The Earliest Vintage – Douro Harvest Report 2017

The Quinta da Cavadinha winemaking team celebrating after 5 weeks of harvest

This has been a very dry and warm year in the Douro. From December 2016 onwards, every month had substantially below average rainfall apart from a 30-mm downpour and some localised hail on the afternoon of 6th July. This rain increased the year’s figures, but was of minimal benefit as most simply ran off the vineyards in torrents, causing some damage to terraces. Lots of our valuable soil ended up in the Douro river, which flowed golden-brown for a few days.

Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão recorded just 302 mm of rain in the 11 months from 1st November 2016. This is exactly 50% below average. Considering that grape yields in the Douro’s mountain vineyards are 4,300 kg/hectare (compared to 10,200 kg/ha in Italy and 13,300 kg/ha in Chile) the drought conditions we experienced this year were always going to be challenging. It is difficult to farm these steep hillsides. Even in years with good weather conditions, production in the Douro is low. A year of drought and heat like 2017 really reinforces quite how challenging our growing conditions are.

A dry and relatively warm winter was followed by the three crucial spring months – March, April and May – that were cumulatively 2.6˚C warmer than average and equally dry. The only surprising interlude was a cold spell during the last 10 days of March that on the 23rd brought a rare snowfall and localised frost. April was the driest since records began in 1931 and delivered an absurdly low 2.6mm of rain.

Bud-break began between 8th and 10th March, a week earlier than average and the vine development advanced at an even faster pace, with flowering taking place between 4th and 5th May, two weeks earlier than normal. It was apparent from June that our vines were adapting to the dry conditions, with limited shoot and leaf growth. They seem to have an extraordinary ability to know when it is better not to be exuberant.

June was the hottest since 1980, with a heatwave between the 7th and 24th and temperatures reaching 43˚C in the Douro Superior.  Pintor (veraison) occurred at Bomfim on June 22nd, two weeks ahead of average. July was equally hot and dry, but thankfully August was more moderate with relatively cool nights, bringing a welcome respite in the final phase of ripening.

By early August it was clear that this was going to be an early vintage and that the prolonged drought would not be relieved by any late summer rain.  The forecast for the weekend of the 26th & 27th did predict rain, but only a modest 4mm fell at Quinta do Vesúvio and an even more modest 2 mm at Bomfim. Maturation was so advanced in most vineyards by this stage that the rain was of little benefit.

In order to prepare for the harvest, Charles Symington had to call his winemaking team back from their summer holidays – a measure of how advanced this year’s cycle has been. Picking for our white wines started on 23rd August and for our reds on the 28th, 10 days earlier than any previous date recorded. The vines were showing signs of stress from dehydration and graduations inevitably were high.

A year like this brings the diversity of the Douro into sharp focus; the south and westerly facing vineyards suffered from the long hours of afternoon sun, whilst those above 300 metres had an altitude advantage with cooler temperatures. There was a contrast between the younger vines that struggled with less-developed root systems and the older vines that hardly seemed to notice the drought. The former were shedding their lower leaves by mid-August, a sign of vines going into survival mode. Their older cousins soldiered on with fine dark green leaves but few berries on each vine. Barroca is a variety that does not like drought and yields were very low at under 500 grams per vine on some plots, but Roriz performed remarkably well, as did the Douro’s great classic; Touriga Nacional. Touriga Franca, always a late-ripener, was exceptionally good and thrived this year.

Expectations were not high, but confidence grew by the day as the Douro wines and Ports showed surprisingly good colour and aromas. The weather stayed perfectly serene throughout with clear skies and crucially, with cool nights during the last three weeks of September. Such harvesting weather is of huge value to the ripe and fragile fruit.

The Douro is one of the world’s lowest yielding wine regions, and this year’s drought reduced production even further. Some of our vineyards produced 35% less than normal and the average is likely to be less than 940 grams per vine.

While visitors enjoy the traditional aspects of the Douro, in reality this was a year for using the best of modern technology in some areas. With raisining being the inevitable consequence of such a year, our Bucher Vaslin Oscillys de-stemmer machines, installed at five of our estate wineries, performed superbly. These de-stemmers operate without beater shafts or centrifugal force and use a swinging motion to separate grapes from the stems and gently reject damaged berries without damaging the grapes that pass through for fermentation.

