Vinescout is a self-propelled, electrically powered vineyard monitoring robot under development by a four-nation pan-European consortium of which Symington Family Estates is one of the partners (see previous blog post on the subject: September 11th, 2017). The three-year project (2016 – 2019) is working to develop an autonomous vineyard robot that can aid wine producers in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and plant vigour.
Current vineyard data gathering techniques have a number of limitations; they are expensive, require trained personnel, are very time-consuming and often only deliver an incomplete picture because the sampling rates are necessarily low, largely due to the afore-mentioned reasons. This precludes the viticulturist’s and winemaker’s access to comprehensive and reliable information during the growing and ripening cycles of the vine, on a regular basis and in real time. Consequently, most producers are denied the opportunity to use data that could help them fully optimise their vineyard management, and ultimately influence the quality of the wine they produce.
As the end-user member of the VineScout project, Symington Family Estates hosts in its Douro Valley vineyards the intensive schedule of vineyard trials, first begun in the summer of 2017 – Year 1 of the project — and which are now continuing in the summer of 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde, where the second prototype of the VineScout is being put through its paces. With the valuable learnings taken from last year’s field testing, the various stakeholders worked intensively towards the production of a second prototype, which incorporates a series of advances relative to the first prototype.
The much streamlined and perfected second VineScout prototype has been performing exceptionally well. The mapping sensors have been fine-tuned and their enhanced capabilities have become apparent during the trials. The autonomous navigation system, for instance, has been much improved meaning the vehicle can move faster through a row of vines whilst maintaining the same data-collection capability. The practical knock-on effect, of course, is that the robot can map a given vineyard area faster and thus collect more data, over more extensive areas in a given period of time.
A further field trial session is scheduled for the end of August. Following that, it will be up to the two Spanish Universities, the French robot systems manufacturer and the British software company to further perfect VineScout to produce a third and final prototype for final field trials during the summer of 2019. This version will be very close to a full series-production version, which can hopefully be made available to wine producers in the medium-term future.
Each year on the 22nd of May, the United Nations marks the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. This was the day that in 1992 the UN General Assembly adopted the Agreed Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Over the last few decades, the Symington family has been one of the most active proponents of nature conservation in the Douro Valley, having implemented across its vineyards sustainable viticulture management, either through organic viticulture or Integrated Crop Management. The family take great encouragement from the fact that over the years — in great part as a result of their ambitious programme — there has been a noticeable increase in the diversity of flora and fauna in their properties. One of the most visible examples of this reality is the great variety of birdlife to be seen in many of the family’s Quintas in the Douro.
Recently, the family, through its cooperation with the University of Porto’s Research Centre for Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO), hosted Joel Sartore, the award-winning National Geographic wildlife photographer. His ‘Photo Ark’ project has taken him to over 40 countries since 2005 in a quest to catalogue photographically 12,000 animal species under threat or close to extinction. As the title of his book suggests, the Photo Ark is: “One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals.” The CIBIO cooperates closely with Joel and during his recent passage through Portugal they approached the family with a request to provide logistical support for Joel’s work schedule in Portugal. As a result, for two days in April 2018, Joel Sartore and the Porto University researchers and biologists were based at Quinta dos Malvedos in the heart of the Upper Douro to photograph endangered species.
The choice of this vineyard, specifically, was not by chance. The University researchers have identified Quinta dos Malvedos and the family’s neighbouring Quinta do Tua as one of the last havens in Portugal (if not the last) of the Black Wheatear, the so called “Port Wine Bird”, known locally as the chasco-preto (Oenanthe leucura). Following a great deal of effort searching for this shy, elusive bird, the university researchers managed to temporarily capture a specimen which Joel duly captured with his camera. They found the bird in the Quinta’s ancient stone terraced vineyards, which according to the Malvedos farm manager is the bird’s preferred habitat on the property.
Another very rare species, a Desman (small semiaquatic nocturnal mammal) was captured in a local stream and also photographed by Joel. He was very excited about this particular extremely rare animal as it marked the 8,000th species ‘captured’ by the Photo Ark. Joel thinks it may well be a future National Geographic Magazine cover and/or feature. Click here to view Joel’s interview, given to Portuguese television at Malvedos.
Earlier this week, the President and the Prime Minister of Portugal joined the French President in Paris and then in Richebourg, in French Flanders, to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Lys where the Portuguese Expeditionary Force was attacked by German forces — five times their number. The presidents of both nations laid wreaths during a ceremony at the Portuguese National Cemetery, Richebourg, in memory of the thousands of Portuguese soldiers who lost their lives.
