Henry’s Malvedos winery team was recently reinforced with the arrival of Oscar Symington one of the 5th generation youngsters of the family which owns and runs Graham’s. Oscar’s father, Rupert, is one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors. The 18 year old lost no time mucking in, carrying out the multitude of tasks required of him, from helping to unload the trailers of grape laden boxes, taking his turn on the sorting table as well as helping out with the envasilhamentos (running off the must from the lagares for fortification). Oscar soon discovered that this particular task is a bit like doing your watch on a ship, involving as it does taking turns with your colleagues in this round-the-clock activity which can happen anytime — day or night. The eight-strong winery team are glad to have this extra pair of hands to lighten their burden; they have all been working continuously for three weeks since the vintage began at Malvedos on September 11th.
Oscar himself has barely had a chance to catch his breath since beginning his gap year; before coming to help out at Malvedos he had already worked for 10 days at the family’s Quinta do Sol winery followed by another 10 days at Quinta de Roriz jointly owned by the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux and where they produce one of the Douro’s iconic table wines — Chryseia. The majority of the grapes for Chryseia are sourced from the Roriz vineyard but an important element has always been drawn from the neighbouring property of Vila Velha, owned by Oscar’s grandfather, James Symington. Besides the contribution Vila Velha provides for the landmark Chryseia Douro red, the finest production is also supplied to Graham’s, making important contributions to the premium Ports it produces. The highly acclaimed Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port was comprised of components from all five Graham’s Quintas; Vila Velha making up 18% of the final lot.
Like his siblings and cousins, Oscar is following in the tradition of young members of the family working a vintage at the family Quintas, during school or university holidays. Graham’s is a family wine business through and through and it is very much part of the philosophy to let the youngsters gain practical experience in what is after all the family’s lifeblood: producing the great wines of the Douro Valley. Oscar’s great-grandfather, Ron Symington who like his twin brother John and first cousin Maurice was passionate about the Douro is known to have often said, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” by which he meant that the older generation had to give the younger members of the family a chance to get involved. We’re not sure whether Oscar is comfortable with the metaphor but we are sure that he understands what his ancestor meant. Following his gap year Oscar will continue his higher education at Durham University in northern England.
Ron Symington, Oscar’s great-grandfather would often say, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” — and he wasn’t referring to his gun dog!
If you were to ask Charles Symington, Graham’s Head Winemaker, what makes Vintage Port special amongst the fine wines of the world he would tell you that it is the harmony created by the combination of wines from different vineyards. There is no other fine wine in the world that uses the grapes from multiple properties, each with different characteristics, to make their greatest wine.
Graham’s wines are all made from grapes taken exclusively from five mountain vineyard estates spread across the Douro Valley. Each one has a unique aspect, soil composition and microclimate. The five properties are Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua (both in the heart of the Douro Valley on the north bank), Quinta das Lages (in the famous Rio Torto Valley), Quinta do Vale de Malhadas (high up the Valley in the Douro Superior) and Quinta da Vila Velha (on the south bank of the River). Charles talks eloquently about the different characteristics that each one of these Quintas (vineyard estates) brings to Graham’s Vintage Port.
The wines from Quinta das Lages are lighter, more ethereal, with floral, slightly resinous aromas: they are important for the elegance they bring to the wine, rather than their structure. The Rio Torto Valley is one of the greatest sub-regions of the Douro, famous for producing some of the finest Vintage Ports in history. Lages is the only one of the five Quintas not owned by either Graham’s or a member of the Symington Family. But since 1927 Graham’s has had very close relationships with this property, buying all its production and personally farming it.
Quinta da Vila Velha is predominantly north facing. It brings finely balanced acidity to Graham’s Vintage Port. And in particularly hot years the higher altitude and the cooler north facing vineyards can be a distinct advantage.
Quinta do Vale de Malhadas has only 400mm of rainfall a year: two-thirds of what falls at Malvedos. The property is also north facing: an advantage here because it keeps the vines cooler, not being exposed to direct sunlight in the middle of the day. Establishing vineyards here is the viticultural limit. But the wines are worth it. Typically, Malhadas wines have chocolate, blackberries and very ripe, smooth tannins. Charles notes that climate change will have a profound impact on vineyards such as Malhadas, which is already right at the extremes of survivability.
The wines from Quinta do Tua have powerful aromas, concentration and length. They are not as elegant as others, being noticeably more rustic in style. But they contribute good body and structure. This is a result of the high proportion of old vines on the estate, which have tiny yields, between 300g and 500g per vine.
Finally, there is Quinta dos Malvedos, Graham’s original Quinta since 1890, in one of the best locations in the Douro Valley. The Malvedos wines are usually the main component in Graham’s Vintage Port and are perfectly balanced and refined in their own right. Malvedos adds profound aromas of Esteva, or gum cistus flower, redolent with mint and eucalyptus. It also has powerful but ripe and velvety tannins and a great complexity of black fruits.
The process of making Vintage Port is a fine-tuned art. Charles selects specific parcels of vines from each of these properties to create a perfect harmony and balance. The proof is in the tasting. Graham’s Vintage Port is more than the sum of its parts. If you’ve tasted any, we think you’ll agree.
Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha is in one of the Douro’s prime locations for growing top quality Port grapes. It is almost directly opposite Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos but with its northerly aspect (being on the south side of the river) it produces wines with a distinctively different character from those of its neighbour.
For the last few months Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist managing this estate, has been overseeing the construction of the new earth-banked terraced vineyards, called patamares in Portuguese, which are being constructed in the vineyard parcel known as Merouços, high up near the top of the ridge.
We have decided to plant new Touriga Nacional vines in this parcel in the first few months of this year. This is partly because there is not currently a lot of Touriga Nacional planted at Vila Velha but chiefly because this particular parcel of vineyard has the potential to produce remarkable Touriga Nacional grapes.
The quality of this vineyard is immediately apparent from the colour of the soil. It is much darker, richer in organic matter and higher in clay content than many other vineyards in the region. It is at a relatively high altitude for a Douro vineyard at an average of 300 metres.
At this altitude, with the slightly cooler conditions and northerly aspect of the vineyard, the Touriga Nacional will achieve lighter, more fragrant and more aromatic characteristics compared to the richer and riper qualities that the same variety achieves in low-lying parcels next to the river. The difference really is astonishing when the two are compared in a blind tasting.
This parcel will therefore add a new component to the array of wines from which our winemakers make Graham’s Vintage Ports. The wines produced from this vineyard will bring more ethereal notes, complementing the opulence of the wines from Graham’s other great vineyards and enhancing the harmony and complexity of the wine.
The quality of Vila Velha’s vineyards is such that when the Symington family joined forces with Bruno Prats of Bordeaux to make the premier wine Chryseia and its second cousin Post Scriptum, Mr. Prats specifically chose selected parcels of Vila Velha’s vineyards for the Chryseia each year.
Henry Shotton gives his latest report from the Malvedos 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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
In addition to his work as research viticulturist, Miles Edlmann has responsibility for the maintenance of Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha. Situated around a bend just downriver from Quinta dos Malvedos, Vila Velha is spread out over 140 hectares of land, with just 57 hectares under vine. The balance is olive groves and wilderness.
Along with the usual vineyard maintenance tasks, Miles has another major project on hand this year: the planning of a possible new vineyard at Vila Velha.
Over the years a number of small adjacent quintas have been purchased and added into the Vila Velha holdings. As a result, there are many small parcels of vines at the perimeter of the property, separated by large tracts of wilderness or olive grove from the main area of vineyards. For years we have enjoyed the grapes from these mature vines, but now a number of these parcels are past their best and need to be re-planted. On the other hand, it makes little to sense to re-plant in these locations. The logistics of managing these small parcels are awkward and expensive: as old vineyards with rows set too close together to allow a tractor to pass through, all the work of pruning, spraying and canopy management must be done entirely by hand, and during the vintage moving the picking team around to work in a series of small remote parcels is time consuming and inefficient.
Instead, we are looking at the possibility of tearing up the old vineyards – four small parcels which total about 2 hectares – but planting the new vines elsewhere, in a newly created, consolidated and more accessible plot. The proposed site for the new vineyard is what is known in the Douro as a mortuario: an old vineyard that was abandoned after the devastation of phylloxera in the late 19th century. It is a hillside riddled with ruined and half-buried stone walls, now planted with mature olive trees.
Our proposals must be worked out and documented very carefully and then approved by several different authorities before work can begin. Among the restrictions and considerations to be reckoned with:
we cannot create more vineyard than we already have – so the new planting must be no larger than the total of the old plantings
we will need planning permission to move and re-plant the olive trees we take out of the hillside to create the vineyard
some of the old stone walls are intact and will of course be preserved and worked into our plans, but we would have to be granted permission to remove the remains of walls which have fallen into ruins and are now half buried under the soil
our plans must include access roads
we need to plan for drainage, and work out how heavy rains might be channeled down the hillside to avoid damage to the new terraces
With all this in mind, the first work of the day was to have another good look at the hillside and decide the best position for the vineyard. Miles was joined by Artur Moreira, another of our viticultural team who works with many of our mapping and planning projects and has expertise in the use of GPS systems.
Miles and Artur placed stakes along the proposed lower edge and side of the vineyard, and after much lively discussion and adjustments to create an optimum contour, Artur took GPS readings. Whilst most of three sides of the proposed vineyard are already easily visible on photo-maps, they had to establish these other edges quite clearly in order to produce a new photo-map to include with our proposals. To do this, the stakes were placed and Artur was then able to use his GPS device to get the satellite readings to define the perimeter of the vineyards.
Planning for the management of run off was pretty straightforward – you can see quite clearly on the hillside where the water naturally courses down now. That will be taken into consideration as we define the contours of the terraces and the placement of the access roads, as the best way to manage water runoff is along the back of the terraces and into channels alongside the roadways. We can design the vineyard so the natural runoff from the crest of the hillside will easily enter this channel system, rather than cascade down and potentially damage the terraces and soil banks.
The next steps in the planning will mostly happen in the office, as we complete the necessary applications for permission. If all goes well, and permission is granted, then the work of moving the olive trees and creating the new terraces will begin this winter, after the harvest.