Countdown Begins for Graham’s Harvest 2012

The Port harvest season begins in the Douro in mid August, when we start weekly sampling of grapes from selected vineyards at each of Graham’s five quintas.  As the second week’s samples were being analysed, we caught up with Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker, and Steve Rogerson, our research oenologist who has been managing the data collection for maturation studies for us for more than 10 years.

The news is pretty straightforward right now, with no real surprises:

  • Overall, maturation is behind average, but we expected that, given that pintor (the change in grape colour from green to red) was almost two weeks later than average.
  • The grapes are in good condition – also as expected, since the dry conditions this year have helped limit outbreaks of fungal disease.
  • We expect lower than usual yields – no surprise, given the generally dry conditions and uneven fruit set this spring.
  • Right now, indications are for a late start to harvest.  Steve, comparing the data so far with statistical trends over the past 15 years, says that right now it looks as if it could be among the latest harvests we have had.  Charles, based on gut instinct, experience, knowledge of the vineyards and optimism, thinks we are likely to catch up and start not much later than usual.

Faithful readers will recall that in early July Charles was wishing for a cooler than usual summer and a little rain in July and August.  So far, his wish has been granted:  we have hardly seen 40ºC this summer, and nights have been cool.  We had useful amounts of rain at the end of July and again last week, the effects of which were reflected in this week’s grape samples, which showed a nice increase in sugars since the first samples were analysed.

There is no forecast of rain in the near future, but a little more before harvest would be welcome.  We are also hoping for continued temperate (for the Douro!) conditions; a really hot spell could slow the maturation as photosynthesis and plant function shut down in periods of prolonged high heat.

About Maturation Studies

Maturation studies involve two processes to analyse the grapes and estimate the start of harvest based on their maturity.  Just as highlighted in Charles’s and Steve’s different expectations for the likely start of harvest, one method is based on what we see, taste and know about our vineyards based on years of experience, and the other is based on rigorous scientific analysis.  Both approaches have value and come to bear in the final decision making.

Charles and Henry on a tasting tour of Malvedos last September

One process is simple and obvious:  visiting the vineyards and tasting the grapes.  From now through the end of harvest, Charles will spend a lot of time simply walking through the vineyards, looking at the state of the vines and tasting the grapes as he goes, to understand how the grapes are maturing and when we should begin our harvest.  As we get closer to harvest, he will be joined by Graham’s winemaker Henry Shotton and viticulturist Alexandre Mariz at Malvedos and Tua, and together they will determine picking order based on the quality of the grapes.

The other process is based on the laboratory analysis of grape samples.  Every week from mid August until harvest begins we gather 200 grapes from each designated parcel, and we sample several parcels of different grape varieties within each of our major vineyards.  Samples are gathered from the same vineyards on the same days each week to ensure data integrity.  For Graham’s, we gather samples from all five quintas since they are spread out across the region:  Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior, Tua, Malvedos and Vila Velha are all on the river in the Cima Corgo, and Quinta das Lages which is in the Rio Torto Valley, south of the Douro near Pinhão.

Maturation study sample of 200 grapes in a small hand press
Must samples prepared for research on anthocyanins and other components

In the lab, each 200 berry sample is weighed and then pressed, and the must from the press is centrifuged and the volume of liquid recorded.  These tests, along with an average bunch count per vine, help us anticipate the yields for each variety and quinta.  The must is poured into a glass and assessed visually for colour, then analysed for baumé (an indicator of sugars and probable alcohol) and acidity.  Then we do a good old fashioned taste test and record our tasting notes.

An additional 100 berries is being collected from select parcels for additional research.  These berries are being processed differently, with the lab team analysing the resulting must for levels of specific colour and flavour compounds as well as tannins.

Stay with us for updates on maturation studies, preparations for harvest and of course comprehensive coverage of the harvest and winemaking at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Tracking the Season – 16 August

It is nearly a month since we last visited Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos to check on the progress of our Touriga Franca vine.  During this time the viticultural team and caseiros all take their holidays – not only because at this point there is not much more we can do in the vineyards but watch and wait, but to get a deep breath and a good rest before we start the preparations and countdown to harvest.

The past month the weather has been steadily clear and sunny and warm, with high temperatures most days in the low 30’s, which is fairly normal for us in the central region of the Douro.  We have had no significant rainfall, just a few drops two nights ago.

