In this seventh video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the maturation studies carried out in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, which will guide us in determining the vintage starting date.
Maturation studies, which normally begin around mid-August, are of great importance in setting the vintage starting date and in preparing an optimum picking sequence, this being determined by the different maturation rates of each grape variety, as well as other influencing factors such as the vineyards’ location, altitude and climate. Carefully devised picking schedules ensure that the grapes are picked at their optimal point of ripeness.
Whilst nowadays, several advanced techniques are employed to assess berry ripeness, these do not replace frequent field sampling by our viticulturists and winemakers. In the vineyards they sample the berries for feel, taste and colour. As grapes ripen they become softer to the touch and taste sweeter, revealing the desirable accumulation of sugar as the grapes’ organic acids gradually diminish through the ripening period. They will also check for colour by squeezing berries in the palm of their hands to reveal the pigments on the skins and the appearance of the juice. The seeds or pips will also be checked for colour, as this is another reliable gauge of fruit ripeness; yellowish-green means unripe, whilst dark brown means ripening is on track.
To get the full picture of balanced fruit maturations it is important to also screen phenolic ripeness. The phenolic compounds, which include tannins and anthocyanins — the pigments responsible for colour — are a prerequisite for balanced and well structured wines with fresh aromatics. This year, when our maturation studies began on August 15th, it became apparent that phenolic ripeness was evolving very well whilst sugar readings were lagging behind. However, these have since caught up and we are looking at evenly balanced fruit maturation — a good augury for the forthcoming grape harvest.
In this sixth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at versaison in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos.
Veraison, known in the Douro as pintor — literally ‘painter’ — is the process by which the grapes gradually change colour — in the case of red varieties from a bright green to a reddish colour, and eventually to deep blue/violet. The berries start to lose chlorophyll and acquire red pigments in the skins, hence the change in colour. Veraison marks the transition from the vines’ growing cycle to the maturation and ripening stages where rapid berry growth takes place. The pintor begins in the Douro around the middle of July. From this point on the berries soften and their sugar content steadily increases whilst the concentration of organic acids declines. Aroma and flavour components also begin to accumulate in the fruit.
During the month of July, some further vine canopy management is often required and this involves shoot-topping, in other words trimming back the tips of the vine shoots, important on various counts: it helps to redirect the vines’ energy away from gaining further unnecessary shoot length and towards maturing the fruit instead; it results in a better aeration of the vine canopy thus ensuring healthier vines; it keeps the space between the vine rows clear for ease of passage — essential for keeping a constant check on the vines’ health.
In a series of video clips to be shown throughout the year we will be exploring the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the third of the videos, documents bud-break.
Bud-break marks the end of winter dormancy and the start of the vines’ new vegetative cycle.
With the arrival of spring, buds begin to sprout during March; the timing varies with each grape variety and air temperatures.
We thought that we were almost home and dry (literally) but following a welcome spell of three days in a row with no rain and quite a lot of sunshine, the rain put in an appearance again yesterday (Saturday). Thursday and Friday started off with crisp, sunny conditions, the maximum temperature reaching a balmy 28ºC on Friday and although yesterday was still quite warm (26ºC) the rain returned, dashing our hopes of a final stretch of harvesting under completely dry conditions. We were counting on no more rain in order to give the late ripening Touriga Franca a chance to dry off and ripen completely. Alas it was not to be.
On Thursday, as planned we started bringing in the Touriga Franca (TF), initially from Quinta do Tua and then from Malvedos as well. The first lagar of TF from Tua gave 12.5º Baumé, evidently reflecting some dilution resulting from the wet as well as humid conditions of the last week or so. Subsequent loads began to show improved Baumés of around 13 and 13.5º. In the vineyards our pickers have been quite selective and this has meant we have been receiving good fruit in the winery. Objectively however, we have to accept that the rain that arrived about halfway through our vintage here at Malvedos did have some adverse effects on the Touriga Franca. But we count ourselves lucky because we have faired much better than many other Quintas, particularly downriver from us.