There was a serious labour shortage in the Douro this year. This was partly due to the very early harvest but also because of the tourism boom in Portugal that has drawn people away from agricultural work. It is proving to be increasingly difficult to find pickers and this has become a serious problem as the grapes need to be harvested when they are ready. The Douro is waking up to reality; no other major European wine region is entirely picked by hand.

We finished harvesting our vineyards on 26th September, often the starting date of previous vintages. This has been a remarkable year but it is unlikely to be a one-off; there are clear indications that our future will increasingly be defined by climate change with higher temperatures and less rain. The Douro will need to adapt if it is to continue to make great wines and Ports from this, the largest area of mountain vineyards on earth.

Now that the dust has literally settled (the first rain for many months has just fallen) on our earliest ever harvest, we are pleased to see that some very good Douro wines have been made, particularly the red wines with gorgeous colour and concentration, and the Ports are also promising with purple-black colours and intense flavours.

Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, 18-10-17

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A Year With a Special Rhythm – 2016 Douro Harvest Report

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos. Symington Family Estates. Harvest Report
Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Miguel Potes

This was the year to really know your vineyard in the Douro; each location and each variety developed at its own individual rhythm and winemakers had to be constantly in the vineyards. Deciding to harvest on a hunch or following fashion was definitely not a good idea in this special year. Intimate knowledge of the vineyards combined with patience has delivered the just reward of some beautiful Ports and Douro wines.

The viticultural year started well with a good wet winter, bringing more than double the rainfall of the previous 2014/15 winter and some 80 mm more than the average of the last 30 years. Warmer than usual temperatures advanced the vegetative cycle by 10 days in most areas. However, the challenge came when unexpectedly the wet weather continued into April and May, with three times the average rainfall for these two months. Locals were presented with the extraordinary site of the Douro in full spring flood. This made the river unnavigable and all boat traffic was stopped, resulting in countless tourists being unable to board their hotel-boats and cruise up the valley to Spain.

The wet and cool April and May made it absolutely necessary to work intensively to protect the vines. The Douro is not well suited to such a challenge, with its incredibly steep vineyards and its highly fragmented land ownership. The largest area of mountain vineyard on earth has 17,000 farmers owning less than one hectare of heavily inclined hill-side vines. Many are elderly and have neither the time nor the resources to undertake the necessary measures to protect the vines in such conditions, and it is estimated that the Douro will have produced at least 25% less wine than in a normal year. Those that were able to care for their vines during this period, emerged with a fine and healthy crop of grapes, although the lower temperatures slowed development.

June and July brought a return to more normal weather but August was unusually hot and this further slowed the maturation and put considerable strain on the vines. The miraculous, rare, and much-desired August rainfall fell on the 24th and 26th August, but was localized with little evident in the Pinhão valley. Useful amounts fell at Malvedos (18mm), Vesuvio (7mm) and Ataíde (12mm), exactly where it was most needed.

September started with an intense heat wave and a high of 43.0 ̊C on Tuesday 6th measured at Quinta do Bomfim. The Douro has become very busy with tourists this year and they could be seen crowding into the few air-conditioned locations to escape the heat, mixing with worried looking farmers in the cafés of Pinhão, Pesqueira and Tua. The stress on the younger vines, with their less developed root systems, was clear. However, the older vines were coping well, with fine green leaves and healthy looking fruit, their deep roots drawing on the humidity from the wet winter and spring. But ripeness for the vines was still some way off as they coped with the special conditions of 2016, and it was clear that a late harvest was desirable in order to bring the vines to optimal maturity. A hasty rush to harvest early for those who were not aware of what was really happening in the vineyard following weeks of intense heat, would be to miss a golden opportunity.