In 1918, Maurice Symington was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, British Army, which he had joined on leaving school in August 1914. Being fluent in Portuguese, he was part of the British Mission to the 55,000 strong ‘Corpo Expedicionário Português’, the Portuguese Expeditionary Force that had joined the Allies in France in 1917.
On 9th of April 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Symington was with the Portuguese Artillery in France just behind the trenches between Armentieres and Festubert when the German Army launched one of the most powerful attacks of the war. Eight German Divisions amounting to some 100,000 men attacked 20,000 Portuguese. After heroic resistance, the Portuguese were overrun and the neighbouring 119th Brigade of the British 40th Division was also forced back. Total casualties on the Allied side during the battle of La Lys (7th-29th April 2018) were truly horrendous at circa 120,000 men.
This is an extract from the diary of 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Maurice Symington for Tuesday 9th April 1918, while fighting with the Corpo Expedicionário Português in France:
‘Woke at 4 am by salvo round house. Tremendous bombardment everywhere. SOS from everywhere. All lines cut. Shells falling about 10 a minute. This continued till 9, when the Boche attacked and after that till 2.15pm when the barrage finally lifted. Machine guns active all around us and behind in two points. Decided to retire at 2.45pm. Only just escaped in time. Went to Lestrem, but found nobody there. Finally got to Calonne sur-la-Lys. My clothes consisted of pyjamas, gum boots, breeches and my British Warm [Greatcoat warn by British Army Officers]. Also pistol & box of cigarettes. ‘If’, my dog, stuck to me and got through. Don’t know how we weren’t all killed. Worst thing I have ever been through in my life.’
Maurice Symington was lucky to be one of the survivors, and eventually returned to Portugal after the war ended in November 1918, together with his faithful dog ‘If’. He was subsequently awarded the Portuguese Ordem Militar de Avis and was Mentioned in Despatches by the British Army for ‘Gallant and distinguished service in the field’ in a certificate signed by Winston Churchill, then Secretary of War in the British Government.
Maurice joined his father as a Port producer in Portugal in late 1918, where his descendants today continue the long family tradition. He eventually died in April 1974, in the same room that he had been born in at N˚1283 Avenida de Boavista, Porto, Portugal. His father, Andrew James Symington, was a Port producer who had come to Portugal from Scotland aged 18 in 1882. His mother was Beatriz Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson from an Anglo-Portuguese family who had been Port producers since the 17th century.
The Symington family is pleased to announce our decision to declare 2016 as a Vintage Port year. This is only the fourth Vintage declaration for all our Port companies since 2000 and the first since the magnificent 2011’s. Few wine regions anywhere restrict Vintage Years with such meticulous care and only truly exceptional Ports are declared in this way.
The 2015/16 winter was wetter than average, which provided a vital counterbalance to the hot Douro summer. Damp weather continued into May, which caused considerable fruit loss to the unwary. From June, normal service was resumed, and August was very warm although some welcome rain fell on the 24th and 26th. More heat ushered in September, and some started picking although it was clear to those who were properly monitoring their vines that the grapes were not ready. Furthermore, the long-range forecast predicted showers and sure enough invaluable rain fell on the 12th and 13th September.
This was the year to read the signs and to take risks; Charles Symington, head winemaker, delayed harvesting until the 19th September and the best Touriga Nacional was not harvested until the 26th, and the late-ripening Touriga Franca only during the first ten days of October. The greatest 2016 Symington Ports were made during this later period under lovely blue skies. It is not easy in our incredibly diverse region to pick grapes at exactly the right time, especially when yields are amongst the lowest in the world at 26 hectolitres/ha, with high risk of dehydration and when many producers rely on bought grapes and are therefore dependent on farmers for picking. All the 2016 Symington Vintage Ports are made from our own Quinta vineyards where Charles and his viticulture team can be seen every day tasting and analysing grapes throughout August and September. All our Vintage Ports were made in our five small lagar wineries, using the classic treading method for great Port.
The 2016 Vintage Ports are exceptional with tannins that are amongst the most refined ever, supporting beautiful red-fruit flavours with extraordinary intense, purple colour. They have impressive structure and balance, with Baumés, acidity, tannins and colour in rare and perfect alignment. This is no doubt a result of the later ripening cycle which allowed our grapes to mature evenly and completely. Production of each of our 2016 Vintage Ports is approximately 1/5th below our previous declared Vintage following rigorous selection in the tasting room.
