The lads from the wineries at Malvedos and Tua took an hour off to have drinks with the Symington family this evening. Traditionally the family make a point of coming up for end of harvest celebrations, but as it happened the family and senior members of the firm were at Malvedos for a strategy meeting, so they invited the teams round for drinks this evening, just as the sun was setting over the hills.
The only family member who could not be present tonight was Charles – no break in the winemaking for him, yet.
The past three days Rupert Symington has been entertaining a group of American sommeliers and wine writers at Malvedos, showing them where our wines come from – the Douro, the quintas and vineyards, the wineries, and finally, last night, the blending process.
Rupert set out bottles of Graham’s 10 Year Old and 20 Year Old Tawnies, and alongside each lined up four sample wine bottles marked A, B, C and D, then poured out a tasting glass of each. He then announced, “Right, Writers against Sommeliers: duplicate that finished wine using the component wines to blend your own sample.” He told them they should be able to do it on smell alone, taste was actually irrelevant. Funny, no one seemed to pay attention to that last bit.
As the two teams set to work, it was interesting to observe that the Writers first sniffed and tasted, and began to work out the blend based on tasting notes – one component was decidedly raisinny, another very floral and fruity, a third was citrus, tangerine – and tried to assess to what degree the aroma qualities prevailed in the finished wines. The Writers were also focussing on the mouth feel, deciding a proposed blend was not creamy enough, and trying to identify which component wine would increase that quality in the finished blend.
Meanwhile, the Sommeliers, on the front line of restaurant service, first took a very commercial approach, assessing the likely age of the component wines and figuring that on a cost basis the finished blend might be weighted toward the younger and implicitly less expensive lotes. The Sommeliers also focussed on colour early on, deciding which component wines were driving the the colour of the finished blend, whereas the Writers only assessed colour after they had assembled a blend devised on aroma, taste and mouth-feel qualities.
The Sommeliers also observed that one wine of the four constituents for the 20 Year Old was distinctly sweeter and more concentrated, and perhaps a bit musty, “but we did enjoy it!” Rupert later explained that particular wine was what is known as a rancio, a very sweet old sticky wine, which is used to touch up older blends, in fact that quality is an identifier of age in any style of port.
When the Writers were happy with their 10 Year Old blend and the Sommeliers their 20 Year old, they noted the percentage of each component wine in their finished blends and were just feeling confident and enjoying the results when Rupert told them to switch wines and do it again, but this round in only 5 minutes’ time.
They then set to it again, with more confidence and speed. One team suggested dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet in a sample to throw off the other team, but no one had any handy, thankfully. Amongst the comments wafting about:
This one’s missing some red…
Well, whatever it is, it tastes good!
We need some citrus…
There’s that genius moment when you make a mistake, and it’s right…
I need some body…
Before discussing the blends, Rupert tasted the samples, and as he put down one glass he made a very satisfied noise and commented, “Tell you what, that’s a pretty good 20 Year Old.”
Ultimately, the Writers prevailed, coming closest to the finished Graham’s product in both their 10 Year Old and 20 Year Old blends. The winning strategy was to focus on the texture, body and aroma qualities of the finished wine.
The exercise was an eye opener for the group, who not only learned more about the blending process, but were eager to be able to replicate the experience for their customers as a way of emphasising the importance, power and sheer magic of blending in Port wines. It also seemed probable that Charles will shortly receive a half-dozen applications to work in our blending and tasting room.
In the sticky purple heat of the vintage (and this one is turning out to be quite busy in fact) the last thing that I need to take my mind off controlling the fermentations and looking after the work experience kids (or ‘expert flying winemakers’ according to them) is a new viticultural project. But time and tide… well, you know, I’m sure. Paul has just bought a new vineyard in a superb location, one of the most sought after plots in the region. I dare say he has had his eye on it for some time, given that it borders on the fantastic Noémia vineyard that I wrote about reviving last year. It is entirely surrounded by crumbling dry stone walls that Abílio (remember him?) has been painstakingly rebuilding for some months, and it has a beautiful gate and a rather endearing old house in the middle (also crumbling).
The only problem is that this vineyard has clearly seen better days, to put it mildly. Actually, it’s a wreck. The trellising is completely inadequate and generally disintegrating, and there is a very high number of vines that are either dead, decrepit or missing altogether. Furthermore, the row spacing is too narrow to let tractors in – when it was first planted decades ago the idea of mechanising a vineyard was a dream from a far distant future.
There is clearly no alternative other than ripping out all the old vines and starting again from scratch. We’ll get going with this as soon as the vintage is over. Given its high altitude (almost exactly 500 m above sea level) and relatively exposed situation on a breezy plateau, it seems to be crying out for white varieties to be planted. The cooler temperatures experienced this high up will keep the flavours fresh and ensure good acidity, and the exposure will keep down the risk of fungal diseases. Since it is basically flattish (clearly a luxury in the Douro) we’ll probably plant the rows east to west, thereby guaranteeing that the sun hits the rows of vines from the southern side for as long as possible during the day to ripen the fruit perfectly. We’re vaguely thinking about making a seriously good white table wine from some of this vineyard in the not too distant future. Watch this space…
Today was another perfect day of warm sunny picking weather. As we are nearing October it is noticeable that the days are getting shorter though. At 0700 there is not so much light as when we began the Vintage on the 20th and soon the pickers will have to switch to a 0730 start, which means they will clock off at 17:00 rather than 16:30.
This is now our 3rd day of Touriga Nacional and we continue on the 2005 plantings. This morning they started up near the ‘Mario Assunção’ house (named for a former occupant) and during the course of today picked blocks 70, 72, 75, 76 and 77. All of these parcels are very high up on the hill face you see from the river, on all sides of that hill top. The 19 pickers sent in 9.772 Kg to the winery which is just slightly above yesterday’s figure. The Nacional fruit continues in very good shape with the small compact bunches in very healthy condition.
The first lagar of Nacional is now well into its fermentation, with an initial baumé of 13.75º which is very good. We are draining it all out of the lagar and are sending it down to another fermentation tank in the lower part of the winery where we expect to fortify it tomorrow morning. Look at the colour, a beautiful deep purple.
The second Touriga Nacional lagar was filled this afternoon and is now getting its 4 hour tread.
Temperature Control in the ‘Automated Lagares’ at Malvedos
The temperature control system installed in the lagares at Malvedos allows me to have precise control over the temperature throughout the whole process of vinification, firstly of the grapes and must that are received in the lagar, and then I can help start and subsequently carry out the fermentation at exactly the desired temperature. It is very important (and crucial in hot years) to have this flexibility during the vintage and it certainly contributes to the quality of the wines made here.
Three of the sides and the floor of the stainless steel lagares as well as the legs of the treading feet are all double walled with ‘water jackets’ where either hot or cold water circulates allowing me to adjust the temperature in the lagar as and when necessary. This large surface area of heat exchange allows for gentle and homogenous adjustments.
This vintage the ambient temperatures have been warm rather than hot and the grapes are arriving at the winery at a coolish 22ºc. At this temperature and under normal circumstances where we fill one lagar a day and then tread it that same evening there is no need for cooling. Once the lagar is full and treading under way I will then gently start to warm the must to encourage the fermentation to begin.
If, however, I have a lagar that I know will not be filled and trodden until the next day, as has been the case with the first two lagares of Nacional, which we were unable to fill in one day due to the very small bunches and low yields, then I fill the jackets with cold water to cool down the lagar so that the fermentation does not begin overnight and compromise the wine’s quality.
During fermentation I then gradually raise the temperature in order to get increased colour extraction during cap plunging, so that at the time of fortification the temperature is between 29-30ºc.
Before the harvest began, Fonseca and our cooling system engineer, David, did a thorough check out of the system. Viewing the thermometer in the bottom corner of the lagar is a bit tricky, but they do what they have to to ensure it’s all in perfect working order.
Asking a winemaker which parcel of the vineyard is his favourite is a bit like asking a parent to name their favourite child – they have to disclaim favouritism, but in their heart of hearts, there usually is an especially dear parcel they can rely on for wines that epitomise the house style.
For us at Graham’s, at Quinta dos Malvedos, we are especially fond of Port Arthur for many reasons. This parcel of Touriga Nacional lies in a narrow gorge; if you look at the banner photo of this blog, reading from right to left, you see the house, a citrus grove on the hill top and down the upper half of the hill face, and below that an area of walled vineyard facing east – the opposite side is in shadow. That walled vineyard and the facing vineyard in the shadow is Port Arthur.
The physical vineyard itself was built by the Graham family shortly after they acquired the Quinta in 1890, and was named for the famous Port Arthur, a heavily fortified Chinese city which was in the headlines in late 1894, during the First Sino-Japanese war. Apparently the sinuous lines of the terraces were similar to those of the walled city, now known as Lushunkou.
The vineyard is spectacular – the walled terraces are particularly fine. On the east facing side the walls are about 1.8 metres (6 foot) high and over a metre wide, and on the opposite side of the gorge they are 10 to 12 feet high and even thicker. All the walls have stairways built in to facilitate rapid access up and down the terraces. They are beautiful examples of the stone mason’s art, completely dry stone walls built out of the schist removed from the soil when the vineyard was created.