From 7th September the temperatures began to reduce and after weeks of careful monitoring of the vines, using modern analytical methods but also the ancient but utterly reliable method of tasting berries in each vineyard, Charles Symington set the picking dates for the 15th for some of our more easterly Quintas, and the 19th for the others. On the 12th and 13th rain fell across the entire Douro region, with 18mm at Cavadinha, 16mm at Bomfim, 20mm at Malvedos, 15mm at Canais, 12mm at Vesuvio and 13mm at Ataíde. Charles suspended picking of the best varieties, either sending the pickers home, or switching them to the younger or less important varieties. Following this well timed rainfall, the harvest resumed on our vineyards on Monday 19th once the vines had accommodated these refreshing showers and had adequate time to rebalance. Charles took another important decision on the 22nd September and delayed picking the Touriga Nacional until the 26th, as the vines were taking their own time to reach maturity. Since then the vintage has proceeded with perfect weather and cool nights. It is rare to be finishing the Douro harvest during the week of the 10th October having had four perfect picking weeks under blue skies.

With this year’s special conditions, the vines chose their own rhythm and it was absolutely necessary to understand what was happening in the vineyard after the hot summer. There is no doubt that this year the vines took far longer to regain their all-important balance. This knowledge could only be acquired by many hours of careful analysis amongst the vines. It is only necessary to see the lagares of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and of old mixed Douro vines, currently ending their fermentations, to see what an exceptional result awaited those who did the essential work and had the necessary patience.

Paul Symington,

12 October, 2016

A note from the winemaker:

“The weather throughout the vintage has been exceptionally good and this has allowed for maturations to develop perfectly. We have been able to decide when to pick without the concern of the weather changing, having stopped the vintage at different properties to allow for ideal ripening to be achieved when necessary. The lagares have been giving balanced Baumés and exceptional colour and the Touriga Franca may well be the best wine of the vintage. The wines have wonderful freshness and elegance as well as structure.”

Charles Symington

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2015 Douro Harvest Report

Picking at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges

‘The Franca lagares have been spectacular’

- Charles Symington, 5th October 2015

An exceptional viticultural year is coming to a close in the Douro with farmers and winemakers pleased that a year’s work has resulted in some very good Ports and Douro wines.

The rainfall figures for the viticultural year show a reduction of 44% on the 21 year average, with just 359 mm registered at Quinta do Bomfim, in the heart of the Alto Douro, for the 11 months to the end September 2015. This level of rainfall would cause serious concern in many wine areas, but does not in the Douro where the indigenous vines are superbly adapted to be able to mature fruit in dry conditions, albeit resulting in the very low yields which are so characteristic of the region.

The geography of the Douro and its schistous soils has an amazing ability to retain the winter rain and this is evidenced by the springs that continue to supply the Quintas and the villages scattered across the hillsides even after 8 or 10 weeks without any meaningful rainfall. Dry farming has recently become a fashionable topic in the world of wine but this subject causes wry amusement in the Douro where farmers have been ‘dry farming’ for centuries and irrigation only covers a tiny percentage of the vineyards.

The little rain that did fall this year in the Douro was nicely timed in May and June and was of ‘the right sort’, being steady and prolonged. This is important as short spells of very heavy rain will simply run off the Douro’s terraces, bringing little benefit and can cause serious erosion. Hence the fact that Douro wine makers never give full credence to the published rainfall figures, knowing that very heavy rain does not always reach the vines and often just ends up in the river.

The period between March and June this year was simultaneously the hottest and driest period for 36 years and flowering and veraison took place between 8 and 10 days earlier than normal, as expected given these conditions. However, July and August were cooler than average and this was of extraordinary benefit to the vines. If the normal heat of August had occurred, dehydration and raisining would certainly have followed, given the dry conditions, and the vines would have been forced to shed their lower leaves, reducing vital shade cover. The grape bunches were in really excellent condition by early September and have seldom looked so fantastic. The cool night-time temperatures had done wonders for the natural acidity in the berries.

