2009 Douro Harvest Report

The wrought iron gate at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Andrew May

This has been a challenging year for the people of the Douro and the vines that they cultivate. Three dry years in succession in a region such as ours complicates the already difficult task of farming mountain vineyards. By the end of September only 285 mm of rain had fallen at Quinta do Bomfim, 40% less than normal. Many neighbouring villages have been with little water, sustained only by tanker deliveries from the volunteer fire brigade. Peoples’ wells and springs were giving the merest trickle of water and the Douro dust was thick on all our farm tracks and covered our vehicles. At Vesuvio the young Touriga Franca that was planted in March had to be watered by hand five times. The Douro is not an easy place to farm.

But this was not like 2005, a year when drought and heat combined to assail our vines. June gave 39.6 mm of rain and this was enough humidity for the vines to face the summer and they were in good shape with enough leaf growth for bunch shade. The Douro is perhaps the most diverse wine region on earth. It is nearly 100 km long and an average of 25 kms wide with a very wide range of terroirs. Some vineyards are at the river’s edge at 90 metres and others are high up the valley at 450 metres, temperatures, ripeness, aspect and sun exposure vary widely. It is impossible to give an assessment that will characterise the whole Douro in a year such as this.

The low-lying vineyards that face south in the Douro Superior above the Valeira dam did suffer this year, it could not be any other way. The classic Douro heat came on the 12th August, having been quite cool till then. On the 13th the temperature reached 40° C and it stayed in the high 30’s for several days. On the 9th and 10th September, we again had hot weather with temperatures nearly touching 40°C, after which there was a gradual cooling.

It was quite strange; we had our vintage gear ready for the cool nights and we warned friends due to visit that they might need coats but they needed hats. It became apparent that the thin-skinned Barroca in some low south facing locations had suffered from dehydration. Baumés were high and with the warm weather there was pressure to start picking. Our viticultural team, who take their holidays in July, had been at work for weeks in the vineyards carefully measuring the evolution of the berries while most people were in the Algarve. Our team knew that the phenolic ripeness was not there yet. Green stalks and un-ripe tannins in the pips are not a good recipe for great Ports and wines even if the Baumé’s were high. So despite knowing that we were losing berry weight, we held off while a few hot-heads rushed to pick.

Nevertheless it was an early vintage and we started picking at Quinta do Vesuvio, Telhada, Vale Coelho and Senhora de Ribeira on the 7th September and at Malvedos on the 14th. Bomfim followed on the 17th and Cavadinha on the 20th. This is about a week earlier than the average. There was absolutely no sign of any rot in the berries and unless heat-affected, the bunches were in excellent condition and gave good concentrated colour and aromas. Cooling the musts was required on many days.

Yields were substantially down, by about a third in my family’s vineyards. In the whole region the reduction will not be as large as the Lower Douro (Baixo Corgo) is considerably wetter, with richer soils. The reduction in yields was due to the low rainfall and to rigorous selection on the sorting tables, so good wines will emerge. In some vineyards we had our teams picking into different coloured boxes, one for the first quality fruit and another for the de-hydrated bunches. Each contour on the hillside gave a different quality.

Our challenging geography and our well-adapted grape varieties played decisively in our favour and fine Ports and wines were made from particular vineyards in some areas of the Douro. Barroca at about 450 metres was really excellent and enjoyed the dry weather at this altitude. Touriga Nacional had a great year in most places and showed how incredibly well adapted this vine is to the Douro climate. The late ripening Touriga Franca also performed very well. My oldest son Robert, working at Roriz for his second harvest made a perceptive comment midway through the harvest; ‘The quality band here seems to have moved up the hill-side by some 150 metres’. This is exactly what happened.

This was a year for flexibility. It would have been a mistake to stick to the traditional patterns and my cousin Charles was busy switching the varietal picking order around as the conditions changed. We had the major advantage of farming vineyards from Quinta de Telhada in the far east of the valley just 30 kms from the Spanish frontier as well as vineyards to the west in the Pinhão valley at nearly 500 meters. With 25 Quintas, from the tiny Madalena in the Rio Torto to the imposing Quinta do Vesuvio, this diversity allows us to select some lovely wines in a year such as this. Running several small wineries in widely separate districts (some processing no more than 120,000kg of grapes) costs money but is a decisive quality factor. This is a logistic challenge, but the specialist wineries at Vesuvio, Sra de Ribeira, Tua, Malvedos and Cavadinha again proved their worth, receiving a steady flow of the very best quality fruit that each team handled with the utmost care and attention. Each winemaker likes the idea that they are personally responsible for each ferment.

