Tag Archives: Schist soil

Tracking the Season – November 28th

Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.
Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.

The vintage in the Douro during September and October is the culmination of a year’s hard work in the vineyards. This very busy time at Quinta dos Malvedos is followed by a quieter period after all the grapes have been picked and all the wine has been made and stored. Calm descends on the Douro and it is time to take stock and make preparations for the new cycle, which begins afresh in the month of November, marking the start of the viticultural year (November – October).

Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) and the smaller terraces higher up.
Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) — called ‘socalcos’ in Portuguese — and the smaller terraces higher up.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua, does regular early morning rounds; over the last few days under clear blue skies and brisk temperatures around 3.5ºC. Recently he has been keeping a careful eye on the old stone-walled vineyard terraces at the entrance to the Quinta, which are being laboriously reconstructed following the fire that destroyed most of the vines there in 2010. This small vineyard was set alight by sparks, courtesy of an old historic steam locomotive that runs from Regua to Tua during the summer (picturesque, but not good for vines).

The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will take two to three rows of Sousão and Toriga Franca vines.
The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will each take two to three rows of vines. Note the rocky nature of the schist soil, which has been churned up to facilitate the planting of the vines early next year.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls.  Note how they were engineered, canting inward to avoid workers losing their balance and falling off the edge.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls. Note how they were engineered, canted inwards to avoid workers carrying heavy grape-laden vintage baskets falling off the edge.

The lower section of the vineyard has sturdy dry stonewalls that have not required any particular attention, a testament to the skill of the hardy men who built them during the 18th century. These supporting walls are quite massive, the highest (3.5 metres/11.5 feet) and thickest (up to 1.5 metres/5 feet wide) at Malvedos. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Sibio stream close to where it flows into the Douro. These large terraces are relatively wide providing a spacious platform, which will each take between two and three rows of vines. The Symington family has chosen the grape varieties that will be planted on them in February 2014: the Sousão (on the lowest, more sheltered terraces bordering the gully) and the Touriga Franca slightly higher up. The family believes this is a prime site for the Franca as the south and west-facing aspect of the vineyard ensures plenty of exposure to the sun — ideal for the Franca.

Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: "Cheia 1909" ('cheia': flood). This will be placed in its original position.
Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: “Cheia 1909” (‘cheia’: flood). This will be repaired and placed back in its original position.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.

Higher up the slope there is a steeper gradient, which dictated the smaller size of the dry stone walls (shorter and narrower) when they were hand-built, over two centuries ago. These sustained more damage as a result of the fire and accordingly have required painstaking reconstruction, again all done by hand by skilled stonemasons — a vital breed of craftsmen in the Douro. Machinery has only been employed when larger rocks have had to be moved and repositioned. These smaller terraces will be replanted with Alicante Bouschet (just one row on each), a variety not widely seen in the Douro but one in which Charles Symington places great faith due to its generous colouring properties, good acidity and useful contribution to a wine’s structure.

Alexandre is satisfied with the progress of the rebuilding of the old dry stone terraced vineyard, although there is still quite a lot to do. He and Sr Arlindo have also had to turn their attention to the pruning of the vines; the activity which best represents the start of the new viticultural year. Pruning will be the focus of the work at Malvedos and at neighbouring Tua for the next two to three months. To put the importance and scale of this manual task into perspective, suffice it to say that approximately one-third of the annual labour costs of the estate is the winter pruning, one-third is harvest related and one-third are all the other vineyard costs.

One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent
One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent growth.

At Malvedos and Tua there is an experienced team of six people who do the manual pruning.  Each worker uses an electric secateur, which makes the job much easier on the hands, and much faster generally.  Their red vests contain a battery pack to power the secateurs, which are strong enough to cut through an old thick vine if need be. Another advantage of these secateurs is that they ensure an effective clean cut, precluding the need for additional corrective trimming. The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but also to select and trim down vine spurs (leaving two buds on each spur), which will become next year’s growth.

A row of pruned vines at Malvedos
A row of freshly pruned vines at Malvedos.
Spent leaves and canes left behind two rows of vines to await shredding.
Spent vine leaves and canes left behind between two rows of vines await shredding.

Vine pruning at Malvedos and Tua involves making three separate operations in all the vineyards.  First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the careful and very skilful manual job of pruning each and every vine, and then pulling off the remaining pieces caught in the trellis and leaving them on the ground.  Finally the third operation is the cane shredding, where a small estate tractor tows a device that breaks up and shreds the old canes lying on the ground.  This shredded plant fibre is left to break down and adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil. Nothing goes to waste at Malvedos.

Judging by the lush green of the cover crops carpeting each terrace (see image below), one could be misled into thinking that abundant rainfall has come down recently but nothing could be further from the truth; the weather station at Malvedos has recorded a paltry 2.6mm of rain for the month of November thus far, with the forecast indicating zero precipitation for the last few days of the month. November is normally a wet month at Malvedos — 69mm was recorded in 2012 and 85mm in 2011 (the mean for the Quinta is 67.5mm). This is in sharp contrast to the previous month’s 110mm (double the monthly average for October at Malvedos which stands at 55mm). Fingers crossed for a lot more rain over the winter; this is really needed to replenish the water reserves, which the soil humidity readings indicate as being at a five-year low.

BlogPost_TtS_Nov_11

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.