In December 2017, Symington Family Estates and the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real signed an agreement establishing the Symington Scholarships, which will support aspiring students wishing to pursue studies at the university, namely in the Oenology and Agricultural Engineering degree courses. Over the last 30 years, the university, located in the Douro’s regional capital, has trained new generations of winemakers who have made and continue to make a vital contribution to the growing reputation of Douro wines, both dry and fortified.
Starting with the 2018/2019 academic year, two scholarships will be granted annually to cover the full tuition fees of two undergraduate students for the duration of their three-year courses. The selection process will be conducted by UTAD and the criteria will be as follows:
Candidates must be natives of or reside within the Douro Demarcated Region.
One student whose family lack the necessary financial resources to fund university education.
One student with proven academic excellence wishing to pursue his/her studies at university level.
Each year, two students will be supported and therefore within three years there will be six students benefiting from these scholarships. This support scheme will run for at least three years and will be automatically extended for similar time periods.
Symington Family Estates counts amongst its staff numerous holders of degrees in both Oenology and Agricultural Engineering from UTAD, many of whom occupy senior positions in the company in areas as varied as winemaking, viticulture, research and development, environmental certification/quality assurance, sales and wine tourism.
Symington Family Estates has a very significant presence in the Douro region where it owns and farms 1,024 hectares of vineyards spread across 26 different properties which are at the heart of the award-winning wines the company produces. Two-fifths of the company’s 500 employees live and work in the Douro and the company is thus a major contributor to the local economy, both in terms of providing a livelihood for many families and through the annual purchase of grapes from several thousand growers.
The Symington family values its social, environmental and cultural commitment to the region and over the last decade significant support has been granted to wildlife conservation through the annual support grant given to the Wildlife Rescue Centre, which operates within UTAD’s Veterinary Hospital. The centre is dedicated to nursing back to health hundreds of injured birds of prey (as well as other animals) and is recognized as one of the finest of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. Furthermore, the well-being of local communities is also of importance to the family through the annual donation of an ambulance to local fire brigades. To date, ten ambulances have been donated to the local fire services who are often the first responders in emergency situations to isolated rural populations.
On Saturday, November 25th Symington Family Estates presented, in the name of all its employees, a new ambulance to the Sabrosa Volunteer Fire Brigade in recognition of the vital services they offer to the local community in this rural area of the Upper Douro Valley. Since 2007, this is the 10th ambulance donated by the Symington family to fire services in the Douro region.
Symington Family Estates own 1,024 hectares of vineyards in the Douro and of its near 500 employees, 40% live and work in the region. Besides providing a livelihood for many families, Symington is a major contributor to the local economy, annually purchasing grapes from several thousand growers, as well as other goods and services essential to the smooth running of its operations in the Douro.
Present at the handover ceremony in representation of the company were Paul Symington, several other company directors as well as the head of Symington Viticulture, Pedro Leal da Costa and Sr. Américo, the farm manager of Quinta da Cavadinha, which is just a few kilometres from Sabrosa.
This year’s terrible wildfires throughout Portugal, which tragically claimed over 100 lives have again demonstrated the selfless dedication and courage of the nation’s firefighters who besides combatting forest fires, provide local communities with vital emergency medical coverage.
This has been a very dry and warm year in the Douro. From December 2016 onwards, every month had substantially below average rainfall apart from a 30-mm downpour and some localised hail on the afternoon of 6th July. This rain increased the year’s figures, but was of minimal benefit as most simply ran off the vineyards in torrents, causing some damage to terraces. Lots of our valuable soil ended up in the Douro river, which flowed golden-brown for a few days.
Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão recorded just 302 mm of rain in the 11 months from 1st November 2016. This is exactly 50% below average. Considering that grape yields in the Douro’s mountain vineyards are 4,300 kg/hectare (compared to 10,200 kg/ha in Italy and 13,300 kg/ha in Chile) the drought conditions we experienced this year were always going to be challenging. It is difficult to farm these steep hillsides. Even in years with good weather conditions, production in the Douro is low. A year of drought and heat like 2017 really reinforces quite how challenging our growing conditions are.
A dry and relatively warm winter was followed by the three crucial spring months – March, April and May – that were cumulatively 2.6˚C warmer than average and equally dry. The only surprising interlude was a cold spell during the last 10 days of March that on the 23rd brought a rare snowfall and localised frost. April was the driest since records began in 1931 and delivered an absurdly low 2.6mm of rain.
Bud-break began between 8th and 10th March, a week earlier than average and the vine development advanced at an even faster pace, with flowering taking place between 4th and 5th May, two weeks earlier than normal. It was apparent from June that our vines were adapting to the dry conditions, with limited shoot and leaf growth. They seem to have an extraordinary ability to know when it is better not to be exuberant.
June was the hottest since 1980, with a heatwave between the 7th and 24th and temperatures reaching 43˚C in the Douro Superior. Pintor (veraison) occurred at Bomfim on June 22nd, two weeks ahead of average. July was equally hot and dry, but thankfully August was more moderate with relatively cool nights, bringing a welcome respite in the final phase of ripening.
By early August it was clear that this was going to be an early vintage and that the prolonged drought would not be relieved by any late summer rain. The forecast for the weekend of the 26th & 27th did predict rain, but only a modest 4mm fell at Quinta do Vesúvio and an even more modest 2 mm at Bomfim. Maturation was so advanced in most vineyards by this stage that the rain was of little benefit.
In order to prepare for the harvest, Charles Symington had to call his winemaking team back from their summer holidays – a measure of how advanced this year’s cycle has been. Picking for our white wines started on 23rd August and for our reds on the 28th, 10 days earlier than any previous date recorded. The vines were showing signs of stress from dehydration and graduations inevitably were high.
A year like this brings the diversity of the Douro into sharp focus; the south and westerly facing vineyards suffered from the long hours of afternoon sun, whilst those above 300 metres had an altitude advantage with cooler temperatures. There was a contrast between the younger vines that struggled with less-developed root systems and the older vines that hardly seemed to notice the drought. The former were shedding their lower leaves by mid-August, a sign of vines going into survival mode. Their older cousins soldiered on with fine dark green leaves but few berries on each vine. Barroca is a variety that does not like drought and yields were very low at under 500 grams per vine on some plots, but Roriz performed remarkably well, as did the Douro’s great classic; Touriga Nacional. Touriga Franca, always a late-ripener, was exceptionally good and thrived this year.
Expectations were not high, but confidence grew by the day as the Douro wines and Ports showed surprisingly good colour and aromas. The weather stayed perfectly serene throughout with clear skies and crucially, with cool nights during the last three weeks of September. Such harvesting weather is of huge value to the ripe and fragile fruit.
The Douro is one of the world’s lowest yielding wine regions, and this year’s drought reduced production even further. Some of our vineyards produced 35% less than normal and the average is likely to be less than 940 grams per vine.
While visitors enjoy the traditional aspects of the Douro, in reality this was a year for using the best of modern technology in some areas. With raisining being the inevitable consequence of such a year, our Bucher Vaslin Oscillys de-stemmer machines, installed at five of our estate wineries, performed superbly. These de-stemmers operate without beater shafts or centrifugal force and use a swinging motion to separate grapes from the stems and gently reject damaged berries without damaging the grapes that pass through for fermentation.
There was a serious labour shortage in the Douro this year. This was partly due to the very early harvest but also because of the tourism boom in Portugal that has drawn people away from agricultural work. It is proving to be increasingly difficult to find pickers and this has become a serious problem as the grapes need to be harvested when they are ready. The Douro is waking up to reality; no other major European wine region is entirely picked by hand.
We finished harvesting our vineyards on 26th September, often the starting date of previous vintages. This has been a remarkable year but it is unlikely to be a one-off; there are clear indications that our future will increasingly be defined by climate change with higher temperatures and less rain. The Douro will need to adapt if it is to continue to make great wines and Ports from this, the largest area of mountain vineyards on earth.
Now that the dust has literally settled (the first rain for many months has just fallen) on our earliest ever harvest, we are pleased to see that some very good Douro wines have been made, particularly the red wines with gorgeous colour and concentration, and the Ports are also promising with purple-black colours and intense flavours.
In December 2016, the Spanish Universities of Valencia and La Rioja, Wall-YE Robots & Software of France, Sundance Multiprocessor Technologies of the UK and Symington Family Estates formed a consortium to develop a vineyard robot. The three-year project (2016 – 2019) aims to design a vineyard monitoring robot that can aid wine producers throughout Europe in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and variations in plant vigour.
Existing vineyard data collection methods have many constraints because they are time-consuming, require skilled field operators and the use of expensive equipment and only deliver reduced sampling rates that are statistically insufficient and therefore do not accurately map the status and variability of a given vineyard. It is because of these limitations that most producers simply do not employ vineyard mapping, thus foregoing valuable data that could improve their vineyard management and ultimately influence the quality of their wine. It is this capability gap that VineScout will bridge by providing accurate, comprehensive and swift on-the-go data gathering. Furthermore, VineScout operates autonomously using GPS guidance and fitted sensors which allow it to navigate between rows of vines without a human operator. The collected data can be rapidly processed, providing the vineyard manager with valuable information that can be interpreted in real time, allowing for assessments of — and timely interventions in — the vineyard.
