Douro vintage. This was very much the case during the 2013 and 2014 harvests. The risk factor was even higher this year due to the late starting vintage. Last year, the very last grapes harvested came into the Malvedos winery on September 30th whereas this year the Touriga Franca began to be picked at Malvedos only from October 3rd.
From the very first Touriga Franca lagares filled this vintage, Henry enthused over the marvellous colour of the musts. One lagar recorded the deepest colour possible on our measuring spectrum: KA1. As picking progressed during the week and as the grapes from some of the more mature Touriga Franca vineyards at Malvedos arrived in the winery — some of them 1986 plantings — the sugar readings inched their way upwards from 13.2° Baumé to 14.02°. But as Charles has pointed out on several occasions during the vintage what has been particularly encouraging this year are the very balanced maturations evident in the all-important Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca varieties.
One-third of the Malvedos vineyard is planted with Touriga Franca, a variety well suited to the property’s predominantly south-facing aspect, requiring as it does abundant sunshine to fully realize its ripening potential. The Touriga Franca, together with the Touriga Nacional contribute the principal components to most of Graham’s Vintage Ports and Malvedos Quinta Vintage Ports and when the two varieties show so well we know we have the makings of a successful harvest. Between them, the Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional make up 60% of the Malvedos vineyard. In recent years, sizeable plantings of Sousão and Alicante Bouschet have been made at the Quinta reflecting Charles’s belief in the important contributions they can make, alongside others such as the Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and the Tinta Roriz.
On September 22nd, just a few days after the start of the vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos, two barn owls nursed back to health by the Wildlife Rescue Centre of the University of Trás-os-Montes & Alto Douro (UTAD) at Vila Real, were returned to the wild at the Vale d’Ossa vineyard located in one of the Quinta’s highest points. This is the third such release this year at Symington family owned vineyards in the Douro Valley. The previous species released included a Eurasian eagle owl and a peregrine falcon.
The Symington family has supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Both the family and the local university are committed to wildlife conservation in the Douro Valley.
As nocturnal birds of prey, the barn owls were released just after sunset in order to help ensure a successful return to the wild. Rupert Symington helped the first barn owl, a male, into the air and just before it flew away he named it Graham. Shortly after it was Charles Symington’s turn to launch the other bird, a female, which he named Malvedos. The vets who take care of the birds during their recovery period, which can sometimes last up to 8 months, refrain from naming the birds so as not to become too attached to them, knowing of course that they will eventually be released.
Both birds swiftly took to the air and were seen to fly around the vicinity of their release point, apparently to familiarise themselves with the terrain and, hopefully, their new home. The Vale d’Ossa vineyard was chosen as the location of the release, not just for its altitude but also because of the presence of several abandoned outbuildings, such as barn owls are known to use as nesting sites.
Malvedos is home to a remarkable variety of bird species, which include golden orioles, bee-eaters, turtle doves, Iberian magpies and larger birds such as black kites. Just days before this release a short toed snake eagle was observed gliding in the valley formed by the Síbio stream at the Quinta.
Over these last few days picking has continued under perfect weather with maximum daytime temperatures climbing just above 30°C (32°C on Thursday), making it feel very much like summer. The cool mornings and cold nights, though, remind us that autumn has arrived. Not a single drop of rain has fallen since the 13th and since starting the vintage on the 19th the absence of rain and the prevailing constant hot temperatures have favoured the final ripening of the Touriga Nacional, which has been picked through this week at both Tua and Malvedos. Henry believes that some of the best wines of this vintage began to be made after last weekend’s picking pause, vindicating Charles’s decision to allow the Touriga Nacional a few more days’ ripening on the vines.
The weather forecast indicates continuing dry, sunny conditions which are exactly what is required for the Touriga Franca to be picked through the coming week. On Thursday, Charles, Alexandre and Henry did their rounds of the Malvedos and Tua vineyards to finalise the picking order of the remaining Touriga Nacional vineyards and to determine which Touriga Franca vineyards will be harvested first. We will start harvesting the Franca from Monday morning at Malvedos and finish with the youngest plantings of the variety at Tua, possibly by the end of the week if all goes according to plan.
On Friday, the remaining Sousão from Malvedos was brought into the winery and was co-fermented with the Touriga Nacional; this grape variety combination in the lagares has given very good results over these last few years, the Sousão’s good acidity marrying well with the Touriga Nacional’s concentration and intensity.