On the night of the 6th to 7th October, just as the last day’s picking was due to start, nature played a nasty trick and delivered a monumental storm that came powering in from the West over the Serra de Marão. Over 60 mm of rain fell at Cavadinha and caused damage to farm tracks and to some young vineyards. 60 mm was more than the total rainfall for any month since January and it all fell in just a couple of hours. This was nature’s way of telling us who really is in charge. We need rain, but not like that.

Paul Symington.

25th October, 2009

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Fall colours in the Douro

Henry mentioned in a recent post that the bitterly cold winters in the Douro play a crucial role in stabilising the new wines. I think he is quite right to point out that weeks on end of freezing fog is not an image that sits easily alongside most people’s impression of this region, but is nevertheless a part of the reality. Certainly it doesn’t attract many visitors during the off-season.

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But there is another time of year that is very special in the Douro, and one that is almost completely overlooked as well. That time is now. Not only can the autumn bring some fantastic warm and sunny weather (which is more pleasant than the searing heat of the summer) but the air is also clearer, the first showers having settled the dust and calmed the heat haze.

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It is also, of course, the time when the leaves of the vines turn, transforming the entire valley into a sea of translucent, glowing colour.

So here’s a secret: the very best time of all to visit the Douro is in the last week of October. It is honestly one of the most magnificent spectacles in the world. And there is one very simple two-word reason why the Douro can put on a better show than any other viticultural region. Touriga Francesa.

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Not only does it make great wine, but it is also responsible for perhaps the most impressive autumn display of any grape variety. As luck would have it, the Francesa is the most widely planted casta in the Douro too, with well over 20 % of the total vineyard area.

This is in complete contrast to the fashionable Touriga Nacional which, although it makes up a relatively small percentage of the vines, is the most widely planted variety on the back label of wine bottles, as the local joke goes. For all its oenological brilliance the Nacional is a rather dull player in the autumn. Its leaves simply get paler, and go through an insipid green to a sickly yellow before drying to brown and dropping off.

But the Francesa is particularly colourful around the red and orange end of the spectrum, much like the Souzão:

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Often very strongly pigmented varieties have more dramatic leaf colouring too – the Alicante for instance turns an impressive deep purple. The mixture of vines in the old vineyards offers a special multi-hued treat of course:

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Aesthetics apart, this is also an extremely important time from a viticultural point of view. It provides me withOctober 19th 09-548 an excellent opportunity to evaluate the state of the vineyards as the onset of winter very clearly shows up any differences in vigour between the vines. The weaker ones are the first to change colour and lose their leaves, whilst the plants with better reserves are able to extend their cycle by a few more days, staying green until later. Armed with this information it is easy to see where fertilisations need to be carried out. One of the projects I have started working on recently is trying to adapt the species of cover crop that we plant to the status of the vines. This means that in the weaker parts of a block I might plant just leguminous species (such as clovers) which fix nitrogen and give the vines a boost, whereas in the more vigorous areas I use a clover and grass mix, the net effect of which is probably nitrogen-neutral. Thus the plant mixture actually changes within the inter-row space as you move up or down the hillside. Usually, of course, the vines at the bottom of the slope are more vigorous since they benefit from water accumulation and some nutrient leaching from higher up.

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Anyway, you are still in time to come and visit us, and to take in one of viticulture’s finest sights. This year the front row seats are likely to be in the cooler vineyards on the higher ground since down by the river the vines had already lost some of their leaves as a result of the hot and dry August. There may not be grapes on the vines any more but we are just getting to one of the highlights of the year.

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Rainstorm reveals a glimpse into Douro history

The rain storm of last week caused quiet a lot of damage to the farm tracks around our vineyards. Here is an example. This track was quite passable with a tractor or a 4×4 until the rain washed all the earth away last Tuesday night.

But in the second photo you can see something very interesting that has been uncovered by the torrential rain: ancient ruts carved into the stone by hundreds of years of ox-carts grinding their way up this hill. The ox-carts would take our Port up these tracks in a cask and the iron-shod wooden wheels slowly caused these deep ruts. So a small part of the Douro’s history is now visible.