The harvest started earlier than normal and the quality of the grapes was immediately apparent. Our sorting tables were seeing hugely reduced rejection levels to the delight of our farm managers and our winery teams. Heavy rain fell on Tuesday 15th September and on the morning of the 16th, but this was followed by a strong wind that very satisfactorily dried the grapes. After 10 weeks with no meaningful rain, the vines greedily absorbed the water and dilution in the berries inevitably followed. This was the critical moment of this year’s harvest and Charles immediately called a halt to picking in our best vineyards. This is never an easy decision given the unsettled weather that often comes towards the end of this month. Picking in our vineyards only resumed on 21st September and Charles said a few days later: ‘It is amazing how much difference 4 or 5 days can make’. Without this rain the final phase of maturation of the Touriga Nacional and especially the Touriga Franca would not have been ideal, as dehydration would certainly have occurred after such a prolonged period with no rain. In the circumstances the steady rain of 15th and morning of 16th September (77mm at Quinta da Cavadinha, 52mm at Quinta do Bomfim, 63mm at Quinta dos Malvedos and 27mm at Quinta do Vesuvio) was absolutely perfect, provided picking was suspended for a few days. The Nacional and Franca picked during the week of the 21st and that of 28th September were of simply extraordinary quality, as were some of the old mixed plantings picked during this period. The rain softened the skins, allowing the colour and flavours to merge superbly into the wine.

Yields were somewhat below the already small average in the Douro, and Charles recorded 25% less Franca at Quinta do Bomfim this year with just 1.05Kg per vine, but with a perfect level of ripeness.

Only on Sunday 4th October (General Election day in Portugal) did the weather break and by then our very best grapes were safely in our wineries. Courage was needed to suspend picking in mid-September, but the days that followed the resumption of the vintage were beautifully sunny and calm: the risk was well worth taking and paid off handsomely. These 13 days, from 21st September to 4th October will come to be seen as the key to the great Ports and Douro wines made this year, we have no doubt.

Paul Symington.

7th October 2015

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The Year of the Fox – 2014 Douro Harvest Report

The Malvedos’ Fox. Photo: Unknown

This was a challenging year in the Douro. We had a very wet period from December through to February with 44% more rain than normal. Apart from the difficulties encountered by those engaged in replanting vineyards, this rain was most welcome. It was coupled with mild temperatures that encouraged early bud-break in the first week of March at Malvedos. The weather remained unsettled through the early summer and on 3rd July a huge rainstorm hit parts of the Douro, with over 80mm falling in a few hours, mainly around Pinhão. This caused extraordinary damage, flooding the local railway station and precipitated an avalanche of rock and mud that destroyed the car of a well-known wine maker in the village (fortunately nobody was in the car at the time). Many farm roads were ruined and for a few days the River Douro ran golden yellow with the large amounts of precious soil that had been washed off the hillsides, once again highlighting the challenge of farming in the largest area of mountain vineyard on earth. Thankfully no hail fell and the vines themselves were largely unharmed, but the farmers had the unwelcome added expense of getting JCB’s in to re-build their farm tracks.

Once the mess caused by this July storm was cleaned up, it became clear that the vines were enjoying the cooler weather which persisted through August. In fact we all began to think of 2007, when an equally cool August delivered some stupendous quality grapes to our wineries.

The maturation continued some two weeks ahead of last year and picking started on 11th September at Malvedos, earlier at our more easterly vineyards. The grapes were in really lovely condition; soft skins, full berries and balanced sugars and acidity, perfect for making great Port and very good Douro wines. But Mother Nature was not in a mood to help us and the weather remained unsettled. In some areas this caused problems, in others the rain made little impact. It is clear that some extraordinarily good wines were made in the Douro Superior which had only occasional rainfall and that was of short duration and therefore ran off quickly.

Parts of the Alto Douro had an excellent vintage, other areas less so, and unfortunately parts of the Baixo Corgo had a difficult time. Charles Symington commented: ‘It has been an extraordinary vintage, the difference in rainfall between Pinhão and Tua being almost hard to believe’.

Touriga Nacional was consistently good this year, showing its undoubted class. But what was surprising was how very well Touriga Franca performed. This variety ripens late and its tight bunches and thin skins are a recipe for danger in a year like this. Nevertheless some wonderful wines are emerging from this variety. Souzão was also a star of this vintage.

Inevitably our wine makers had to make difficult choices, so the less blue-eyed varieties had to take second place and some suffered. Various vineyards located near water courses and in the tighter and lower valleys were damaged, as was predictable. The hand-picking that predominates in the Douro, with increasingly heavy cost implications on producers, delivered a huge advantage to us in our winemaking in 2014 as a crucially important selection is made by the pickers, something that is impossible in a machine-picked vineyard.