Charles pointed out that Malvedos has had by far the least amount of rain of any of the vineyards owned by the Symington family and he can categorically say that the wines made so far (in particular before the Franca was harvested) here at Malvedos have been exceptionally good. The weather really has been totally unpredictable and the fact that Malvedos has had comparatively less rain is indicative of just how localized some storms have been. And then there’s rain and there’s rain…Charles explained that whereas at Malvedos and further upriver into the Douro Superior the rain has come mainly in the form of sudden concentrated downpours which run off quite easily down the vineyard slopes, the persistent rain in the lower Douro that has fallen on and off has created a situation of continuous humidity with inevitable results. In Charles’s opinion, this difference in the way the rain has come down in certain areas will almost certainly prove decisive in the outcome of this vintage.
Johnny Symington, one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors came by Malvedos on Wednesday on his whistle-stop tour of some of the family’s Douro wineries. Johnny tasted the newly made wines at each Quinta visited. He started at Vesuvio and wound his way down the valley to Senhora da Ribeira, Canais, Malvedos, Bomfim and ended up at Sol. He was accompanied by Paula Pontes, who was reviewing the telecommunication systems at the various adegas (wineries),ensuring the systems were functioning well and seeing what improvements can be made for the future.
Johnny was especially impressed with the excellence of the wines from Malvedos and from the Douro superior Quintas. Of exceptional note, were the Touriga Nacional wines, some of them fermented together with Sousão grapes (including some of the lots vinified at Malvedos). They were very impressive. “It is certainly a great Touriga Nacional year from what I have seen”, said Johnny.
Paula and Johnny joined Charles Symington, Henry Shotton and the winery teams from Malvedos and Tua for lunch in the Tua canteen. They seemed equally impressed with the excellence of the lunch. A healthy black bean stew with grilled pork, rice and plenty of vindima banter round the table. It was a welcome break during their whistle-stop tour. Johnny said it was magnificent to see the Bomfim lagar winery up and running and making some excellent wines. Again, it was two Touriga Nacional wines that won the day from this impressive new facility.
Finishing off at Sol, presented an opportunity to taste the Douro DOC wines the Symington family also produces. Pedro Correia tasted with Johnny three beautiful Vesuvio lots that show real potential. A quick visit to the Sol canteen (not to eat this time!) to see how the cooks, Filomena and Adelina, were coping with the 120 meals served at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day to the winery and administration teams. As usual, they were full of beans as were the extra-large cooking pots. The excellent aroma of the evening barbeque was proof enough that the old military adage “An army marches on its stomach” is equally applicable to the good functioning of a winery team.
Given the continuing atmospheric instability it was almost inevitable that the rain finally caught up with us at Quinta dos Malvedos, namely over the last two days with 12.4 mm recorded on Monday and 4.4 mm recorded yesterday. However, picking up from where we left off since the last post (on Saturday), the decision to halt harvesting on Sunday proved correct because just a light shower was felt (insufficient to record anything in our weather station) besides which it was one of the hottest days of the month thus far — the maximum temperature reaching 30.1ºC (86.18º Fahrenheit). This is precisely what was required to help dry the Touriga Nacional grapes still remaining on the vines at Malvedos and Tua. In the evening a Touriga Nacional lagar was run off (above right) and Henry was extremely pleased with the amazing colour of the must: “fantastic colour!!!”
As planned, picking was resumed first thing Monday morning (Touriga Nacional from Malvedos) and although it did rain, most of it came down during the night thus making life easier for our roga (grape pickers) in the vineyards. We had some visitors on Monday; the first was the “Spirit of Chartwell” (see above), the Royal barge in which the Queen and other members of the Royal Family sailed down the Thames for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in June 2012 — the highlight of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The vessel, which cruised by at half past seven in the morning, is now owned by a Portuguese company operating cruises along the Douro River carrying visitors from all around the world, attracted by the Douro’s magnificent scenery and wines.