Visitors continue to call at Malvedos and this week, Isabel Monteiro, the market manager who looks after Ireland brought some very good-humoured Irish visitors from Graham’s importer and distributor, Findlater. Besides helping out unloading the Touriga Nacional at grape reception on Wednesday afternoon, they brought some beers around on Thursday, enjoyed by all the team after the day’s busy picking schedule was concluded.
On Thursday our colleagues from the IT department, headed by Manuela Caldeira, called at Malvedos to check on the connectivity in the house and winery. This vintage, things have been working without a hitch, probably due in part to the absence of thunderstorms. Henry showed Manuela, Isabel and Bruno around the winery, from grape reception, through to vinification and the lodge where the newly made wines are stored.
Following a three-day pause in picking decided by Charles last Thursday, September 22nd, the roga returned to the vineyards on Monday morning to begin harvesting the prized Stone Terraces vineyards at Malvedos. These are the Cardenhos vineyard, with its north/northeast aspect set in a small amphitheatre behind the Quinta house and the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, straddling the Síbio stream, close to the point where it joins the Douro. Port Arthur has a westerly and an easterly facing vineyard. The terraces of the latter accompany the contours of the ridge on which the house is built, curving around to a south facing aspect. The various sections of the Stone Terraces vineyards face all four cardinal points giving a mix of characteristics, intensity and richness from the westerly aspects and freshness and aromatics from the easterly and north facing parts of the vineyard.
The roga began picking under cloud cover but fortunately this has since cleared and the weather continues ideal with mainly clear sunny days, maximum temperatures hovering around the upper 20’s degrees Celsius. Night time temperatures have been dipping quite markedly which is ideal as it allows the grapes still on the vines to conserve their natural acidity, which lends greater freshness and balance to the wines.
On arrival at the winery, the bunches undergo the newly introduced two-stage grading and selection system, whereby the bunches are first sorted on the triage conveyor (as in previous vintages) after which they are gravity-fed into the new Bucher-Vaslin Delta-Oscillys de-stemmer. This equipment represents a significant advance at Malvedos because the de-stemming is selective and very effective, leaving unwanted raisined berries attached to the stalks and releasing only the healthy berries. This is achieved through a pendulum swing whose intensity can be adjusted. The released berries are then gently crushed through rollers, which can be adjusted in accordance with the required berry size and weight.
The first Stone Terraces lagar from the Cardenhos vineyard showed very good colour and gave a sugar reading of 13°, not unexpectedly because of its cooler aspect, a little below the graduation of the Port Arthur lagar (east and south facing sections) which recorded a Baumé of 14.05° and an equally encouraging colour.
On Wednesday, the third day of the harvest the first Sousão grapes from the neighbouring Graham’s Quinta do Tua, began to arrive at the Malvedos winery. As soon as we began to fill the lagar, and even before treading began, the impressive colour was clearly visible from the free-run juice. The Sousão is valued in our winemaking for its good acidity and for its colouring properties, but to see such colour even before treading had begun really caught Henry’s attention. Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at both Malvedos and Tua, had commented that the Sousão from Tua was looking particularly good, so Henry was not entirely surprised. Once the lagar was filled the baumé reading was taken and it registered a very satisfactory 13.4°.
Charles commented that these balanced graduations are encouraging and that higher sugar readings are not necessarily a prerequisite for producing great wines.
Rupert Symington, hosting a group of guests from the USA at Malvedos, invited by the family’s import and distribution company — Premium Port Wines — visited the winery and the old lodge, originally built in 1895. Rupert and Henry talked the visitors through the winemaking process, explaining how well the modern lagares have performed since 2000, the year they were first employed at Malvedos; a great year whose finest wines made an outstanding Vintage Port.
Into the fourth day of the vintage, after all of the Sousão was harvested and before confirming the picking schedule for the next varieties, Charles, Henry and Alexandre made a thorough visit to the finest Touriga Nacional vineyards at both Malvedos and Tua. Charles determined that the berries would benefit from a few more days on the vines and decided to postpone further picking until after the weekend.
The busy visiting schedule continued: João Vasconcelos, Graham’s market manager for the UK market, showed some visitors from the UK around the winery, just an hour or so after his colleague, Gonçalo Brito, had done the same with a group from Smart Wines, Germany.