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.
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.
Walking through the vineyard parcel at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas early the other morning we came across proof of the infamous Douro wild boar. Proof, amidst the winter landscape, of this regions important biodiversity, which has a particular stronghold at Vale de Malhadas because of the 112 hectares of native scrubland that is conserved as a natural wilderness.
The mud on the track had frozen in the early hours of the morning preserving the hoof-prints of the wild boar that had passed through during the night.
These boars are native to the Douro and are often hunted. They can cause a lot of damage to property and vineyards, since they tend to forage with their tusks, digging up the earth like a plough.
In fact, our vineyards have previously been the victims of such damage.
Against the mighty sweep of the Douro River the tiny, two year old Touriga Nacional vines in their schist nests look incredibly vulnerable. The winter storm clouds gather further up the valley, the ground is still frozen hard and the vines shiver in the wind.
This is the vineyard parcel at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas known as ‘cento e vinte’, which means ‘one hundred and twenty’. “It has always been called this,” explains Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist for this property, “but no one really knows why.”
Malhadas is a very remote estate, where the majority of the land has been conserved as native wild scrub forest. This new Touriga Nacional vineyard is at the eastern extreme of the property’s 145 hectares (of which only 32 ha is planted with vines). The terraced slopes face east, situated on one side of the Murça River, a tributary of the Douro, and range from 250 to 400 metres altitude. This will give this parcel a distinct advantage when the cold winter turns into the equally unforgiving summer heat, since it will be cooler and less exposed to the full might of the sun.
These fledgling vines have already endured a lot since they were planted one year ago, proving their resilience. These vines were grafted a year before being planted out, which means they have to be regularly watered while they establish themselves.
The grapes from these Touriga Nacional vines, high in the Upper Douro, will complement the rich and full-bodied wines from their cousins in Graham’s vineyards at Malvedos and Tua, down river. Vale de Malhadas did not formerly have very much Touriga Nacional planted; but in light of successful trials, Mário discovered that this variety produced very distinctive wines when grown on this spot.
It will be a few more years before the grapes from these vines are ready to be incorporated into Graham’s Ports. When that time comes, though, it looks as if they will be exceptional. We will continue to follow these young vines’ progress with interest.
The latest report from our Malvedos winemaker Henry Shotton:
Thursday 26th September
Night of Wednesday the 25th overcast but cool. Fortunately, the forecasted rain has not made an appearance.
On opening the winery on Thursday at 07:20 it felt refreshingly cool with a blue sky and some wisps of high white cloud. The promise of a warm day hung in the air.
Early today we picked perhaps some of our best looking Touriga Nacional; blocks 37 (the Cardenhos vineyard, just behind the house, facing North), and blocks 43 and 125 (the West-facing ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard). These vines are on the oldest (stone) terraces at the Quinta with just one row of vines on each terrace. They surround the house and it was from here that two years ago, almost to the day, we selected the grapes responsible for making the 2011 Graham’s ‘The ‘Stone Terraces’ Vintage Port, which has been very well received by customers and critics alike.
Our first lagar with the Tua Vinha Velha (from the first grapes picked during this harvest for Graham’s – on Monday the 23rd) was fortified yesterday during the afternoon.
Our cooling system broke down last night and we had to call Sr. David, our reliable handy man. Things often break down at the beginning of the vintage as all the machinery and equipment has not been in action since the last harvest. Luckily, as the weather has cooled no harm was done.
The first Touriga Nacional lagar (which we filled on Tuesday) was showing a deep almost purple colour with fresh, vibrant fermentation aromas and it was fortified at 3am this morning by the night shift — it comes with the territory, as they say…
“The Heavyweights” visit: Just before lunch, the team from Portfolio Vinhos, the Symington family’s own distribution company in Portugal, visited the Quinta and Henry showed them around the winery. He thought it would be fun to weigh them on the scale normally used for weighing incoming grapes. Their total weight was 1,283 Kg, the equivalent of a tractor load of grapes — a heavyweight team, without a doubt…
Friday 27th September
Yesterday during the evening, some ominously grey clouds began to appear, drifting in from the west, proof of the weather fronts, which have been gathering over the Atlantic Ocean for several days. Early this morning, some of us hopped across to Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, the Graham’s vineyard located furthest East in the Douro (Douro Superior sub-region), about 20km upriver from Malvedos as the crow flies. The caseiro, Sr. José Maria was marshalling his roga (team of pickers) as they harvested a 6 hectares (14.8 acres) block of Tinta Roriz grapes and another of mixed vines, both between 35 and 40 years old. We barely had time to exchange greetings when the heavily laden clouds presented us with a steady downpour, which sent everybody scattering for cover.
