The Devastating River Douro Flood of Christmas 1909

Sr. Arlindo, the farm manager at Quinta dos Malvedos points to the 1909 flood mark on the stone terraces.
Sr. Arlindo, the farm manager at Quinta dos Malvedos points to the 1909 flood mark on the stone terraces.

104 years ago, almost to the day, one of the most notorious floods in the recorded history of the Douro Valley wreaked havoc along the River Douro’s course, unleashing its relentless destructive force on countless riverside vineyards, villages and towns. The twin cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, straddling the Douro close to where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean suffered badly, particularly in the days leading up to Christmas. The previous post carried a photograph showing the Malvedos farm manager, Sr. Arlindo pointing to the 1909 flood mark, which is painted on a large slab of schist embedded into one of the stone terrace’s supporting walls currently undergoing restoration at Quinta dos Malvedos. This raised everybody’s curiosity at the Quinta and was quickly followed by some delving into the past to better understand the flood’s scale and how it impacted on Malvedos and the rest of the region.

Quinta dos Malvedos, photographed in early January 1910, a couple of weeks after the epic flood of Decemmber 1909.
Quinta dos Malvedos, photographed in early January 1910, a couple of weeks after the epic flood of December 1909.

First hand evidence of what happened exists in our own archives. In an entry in one of our preserved vineyard records books, dated January 11th 1910 and written at Quinta do Zimbro, just two miles (3.5 km) upstream from Malvedos, the account reads: “December 22/23 will always be remembered in the Douro Valley as being the date of the height of the most destructive flood; it carried away lodges, olive trees and vineyards. The water reached this house [Zimbro] and flowed through the lodge. After continuous rains through the whole month of December, the river Douro rose with extraordinary rapidity until the 23rd when it reached the lodge here, the iron work of the Pinhão bridge and even up to the top of the chapel door of the Quinta do Vesuvio. The destruction of all the lodeiros on the banks of the river being complete.”

The Quinta do Zimbro lodge (building on the right of the photograph, which was reached by the Douro floodwaters in 1909.
The Quinta do Zimbro lodge (building on the right of the photograph), which was reached by the Douro floodwaters in 1909.

Quinta do Zimbro, which was owned by the Symington family until the mid 20th-century, suffered much damage because its cluster of buildings were (are) built relatively close to the Douro’s banks (between 50 and 100 metres above sea level) — hence more vulnerable to the river’s unpredictable moods. In contrast, the house at Malvedos is sited on a commanding ridge at 150 metres altitude and was thus spared the worst effects of the raging torrent. The vineyards planted on the stone terraces built below the house and which descend towards the Síbio stream did sustain some damage, although the sturdy dry stone walls remained largely intact. The archive photo below (taken in the new year of 1910) shows the loamy deposit left behind on the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard terraces at Malvedos as the floodwaters receded.

The 'Port Arthur' Stone Terraces vineyard at Malvedos in the aftermath of the 1909 flood.
The ‘Port Arthur’ Stone Terraces vineyard at Malvedos in the aftermath of the 1909 flood.

The cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, which face each other close to the Douro’s estuary sustained widespread damage and some loss of life. The force of the torrent took everything in its path including 50 vessels, from fishing boats to steamers, which were washed out to sea and sank. Hundreds more broke their moorings and the force of the current smashed them against the banks and buildings on both the Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia sides. The Port lodges in Gaia built closer to the river’s banks sustained considerable damage. Period accounts tell of hundreds of pipes of Port being washed out to sea.

Buildings alongside the banks of the Douro in Porto suffer from the effects of the flooding during December 1909.
Buildings alongside the banks of the Douro in Porto suffer from the effects of the flooding during December 1909.

Abundant rain had been falling incessantly in the Douro region and in Porto since the beginning of the month of December. Adding to the volume of the Douro’s own waters were the discharges from scores of tributaries, many of them large rivers in their own right. By December 23rd, the rain finally stopped but the level of the river continued to rise remorselessly. It reached a point where its surface was just 50cm below the lower span of the Dom Luis ‘double-decker’ iron bridge (see photo below). It was feared this lower span could be washed away, possibly destroying the whole bridge. Emergency plans were hastily prepared to place explosive charges along the lower span, sacrificing it in order to save the main structure (including the upper span which linked the higher parts of the city of Porto and Gaia). Fortunately, this drastic measure proved unnecessary and one of Porto’s principal landmarks was saved. Inaugurated in 1886, it is still in use today, serving both the lower and higher levels of the twin cities.

The Dom Luis Bridge which narrowly missed being washed away by the destructive force of the 1909 flood.
The Dom Luis Bridge which narrowly missed being washed away by the destructive force of the 1909 flood.

From the early 1960s, hydroelectric dams began to be built along the course of the Douro and they have largely tamed this erstwhile wild and unpredictable river — almost. As recently as March 2001 the force of the Douro’s waters led to the collapse of a bridge at Entre-os-Rios, resulting in the loss of 59 lives.

The Douro floodwaters invade the lower sections of Vila Nova de Gaia, where many Port lodges were seriously damaged.
The Douro floodwaters invade the lower sections of Vila Nova de Gaia, where many Port lodges were seriously damaged.
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Tracking the Season – November 28th

Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.
Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.

