With temperatures already reaching the 40s in the Douro Valley, it is now the time of year when the grapes change colour from a light pea green to the various tones of dark red that signify that veraison is well and truly underway.
Veraison, a French loanword, describes the phase in which the grapes ripen and become sweet. At the same time the fruit also becomes softer and begins to plump due to the concentration and accumulation of sugars under their thick skins.
The most common phrase heard in Portuguese vineyards at this time of year must be “o pintor chegou”, which means “the painter has arrived.” The fruit starts to change colour relatively quickly, although not uniformly, and it is normal to find a palate of different colours present on just one single bunch of grapes.
This year veraison began about 10 days early due to the dry, warm weather since the spring, and the grapes are already unusually sweet.
This year veraison was about 10 days early due to the dry, warm weather since the spring, and the grapes are already unusually sweet.
The abundant winter rainfall at Malvedos, whilst desirable in terms of replenishing the much needed water reserves deep in the subsoil, has adversely affected progress in the reconstruction of the dry stone-walls at the entrance to the Quinta (see the previous two Tracking the Season posts for November and February). It was hoped that the stonemasons would have managed to conclude their task by February, after which the terraces would have been planted with the chosen variety – the Alicante Bouschet (a first at Malvedos) as well as some Touriga Franca. Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos pragmatically accepts that this will now have to be postponed for a year — at least on the upper terraces.
The very audible gushing sound of running water in the Síbio stream, rushing by in the gully which borders the stone terraces, is quite unusual at this time of the year and is clear evidence of just how much rain has come down over the winter months: 364mm (December 2013 – February 2014) compared to the average for this three month period which is 234mm — in other words 64% more rainfall than would be expected over the season.
On a positive note the lower section of this vineyard has sturdy dry stone-walls that have not required much attention from the stonemasons, a testament to the skill of their 18th century counterparts who originally built them. The supporting walls are quite massive; the tallest are 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) high and up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) wide. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Síbio stream, very close to where it flows into the Douro River.
Planting on these 5 larger terraces has therefore gone ahead as planned under the experienced supervision of Sr. Arlindo, the caretaker at Malvedos. He and his team of seven people have planted 1.400 bench-grafted Sousão vines over five days, starting on April 3rd. These particular terraces’ generous width has allowed for between two and three rows to be planted, the spacing between each row being 2 metres and the space between each vine just 80 cm. This planting of the vines close together is intentional, the aim being to encourage each vine to ‘compete’ with its neighbours for the scarce available resources (nutrients in the soil and water). In so doing they will generate berries with greater concentration and ultimately, finer quality wines.
The Sousão has been planted on these terraces located in the lower section of this west-facing slope because they are in a relatively sheltered area (the Sousão is susceptible to excessive heat and south-facing slopes are therefore generally avoided, unless they are planted at altitude). Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker is an advocate of the Sousão, a variety somewhat forgotten by many growers in the Douro but which is now slowly making a comeback. It is proving an important component in making our wines, principally due to its good levels of acidity and its deep colouring properties.
The stone terraces still undergoing reconstruction are higher up on a steeper section of the slope and they will each take just one row of vines and the varieties chosen are the Touriga Franca and the Alicante Bouschet, the latter a grape variety which Charles Symington has been championing in the Douro (more on the reasons for this in a future post).
Although the winter was very wet it was also quite mild, with mean temperatures above the average for all three months and this has brought forward the vegetative cycle of the vine by a little over than two weeks with bud-break occurring during the first week of March. Last year, bud-break was observed only during the last week of March.
This year what is readily apparent at this stage in the season is the generally healthy appearance of the vines — not just the homogeneous, lush green foliage but also the perfectly formed clusters of berries showing varying stages of development; some still almost entirely green, others already changing colour, whilst others at a more advanced stage of ripening with almost the whole bunch displaying the blue-purple tones of the varieties that turn colour more precociously such as the Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca. This is the beginning of the ‘pintor’, (literally ‘painter’ in Portuguese), the stage in the annual cycle of the vine known as ‘véraison’ when ripening of the grapes begins in earnest as the sugar content in the berries begins to rise steadily.
Alexandre Mariz, the Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua viticulturist informed us that the pintor began about a week late, in step with the generally later vegetative cycle of the vine this year, which as he explained can be largely attributed to the generally cooler conditions experienced during the first half of 2013. However, this is of minor concern to Alexandre who is upbeat about the prospects for a good year. He pointed out the very encouraging progress of the ‘atempamento’, the process whereby the vine stems and stalks transition from the vivid green ‘herbaceous’ stage to a red-brown woodier colour (becoming less sappy and more rigid). This is always a sure sign of quality, revealing that the plant is filtering water more sparingly to the clusters of berries which will lead to greater concentration and ultimately, higher fruit quality.
Alexandre commented that he has often been reminded this year of how things used to be many years past, when the seasons were more clear-cut and the vines’ annual development cycle followed a more predictable and even pattern. He told us that the ‘maias’, small yellow wildflowers (yellow broom), which normally appear in May (hence the name ‘maia’ from ‘Maio’ – Portuguese for May), did actually bloom in May, whereas over the last few years they have often arrived precociously in February or March, ‘duped’ by earlier than normal spring conditions.
The two replanted vineyard plots at Malvedos are looking splendid; the bench-grafted vines planted in March are prospering in their mountain vineyard environment. Alexandre was visibly satisfied by how well the new plantations have been settling in, helped along by some drip-feed irrigation, which is allowed during this early stage of the vines’ life in order to help them get established. At the northwestern edge of the Quinta, at approximately 350 metres (1,150 feet), where we have planted four hectares of Touriga Nacional and two hectares of Sousão, the newly sculpted terraces, known as patamares, looked impressive and one wonders at the skill of the hardy men and women who shape them out of such steep slopes.
Alexandre is pleased with the drainage ditch, which will collect and channel excess (rain) water, which would otherwise contribute to erosion – one of the toughest challenges we face in our vineyards in the Douro. The terraces are canted slightly inwards towards the hillside to retain some rainwater, whilst also moderately arched along their length so that excess water can run off and gather into the drainage system.
Alexandre took the time to share some of his deep knowledge of the Douro’s vineyard environment. He provided some fascinating insights on the schist soil and how it creates the unique identity of the Douro’s wines. Schist is formed into laminated layers with many fissures and cracks which eventually crumble into loose rocks of varying size and also over time into a fine dust. This allows the vines’ roots to progress deep into the soil in search of water and moisture. The strata at varying angles have many fissures along which rainwater collects and is evenly distributed, and thus the schist acts as a water retainer and distributor. The vine roots not only develop downwards but also across (along the fissures) to tap as much available moisture as possible.
Schist is also a temperature regulator. The mica (a shiny silicate mineral) present in the schist refracts much of the sun’s powerful rays creating a twofold effect; first, heat is radiated off the stony surface upwards into the vines, contributing to the grapes’ ripening and, secondly, this deflected heat means that the temperature of the subsoil is lower than at surface level. Importantly this translates into less evaporation, conserving the moisture in the soil that sustains the vines over the long hot months of the ripening season. Alexandre illustrated this phenomenon by digging just a little into the soil and grabbing a handful of soil, which he formed into a moist pasty cake in his palm. Considering we’re in the second half of July with midday air temperatures well over 30ºC, this really demonstrated the point.
The old west-facing stone terraces at Malvedos (opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard) suffered damage from a fire started by sparks from a passing preserved steam locomotive 3 years ago. Next year we plan on replanting these terraces with Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional.