Graham’s Natura

Graham’s is pleased to announce the launch of Natura, a new reserve ruby port made from organically farmed grapes.

The Symington family hold 126 hectares of organic vineyards in the Douro Valley.  The majority are in the northeastern area of the Douro Superior in the Vale de Vilariça, where we have three quintas:  Quinta do Ataide, Quinta da Canada and Quinta de Assares.

Additionally, Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto valley, south of Pinhão, has supplied grapes for Graham’s ports for nearly 100 years, and several hectares at the top of the quinta have been farmed organically for some years now.

With this range of organic material to work with, Charles Symington explored the possibility of creating a Port exclusively from these organically grown grapes to respond to the market’s growing interest in sustainable agriculture and organic wines.

Natura is a true Graham’s port, with the rich, fruity, sweet style which has always set the brand apart.  But if you were to taste Natura side by side with, for example, our Six Grapes, you would find the Natura more fresh, soft and elegant.  Natura is simply another expression of the Graham’s style, which we invite you to enjoy.

Share this post

August 2011 Douro Insider

Grapes in evening sunlight

Unlike some months so far this year, August was by no means atypical; on the contrary, both the temperatures and the total precipitation were very close to average.  This makes it much harder to explain the extraordinary maturation of the grapes, but surely the very early veraison discussed in last month’s report must have been in part responsible.  Basically it was clear and hot and dry.  Perhaps the only real anomaly was that the habitual (and hot) evening winds were even stronger than usual but, contrastingly, there were also some surprisingly cool nights on occasions.  The upshot of this was the appearance of some refreshing morning mists, particularly on the high ground and at the coast.  Porto and Gaia were therefore untroubled by any really uncomfortable heat, and indeed many complained of a disappointing summer.  The usual round of forest fires struck around the middle of the month and brought a sinister yellow tinge to the air as the sun struggled to shine through the smoke haze. Read Full Report

Share this post

2011 Douro Harvest Report

Picking at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges.

There are smiles on the faces of wine makers across the Douro as this year’s harvest winds down on yet another day of warm autumn sunshine and our valley has never looked more beautiful.  It has been an extraordinary vintage; since the night of the 1st September there has not been a drop of rain in the Douro, we have harvested our grapes under lovely blue skies day after day for five weeks.

The viticultural year was challenging to start with.  Every month this year saw rainfall that was significantly lower than average and by the end of August we had just 250mm in 8 months at Quinta do Bomfim compared to the mean of 403mm (-38%). But yet again what the older generation have always told us held true:  the rains of the last three months of the previous year are crucial in establishing the water tables deep down in the schistous rock; from October to December 2010 we had a very good 358mm, 50mm more than the average.  So the challenging shortfall of rain this year was compensated by the reserves we had in the bedrock of our vineyard soils. It is for this reason that the very warm April and May encouraged early flowering and fruit set from healthy looking vines.

But the warm weather in the spring encouraged oidium and mildew.  Substantial damage was caused to localised vineyards across the Douro by these fungal infections to those who were not careful, or to those who could not afford the considerable cost of the treatments. To add to these difficulties, June bought some violent hail storms.  One of the worst storms hit our Quinta de Ataide in the Vilariça valley on the 5th June and shredded part of the vineyard. As if that was not enough, we then had a sudden burst of intense heat.   The temperatures had been in the mid-20⁰’s C for much of June, but on the 25th and 26th June the temperatures suddenly rocketed over 40⁰C. In the words of our viticultural researcher Miles Edlmann

The vines were completely unprepared for this thermal onslaught, and it inflicted widespread and very intense sunburn on the fruit, leading to the complete abortion, followed by immediate desiccation, of many of the bunches in the space of a weekend…not even the oldest caseiros can remember having seen sunburn quite like it.

To give an idea of the intensity of this heat, there was a public row in Lisbon and Oporto, because citizen’s groups complained that no public warnings had been given for the very low ozone levels over these two days. All these various challenges reduced yields across the Douro, but of course have no impact on the quality of the fruit.

Thankfully July was only moderately warm, with temperatures at an average of 23.9⁰C compared to the mean of 24.7⁰. But we had no rain.  This has become something of a pattern over recent years and brings additional problems; all the very young vines that we had planted back in March had to be individually watered at considerable cost (€0.23 per vine, on a new 4 hectare vineyard will cost €3,732.00).  August started nicely warm, but again with no rain whatsoever and thankfully no excessive heat.

By now there was a lot of chat in the Douro (as elsewhere across Europe) predicting a very early start for picking.  But some people look only at the Baumés and get carried away and fail to look at the phenolic ripeness.  Green stalks and green pips do not make good wines, even if the sugars are high.  2011 looked to be a re-run of some recent years, where the severe lack of humidity distorted the maturation.  A vine cannot ripen its sugars as well as its tannins if there is a drastic water shortage.

On Sunday afternoon 21st August we were dealt the ace of spades; a large Atlantic storm blew in from the West over the mighty 1,400 meter high Serra do Marão.  For much of the day the skies looked dark and threatening and it was quite possible that the storm would move on over the Douro into Spain without depositing any water.  But at about 7pm, the heavens opened and in the next few hours 34 mm fell at Cavadinha, 18.2mm at Bomfim, 10mm at Malvedos and 21.8mm at Vesuvio.  This was simply superb timing, the vines greedily absorbed the longed-for moisture and the Baumés dropped quickly over the following days while the skins softened after more than 8 weeks of trying to protect the little moisture that was in their berries.

The wiser heads in the Douro began to revise their initial early picking dates.  Then we got another bonus, 18mm of rain on the 1st and 2nd of September.  This was decisive as far as we were concerned.  My cousin Charles Symington, responsible for our vineyards and winemaking, pushed back all picking dates by approximately a week to allow this rain to really benefit the vines.  We had to accept the considerable risk that the autumn weather would become unsettled, resulting in the fruit quality quickly deteriorating.  The arrival of the picking teams was put off, again a logistical risk as some may decide to go elsewhere.  We looked anxiously at the various ten-day forecasts on the internet every day.

It was a risk worth taking because we have seldom seen such perfect harvest weather as we have had over the last 5 weeks.  The grapes were in superb condition, with good Baumés and ripe phenolics right through the harvest.  It was immediately clear that very good wines were being made; the colour at the very early stage of fermentation was excellent and improved right the way through September.  The aromas in the wineries were simply wonderful.  Our winemakers often say that the Douro is having a great year when the Touriga Franca (a late ripener) is giving great musts, this year it did.

The summery weather did bring some problems and September was half a degree hotter than average, the grapes harvested in the morning were coming into the wineries at a pleasant 21⁰C, but by the afternoon they were often at 25⁰C or more.  Cooling the must was essential in order to get the right fermentation temperature curve.  While a little raisining is beneficial for great Port, it is not welcome for Douro red wines.  So we were busy on the sorting tables for the best wines this year.  The French ‘Mistral’ machines at two of our Douro DOC red and white wine wineries (Roriz and Sol) was an investment that paid off handsomely.  The Mistral rejects any raisined grapes and only perfect berries make it past the sorting tables where our own selection teams continue to work before and after the Mistral, to give even better selection.

If it was not for the serious underlying problems, we would all be extremely content.  But sadly the harsh environment of the international wine market and the powerful downward price pressures imposed by major international customers has impacted severely on the Douro farmer’s livelihoods.  The situation has not been helped by poor planning from the authorities; while Port sales have stabilized over recent years, the Ministry of Agriculture continued to allow additional planting in the Douro over the last decade, creating an excess of grapes that has been nothing short of catastrophic for the farmers.  It remains to be seen whether enough courage and ability exists to implement the necessary reforms so that the Douro can have a viable future.

Returning to the question of the Ports and Douro DOC wines made this year, it can be said that this has been a good and very possibly a great year in the Douro.  The last lagar at Quinta de Cavadinha in the Pinhão valley is still fermenting as this report is being written, so the wines will need to be assessed over the coming months, but here is no doubt some very exciting wines have been made in 2011.

Paul Symington
10th October, 2011

Share this post

5 October Malvedos Winery Update

António washing down the floor in the old original part of the adega

Although today there are no grapes, there is still plenty to do in the winery.  While some of us deal with the last fortifications and packing up the Vinhaço from the press the rest of us are fully occupied with cleaning the winery which will now stand empty for almost eleven months until the next harvest.

The last lagar of Touriga Franca / Tinto Cão will be fortified tomorrow morning and then basically it’s over for the winery team.  A skeleton team of Fonseca, Juca and I will stay until Friday finalising details of the winery’s closure.