I and my neighbours would have far rather not had this glimpse into the past as the repair of this road will be expensive and difficult, but it is good to see what there is beneath these old tracks.

Paul Symington

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A new direction

When we started this project, we really didn’t know how it would turn out. We didn’t have much experience with ‘blogging’ and ‘tweeting’. But there was a very real story to tell, a rare insight into the heart of our business, our Douro vineyards and the people that help us make our wines. We learned as we went along and thankfully you stuck with us.

Now that the dust has settled and the wines are safely stored for the coming winter, there has been time enough to think about what to do with this blog.

It was not an easy question to answer, we are all busy here in the Douro and in the Gaia lodges and we know now that you are too. Whatever we decided, our first priority must be to the people who have been following us everyday throughout the harvest.

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Fortunately, you made up our mind for us. The feedback that we received, from all quarters and from all around the world, convinced us that we should keep going. And so we will.

Harvest time in the Douro is the peak of activity on our properties, a near 24 hour a day marathon that lasts 4 weeks or more. Many of you have accompanied this very interesting time here with us. But the work necessary to ensure optimum fruit at the vindima lasts all year. This is the story that we will continue to tell. We commit to share with you the faces and the places, the challenges and the successes as we tend our wines and our vineyards and prepare for the next harvest, a year from now.

We encourage you to stay with us and follow along as we post a couple of times a week with news of what is happening in the vineyards, in our cellars and in our tasting room.

SymingtonFamily_2004_3

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Deluge in the Douro

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Last Tuesday night (7th October) we had an almighty rainstorm. It had not rained for months and the ground was very hard and parched. So when the rain did come it was not easy for the earth to absorb it. We had an absolute deluge coursing through the vineyards and even carefully (and expensivley) built drainage pipes and metal grates designed to collect excess water and prevent erosion, became blocked with stones and earth. 

October 15th 09 025The cover crop that we have planted between the rows on the vertical vineyards worked really well and there is little damage in these vineyards.

October 15th 09 013These pictures shows what happens when more than 60 mm falls in one night. Bear in mind that it has not rained more than 60mm in any entire month this year except for January. So to have this amount of rain in one night was really extraodinary and very tough to cope with.

The only good news was that we were due to pick our very last few grapes (Roriz) on Wednesday at Alvito (my father’s vineyard), the day after the deluge. Our team spent the day clearing tracks, grates and roads and then we picked the last few grapes on Thursday morning, without rain. 

October 15th 09 011This weekend very fine weather has returned (see Noemia yesterday morning in the mist) but all my neigbouring farmers can be found in their vineyards clearing up the mess that the rain caused. Some of the roads that they normally use to get to their vineyards are completely impassable.

We often say that we work in what is probably the toughest vineyard area in the world in terms of geography. But visitors mostly just see the beauty of our valley. These pictures show some of the reality.

We wanted rain, but not like this!!

Paul Symington

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My 10th harvest at Malvedos

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We picked the first grapes of the 2009 harvest at Malvedos on the Monday 14th September and the last grapes were received at the winery on the 1st October after 18 days of picking by the ‘roga’. By the evening of the 4th October the last lagar had been fortified, the winery rigorously cleaned, and with the last paperwork done and dusted we were on our way home.

I think we made some really very good Ports at Quinta dos Malvedos during the 2009 Harvest. The weather was excellent throughout both the picking and for the final maturation of the grapes, with one fine hot day after another. Taking away the showers of 30th September (and a few more localized downpours at the winery!) there was no rain to speak of. The yields were very low in 2009 and this factor certainly contributed to the concentration of the musts and the final quality of the Ports made. The wines will now rest, some in the old wooden tonnels and some in the stainless steel tanks, over the winter at the Quinta before assessment in the tasting room in the early New Year by the family and their tasting team. We expect to load the wines down to our lodge in Gaia sometime at the end of February or early March next year. The cold winter weather will play its crucial (and totally natural) role of making the wine ‘fall bright’. Many visitors to the Douro have a very false impression of the Douro, they see beautiful sunlight and take lovely pictures. Try the Douro in late December and in January; freezing cold fog, dangerous and icy roads and many days when we never see the sun. That is why the valley is not crawling with tourists or with thousands of holiday homes. But it does help our wines!