In a region that is over 90 km long and with an average annual rainfall that varies from nearly 1,000 mm in the west to under 400mm in the east, it is simply not possible to give a blanket assessment of any year and in particular this year. What is certain is that it was not a glorious harvest right across the region as it might have been if the weather had held during September and overall yields will be down, possibly by a significant amount. But equally certain is that in such a diverse region some real gems will have been made as the grapes were in such lovely condition at the outset. The vineyards that were lucky enough to escape the rain, and many did, will have made some really lovely Ports and Douro wines.

Furthermore those winemakers lucky enough to be able to get grapes from various locations across the Douro will certainly have made some brilliant Ports and wines. It was a year to take full advantage of judicious vineyard investment in the best sub-regions.

As if to force home the point about the weather and just as the harvest was being wound up, another astonishing rain storm hit at about 7.00 AM last Wednesday 8th October. In just two hours over 80mm of rain fell in parts of the Douro, again causing extensive damage to farm tracks (some just recently rebuilt after the July storm) and causing great difficulties to those still harvesting and making the river run golden yet again.

Why ‘The Year of the Fox’? The fox is a wily creature and this year it was necessary to be wily (and lucky) and also because our wine maker at Malvedos, Henry Shotton, was fast asleep and alone one night on a mattress in the darkened winery, waiting for a lagar of must to be ready to run off sometime in the night. He awoke to feel something tugging at his boot laces. His fear can only be imagined, and when he sat up he saw that a small fox was trying to steal his boot. Very early the next morning the fox returned, this time to try and eat the fresh bread just delivered by the Tua baker that was hanging on the vineyard trailer…

Paul Symington

13th October, 2014

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2012 Douro Harvest Report

Picking at Quinta do Malvedos. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges

The Douro vines and its vineyards have an extraordinary way of surprising even the old-timers in the mountain villages of Sabrosa, Alijo and Provesende.  In 2011, the region had a huge 40% drop in rainfall and this year 54% less has fallen than average to the end of September.  When a vineyard receives just 217 mm in 9 months, which was the case of the Quintas around Pinhão, the consequences are to be feared.  Many predictions of disaster were to be heard from farmers in the village squares on Saturday mornings before the harvest.  But yet again the Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Barroca, Roriz and others, showed that they are the real masters of our geography.  These Douro varieties can turn the little green berries of May and June into lovely dark red and ripe fruit, even when it has rained so little for the last 21 months.

The first three months of 2012 were really concerning with just 16.4 mm falling over 90 days; there was no effective winter rain from 1st January this year till April (we should have had over 200 mm).  It seemed that the gods were against us, because we then had 128 mm in April and May, just when the crucial flowering and fruit set takes place.  But the low bud-burst, in part due to conditions in the spring of 2011, was what we needed; relatively low quantities of fruit so that the vines would have fewer bunches and berries to ripen.

A burst of intense heat hit the Douro over the weekend of 23rd and 24th June.  Exactly the same had occurred over the same São João weekend in 2011.  Maybe the Port producers and farmers have to stop going to the traditional all-night festa on the 23rd June, with consequential hangovers, and stay in their vineyards during São João and shade their vines.  This sudden heat caused sunburn and raisining to some of the more exposed grapes.

July and August were relatively mild with average temperatures of exactly 23.7ºC in both months.  The 21 year average for July is 25.0ºC and for August 25.3ºC.  So these moderate temperatures had a profound and positive impact on the quality of the fruit and the wines.  Charles Symington, responsible for winemaking at our Quintas, commented that this year showed beyond doubt that excess heat before the harvest is more worrying for our vineyards than drought.  The Douro grape varieties will somehow find any humidity that there is deep down in the soil.  What they cannot cope with is extreme heat that will raisin their berries. In general there was very substantially less raisined fruit this year than we have had in the last two harvests.