For the record 2011 is one of the best harvests I have ever had the privilege to work in…

That said, the long hours and hard work does take its toll on the team, as witness these photos of Fonseca and myself before and after harvest…

Fonseca and Henry: official pre-harvest portrait
Fonseca and Henry, after a very good, but hard working, harvest 2011
Share this post

4 October Malvedos Winery Update

Sunset from the Malvedos winery, end of a perfect harvest

Today was the last day of the Vintage and it ended exactly as it started, warm and with a bright blue sky. Since we started on the 15th September there was only one day that was not like this, with some sporadic rain and drizzle.

It is extremely rare that we are blessed with such perfect weather throughout the whole of a Vintage and this of course has certainty contributed to the overall quality of the year.

All I can say is that I am really pleased (and relieved) that all the Malvedos grapes were picked under perfect conditions and are now all in the winery and beyond the reach of any rain or bad weather that is yet to come, though Charles did say the forecast remains clear for another 10 days or more, for those still harvesting.

Picking the last parcel of Touriga Franca early Tuesday

Vineyard update

20 days and 117 tractor loads later all the grapes were picked and the 2011 Malvedos Vintage ended at 18:00 this afternoon!

The last lagar to be filled was a mix of Touriga Franca and Tinto Cão and is being trodden as I write at 23:10.

Winery Update

It was a crazy day at the winery with everything seeming to be going on at the same time – unloading boxes, corrections, transfers between lodges, fortifications and a series of visitors to be looked after.  We are all working late tonight and still expect one more fortification in the early hours.

Tomorrow we will begin cleaning up and by the time we leave here the winery and all the equipment will be spotless and shining like brand new.

Visitors and a Celebration

The 14 wines finished so far lined up for a tasting at the winery

Today we received a series of visitors throughout the day.  In the morning Henri Sizaret and Eliane the new Graham’s Brand Manager arrived, also a German Port wine specialist, Axel Probst together with Dominic.  We all enjoyed a tasting of every wine finished so far at the winery, followed by a pleasant lunch together up at the house.

In the afternoon a group came round from our SAP implementation project – a major new customised information system for tracking all our wines – who are currently working on the ‘Vintage’ module.  Let’s see how they program this!

Before dinner we were all invited by Paul and Charles for an end of Vintage drink up at the house.  We all relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful snacks prepared by Branca and Prazeres.

Share this post

End of Harvest Celebration

Today we finished picking all the grapes at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.  The last trailer load came in at 18:00 and luckily it was a small load, so we could process the grapes in time to have celebration drinks with Paul and Charles.

The winery team and all our support people gathered up at the house to relax for a little while and enjoy some of Branca’s wonderful cooking before heading back to the winery for a very busy night – we have three lagares on the go right now.

More about the last day of harvest when Henry can find time between jobs!

Below, Charles Symington, Sr. Arlindo our caseiro (bailiff) who manages both Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua, and Paul Symington

Charles Symington, Arlindo the Malvedos caseiro, and Paul Symington
The Graham's Harvest 2011 team - house, winery and Paul and Charles Symington

From left to right:  Pedro, António, Dona Rosa, Branca, Paul Symington, Prazeres, Fonseca, Tiago (kneeling), Carlos, Alexandre Mariz, Charles Symington (kneeling, with Masai beside him), Juca, Joaquim (Quinta do Tua), Paulo (Quinta do Tua), Carlos, Marta (Charles’s wife), Henry and Alexandre

Share this post

Quinta do Tua

View of Quinta do Tua, from across the Tua River where it enters the Douro

Just upriver from Graham’s famous Quinta dos Malvedos is the Quinta do Tua, another wonderful vineyard with a beautiful house, a winery and quite a bit of history.

Vineyards and Winery

The vineyards at Tua begin above the house in spectacular old walled vineyards on a west facing bluff, then wrap around the hill and modern patamares (narrow soil-banked terraces) extend along the south facing bank of the Douro.  The grapes grown at Quinta do Tua are vinified for Graham’s Ports in the Malvedos winery every harvest.  But we also have a winery at Quinta do Tua which we use for receiving and processing the grapes which we buy in from local farmers.  The nearby valley of  Ribalonga has an excellent microclimate, and the grapes are of a very high quality.

Paulo Macedo is winemaker at Tua during harvest.  If Henry thinks he has paperwork at Malvedos, with all the grapes coming from within our own properties, he should count his blessings he is not at Tua.  Like Henry, Paulo has to track the source (quinta and exact vineyard parcel), weight, variety, general quality and baumé of every delivery.  But additionally, Paulo and an accountant work together to track all the details of the individuals who have sold us their grapes – around 200 this year at Tua – so they can be paid correctly.  There is also all the paperwork for the transfer of the beneficio associated with the farmer’s grapes, which is effectively the authorisation from the IVDP to make a certain quantity of Port from the vineyards where the grapes were picked.

