Graham’s at Porto Rabelos Race

Yesterday, 24th June was Sao Joao in Oporto, the city’s annual festival. The traditional race of the Port Barco Rabelos takes place on this day. These boats used to bring the young wine down the river from the Douro vineyards to Oporto and Gaia on the Atlantic coast.

The boats have no keel as they had to shoot the rapids on the river. So if the wind is not directly behind the boats, there is no way of controlling their direction and some years we all end up on the river bank and in other years, like last year, there is very little wind so we go backwards.

This year was a marvellous race, the wind was blowing reasonably strongly from the south west and the start was better organised than in previous years. The race started at 12.30 exactly and with a good wind, the boats set off at a good pace from the mouth of the Douro river near Foz, up river to the historic Ponte Dom Luis.

The race is always good natured and winning is largely a matter of good luck. The Symington family as usual helped crew each of the family’s boats, Charles was on Malvedos, Paul was on Warre’s Cavadinha and Rupert was on Dow’s Rio Torto. Our Quinta dos Malvedos boat twice got rammed by competing boats (see photograph), but still managed to complete the race in good style and the crew celebrated with a good glass of Tawny Port once we had crossed the finishing line.

There were many thousands of people on the river banks watching the race, most nursing hangovers from the previous night’s festivities. A great day for the city and  good exercise for our Malvedos boat on its annual outing, Malvedos is the only full sized Barco Rabelo to take part in this historical event.

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May’s activities in the Douro

We enjoyed a beautifully warm and sunny first weekend of May, with real spring weather in the air. Given how summery it felt both in Porto and in the Douro it was somewhat surprising to hear forecasts of snow in the Serra de Estrela just a day or two later. On the other hand it was also very gusty in spite of the sun, and there might have been some considerable wind-chill. So whilst the days were fine, for a brief period the nights were remarkably wintery and on some evenings we felt the need to light a fire again. Perhaps this chilly spell had something to do with the easterly winds; unusually they seemed to be blowing downriver for some reason. There was even a case of frost settling in the Vilariça valley on the night of the 4th but fortunately it caused no damage to the vines. The press reported heavy snowfalls in Paris at the same time, so this was apparently not a localised cold snap.

It marked the start of about a week of rather cool temperatures in the Douro, particularly when compared with the hot end of April, but at least initially it stayed very bright too. Things then turned rather nondescript and dreary. It was overcast, there was some rain, allegedly more snow in the mountains, and eventually even a spot of volcanic ash from Iceland. Whilst Iberia had escaped the first wave relatively unscathed, the second flourish took a different route south and was enough to close most of Portugal’s airports for a couple of days. Things continued in this vein into mid-month: cold, windy and unsettled and some major frost damage to the vines was reported in the outskirts of Vila Real. This appeared to coincide with some widespread flooding in central and eastern Europe which resulted in several deaths.

Eventually conditions perked up going into the last two weeks of the month – there were blue skies again and the sunny weather led to a rapid warming of temperatures. It was really quite hot by about the 20th but there was still heavy dew falling at night in the cover crops which made it extremely slippery to work on foot. On the steeper slopes even the tractors on tyres (as opposed to on tracks) can skid. Winter came by again on the night of 24th bringing tipping rain and whipping winds but it turned out to be just a short interruption. Things got better after a day or two and in the end the month finished up very hot and sunny.

As the graph shows, this May this did not turn out to be one of the really wet ones. In fact there weren’t any of the intense thunderstorms that can so often push the precipitation figures right up and so the actual total was much below average, at just 15 mm. Records show that an amount closer to 54 mm might fall in a typical month of May. This result finally puts an end to a run of seven consecutive wetter than average months. In spite of this the cumulative total is obviously still very far in advance of what would normally be expected.

The details presented also show that, in spite of some pretty bad weather, there were enough hot days to bring about a mean temperature just fractionally above average in Pinhão, at 17.6º C. The difference, however, at just 0.1º, is of no significance. Based solely on the climatic summary it would be easy to conclude that May was basically warm and fine. In fact it wasn’t really, but the impressive last 10 or 12 days weighed heavily in the averages.

Fortunately, as far as the vines were concerned, this good weather came at an absolutely critical period. In short, conditions over flowering were absolutely excellent. The skies were clear, there was little wind and precipitation was negligible. All this, combined with high temperatures and plenty of humidity in the soil, meant that once flowering started it happened very quickly indeed, and a short flowering period means more phenological homogeneity and better fruit set. Compared with a normal year the flowers were already on the large side before flowering and, in spite of last year’s drought, this year’s shoots are quite fruitful. If we can continue to keep on top of the disease situation for the rest of the spring these factors would suggest that we could expect a plentiful harvest come September.