The second visitor was Paul Symington, Graham’s Joint Managing Director, cousin of Charles, our head winemaker. Like Charles, Paul farms his own vineyard privately and he was interested to compare the grapes from his own Quinta with those being harvested at Malvedos. Henry showed Paul a selection of the recently made Ports and Paul was especially impressed with the wine made from a co-fermentation of Touriga Nacional (80%) and Sousão (20%). Henry agreed with him that this is a fine example of good balance in a wine; combining the vibrant aromas and compact fruit of the Touriga Nacional with the freshness provided by the characteristic acidity of the Sousão.
On Tuesday we started off again with overcast conditions with most of the day’s 4.4 mm falling between 11am and noon. During the afternoon the weather improved and scattered clouds allowed the sun to show itself again. Better to have the rain in more concentrated showers like this than spread out and falling persistently all through the day. This was in fact demonstrated — rain notwithstanding — by the very good quality of the (Touriga Nacional) grapes coming into the winery. The first trailer load of the day gave a reading of 14.2º Baumé and the last 14.65º. No dilution of the grapes here! Henry is well pleased by the excellent, deep purple colour displayed by the latest TN fermentations. Our research and development viticulturist, Fernando Alves, paid a visit during the afternoon just as this last load was coming into the winery and he was pleasantly surprised to see the grapes with such quality, despite the rain we’ve been having (see picture above left). Fernando commented that the fruit is still largely in fine condition. We shall see if we’re as lucky with the Touriga Franca which we hope to start picking from Thursday.
Wednesday, September 24th: Quite a chilly and overcast morning with mist hovering low over the Douro. Today we aim to conclude picking the remaining parcels of Touriga Nacional from Malvedos: block 70 (planted 2005); block 88 and block 97 (both planted in 2000). Later in the morning Rupert Symington, one of Graham’s Joint Managing Directors came round to the winery with a group of visitors from the United States, including a team from our US importer and distributor, Premium Port Wines.
Whilst some other areas of the Douro Valley have been visited by frequent showers over the last few days, at Malvedos we are into our third consecutive day with no rain at all. It is not infrequent for vineyards just 5 or 6 kilometres downriver or upriver from us to record downpours while this stretch of the valley remains largely dry. Still, we aren’t letting our guard down as the continuing unsettled conditions mean the winemaking team at the Quinta have to be prepared to change tack at a moment’s notice; nothing we aren’t used to.
Thursday September 18th: An uneventful day during which we continued picking the Tinta Roriz, biding our time and allowing the welcome sunshine to dry the valuable parcels of our Touriga Nacional grapes. We heard that in Porto, about 100 km to the west where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, the city had been deluged with showers all day long. It is fascinating to many of our overseas visitors how a country as small as Portugal can have such climatic variations, not just in terms of rainfall but air temperature as well. In our case this is easy to explain; between the humid Atlantic coastal plain to the west and the Douro wine country there is a mountain barrier running roughly north to south (1,415 metres/4,642 feet high), which effectively acts as a weather divide. Most of the rain transported by the prevailing westerlies tends to fall on these mountains (the Alvão/Marão/Montemuro ranges) resulting in gradually drier conditions on the lee side where the Douro wine region begins. At Vila Real, the regional capital on the sheltered side of the Marão range, average annual rainfall is 1,074 mm whilst at Malvedos it is virtually half that figure (624 mm). The distance between the two in a straight line is a mere 25 km (15.5 miles).
Friday September 19th: Another mainly sunny day and during the afternoon some more welcome wind, very useful in helping to dry things out. We moved on to picking the Tinta Barroca and after lunch, Charles, Alexandre and Henry walked around several vineyard parcels and were relieved to find the grapes remaining on the vines still in fine condition (thus far we have harvested 45% of the grapes from the Malvedos vineyard and 58% from neighbouring Tua). The decision to restart picking the Touriga Nacional was confirmed and harvesting should continue during Saturday. Back in the winery Charles decided to co-ferment in one lagar some Tinta Barroca (showing high Baumé readings) with Touriga Franca. Charles and Henry then tasted the recently made Port from the Stone Terraces parcels of ‘Port Arthur’ and ‘Cardenhos’ (harvested Monday morning). Their smiles of satisfaction mirrored the evident quality of the wine in the glass; very floral nose and intense concentration in the mouth.