Devastating hail, the result of a thunderstorm, hit the Pinhão valley on the afternoon of Wednesday 25th July and swept over towards São João de Pesqueira.  This was one of the worst hailstorms of recent times and totally destroyed some vineyards (this storm knocked over the 83 year old mother of the writer of this report, breaking her rib).  As usual neighbouring vineyards simply got a welcome drenching.  A little rain fell again on the 15th August.

Picking started some 10 days later than normal this year on the 13th September at Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta dos Canais, on the 17th at Quinta dos Malvedos and on the 20th at Quinta do Bomfim and the Rio Torto Quintas.  The lead-up to picking had been complex, as Charles and his viticultural team analysed the relative ripeness of the different vineyards and grape varieties.  The drought caused the ripening to follow a somewhat erratic pattern, with cooler days causing sudden increases in sugar readings, it was important to have a very clear picture of what each variety and each vineyard was doing.   Heavy rain came from the Atlantic and over the Marão on the 23rd September with 20mm and again on the 25th with a further 23mm.  This rain brought far cooler night and daytime temperatures.  Previous to this it had been rather hot, requiring extensive cooling of the musts in the lagares.  Inevitably the water was swiftly taken up by the vines and some dilution occurred in the following days, not the harbinger of great wines.  Charles decided to suspend picking at the top vineyards on the 29th and 30th in order to allow the vines to recover their equilibrium and to concentrate the sugars.  This was a risky thing to do as the September equinox normally brings unsettled weather and we could have had a disaster on our hands if the rainy weather had persisted.  In fact the gamble paid off wonderfully and the Touriga Franca picked last week, and up until the 10th October, was harvested in perfect condition under clear skies and moderate temperatures.

Yields were remarkably low with many vineyards in the Douro Superior recording drops of up to 40%. Malvedos gave an average of just 0.65 kgs per vine, 50% less than average. This is an incredibly low yield of about 14 hectolitres per hectare (final figures need to be calculated over the coming weeks).  Other great vineyards elsewhere in the world will give 40 to 50 hectos or more per hectare on a regular basis.  The accountants will not be happy with 2012, but the winemakers and tasters certainly will be.

The Douro grapes this year were in lovely condition, with small berries giving excellent colour and flavours and the musts looked really first-rate. Early tastings confirm considerable acidity and freshness in the samples.  Not all vineyards produced great wines as the drought caused some stress to the more exposed vines and to the drier parcels, but overall this year was a remarkable example of how our Douro vines can cope with drought, as long as it is not too hot.

This year three young members of the 5th generation of the Symington family worked with the winery teams during the harvest, getting their first experience of hands-on winemaking.

Paul Symington,
16th October, 2012

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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

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2010 Douro Harvest Report

Grapes at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Andrew May

After three very dry years, the winter of 2010 saw an extraordinary change and the Douro had an absolute deluge.  There were days in the vineyards when all that could be heard from every quarter was the sound of running water.  Being an area of mountain vineyards, this brought us considerable problems of erosion and fallen stone walls; it was a challenging and very expensive winter.  At Bomfim we had 50% more rainfall from October to March 2010, 789 mm instead of the mean 524mm.  This was a lot of additional water, but much needed.

The world’s great vineyards are all famed for their particular soils and how these cope with drainage, and the Douro is no different.  A wet winter is vital in order to replenish the humidity deep in the schistous rock of our vineyards.  Rarely has a wet winter been as important as this one.  We had no rain at all in July and August, literally not one millimetre for more than 8 weeks.  These are not normally wet months, but the long-term mean is 10mm and 28mm respectively and this is valuable.  To add to this challenge, August was hot with average daily maximum temperature over 35⁰ C.  To quote Miles Edlmann, one of the members of our viticultural research team, ‘Vines need humidity and temperatures below 35⁰C to photosynthesise, so it came as no surprise to see that maturation this summer was delayed’.

Once again the ability of our Douro grape varieties to cope with the harsh climate became evident.  In a hot July and August, the considerable leaf growth resulting from the wet winter was most welcome as the abundant leaves shaded the bunches and gave the vine more ability to ripen the fruit.  The old vines with deep roots were better off and in the Douro these roots can go down 25 metres and more.  Here amongst the deep fissures of our particular schistous rock there was thankfully still plenty of humidity this year.  Many expensive hours were spent watering the 6 month and 18 month old vines in July and August, or many would have certainly died.  The upside of the lack of summer rain was that the grapes were almost entirely free of any disease and were in very good condition, minimal treatments having been needed.