The narrow gorge creates an exceptional microclimate – open enough to receive the sun all day on one or both sides, the gorge has shrubbery at the bottom to hold just a bit of humidity, and is narrow and deep enough to protect the vines from the notoriously hot dry winds of the Douro afternoon: perfect conditions to fend off the worst of the Douro heat, dryness and relentless sun in the late summer when the grapes begin their final ripening phase.
The vines today are Touriga Nacional, which provides several key qualities to Graham’s vintage ports: black fruit, firm tannins, natural acidity and an intense inky purple colour. Planted in 2000, we have 1,379 vines on the east face and another 1,237 opposite which gave us just about 2,500 kilos of fruit this year. At ten years old, the vines are mature and producing well-balanced wines.
This year the grapes from Port Arthur were vinified together with grapes from one other select parcel – parcel 37 which is also on the hill face below the house, on the north side (hidden in the banner photo by another hill). All these vines are between approximately 120 and 250 metres of altitude.
Vinified on Tuesday the 28th September, the wine had an initial baume of 13.45, which is good for TN, and was treaded for 4 hours, then left to rest till morning. Touriga Nacional has particularly thick skin, so Henry decided another hour’s treading could only help with the extraction – and the wine is now the deepest purple we’ve seen yet in the winery this year. After the extra treading, we checked the baumé again and found the grapes had generously rendered up a little more sweetness: 13.75.
Leaning over the tank and wafting a bit of air towards yourself, you can smell wonderful clean fresh rich fruit. Henry is extremely pleased with this wine – he speaks of it very modestly, as always, but the smile is much broader than usual.
For almost three centuries, it was common practice for port shippers to buy wines made by the thousands of small producers in the region. Graham’s was one of the first major shippers in the 19th century to buy their own quinta, Quinta dos Malvedos, in order to ensure the quality of grapes and wines produced under their own name, whilst still continuing to buy in wines from selected small producers. The wines bought in were all made in very traditional ways, including treading by foot, right up until the 1970s.
In the late 20th century, as shippers became more focussed on quality control and invested in their own wineries, the practice shifted to buying in the grapes, rather than finished wines, so the shipper could control the vinification process to best suit their own requirements and style.
At Graham’s, we now have five quintas from which to source our grapes, and the wineries to vinify them all ourselves, however we continue to work with over 200 small farmers in the region, most of whom bring us their grapes.
One of the exceptions to this rule is Senhor Albino, who has a quinta in the Riba Longa, an area east of Tua which has an outstanding microclimate, recognised for hundreds of years for the quality of its grapes and its wines. Like many of his generation, Sr Albino emigrated from Portugal as a young man to find work, and returned when he retired, to settle here in the Douro and make wine. Unusually, he has quite a large holding, almost 40 hectares, of which 10 was recently re-planted with Touriga Nacional.
Sr Albino’s vines are very good, and the location is one of the best in the Riba Longa area. In recent years he has invested heavily in his winemaking equipment, and takes meticulous care of it all. During the year our viticulturist is often at Sr Albino’s quinta, discussing all aspects of his vineyard and helping him with advice and suggestions. We provide him with the aguardente (grape brandy) for the fortification during harvest. Charles will also stop by to say hello often through the year and see how the season is progressing. Here, Sr Albino has just opened a tonel, ready to receive his 2010 wines, and Charles was very pleased with the scent, always an important indication of good hygiene in wooden vats.
Sr Albino makes excellent wines and we are pleased to buy them. His wines will become part of Graham’s stock of lotes for blending into our premium port wines. In this way, Graham’s maintains a great old tradition and sources some fantastic wines.
The mornings are getting colder and I wished I had put on a pullover when I came to open the winery at 0715. However by mid-morning it warmed up and it has turned out to be yet another fantastic day of weather for picking.
Not only are these warm days ideal for picking, but also for the maturation of the varieties yet to be picked. Here I’m thinking ahead to the Touriga Franca which we will be picking next week. These warm days are bringing it along to perfection very nicely.
Rupert arrived last night with a group of visitors from our USA distributor Premium Port Wines and he came to visit us this morning for an update on progress at the winery, and to taste some of the wines we have made – he particularly liked the Barroca.
Given the sunny days we are experiencing he very thoughtfully brought everyone on the team a Graham’s cap – Thank you Rupert!
The first load of grapes – 92 boxes weighing in at 2060 Kg – came in just before breakfast with the grapes in tip top condition.
Our first lagar of Nacional was filled just before lunch and was trodden in the afternoon for four hours. The lagar is giving off clean fresh fruit aromas and the colour is very dark, which is typical for Touriga Nacional.
