Tag Archives: Environment

Black Kites over Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

The wilds of the Douro Valley are a haven to many species of plant and animal, and you don’t have to spend long there to witness birds of prey in their natural habitat.

Home to several species of eagle, vulture, falcon, owl and kite, these large birds, which are the top of their respective food chains, are an impressive site to behold.

This pair of black kites were photographed flying over an area of uncultivated land between Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas and Quinta do Vesuvio, deep in the Douro Superior. The pair was accompanied by another, perhaps their offspring.

Eagles Vesuvio

Graham’s roses amongst the vines

As you walk through Graham’s vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua you will pass roses planted at the head of each row of vines. But this splash of colour in the winter landscape is not only an eye-pleaser; it is also an ingenious and ornate part of our vineyard management: a natural method of disease diagnosis.

As is so often the case, this traditional viticultural practice provides a sustainable and minimum interventionist solution to a perennial concern. It is also a good example of how local knowledge, preserved by families who have worked the soil for generations, plays a major part in our vineyard management.

Since the mid-19th century Powdery Mildew, also known as Oidium, has been prevalent in European vineyards. It originated in the U.S.A and was the first fungal disease to be described by science.

Rose bushes are in fact more prone to contracting the Powdery Mildew fungus than the vines and they will therefore show signs of the disease before the latter. The rose bushes, therefore, act as a kind of ‘canary in the well shaft’: if they display signs of the disease then treatment can be applied immediately to the vines before they actually show visible signs of infection.

Powdery Mildew is a fungal mould that attacks vines and fruit-trees. It is a very visible disease, spreading a translucent, cobweb-like growth around the infected area, which later sprouts greyish spores. To the eye, the mould looks like a powdery white ash or soot: hence its name. This disease affects all green parts of the vine and will reduce fruit set and ripening of the grapes. No wine is made from vines that become infected by the Powdery Mildew.

As a prevention of this disease an organic copper sulphate mixture can be applied to the vines. The roses in the Douro tell us when it is necessary to treat the vines and when not, ensuring minimum intervention. We also have an ally in nature. The dry climate of the Douro Valley helps to moderate the risk of fungal infections to the vines. But the risk is still there. Planting roses at the head of each row and at strategic places throughout the vineyards is a traditional Douro method of pre-diagnosing the presence of Powdery Mildew in the vineyard.

This means that we only apply the absolute minimum amount of treatment against the disease and only in a localized way when it is needed. Nothing is ever done en masse in the Douro. Less intervention with the vines and with nature, in our view, produces better wines that are more intense and better express their natural varietal characteristics and the uniqueness of our terroir.

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.

Malvedos Harvest Update: ‘The Touriga Franca Week’

This week we checked on progress in Graham's other  vineyards. Here, pickers in action at Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto Valley.
This week we checked on progress in Graham’s other vineyards. Here, pickers in action at Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto Valley, harvesting Touriga Franca from the Telheira block.

Henry Shotton gives his latest report from the Malvedos winery:

Henry shows Yusen Lin (Taiwan's leading wine writer/critic) freshly made Ports in the Malvedos winery.
Henry shows Yusen Lin (Taiwan’s leading wine writer/critic) freshly made Ports in the winery.

I’m tempted to call this last week the ‘Touriga Franca week’, so encouraged are we by the quality of the grapes as seen coming into the winery these last few days. The Touriga Franca is a late – ripening variety because it needs a great deal of sun and heat to fulfil its full maturation potential. This vintage began unusually late but that didn’t mean that we could start picking the Franca almost straight away — both because grape maturations generally were running late this year anyway (hence the delayed start to the vintage) but also because of the rainfall that visited when we were about a week into the vintage. That set back even a little further the completion of the full maturation cycle of the Touriga Franca.

Henry proudly shows us the  incredibly concentrated colour of the Touriga Franca lagar.
Henry proudly shows off the incredibly concentrated colour of this Touriga Franca lagar. The Baumé reading was a remarkable 14.5º and Henry was also impressed by the expressive floral aromas.
Freshly crushed Touriga Franca grapes about to be trodden in the lagar.
Freshly crushed Touriga Franca grapes picked at Malvedos about to be trodden in the lagar. The colour is remarkable and it put a big smile on Charles’s face.

Thankfully the rain did not persist and once clear blue skies and warm temperatures returned over a week ago, Charles wisely decided to hold off a few days before giving the order to start picking the Franca, allowing it time to benefit from several days of bright, warm sunny conditions. This has meant the TF (the most widely planted at Malvedos — 27% of the vineyard — and one of Port’s most important varieties) has had time to recoup it’s full potential which was showing such promise before the onset of the rain. The grapes are wonderfully ripe and concentrated, showing superb deep colour, soft skins (which eases extraction) and excellent sugar readings. The first TF grapes that we received from the Malvedos vineyard on Tuesday, October 8th were already giving us very good readings of 13.5º Baumé and as the week progressed, the values steadily increased to 14, and the latest lagar (filled yesterday, Thursday 10th) registered an impressive 14.5º Baumé. It is a pleasure to witness the deep colour of this lagar and sense its expressive, fresh and floral aromas.

Charles and Graham's head of viticulture, Pedro Leal da Costa (left) decide on the picking order of the remaining Touriga Franca blocks at Malvedos.
Charles and Graham’s head of viticulture, Pedro Leal da Costa (left) decide on the picking order of the remaining Touriga Franca blocks at Malvedos.

Charles commented today (Friday October 11th) at the winery that he is particularly impressed with the “exceptional colour of the Franca”  (not always achieved by this variety, as Charles stressed) and also by its low yields which have delivered superb concentration. He explained that when the vintage started, the TF was already well advanced in terms of the phenolics but more time was needed for the sugar levels to catch up in order to reach a full, balanced ripening. The fact we waited to start picking a few days after the rain stopped benefitted the Franca enormously by allowing it to complete it’s optimal maturation cycle, Charles explained. We will conclude picking the Franca on Monday, which effectively means we will have finished picking all the grapes at Malvedos. After that we still have a few days to conclude some fermentations in the lagares and to wind things down (post vintage cleaning, repairs and maintenance).

Charles, Henry and Pedro confer in the Malvedos winery, Friday, October 11th.
Charles, Henry and Pedro confer in the Malvedos winery, Friday, October 11th.
Meanwhile, outside the winery, Masai, Charles's faithful tawny-coloured Rhodesian Ridgeback, basks in the sunshine.
Meanwhile, outside the winery, Masai, Charles’s faithful tawny-coloured Rhodesian Ridgeback, basks in the sunshine.

Earlier in the week Charles and I also did the rounds of the two Graham’s Quintas that we haven’t had a chance to report on previously during this vintage; Vila Velha and Lages.

Lages: The caseiro (farm manager) of 24 years at Lages, Sr. António, was very upbeat about the quality of the grapes picked at the Quinta this vintage. He told us that notwithstanding the rain, the quality of the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca was very pleasing (22 and 21% of Lages, respectively). Our winemaking team confirmed the caseiro’s optimism reporting average graduations of 14º Baumé. That’s hard to beat. The Tinta Barroca topped the scales, occasionally showing 15º Baumé, but that is not at all unusual for this variety. On the day we called, a roga (team of grape pickers) of 14 people was picking the Telheira block, vertically planted (very unusual in our vineyards) with young Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca vines. Despite the young age of the vines, the grape bunches and the berries themselves had a good size and showed wonderful deep blue-violet coloured skins.

One of the oldest mixed blocks at Lages, planted in 1985, now a full mature vineyard, providing very good quality grapes.
One of the oldest mixed blocks at Lages, planted in 1985, now a mature vineyard, providing very good quality grapes.

The last grapes scheduled to be picked at Lages on Monday, October 14th will be from the organically farmed 4 hectare block, which was planted in 1989 with mixed varieties (consisting primarily of Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz). These grapes are earmarked for Graham’s Natura Reserve Port, one of the first Ports made with organically farmed grapes.

Organically farmed grapes: we have a 4 hectares at Lages, planted in 1989.
Organically farmed grapes: we have 4 hectares at Lages, planted in 1989.
The magnificent scenery of the Douro Valley; here the landsacpe at Quinta da Vila Velha.
The magnificent scenery of the Douro Valley; here the landsacpe at Quinta da Vila Velha.
The entrance gate to the Vila Velha, one of the Douro's most beautiful River Quintas.
The entrance gate to the Vila Velha, one of the Douro’s most beautiful River Quintas.

Vila Velha: the vintage at Vila Velha finished on Tuesday October 8th, the first Graham’s Quinta to conclude its grape picking. Vila Velha has the highest percentage of Touriga Franca planted of any Graham’s Quinta (31%) and, as seen at other Graham’s vineyards, some very good lagares have been made from these grapes, although we had to be a little more selective because here, the rain did create a few problems in some of the more sheltered blocks (less exposed to the sun), of which — fortunately — there are very few.

Tracking the Season – August 30th

Quinta dos Malvedos: the house perched on the characteristic ridge.
Quinta dos Malvedos: the house perched on the characteristic ridge, with commanding views of the Douro River.

By 11 am on Friday morning, August 30th, the temperature had already reached 33ºC at Malvedos. Although we had abundant rainfall in the Douro over the first few months of the viticultural year (i.e. from November 2012 to April 2013), precipitation levels began to fall sharply from May. At Malvedos, just 3.5mm of rain was recorded during the whole month of June, 4mm during July and not a single drop in August, well below average for all three months.

A small birds nest, nestling among the vines at Tua; a testament to Graham's policy of sustainable viticulture.
A small bird’s nest, nestling among the vines at Tua; a testament to Graham’s policy of sustainable viticulture.

To further complicate matters, air temperatures since the summer solstice and over the last two months in particular, have been rising steadily, with Malvedos registering an average daytime temperature of 28ºC during the month of July and 27.7ºC during August, in both cases that is approximately 3ºC above the mean. Also significant were the maximum daytime temperatures recorded at Malvedos, a sweltering 42.3ºC (July) and 42.6ºC (August); for those readers who think in Fahrenheit ­— that’s 107 degrees…

The Portuguese Meteorological Office advised that the heat wave registered between the 3rd and 13th of July, which affected the whole of the country, but particularly its north-eastern corner (where the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior sub-regions are located), was the “most significant” (a euphemism for ‘severe’) observed since July of 1941 (July 2006 also came close).