In terms of the actual timing of the phenological cycle the mean flowering date in 2010 for the principal varieties was May 25th. This is five days later than it was in 2009 but the same day as 2008. Given that budburst was eight days later than average this year it seems likely that the relative warmth of April had helped the vines to catch up and reduce the gap. By fruit set (on the 30th May) the lag had been cut to just four days thanks to a contracted flowering period.

In the vineyards May found us very busy, as the rapidly growing cover crops needed to be cut back. Not only did this make access on foot through the vineyards considerably easier but it also reduces the humidity in the bunch zone affording some added protection against fungal diseases. Foot access was required to enable the correct canopy management practices to be carried out. Training the shoots up between the foliage wires is essential if we are to use the shoot trimmer later on in the season – for obvious reasons we cannot despontar (shoot trimming) if the bunches are hanging in the mid-row space. There was also some thinning carried out at the same time to clear out the canopy of unnecessary shoot growth. In some extreme cases there was so much vine growth into the mid-row that the shoot positioning was carried out before the mowing as to use tractors would have run an unacceptable risk of damage to the crop and made it extremely difficult for them to operate correctly.

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May 2010 Douro Insider

We enjoyed a beautifully warm and sunny first weekend of the month, with real spring weather in the air.  Given how summery it felt both in Porto and in the Douro it was somewhat surprising to hear forecasts of snow in the Serra de Estrela just a day or two later.  On the other hand it was also very gusty in spite of the sun, and there might have been some considerable wind-chill.  So whilst the days were fine, for a brief period the nights were remarkably wintery and on some evenings we felt the need to light a fire again.  Perhaps this chilly spell had something to do with the easterly winds; unusually they seemed to be blowing downriver for some reason.  There was even a case of frost settling in the Vilariça valley on the night of the 4th but fortunately it caused no damage to the vines.  The press reported heavy snowfalls in Paris at the same time, so this was apparently not a localised cold snap. Full Report

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Memorable Vintage Port tasting in Berlin

Last night, 31st May in Berlin a superb Port tasting was held. This was organised by the German publication ‘European Fine Wine Magazine’ and involved a wide range of extraordinary Vintage Ports from Ramos Pinto 1924 to the Dow’s 2007 Vintage Port.

I attended the tasting with several friends including Dirk Niepoort, David Guimaraens, Amanda Brunner from Fladgate and Marie-Luise Shyler from Noval. Various writers from across Europe came to the tasting, including Ronald de Groot from Holland, Tom Marthinson from Norway and Peter Winding from Denmark as well as a selection of leading German wine writers.

The Portuguese Ambassador Jose da Costa Pereira spoke at the dinner that followed about the extraordinary tasting that had taken place. Dirk Niepoort was one of the instigators of this excellent tasting which was designed to show what a remarkable wine Port is and its unique qualities.

From my family’s wines, we showed the aforementioned Dow’s 2007, which showed very well indeed after almost exactly one year in bottle, as did the Warre’s ’94 and the very good Dow’s ’80.

The Graham’s ’66 and Graham’s ’55 were also part of the tasting. I was proud of all our wines, with a great Graham ’66 and the Graham’s ’55 being simply outstanding, for me one of the absolute stars of the evening.

Other wines that were very good were the Taylor ’92, the Fonseca ’85 and ’77 and the Niepoort 1970. The latter shows yet again what a brilliant year 1970 was and it still puzzles me why this year was for many years not given the recognition it deserves. The 1970’s are amongst the best five or six greatest Vintage Ports made over the last 40 to 50 years. We also enjoyed an excellent Noval Nacional 1967, a good Noval 1963 and an elegant Croft ‘45. The Niepoort 1942 was a wine I had never tasted and was also very good.

One of the stars of the evening for me was Ramos Pinto 1924. This is one of those wines that demonstrate what great Vintage Ports can do; even when the glass was empty the delicate aromas still  continued to fill the glass.

This event was held in the Margaux Restaurant with Chef Michael Hoffman producing a superb dinner. This restaurant is situated in a building which formed part of the Berlin Wall on the Avenue Unter den Linden and is situated just round the corner from the Brandenburg Gate. So it was appropriate to taste such an extraordinary range of Vintage Ports that virtually spanned a century, in such a historic place.

The tasting was designed to show the Garman market how very great Vintage Port can be. I think that the tasting proved this point beyond any doubt and we all hope that the appreciation of one of the world’s greatest wines will grow in Germany as  a result.

My thanks to all the team at European Fine Wine and Restaurant Margaux for a truly memorable day.

Paul

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