All in all I’m pleased with how this lagar is shaping up.
The 19 pickers sent in 9030 Kilos today compared to 5546 yesterday.
After spending the morning in the low yielding mature block 16 from 1987 in a part of the Quinta known as Valdossa, in the afternoon they moved to a younger series of Nacional blocks planted in 2005. Being younger these produced slightly heavier bunches and hence the increase in Kilos picked. I was up there this afternoon with Mariz tasting the berries and they are sweet and succulent. If you squeeze a berry it stains your fingers red – perfect time to pick.
Charles Symington recently purchased a quinta of his own in the Douro Superior. The property had been abandoned for years, and whilst some vineyards are still producing good grapes, other areas had been neglected and needed to be cleared and re-planted. The quinta includes virgin land and an area of mortuario, or graveyard, the word which is rather poignantly used to refer to vineyards abandoned after the devastation of phylloxera in the late 19th century.
At this moment, with works in progress, Cachão de Arnozelo presents an extraordinary opportunity to see and appreciate just what it takes to plant a vineyard in this region of solid schist rock.
This first photo is of the mortuario – the original schist dry-stone walls are pretty well broken up and hidden under vegetation and rockslides after a century and a quarter of neglect.
The bulldozers came in to try to clear the scrub, then dig up and smooth out the contours of the land. Where bulldozers can’t work, our only recourse is judicious use of dynamite to break up the rock.
In some cases we may leave a particularly solid, sheer wall of rock in place which will form the basis for the talude – the angled “wall” supporting the level terrace where the vines will be planted.
Once the face of the hillside has been cleared and the rock broken up somewhat, the bulldozers can then sculpt the patamares – the taludes and the terraces for the vineyards which are in fact not level, but slightly angled back down into the face of the hill so any water will lie on and settle into the soil, rather than just running off the face of the hill.
The soil, as you can see, is just rock broken up into a slightly finer tilth than the immense solid sheets and boulders of rock nature gave us to start with in the Douro. In this photo, taken from the top of the vineyard, you can just about discern the undulations of the patamares – hard to spot without vines to define them
Finished vineyard – all but the vines – as seen from across a valley. Charles will plant Touriga Nacional this coming February.
While this blog is primarily about Graham’s, its various Quintas and our wine making, the Symington family also own and manage Dow’s and Warre’s Port.
Here is the wine making team at the beautiful Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira (The Lady of the River), which is one of Dow’s finest properties. This is one of our most remote Quintas is the far eastern end of the Douro valley. We have several traditional lagares in use here as well as three robotic lagares.
Carrazeda is the nearest ‘civilization’, and that is some 15 kms away, so quite a long way to go if you run out of beer. The team in this photo make some of the best Ports for the Symington Family Estates group, but they have not seen their wives and girlfriends for a few weeks now… We appreciate the dedication, guys!
The first tractor load with 2584 Kg of ‘Vinha Velha’ straight Touriga Nacional arrived from Quinta do Tua at 10:40 this morning. It’s from block 34 planted 1974 in the lower part of the Quinta just above the railway station.
Before lunch the pickers moved back to Malvedos and began on block 106 (planted 1984) next to the river before moving to the impressive schist ramparts of the Fort Arthur vineyard just below the house. We are starting with the lower lying Nacional first and as the picking progresses will work our way up to the top of the Quinta where blocks four and five are situated.
The grapes picked today look very healthy and the bunches are small and compact. The berries are small, thick skinned and dark blue owing to the high concentration of phenolic compounds in the skin, and they look almost like blueberries. The fact that there is such a large skin to juice ratio in berries will also impart a deep colour and complex flavours to the wine – which always makes me happy!
The Nacional is also characterized by extremely low yields and from what I have seen of today’s picking this year is no exception. In fact, despite having the usual number of pickers, due to the low yields we have only managed to pick 5.546 Kgs today (our normal rate being between 12.000-14.000Kgs) and will therefore only fill and tread the lagar mid-morning tomorrow. I am convinced that this low production will also contribute significantly to the concentration of the Touriga Nacional wines we will make over the next few days.
The famous Malvedos rocks serve as perch
When the dam is opened further down the river the water level drops a little and some dangerous looking rocks appear in the middle of the river opposite the winery just outside the navigable channel. Boats should beware not to stray out of the channel as last year a speedboat which made this mistake when the rocks were just below the surface had its hull ripped to shreds.
Hygiene is a very important part of ‘good practice’ in winemaking, and so every morning the lagars’ legs get a good hosing down and we scrub its feet and get the pips out from between its toes!