Alexandre samples a Touriga Nacional berry at Quinta do Tua, August 30th
Alexandre samples a Touriga Nacional berry at Quinta do Tua, August 30th. He will do this almost daily to monitor the grapes’ final ripening stage leading up to the vintage.

Our vines have therefore been subjected to a double onslaught of hydric stress and thermal stress and they have had to ‘batten down the hatches’ to withstand these challenging conditions and thus far they have done this incredibly well. The accumulated water reserves (from the winter/spring rainfall) have made a real difference and our older vines (with more developed root systems that go deeper into the soil) have fared very well. Whereas the younger vines with their shorter roots, have struggled to tap into the moisture, which inevitably retreats lower down into the schist soil as the drought has depleted the water reserves.

Note how it is the lower layers of leaves that the vines sacrifice first, when subjected to hydric and thermal stress.
Note how it is the lower layers of leaves that the vines sacrifice first, when subjected to hydric and thermal stress.
Touriga Nacional grapes at Quinta do Tua: note the small size of both the bunch and the berries - a sure sign of quality.
Touriga Nacional grapes at Quinta do Tua: note the small size of both the bunch and the berries – a sure sign of quality.

As the Malvedos viticulturist, Alexandre Mariz pointed out, however, it is quite remarkable how well adapted these hardy vines are to their tough environment; the grape clusters and berries are looking well formed and healthy. The size of both the grape bunches and the berries is quite small, a telltale sign of quality (concentration as opposed to volume). Despite the difficulties, the vines at both Malvedos and Tua are looking very healthy, the only signs betraying the lack of rain and high temperatures being the parched brown vine leaves along the lower sections of the plants, with some of them already falling off the vines. This is one of the vines’ self-defence mechanisms when faced with such trying conditions; the vine sacrifices part of its leaves to lessen the pressure on the plant, which has less water to continue the maturation cycle. It is the lower leaves that are shed, partly because they are closest to the hot soil surface, which radiates heat back up towards the vine but also because the vine preserves the mid and top layers of leaves in order to provide the all important shade that the grape bunches require to shelter them from the fierce sunshine.

Despite the drought of the last three months, Quinta dos Malvedos displays verdant vegetation.
Despite the drought of the last three months, Quinta dos Malvedos displays verdant vegetation.

Stop press: on Thursday morning, September 5th, when this post was about to be published we awoke to a real surprise at Quinta dos Malvedos; during the middle of the night, a thunderstorm rolled in and delivered a bounty of rain: about 10mm, which came down steadily over around three hours, according to our caseiro (farm manager), Senhor Arlindo, who was woken up by the thunder and witnessed the downpour. Dominic Symington who was at Malvedos entertaining some Russian guests from our importer there, had a broad smile of contentment. He was later joined at the Quinta by Charles Symington, our head winemaker, and he too was all smiles. Charles is in no doubt that this welcome rain has made a real difference and that the final stretch of ripening has been given just the fillip we were praying for. We still do not have a firm starting date for the harvest but Charles says it will be later than usual (up to 10 days) and will probably start during the third week of September.

Tracking the Season – 19th July

Quinta dos Malvedos on a gloriously sunny July morning.
Quinta dos Malvedos on a gloriously sunny July morning.
The pintor at Malvedos: note the red-brown colour of the stems.
The pintor at Malvedos: note the red-brown colour of the stems.

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.

Sunrise at Malvedos reveals the newly planted Touriga Franca vineyard (centre).
Sunrise at Malvedos reveals the patamares (terraces) with newly planted Touriga Franca vines (centre).

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.

The replanted vineyard at the northwestern corner of Malvedos.
The other replanted vineyard at the northwestern corner of Malvedos; Touriga Nacional and Sousão.
Alexandre Mariz points out the roots of a vine, revealed by a partially collapsed terrace. Note the lateral ramification to the right.
Alexandre Mariz points out the roots of a vine, revealed by a partially collapsed terrace. Note the section ramifying horizontally — to the right.

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.

Newly sculpted terraces: note the inward cant of the terrace surface and also its lengthways inclination.
Newly sculpted terraces: note the inward cant of the terrace surface and also its lengthways inclination.

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.

Note the shiny mica silicates on the schist rock.
Note the shiny mica silicates on the schist rock. These refract the sun’s rays off the topsoil layer.
Alexandre holds up some schist soil, he collected a few feet below the surface; note how moist it is.
Alexandre holds up some schist soil he collected a few feet below the surface; note how moist it is.

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 Touriga Franca vineyard to the west of the caseiro's (caretaker's) house at Malvedos.
The Touriga Franca vineyard, planted in March, just to the west of the caseiro’s (caretaker’s) house at Malvedos.

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.

Old stone terraces (west-facing) at Malvedos that are going to be replanted in early 2014.
Fire-damaged old stone terraces (top centre) at Malvedos that are going to be replanted in early 2014.

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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