On a personal note, I would like to say how much I enjoyed writing for the Malvedos blog this harvest as it not only added a ‘new dimension’ to the vintage work, but also allowed my family back in Oporto to follow what was happening on a daily basis.

A very big thank you to all the Malvedos team both in the vineyard and the winery.

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Drama on the Douro

DSC02514At about 1pm on Sunday we were lunching on the terrace at Malvedos when we spotted a boat heading downriver quite fast, and well outside the main channel marked with red and green buoys.   We braced ourselves for an impact, and sure enough seconds later there was a large bang and the boat fetched up on a large rock in the middle of the river.  The famous rocks below Malvedos had claimed another victim!

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We had ringside seats for the next hour of commotion, Branca and Prazeres joining in.

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The crew are rescued by a passing tour boat, although the captain stays aboard.    Kayakers come to help.

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The local ambulance and fire services arrive.

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A crowd gathers on the main road to watch.

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A passing barco rabelo tried to pull them off but in vain.

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Finally the firemen arrive by boat from Pinhao.

 

We had to leave before the boat was refloated.   We wish them well.

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Noemia’s leaves begin to turn and rain rolls into the Douro

saturday_Oct_006Some of you may have read the post put up by Miles last Wednesday 30th September about the Noemia vineyard.

So you might be interested to see how she looked this last Saturday morning October 3rd at about 9 am. Having delivered a fine crop of grapes which are safely in the winery, her leaves are now turning golden red as she readies herself for the winter. When I took these photographs, it was warm and sunny. But the weather is changing and heavy rain is forecast for the Douro this Monday and Tuesday. I am glad that her grapes were picked before the rain came.

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As I drove over the 1,400 meter Marão mountains down to Porto this evening, I met the heavy rain that is on its way over into the Douro valley. Most people will be very pleased; it has been a long while since we have seen good rain in the Douro.

Paul Symington

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End of Harvest Dinner at Arlindo’s house

With the picking over this afternoon, António and I drove up to the nearby village of Alijo to buy some essential  liquid supplies for our end of Harvest dinner tonight.

D. Rosa making the chipsGirls in the Kitchen preparing Chouriço

D. Fatima, Arlindo’s wife and her mother D. Rosa in the meantime were busy in the kitchen preparing the ‘Leitão’ (suckling pig), and were all set for dinner at 7.30pm.

DinnerAll eight of us were present from the winery and we had also invited Branca and Prazeres who work in the main house and are Fatima’s friends.Girls eat in Kitchen

Arlindo sat at the head of the table with me on his right and Carlos the tractor driver on his left. The plastic tablecloth with flower patterns and several knife cuts (from cutting the bread at breakfast), the two smoked hams hanging from a hook in the ceiling beam and Arlindo’s wife, Fatima with her mother and her two friends sitting in the kitchen next door eating separately from the men, set the  traditional vintage scene, so very different from city life and habits.

Everyone ate and drank their fill, visibly enjoying the meal and the company (some of us have known each other for quite a few years now). There was the usual banter about the day’s events and of course yesterday’s Porto match against Atletico de Madrid (2-0).

Leitão 1After the delicious ‘Leitão’, wonderful desserts were served and then toasts were made amidst much general clapping and shouting. I thanked everyone for their efforts during the Vintage then asked Fonseca to announce the results of the 2009 weighing in competition:

The most put-on weight category – prize – a bottle of mineral water, went to António and Alexandre with 4Kg gained each.

4kg a piece Pedro and Juca (despite a voraciousappetite) didn’t put on any weight at all and so won a bottle of our Altano Douro red wine.No weight Change Medal

At one stage, when the noise was at its highest, I looked around the table and there was a special magic to the moment, a genuine spark of warmth and well being in all the faces around that table, enjoying the moment to the full in all its simplicity. We have worked hard through many days and many long nights. I could not have asked for more from any of them at any time and above all we have made some great Ports here at Malvedos.

Some moments are priceless in life and the end of harvest dinner this year was one of those.

After dinner Fonseca and I went to add AD to the must run off from the second to last lagar. Our work finished at 12:30am. The rest of the lads went down to the Calça Curta in Tua to continue their well earned celebrations.

HJS

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