The vintage in the Douro during September and October is the culmination of a year’s hard work in the vineyards. This very busy time at Quinta dos Malvedos is followed by a quieter period after all the grapes have been picked and all the wine has been made and stored. Calm descends on the Douro and it is time to take stock and make preparations for the new cycle, which begins afresh in the month of November, marking the start of the viticultural year (November – October).

Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) and the smaller terraces higher up.
Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) — called ‘socalcos’ in Portuguese — and the smaller terraces higher up.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua, does regular early morning rounds; over the last few days under clear blue skies and brisk temperatures around 3.5ºC. Recently he has been keeping a careful eye on the old stone-walled vineyard terraces at the entrance to the Quinta, which are being laboriously reconstructed following the fire that destroyed most of the vines there in 2010. This small vineyard was set alight by sparks, courtesy of an old historic steam locomotive that runs from Regua to Tua during the summer (picturesque, but not good for vines).

The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will take two to three rows of Sousão and Toriga Franca vines.
The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will each take two to three rows of vines. Note the rocky nature of the schist soil, which has been churned up to facilitate the planting of the vines early next year.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls.  Note how they were engineered, canting inward to avoid workers losing their balance and falling off the edge.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls. Note how they were engineered, canted inwards to avoid workers carrying heavy grape-laden vintage baskets falling off the edge.

The lower section of the vineyard has sturdy dry stonewalls that have not required any particular attention, a testament to the skill of the hardy men who built them during the 18th century. These supporting walls are quite massive, the highest (3.5 metres/11.5 feet) and thickest (up to 1.5 metres/5 feet wide) at Malvedos. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Sibio stream close to where it flows into the Douro. These large terraces are relatively wide providing a spacious platform, which will each take between two and three rows of vines. The Symington family has chosen the grape varieties that will be planted on them in February 2014: the Sousão (on the lowest, more sheltered terraces bordering the gully) and the Touriga Franca slightly higher up. The family believes this is a prime site for the Franca as the south and west-facing aspect of the vineyard ensures plenty of exposure to the sun — ideal for the Franca.

Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: "Cheia 1909" ('cheia': flood). This will be placed in its original position.
Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: “Cheia 1909” (‘cheia’: flood). This will be repaired and placed back in its original position.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.

Higher up the slope there is a steeper gradient, which dictated the smaller size of the dry stone walls (shorter and narrower) when they were hand-built, over two centuries ago. These sustained more damage as a result of the fire and accordingly have required painstaking reconstruction, again all done by hand by skilled stonemasons — a vital breed of craftsmen in the Douro. Machinery has only been employed when larger rocks have had to be moved and repositioned. These smaller terraces will be replanted with Alicante Bouschet (just one row on each), a variety not widely seen in the Douro but one in which Charles Symington places great faith due to its generous colouring properties, good acidity and useful contribution to a wine’s structure.

Alexandre is satisfied with the progress of the rebuilding of the old dry stone terraced vineyard, although there is still quite a lot to do. He and Sr Arlindo have also had to turn their attention to the pruning of the vines; the activity which best represents the start of the new viticultural year. Pruning will be the focus of the work at Malvedos and at neighbouring Tua for the next two to three months. To put the importance and scale of this manual task into perspective, suffice it to say that approximately one-third of the annual labour costs of the estate is the winter pruning, one-third is harvest related and one-third are all the other vineyard costs.

One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent
One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent growth.

At Malvedos and Tua there is an experienced team of six people who do the manual pruning.  Each worker uses an electric secateur, which makes the job much easier on the hands, and much faster generally.  Their red vests contain a battery pack to power the secateurs, which are strong enough to cut through an old thick vine if need be. Another advantage of these secateurs is that they ensure an effective clean cut, precluding the need for additional corrective trimming. The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but also to select and trim down vine spurs (leaving two buds on each spur), which will become next year’s growth.

A row of pruned vines at Malvedos
A row of freshly pruned vines at Malvedos.
Spent leaves and canes left behind two rows of vines to await shredding.
Spent vine leaves and canes left behind between two rows of vines await shredding.

Vine pruning at Malvedos and Tua involves making three separate operations in all the vineyards.  First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the careful and very skilful manual job of pruning each and every vine, and then pulling off the remaining pieces caught in the trellis and leaving them on the ground.  Finally the third operation is the cane shredding, where a small estate tractor tows a device that breaks up and shreds the old canes lying on the ground.  This shredded plant fibre is left to break down and adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil. Nothing goes to waste at Malvedos.

Judging by the lush green of the cover crops carpeting each terrace (see image below), one could be misled into thinking that abundant rainfall has come down recently but nothing could be further from the truth; the weather station at Malvedos has recorded a paltry 2.6mm of rain for the month of November thus far, with the forecast indicating zero precipitation for the last few days of the month. November is normally a wet month at Malvedos — 69mm was recorded in 2012 and 85mm in 2011 (the mean for the Quinta is 67.5mm). This is in sharp contrast to the previous month’s 110mm (double the monthly average for October at Malvedos which stands at 55mm). Fingers crossed for a lot more rain over the winter; this is really needed to replenish the water reserves, which the soil humidity readings indicate as being at a five-year low.

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