Paulo Macedo, left, winemaker at Tua, watching the grapes being delivered from nearby farmers

The winery opened on 12 September, and received white grapes on specific days as well as red.  Tua works two full shifts, day and night, as the volume of grapes coming in means there is nearly always work to be done overnight with fortifications and moving wines around.  Final deliveries were taken on the 1st October, and now there are just the final fortifications and corrections to be done, and the team hope to go home in a day or two.  After vinifying 1,000,000 kilos of grapes they have earned their rest!

After harvest, Paulo will return to his year round role as viticulturist for Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim and many of the Symington properties in the Rio Torto valley, including Graham’s Quinta das Lages.

The house at Quinta do Tua

The House at Quinta do Tua

This quinta is one that was built by Dona Antónia Ferreira, and the date over the door is 1831.  The wonderful house was built to serve as her base of operations while developing properties further upriver like the legendary Quinta do Vesuvio, now also a Symington brand and quinta.  She generously made the house available to other travellers in the Douro and at one point the quinta was known as Quinta dos Inglezes (The Englishmen’s Quinta) for that reason.

The house continues to render hospitality for wayfarers:  throughout the harvest the Graham’s blogger lives there, as do Paulo Macedo and the accountant.  Lisa from the Malvedos winery team was here for ten days, and Marta and Monica, the health and safety team from our Gaia offices, stayed for a few nights between inspections at all of our Douro properties.

Lots of photos, comfortable furnishings, old hats atop the vitrine... very home like
One of the old balseiros in the storage area underneath the living quarters

For much of the 20th century Tua was a Cockburn’s property, and the early to mid 20th century photos on the walls of all the partners and visitors, as well as all the comfortable old furniture, give the house a very homelike feel.  Henry Shotton’s own great grandfather was a partner at Cockburn’s, and his photo is on the wall here.  There is a great deal of continuity in these Douro properties and the families that live and work here, despite the vicissitudes of ownership.

Like many houses in the Douro, this one is built of granite and the upper floor is living quarters whilst the lower level, built into the hill on three sides, was used as storage for the wines over the winter.  The house is marvellously cool even on the hottest days, so conditions are excellent for both inhabitants and wines.  We still use the big wooden balseiros to store some of the Tua wines, and the blogger sometimes finds it hard to fall asleep at night, for the scent of newly made Port wafting up through the floor boards.

Share this post

3 October Malvedos Winery Update

Same as yesterday and every day but one since the Vintage started here on the 15th:  hot and sunny – perfect.

Bin full of Touriga Franca waiting for pick up from the vineyard

Vineyard update

There is a public holiday on Wednesday 5th October (implementation of the Republic) and the way Arlindo’s team picked today they don’t want to miss out on it – bringing in 14,648 Kilos (a record this year) for the Vintage.  So tomorrow Arlindo thinks we will finish the remaining Touriga Franca and the small parcel of Tinto Cão which should be enough to fill one last lagar.

Winery Update

It was a really busy day today with lots going on and a night shift thrown in for good measure.  The team are tired but hanging in there, and now there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of finishing the picking everyone is speculating when they will get home. There is definitely a feeling now of mission nearly accomplished.

Take a look at this:  The colour is truly amazing in 2011 and in all honesty it’s the best I have ever seen at Malvedos across all the varieties in any given year.  It’s so deep and intense that adding one fifth of colourless grape brandy seems to make absolutely no difference to the final colour!

L to R: Half fermented must, aguardente, finished port wine just a few days old

From left to right in the photo – Must at the start of fermentation (note already pretty opaque); colourless grape brandy at 77% which is one fifth of any Port; the finished wine after fermentation and fortification.  Hardly any apparent difference in colour density!

Charles came round this afternoon and we discussed the final details of the picking order and lagares.  He tasted some of the first Franca lagares and commented that at this early stage they were very promising.

Paul Symington and an armfull of fermenting Touriga Franca

Visitors

A group came to visit from our UK distributor John E. Fells accompanied by Paul and João Vasconcelos, many of whom I already know and it was great to catch up with them.

Visitors often ask how thick is the cap that rises to the top of fermenting wine, so Paul demonstrated  by putting his arm into the lagar (see picture) as far as needed before he touched liquid must.  The cap is as deep as his elbow! This shows just how low the juice to skin ratio is this year, which is fundamental to the concentration of the final wines produced.