Saturday September 20th: we awoke to a cool, fresh morning with clear blue skies and have therefore continued to bring the Touriga Nacional grapes into the winery. The first load of TN that came in this morning revealed a very satisfactory 14º Baumé. However to take maximum benefit from this spell of improved weather it has been decided to halt picking tomorrow to allow the remaining parcels of Touriga Nacional to fully ripen — the “compasso de espera”, as Alexandre put it, i.e., marking time. We’re in no hurry, what we want is to realize the grapes’ full potential to continue making the finest possible wines at Malvedos. The plan is to resume harvesting the Malvedos Touriga Nacional from Monday and on Tuesday to continue with this same variety but from Tua as well. Then on Wednesday the first Touriga Franca grapes (which show great promise) will be harvested at Tua.
Later in the morning we were visited by João Vasconcelos, Graham’s market manager for the UK, who brought along a party of visitors from the UK, including Nigel Barden, the Food and Wine BBC Radio 2 Presenter. Henry treated them to a tasting of the magnificent Stone Terraces Port and this had everybody asking questions as to what the future prospects for this wine might be. The quality really is very good but it’s early days yet.
Over the last couple of days it’s been a little like playing cat and mouse with the weather on account of the erratic atmospheric conditions which leave Charles, Henry and the rest of the team here at Malvedos constantly guessing as to how best to proceed. Each evening Charles and Henry consult the weather forecast and then pour over the picking schedules which have to be constantly updated with additional input from our viticulture team. This constant vigilance and preparedness to alter the picking sequence at short notice is very much part of the philosophy which ensures that we are able to circumvent most of the unpredictable situations the weather sends our way.
On Monday evening Charles did indeed determine a new picking schedule which meant switching from the Touriga Nacional, due to have been picked from early Tuesday morning, to the remainder of the old mixed vines from the Síbio sections of Malvedos. This will allow the Touriga Nacional to dry off thoroughly (we hope) and to be picked in ideal conditions two or three days from now. To help keep Henry and his team on their toes the winery reception area scales decided to malfunction (probably due to the rain) but luckily we can use the scales at nearby Tua; an inconvenience but little more than that.
Today, Wednesday the 17th started off overcast but the rain (another fifteen minute shower) only arrived in the afternoon at about 3pm. Charles popped by the winery in the morning to take a first look at some of the recently made Ports and then confirmed the picking order for the day: old mixed vineyards from Síbio and the first Tinta Roriz grapes from block 17. By the end of the day we will have concluded harvesting the old mixed vines and henceforward, besides the Tinta Roriz we will be starting on the Tinta Barroca.
Later in the afternoon Henry, who is an aspiring Master of Wine, was visited at the winery by a recently qualified Master of Wine, Cees van Casteren (see photo on the left) — just the second person from the Netherlands to achieve the world’s most prestigious wine title (bringing the total number of MWs in the world to 301, from 24 countries). Cees is a well known author writing on wine and food and is also a noted wine educator in his home country. Cees was fascinated with the recently vinified lagares of Sousão and Touriga Nacional (both from the neighbouring Tua vineyard).
During the first half of September, 15 mm of rain has fallen at Malvedos, less than half of the monthly mean for the Quinta (33.4 mm). Most of this precipitation has taken the form of brief ten to fifteen minute showers, usually followed by some welcome wind which helps to quickly dry the grape bunches on the vines. Thus far then nothing to worry too much about especially as the forecast for the next few days indicates mainly dry conditions with the odd light shower and pleasant mild conditions with temperatures in the 20ºC to 25ºC range which is what is needed to help keep the grapes dry and to conclude the final stretch of ripening (particularly important for the late ripening Touriga Franca).