An overriding objective of the project is that VineScout must have a low carbon footprint. The robot is powered by electric batteries whilst the onboard sensors and other software are powered by energy generated by solar panels fitted to the vehicle. This solar energy can also further charge the batteries which propel the robot, whilst on the move, providing VineScout with additional range in the field. Furthermore, VineScout’s construction favours light and recyclable materials.
The VineScout prototype was field-trialled in the Grape Variety Research Vineyard at Quinta do Ataíde during the last week of August. The three-day trials included an open day, ‘Agronomy Day’, in which other wine producers from the Douro as well as universities, tech start-ups, and research institutes saw VineScout in operation. The open day included an end-user focused round table discussion to exchange ideas and review lessons learned. Professor Francisco Rovira-Más of the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, the consortium project coordinator and an expert in robotics and agricultural engineering, and Fernando Alves, the Symington Viticulture R&D manager, were delighted with the outcome of the field trials and with the participation at the seminars. They regarded the participants’ input as providing a valuable contribution to the project’s advancement.
VineScout is funded by the European Union H2020 ‘Fast Track to Innovation Pilot’ with the objective of developing a robot that is affordable, reliable and user-friendly. European Union funding accounts for €1.7 million of the total €2 million investment.
Symington Family Estates was invited to participate in this innovative project in April 2016 at the ClimWine 2016 International Symposium held in Bordeaux and which addressed the topic of “Sustainable Grape and Wine Production in the Context of Climate Change”. A presentation delivered at the symposium by the Symington Viticulture Research and Development Manager caught the attention of attending representatives from the University of La Rioja — one of the consortium members — and subsequently led to an invitation for Symington Family Estates to become the end-user member of the VineScout project. Symington Family Estates reputation in the field of viticultural and winemaking research and development in the Douro region, as well as its proven record as a leading producer of both Port and Douro wines, was also instrumental in it being invited to become the end-user partner in the VineScout consortium.
Further field tests have been programmed for 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde and at Quinta do Bomfim, during June, July, and August. VineScout is a logical evolution of the Vine Robot experimental project which ran from 2013 to 2017 and which has provided the succeeding VineScout project with a solid grounding and a useful springboard to fully develop a successful vine monitoring robot.
The unprecedented early start to the Douro vintage, being at least a week earlier than the earliest we have ever started and in some cases nearly three weeks, has certainly been the right decision.
In the majority of the quintas, we are picking grapes with good graduations and good phenolic ripeness, lagares looking very promising in terms of colour and structure, although still early to assess aromas. We have picked most of the earlier ripening varieties: Barroca, Alicante-Bouschet, Sousão and Tinta Roriz. We have picked some Touriga Nacional and through this week we will be picking this variety at most quintas. This means it is likely that during the week of the 11th we will be picking mostly the Touriga Franca and that during the week of the 18th the vintage at our quintas will be largely concluded. We will in fact be finishing at many quintas on dates that would not be unusual to be starting!
Clearly the vintage in the Douro Superior is very much reduced due to the very low levels of rainfall throughout the year. It has not rained at riverside quintas in the Douro Superior since May. Last week we had an insignificant 2mm at Vesuvio and Senhora da Ribeira and not a single drop at Canais, Malvedos or Bomfim. Meanwhile there is no suggestion of rain forecast until the end of the month — not to mention maximum temperatures of 30-34ºC all through this week! So just as well we didn’t wait….
It is likely that the Douro Superior letter ‘A’ areas will produce 40% below average and that the Cima Corgo letter ‘A’ some 25% below average. The letter ‘B’ and ‘C’ areas and the Baixo Corgo are likely to have a normal or above average size vintage, it being likely that overall the region will have an average to just below average size vintage. What gives us some pause for thought is the fact that the yield of Kg to litres is very low, some 20% below-average.
After successive months of unusually hot and dry weather and the rapid maturation of the vines, the earliest vintage in living memory is about to begin in Symington Family Estates’ Douro vineyards.
2017 saw the hottest June since 1980, a trend that continued into July and August, which have had well above average temperatures and rainfall 33 (Douro Superior) – 46%(Cima Corgo) down on usual levels. As such, veraison occurred 10-15 days earlier than usual and currently baumés are high and phenolics are advanced in line with the viticultural cycle.
Although early to predict, structure and concentration are likely to be the main virtues of this unconventional early vintage in the Douro.