Tomorrow evening Paul has invited all of us for a pre-dinner drink up at the Quinta house.  There is a tradition here at Malvedos that at the end of the Vintage we all celebrate with a drink (lots normally actually) accompanied by some very nice canapés prepared by Branca and Prazeres.  It’s a chance to relax and let off steam – can’t wait!

Share this post

Harvest Update from Charles

Charles Symington, head winemaker

As we come into the last few days of the 2011 Harvest season in the Douro, Charles Symington, head winemaker, has given us his overview.

Of Graham’s five quintas, Tua and Vila Velha have completed their harvests, Quinta do Vale de Malhadas finished picking today, and Malvedos should finish Tuesday or Wednesday.  Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto, always a bit later than most, should finish picking this Friday or Saturday.

All the flagship quintas for our sister Port brands at Symington Family Estates will finish picking this week, with the high elevation Alvito, Netas and Noemia above Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha in the Pinhão Valley likely to finish last on Friday or Saturday.

Charles said it was unusual for the picking to conclude across all our major quintas in the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior within the same week; typically the Rio Torto and Pinhão Valley quintas finish later than our river quintas by a week or more.  The quantity of the harvest overall has been less than originally thought, and so our harvests have generally been quicker than planned by four or five days.  We have also been helped by the fantastic weather:  the pickers all turned up, and we have lost no days to rain.

Deeply coloured wines in 2011 - here, Touriga Nacional

Asked if he was happy with the quality across the board, he replied “Absolutely!  The Touriga Franca has ripened beautifully, with baumés of 13.5º to 14º, and the wines have fantastic colour.  Altogether it’s looking pretty promising.”

Reverting to the size of the vintage, Charles observed that although we started our harvest only 2 to 3 days earlier than usual, we are finishing overall almost 7 to 10 days earlier than normal.  He was not expecting that, and takes that as an indication of how small the harvest was overall.  This reduction in harvest would also ultimately be a contributing factor to the high quality of the grapes.

What will he do after the harvest is over?  “Sleep!”

Share this post

2 October Malvedos Winery Update

After a cool morning, like yesterday it turned into a very hot day.  As I write at 15:00 all I can say is I wish I was on the beach!  In Oporto apparently many people were.

Vineyard update

Picking Touriga Franca early morning at the top of the quinta

Although it’s Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised that we had 22 pickers (last Sunday we only had 16).  The reason for this is because during all the previous Sundays they have managed to pick their own grapes and now would rather skip church and come to work this Sunday.

Today the Franca at the top of the Quinta was finished and they ended the day mid –way down with half of block 15 picked (see map).  Nº 15 from experience is normally very good and gives almost a full lagar of grapes.  Sorry to be boring but the Franca still looks and smells great!

Now we are in the final stretch with the end of picking in sight bets are being taken by the winery team on ‘when exactly’.  Whoever gets closest to the day (it could be Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning) and the hour gets a dinner at the Calça Curta paid by the others.  My own hunch is Wednesday at 12 o’clock.

Winery Update

It was another busy day, of much of the same at the winery, and the fact that it is Sunday was irrelevant to us, as all days are the same in terms of routine.

Charles stopped by in the afternoon for just 15 minutes on his way back to Pinhão and tasted the latest fortification, a Nacional / Franca lagar.  He pronounced it “Very good” – again sorry to be boring but it is after all an excellent year!

We came back after dinner for a night shift as a lagar had to be transferred down for fortification in the winery below.  Fortunately it was a relatively early night and we were all in bed by midnight – we all need the rest after 18 days!

Arriving in authentic style!
Henry explaining the fortification process in the lower part of the winery

Visitors

This morning we received a group of 15 Belgian customers accompanied by João Vasconcelos.  For that authentic Douro Harvest touch, Arlindo picked them up at the train station in the lorry we use to transport the picking team around the vineyards, which they thoroughly enjoyed.  We gave them a tour of the winery and they were very interested in every step of the process, reception, the lagares, fortification and all.  Afterwards they went up to the house where João gave them a tasting of our full range of wines, which they appreciated all the more for understanding just how they were made.  After lunch at the Quinta they went downriver to Pinhão by boat.

Peter also dropped by with some friends and took the opportunity to have a taste of the latest wines.   “Very good” he said – sorry to be boring again but …  you can probably finish that sentence yourself by now!

Share this post