We had a delayed cycle this year, so we started picking some 5 days later than usual, on the 13th September at Quinta do Vesuvio, the 16th at Sra Ribeira, Telhada, Vale Coelho and Tua.  Quinta dos Malvedos, Bomfim and Retiro started on the 20th and Cavadinha was started only on the 23rd in its cooler and higher position.

It soon became clear that some varieties had coped a lot better than others.  The Nacional had very good phenolic maturation, but was held back by my cousin Charles Symington and our vineyard manager Pedro Leal de Costa, almost to the end in order to get a more complete ripeness.  Miles wrote ‘the Nacional had very dark seeds early on and the flavours were well developed’.  The juggling act that we have every year was played out again.  Chancing the weather forecasts, analysing the impact of the small showers on the 1st (1.6mm) and the 7th September (2.4mm), with another 6.6 mm on the 17th, all make the difference between making good wines and making really great wines.  It was decided to bring in the Barroca first, followed by the Roriz, with the Nacional only coming in at the end of the month just before the Franca.  Picking was actually suspended for a few days in some of our vineyards to give the Nacional more time.  This was an expensive and risky choice; the pickers have still to be paid or they will leave and are most unlikely to come back, and the weather forecast may not be right…

It appears at this early stage (some tanks are still fermenting) that the Touriga Franca, always a late ripener, has performed less well in some vineyards this year.  Franca did not like the conditions in some areas, but in others it was very fine.  But the excellence of the Nacional has more than made up for this.  Charles wrote ‘the wait was well worthwhile, the Nacional musts being well balanced with good colour, producing wines with very elegant aromas’.

Virtually throughout the harvest, we have had perfect weather.  Charles wrote ‘The showers (in September) were small interruptions to the clear blue skies and pleasantly warm weather experienced throughout the entire month’.  On the 3rd October, as often happens at this time, strong storms blew in from the west and over the Marão, and we had a lot of rain overnight in the Douro.  But remarkably the weather improved again and the forecast heavy daily showers simply did not fall.  Today, the weather is still fine as the last grapes come in.

So 2010 proved again that in the vineyard no two years are ever the same.  Yet again we had a very different cycle for our vines and we have used our experience to try to get the very best from our fruit.  Yields have been larger than the last two years, which were very low, but we have only returned to normal productions at our own vineyards.  Overall the region is likely to have had quite a large year.

Once again our family were managing two large wineries, Sol and Bomfim, and we again ran no fewer than 7 small specialist wineries at Vesuvio, Sra Ribeira, Canais, Tua, Malvedos, Cavadinha and Roriz.  Each small winery had its dedicated team making no more than a few hundred pipes.  They are now finishing some 5 weeks of non-stop work as this report is being written.  Our wine making teams have made some very good Ports and DOC wines this year, they now deserve a few days off.

For additional and detailed information about the 2010 harvest as it happened, this blog tells the real life story of how Port is made.

Paul Symington.

17th October, 2010

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2009 Douro Harvest Report

The wrought iron gate at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Andrew May

This has been a challenging year for the people of the Douro and the vines that they cultivate. Three dry years in succession in a region such as ours complicates the already difficult task of farming mountain vineyards. By the end of September only 285 mm of rain had fallen at Quinta do Bomfim, 40% less than normal. Many neighbouring villages have been with little water, sustained only by tanker deliveries from the volunteer fire brigade. Peoples’ wells and springs were giving the merest trickle of water and the Douro dust was thick on all our farm tracks and covered our vehicles. At Vesuvio the young Touriga Franca that was planted in March had to be watered by hand five times. The Douro is not an easy place to farm.