A month ago the pintor – the colour change of the grapes from green to deep blue-purple – had only just begun.  Now, most grapes have turned colour.  Our Touriga Franca vine at Quinta dos Malvedos (see first photo) looks flourishing and healthy from its foliage, but unfortunately it is one of the vines that suffered from poor fruit set – there are very few bunches, and they are uneven, with very few grapes, some mature and purple but many more still green, and of all different sizes (left hand photo).  The next vine over, however, has some lovely full bunches, ripening well and more evenly (right hand photo).  Click on the images to view them full size, then use your browser back button to return to the blog.

This week was the first collection of samples for testing in the lab for maturity studies, we will follow up on this next week for the results of the analysis.

Over at Quinta do Tua, our new plantation is looking healthy and was enjoying a drink of water – we decided to irrigate this week.  In the Douro, as a rule, irrigation is only permitted in the first year of a new plantation, to help the infant vines get established.  For this purpose we have a “portable” system of drip feed irrigation hoses, which has been put in place at Tua for this year, and will be dismantled and can used another time when we have a new vineyard elsewhere.

To run the drip feed irrigation system over the entire 5 hectare plantation will take a week, as we water one section at a time and only in the mornings when it is cooler and the water has a chance to sink into the ground.  In the hot sunny afternoons it is likely the water would evaporate first, as the stony schist soil gets very hot in the sun.  Some of the young vines have even produced small grape clusters, but we will not harvest or vinify these – typically we do not vinify until the fourth year after planting, depending on conditions and the quality of the grapes.

Quinta do Tua 16 August, 10:52
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April 2012 Douro Insider

After months of forecasts promising rain and delivering sunshine, April finally brought some very welcome rain to the Douro Valley.  Coupled as it was with periods of overcast and generally cooler than average temperatures throughout the month, the vines were at last encouraged to put forth their shoots.

There were localised showers and even a band of hail on the 2nd of April which stretched from São João de Pesqueira up towards Carrazeda de Ansiães, which are on the south and north sides of the river respectively, around the Valeira Dam.  Luckily in these higher altitude areas budburst was barely underway so damage was negligible, despite the heavy fall of hailstones.  On the 5th  April the mixture of sun and showers resulted in some spectacular rainbows both at Tua and further upriver at Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.  The Easter weekend was similarly changeable, but we had some slightly more sustained spells of rainfall towards the end of the month.

The official drought declaration of the Portuguese Institute of Meteorology remained in force however, and on the 30th April 59% of the country was in “severe drought” and 39% in “moderate drought”.  The good (ish) news is that no areas this month were listed as suffering “extreme drought”, the worst rating on the scale.

Looking at our graphs for the year to date, April was cooler than average, with the mean temperatures for the month at Pinhão 1.8º cooler than our forty-year average – the coldest April in 12 years.  Overall our daily high temperatures across the Douro were 4º cooler than average and our lows were also below average, by not quite 1º.

Precipitation at Pinhão was 56.4 mm versus the 40 year mean 52.6, but this is 5.6 mm less than the mean of 62.0 mm  for the last 20 years.  Variation across the region was significant, and in an odd reversal of the usual patterns, our quintas in the Douro Superior received around double the rainfall of Malvedos for the month.

In April we finished the last of the new plantation work.  This includes planting of americano rootstocks to replace any missing vines and grafting Douro varietals onto the rootstocks planted last year or the year before.  Where we have entirely new plantations, we finished the planting where necessary and then began setting in the posts to establish our trellis systems.  Though possibly less aesthetically pleasing, we have moved to using metal posts for the majority of our new trellis systems:  the traditional blue schist is just too brittle and fragile to stand the occasional knocks from tractors in modern mechanised vineyards and wooden posts generally are heavily impregnated with chemical preservatives, which we would rather not have leaching into the soil of our vineyards.  The metal posts combine durability with neutrality in the vineyard environment.

As the vines finally began to send out their shoots, by mid month we got underway with the despampa, the thinning of the shoots to leave just the one strongest on each bud.  In tandem with this, we also remove any suckers that are sprouting from the rootstocks – we don’t want the energy of the vine going into these non-productive shoots.  This thinning helps to control yields where necessary and limit the density of the canopy, as too thick foliage could hinder the penetration of any anti-fungal treatments.  On the other hand, anti-fungal treatments were not a big concern this year – possibly the one and only good thing about the dry winter is that it seems to have  pretty well killed off the fungal diseases that linger in the vines, and we have had no mildio and very little oidio, which has been localised and easily controlled.

Finally, with the rain, all kinds of plants came to life, not just the vines, so we began the jobs of weed control and management of cover crops in the vertical plantations, so there was a bit of “lawn mowing” to be done in some quintas.

(Note that the Douro Insider is now a joint effort of Mário Natário, viticulturist for Quinta do Vesuvio and Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, and Cynthia Jenson, the Graham’s blogger)

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