Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Gum Cistus – the taste of the Douro

Sometimes, a smell or taste strikes us and we are transported to a specific place and moment in time. Wine, for example, has the ability to express a sense of place, which has been captured in the bottle and is then released in your glass.

This notion that wine reflects the essence of its origin, its Terroir, is not limited to only the soil or aspect of any given vineyard but also encompasses the native flora and fauna of the region. Vineyards are an integrated part of their native ecosystem, not as disconnected from it. Every aspect of the environment in which the vines grow contributes the final quality of the wine.

In the Douro Valley, we have a great example of this: the wild aromatic plant known variously as Esteva, Rockrose, or Gum Cistus. Gum Cistus, which grows in low banks of scrub, imparts its refreshing peppermint and eucalyptus flavours to the grapes in the neighbouring vineyards. As a result, Graham’s Ports gain the ability to inspire those olfactory ‘madeleine moments’ that recall the magic and the atmosphere of the Douro.

The 'Gum Cistus', 'Esteva', or 'Rock-rose' of the Douro Valley

The leaves of the Gum Cistus are coated with a natural resin, which protects the plant from the summer sun and bush-fires. In the heat, this resin vapourises and fills the air around the vineyards with a perfume that none who have visited the Douro in summer will easily forget.

The skins of the grapes similarly have a waxy coating, which captures aromas and particles from the atmosphere around the vineyards. These flavours are then imparted to the wine when the grapes are fermented with their skins (as they are when making Port or red wine).

Grapes from the Douro Superior, the eastern-most of the Douro’s three subregions, have a particularly pronounced ability to capture some of the characteristics of the Gum Cistus. There is also a noticeable difference across grape varieties. The Touriga Nacional, one of Portugal’s most famous varieties, expresses the essence of its native Douro terroir more than any other grape does.

This is perhaps the greatest power that wine has over us: to express the unique character of a magical place. It reminds us that wine is intimately connected to the soil and environment in which it is produced and that its taste is closely interwoven with its provenance.

Birds of Prey in the Douro

A young eagle pauses at Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha

Graham’s and all of the Symington Family Estates’ quintas in the Douro – some 944 hectares (2,300 acres) – are on average only about 50% planted with vineyards, with the rest of the land being a mixture of olive or citrus groves and natural vegetation.  This creates a richly varied natural habitat for wildlife, and over the years the Symington family have observed a gradual increase in birds of prey in the Douro – a sure sign that other birds and animals in the food chain are  thriving and increasing.

So it was with some interest that Paul Symington read an article in the local Douro newspaper about a Birds of Prey recovery unit at the University of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, and asked António Filipe, SFE’s general manager, to learn more about the program for us.  What he learned so impressed the family that last week they visited UTAD to tour the facility and to make a donation on behalf of SFE to help sustain the extraordinary work of the program.  The Dean of UTAD, Prof Carlos Alberto Sequeira, welcomed them, and introduced  his colleagues who are directly involved with the Birds of Prey program.

L to R: António Filipe, Paul Symington, Dr. Filipe Silva, Dr. Roberto Sargo

UTAD has an extensive program of agrarian sciences, including a school of Veterinary Sciences, headed up by Dr. Filipe Silva, and a veterinary hospital which is open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The staff receive and treat up to 4,500 animals per year, including domestic and exotic pets, horses, farm animals, and any injured wild animals which people have found.  The hospital is well designed with extensive facilities for the reception, treatment, surgery and rehabilitation of all these different kinds of animals.

The Centro de Recepção, Acolhimento e Tratamento de Animais Selvagens (The Centre for Reception, Refuge and Treatment of Wild Animals) (CRATAS) is an additional facility which includes areas specifically designed for the rehabilitation of birds of prey.  The Centre receives an average of 200 wounded birds each year from right across the Trás os Montes region.

Scops Owls
Eagle Owl
Peregrine Falcons

Dr. Roberto Sargo, head of CRATAS, lead the tour through the facilities, explaining the program and showing the family and António some of the current residents, including a trio of Mochos de Orelhas (Scops Owls) the symbol of SFE’s Altano table wines, two magnificent Eagle Owls and a group of Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animal on earth, which can reach speeds over 325 km/h (202 miles per hour) as it dives to hunt.  With all the time spent in the Douro, the family are all familiar with many of these birds – and have been known to forget the grapes for a minute to point out an eagle or falcon overhead whilst leading visitors through Quinta dos Malvedos during harvest.

Most of the birds brought in to the centre have been shot, though some have been electrocuted by high tension cables or hit by cars.  After any necessary surgery has been performed in a dedicated facility, the birds are housed in a series of spaces of differing sizes, according to their capacity for flight: as the birds regain strength and it is safe for them to begin to fly again, they are moved to progressively taller and longer tunnels with more space to practice, the last being 25 metres in length.  In addition, their diet is gradually modified so that in the final stages of recovery they are hunting again within the tunnel, as they would in the wild.  The goal is always to return to the wild all birds that can survive again, and their recent release of a black vulture was featured on the news here in Portugal.

We are very pleased and proud to support the work of UTAD and the CRATAS program and the preservation of the birds of prey in the Douro region.