But this was not like 2005, a year when drought and heat combined to assail our vines. June gave 39.6 mm of rain and this was enough humidity for the vines to face the summer and they were in good shape with enough leaf growth for bunch shade. The Douro is perhaps the most diverse wine region on earth. It is nearly 100 km long and an average of 25 kms wide with a very wide range of terroirs. Some vineyards are at the river’s edge at 90 metres and others are high up the valley at 450 metres, temperatures, ripeness, aspect and sun exposure vary widely. It is impossible to give an assessment that will characterise the whole Douro in a year such as this.

The low-lying vineyards that face south in the Douro Superior above the Valeira dam did suffer this year, it could not be any other way. The classic Douro heat came on the 12th August, having been quite cool till then. On the 13th the temperature reached 40° C and it stayed in the high 30’s for several days. On the 9th and 10th September, we again had hot weather with temperatures nearly touching 40°C, after which there was a gradual cooling.

It was quite strange; we had our vintage gear ready for the cool nights and we warned friends due to visit that they might need coats but they needed hats. It became apparent that the thin-skinned Barroca in some low south facing locations had suffered from dehydration. Baumés were high and with the warm weather there was pressure to start picking. Our viticultural team, who take their holidays in July, had been at work for weeks in the vineyards carefully measuring the evolution of the berries while most people were in the Algarve. Our team knew that the phenolic ripeness was not there yet. Green stalks and un-ripe tannins in the pips are not a good recipe for great Ports and wines even if the Baumé’s were high. So despite knowing that we were losing berry weight, we held off while a few hot-heads rushed to pick.

Nevertheless it was an early vintage and we started picking at Quinta do Vesuvio, Telhada, Vale Coelho and Senhora de Ribeira on the 7th September and at Malvedos on the 14th. Bomfim followed on the 17th and Cavadinha on the 20th. This is about a week earlier than the average. There was absolutely no sign of any rot in the berries and unless heat-affected, the bunches were in excellent condition and gave good concentrated colour and aromas. Cooling the musts was required on many days.

Yields were substantially down, by about a third in my family’s vineyards. In the whole region the reduction will not be as large as the Lower Douro (Baixo Corgo) is considerably wetter, with richer soils. The reduction in yields was due to the low rainfall and to rigorous selection on the sorting tables, so good wines will emerge. In some vineyards we had our teams picking into different coloured boxes, one for the first quality fruit and another for the de-hydrated bunches. Each contour on the hillside gave a different quality.

Our challenging geography and our well-adapted grape varieties played decisively in our favour and fine Ports and wines were made from particular vineyards in some areas of the Douro. Barroca at about 450 metres was really excellent and enjoyed the dry weather at this altitude. Touriga Nacional had a great year in most places and showed how incredibly well adapted this vine is to the Douro climate. The late ripening Touriga Franca also performed very well. My oldest son Robert, working at Roriz for his second harvest made a perceptive comment midway through the harvest; ‘The quality band here seems to have moved up the hill-side by some 150 metres’. This is exactly what happened.

This was a year for flexibility. It would have been a mistake to stick to the traditional patterns and my cousin Charles was busy switching the varietal picking order around as the conditions changed. We had the major advantage of farming vineyards from Quinta de Telhada in the far east of the valley just 30 kms from the Spanish frontier as well as vineyards to the west in the Pinhão valley at nearly 500 meters. With 25 Quintas, from the tiny Madalena in the Rio Torto to the imposing Quinta do Vesuvio, this diversity allows us to select some lovely wines in a year such as this. Running several small wineries in widely separate districts (some processing no more than 120,000kg of grapes) costs money but is a decisive quality factor. This is a logistic challenge, but the specialist wineries at Vesuvio, Sra de Ribeira, Tua, Malvedos and Cavadinha again proved their worth, receiving a steady flow of the very best quality fruit that each team handled with the utmost care and attention. Each winemaker likes the idea that they are personally responsible for each ferment.

On the night of the 6th to 7th October, just as the last day’s picking was due to start, nature played a nasty trick and delivered a monumental storm that came powering in from the West over the Serra de Marão. Over 60 mm of rain fell at Cavadinha and caused damage to farm tracks and to some young vineyards. 60 mm was more than the total rainfall for any month since January and it all fell in just a couple of hours. This was nature’s way of telling us who really is in charge. We need rain, but not like that.

Paul Symington.

25th October, 2009

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