However, the shower — although reasonably abundant — didn’t last for more than about 20 minutes, so there was no cause for alarm. In fact we’re very pleased with the appearance of the grapes, which looked well ripened and in very good condition. Some berries were promptly tasted and their lovely sweet and concentrated taste confirmed our positive impressions. Our viticulturist for Vale de Malhadas, Mário Natário, later confirmed that just 2mm of rain had fallen and that this had barely affected the grapes. For the next 3 to 4 days, Sr José Maria and his roga will continue to harvest primarily Tinta Roriz.
As noted above, at Malvedos there was no rain last night, but when we arrived at the winery just before 8 this morning, the first drops began to fall and this was followed by a steady downpour which lasted perhaps half an hour. Intermittent showers followed and the afternoon, although quite overcast, was mainly dry. This is nothing compared to the rain that came down in buckets along the coast at Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The front progressed eastwards, but fortunately for us deposited most of its rain over the Marão – Montemuro mountains that shield the Douro Region from the brunt of the weather fronts that roll in from the Atlantic and effectively act as a weather barrier.
During the morning we were visited by Susan Smillie of the UK Guardian Newspaper. The previous day, Susan had visited the Graham’s 1890 Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia and enjoyed a “delicious” lunch (in her own words) in the VINUM restaurant there. As a Scot, Susan felt quite at home in the surroundings of the 1890 Lodge and at Quinta dos Malvedos, both of which of course reflect the entrepreneurial spirit and passion for winemaking of two Scottish familes: the Graham’s and the Symingtons.
Henry showed Susan around the Malvedos winery and she was fascinated by the lagares which she was able to compare with the stone lagares that she had seen the night before at Graham’s sister vineyard of Quinta do Vesúvio.
Due to this morning’s rain, Charles consulted with Henry and decided to make a slight alteration to the picking order and this may change again tomorrow, depending on how the weather works out. Flexibility is key. Although some further rainfall is forecast for the next few days it’s unlikely to be abundant and for the time being it’s therefore very much business as usual.
Graham’s eastern-most quinta is Quinta do Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior, just east of Quinta do Vesuvio along the southern bank of the Douro. The extreme heat and dryness of this end of the Douro is slightly mitigated by the north facing aspect of the property, and the wines made here bring power, tannic structure and rich jammy black fruit to the Graham’s blends.
This quinta is privately owned by three of the current generation of Symingtons: Paul, Dominic and Rupert, who acquired it in 1999. Malhadas has 70 hectares under vine (the same as Malvedos), and another 70 of natural scrub, olive and almond groves. This end of the Douro is wild, austere and remote, but the wines are superb and even in the late 19th century were considered well worth hazarding the trip and conditions.
The harvest began on 20th September. When these photos were taken on the 28th they were working through the Tinta Roriz vineyards on the west face of the eastern undulation of the hills. As at Malvedos, they have a harvesting roga of about 20 to pick the grapes and work carrying the buckets in and out of the vineyards.
What is different from Malvedos is that this remote quinta has no winery, so the grapes must be transported down river to one of the Symington’s larger wineries for vinification. The pickers fill large buckets which are distributed through the vineyards ahead of time, and then leave the filled buckets in place for the handling team to pick up shortly afterwards. The team then transport the buckets back to a lorry with large steel bins on the back, and empty them one by one into the bins, for the long journey down river.
Dominic Symington spent this past weekend at Malhadas to oversee the harvest for a few days himself, and wrote in with this report:
Things are looking really good at Vale de Malhadas, the fruit is in superb condition and the Touriga Nacional has just finished. We have now moved to the Touriga Franca, and still have 3 days of picking to go.
Both the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are being vinified in small, individual parcel lots.
Up to last night we had picked 117,000 Kgs = approx 117 tons, which is a very good yield from this Quinta although one has to take into consideration that the Touriga Nacional is only 6 years old therefore just now coming into prime quality production.