Early this morning our team of grape pickers (the roga) set to work picking by hand two of the most prized vineyard parcels at Quinta dos Malvedos; parcel 43 known as ‘Port Arthur’ (predominantly east but also south facing) and the Vinha dos Cardenhos, directly behind the Quinta house, facing north. These varying aspects are one of the principal differentiating factors of these tiny parcels as the majority of the Malvedos vineyard is south facing. Between them these vineyards barely add up to two hectares (with just 2,708 vines). The other most noticeable feature of these two small vineyards is that they are made up of traditional stone terraces built by hand in the 18th century.
Charles and Henry decided yesterday during one of their daily evening meetings at the Malvedos Winery to bring forward by a few days the picking of these two vineyards. The grapes, which are primarily Touriga Nacional but also other mixed varieties were already showing excellent ripeness and given the unpredictable weather, Charles didn’t want to take unnecessary risks by delaying harvesting any further. His decision proved a timely one because just as the last grapes were received safely inside the winery at noon the heavens opened and a generous albeit brief shower came down over the Quinta. Soon after, the cloud cover swiftly broke up and the sunshine returned.
The Port wines made from these terraces have always been prized at the Quinta for their unique characteristics; the Port Arthur vineyard gets the full impact of the morning sun (primarily facing east) and the high stone walls become very warm. During the afternoon the sun no longer shines directly on the vines, but the schist walls radiate heat back onto each single row of vines, even during the night, ensuring a beautifully balanced ripening of the grapes. In the Vinha dos Cardenhos, the powerful July and August Douro sun is attenuated by its northerly aspect. Consequently, the wines made from these two vineyards are markedly different to those made on the remaining 87 hectares of Malvedos vineyards that mostly face south.
In 2011, the Symington family resolved to pick both vineyards at the same time and ferment the grapes together in one lagar. From this wine an exceptional Vintage Port was made for the first time: Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2011 Vintage Port. This Port of which only 250 cases (3,000 bottles) were released received outstanding reviews all around the world. Charles, Henry and the rest of the team are hopeful that 2014 will again deliver exceptional quality wines and judging by the potential of the grapes coming into the winery thus far, their hopes could well be borne out.
The grapes received at the winery from both the Cardenhos parcel and the Port Arthur parcel were in very fine condition; small, well ripened compact bunches. Grapes from the Cardenhos parcel gave a Baumé reading of 14.5º (comparable to the 14.8º of the grapes harvested in 2011) whilst those from Port Arthur delivered a Baumé of 14.75º (a tad higher than the 14.10º recorded in 2011).
From Henry’s winery log: WEEKEND of 13th/14th September 2014 (day 3 and 4 of the harvest) .
Saturday September 13th:
First Lagar of this vintage (old mixed varieties from Síbio) being run off this morning with great colour! See below photo which registers the moment.
Nelson says “repara nesta cor brutal!” (something like: “check out this awesome colour!!”) as he referred to a sample from the first lagar of Sousão grapes harvested at Quinta do Tua. Henry’s comment on this same Sousão: “Excellent colour and vibrant and fresh aromatics!
This evening started treading the first Touriga Nacional that came in from Tua (Baumé: 14.4º).
Sunday September 14th:
07:00 continued picking TN from Tua under blue skies with some white cloud and no wind. Less people in the roga because it’s Sunday (it’s the same every year).
14:30 Clouding over.
15:24 Henry recoreds: “Rain has begun; it’s like a grey blanket creeping up the river” (see picture below). Luckily it was just a 15 minute shower which was followed by some useful wind: helps to dry the grapes swiftly pre-empting any adverse effect from the rain. Arlindo later reported that the Quinta weather station recorded just 0.9 mm, so nothing of any consequence.
17:25 the sun returned.
Charles was here – see photo – and we discussed picking using the map – and unless the weather takes a turn for the worse the next two days we will be picking TN from Malvedos – including the Stone Terraces tomorrow morning.
The first day of the harvest at Malvedos on Thursday was entirely devoted to picking the old mixed vineyard parcels in the Síbio section of Malvedos. The first lagar was filled by the end of that afternoon and treading commenced during the evening. Henry is pleased with the colour this lagar has shown during fermentation.
Yesterday the winery received the first Sousão grapes of this harvest, all from our neighbouring vineyard of Tua which has 4 hectares planted with this variety. Quinta do Tua is just a stone’s throw upriver from Malvedos, the two vineyards separated by the Tua River where it flows into the Douro. We have also planted Sousão here at Malvedos but the vines are still too young (planted in 2013 and some planted on the reconstructed stone terraces earlier this year).
Henry is well pleased with the Sousão coming into the winery; the berries are in fine condition and the Baumé readings registered a perfect 14.4º. As the lagar filled during the day Henry and his team enthused over the excellent colour the Sousão is displaying. Just two weeks ago during the maturation studies done in the vineyard, Alexandre Mariz, Graham’s viticulturist, was pointing out how good the Sousão was looking this year (see above introductory image over the title of this post showing Sousão vines at Quinta do Tua in late August). The Sousão can be susceptible to excessive heat and it has been favoured this year by the relatively cool summer we have experienced thus far.
Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker is an advocate of the Sousão, a variety somewhat forgotten by many growers in the Douro but which is now slowly making a comeback. It is proving an important component in making Graham’s wines, principally due to its good levels of acidity and its deep colouring properties (the first Sousão lagar in the winery is showing just that).
Charles and Henry were conferring in the winery Friday evening and a change to the picking order was decided for the next few days: Touriga Nacional will be picked from Tua through today (Saturday) and Sunday and then we will start on the first parcels of Touriga Nacional from Malvedos on Monday. Blue skies continue overhead with the odd wisp of white cloud and it is very warm and sunny, exactly what is required.
It’s day 1 of the 2014 harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos and we’re beginning a few days later than we had originally planned. Still, this year the vintage is starting almost two weeks earlier than last year. Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker had set Monday September 8th as the starting date for the vintage but some rain came down over the weekend and although there wasn’t very much of it (4 mm at Malvedos and 6 mm at nearby Quinta do Tua) he opted to be cautious as atmospheric conditions were a little unstable and it was decided to bide our time. Fortunately no further rain has come down and Charles and his team are keeping their fingers crossed for dry weather so that the later ripening varieties can realize their full potential. As previously reported many of the grape varieties have been developing very well and the winemaking team at Malvedos is hoping for a very good year.
This morning the 25 grape pickers were up bright and early at 7:00 am to begin picking the first grapes from the Síbio vineyard at the western edge of Quinta dos Malvedos which is almost entirely made up of old mixed vines (40 years+), one of the predominant grape varieties in the mix being the Tinta Roriz. The grape picking team or roga is drawn as is traditional from the surrounding hamlets and villages of São Mamede de Riba Tua, Carlão, Tua and Alijó. Some of the faces are very familiar — not surprisingly as many of them have worked the vintage here as pickers for several decades. At around 9:00 am Arlindo, the Malvedos vineyard manager took them their breakfast which they were able to enjoy amongst the vines under clear skies.
Shortly after breakfast the first trailer load of grapes was hauled by one of the Quinta’s small tractors to the winery where the (approximately) 1,500 Kg of grapes were sorted by hand, de-stemmed, crushed and conveyed into the first lagar. It will take another 6 or 7 trailer loads to fill the lagar which will start treading the grapes later today. First Baumé readings are encouraging at 13.55º.
Henry Shotton, the winemaker at Malvedos who works under the direction of head winemaker Charles Symington and in close cooperation with Graham viticulturists, Pedro Leal da Costa and Alexandre Mariz is in his 15th harvest at Malvedos; an experienced pair of hands who has a seven strong team to help him in the relentless round the clock activity which will only cease once the last grape is picked at Malvedos and nearby Tua, between three and four weeks from now.
Rupert Symington welcomed the first overseas guests during this harvest and the visitors from Texas (D&E Fine Wine) and Louisiana were thrilled to witness the first day of the vintage at Malvedos. They were given a Graham’s Six Grapes component tasting and were in awe of the captivating mountain vineyard scenery which is the home of this Port so appreciated by their countrymen.