In a series of video clips to be shown throughout the year we will be exploring the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the third of the videos, documents bud-break.
Bud-break marks the end of winter dormancy and the start of the vines’ new vegetative cycle.
With the arrival of spring, buds begin to sprout during March; the timing varies with each grape variety and air temperatures.
In a series of video clips to be shown over the year we will be exploring the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the second of the videos, documents vine training and planting.
Training young vines and vine planting
Once winter pruning is concluded, the next task is to train the canes of the young two to three-year-old vines onto the lower wires of the vine trellises, known as the ‘fruiting wires.’ Vine-training in our vineyards follows the Royat single cordon system meaning that the cane (or cordon) is trained horizontally, only to one side of the vine trunk.
Starting in February and continuing through March is the planting (or replanting) of vines. Our vineyards are planted from the end of winter until the start of spring of the year after the preparation of the terrain, known as the surriba, which involves the turning over of the topsoil and subsoil, whilst at the same time building the terraces on which the new vines will be planted. In the past the vines were planted in two stages, one year apart; first the phylloxera-resistant rootstock was planted and a year later the scion of the chosen variety would be field-grafted onto it. In recent years the vast majority of our vineyards are planted with bench-grafted rootlings, which already combine the rootstock and the scion. The great advantage of this method is the greater uniformity of the planted vineyard, which thus comes into full production earlier.
On Saturday 13th of February, Symington Family Estates donated a new ambulance to the Vila Flor Volunteer Fire Brigade. Since 2007 the company has donated nine ambulances to the Fire Brigades of the Douro Valley in recognition of the invaluable services, that range from combating forest fires to emergency medical assistance, that they provide to the region’s communities.
The Symington family have previously donated ambulances to the volunteer fire brigades of the following Douro municipalities: Pinhão (2007), S. João da Pesqueira (2009), Provesende (2010), Carrazeda de Ansiães (2011), Lamego (2012), Régua (2013) Foz-Côa (2014), Tabuaço (2015), and now Vila Flor in 2016.
In a series of video clips to be shown over the coming year we will explore the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the first of the videos, documents winter pruning.
Winter pruning (November – January)
Winter pruning of the vines is a crucial, almost entirely manual operation that marks the beginning of the viticultural year in the Douro. Normally starting during the second half of November, it can go on for up to three months and ideally should be 50% complete before the end of the year. Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming, it accounts for around a third of our annual viticultural costs at Quinta dos Malvedos.
The process involves three separate stages. First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the redundant vine growth is removed with the use of cutters attached to small tractors. Next is the highly skilled manual task of pruning each vine, and removing the remaining tendrils caught in the trellis. Our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which increase productivity and make the task much less physically demanding. Finally comes the shredding of the spent canes lying on the ground. This plant fibre is then left to break down and adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil of Quinta dos Malvedos.
On Wednesday September 30th the last grapes from the 2015 vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos arrived in the estate winery. After twenty days of late nights, early mornings and all-night shifts, the harvest was over. In the end, the vintage came in under the wire as on Friday another rainstorm bore down on the Douro, this time damaging some of the region’s vineyards. Malvedos escaped any significant damage, which was particularly fortunate when we consider the new vineyards being lain out at the western extremity of the quinta.
Work in the winery continued until the weekend but the winery team were content, both because the quality of the wines made was superb and also because a well-earned rest was just around the corner. The bulk of the work was now well behind them and they could begin to wind down the operation until next year. The door to the winery was finally closed on Friday evening after the fermentation of the last lagares and the cleaning of the winery.
While many of those involved in the harvest will now make the most of their welcome rest, Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist at Quinta dos Malvedos) is already planning the next year in the vineyards. At the same time he is also supervising the shaping of new terraces at the western end of the quinta. In February or March of next year 4.9 hectares will be planted with Alicante Bouschet, an increasingly important grape variety that until now has been under represented in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos.
The next viticultural year will kick off with winter pruning, which usually begins in November.
Last week was indeed that of the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grape varieties at Quinta dos Malvedos. Since our last post several more lagares of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (and a lagar of mixed Touriga Nacional/Franca) have been fermented, and all have shown the great colour and high Baumé readings required for the production of high quality Port.
On Thursday the last of the grapes from Quinta do Tua came into the winery at Malvedos signifying that we have moved well beyond the halfway point in this year’s vintage. However, given that at the last count 62% of Quinta dos Malvedos’ vineyard parcels had been picked, there is still some distance to go before the winery shuts its doors for another year. This can be explained by the fact that almost exactly one-third of the Malvedos vineyard is planted with the late ripening Touriga Franca, much of which still has to be harvested.
Friday saw the fermentation of a mixed lagar of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca from younger vines. It is worth noting that young plantings tend to produce less concentrated wines with lower Baumé levels, however, in years to come the vines will produce progressively more concentrated wines.
This last weekend Charles Symington and Alexandre Mariz decided to postpone picking at the quinta for the second week in a row. An unusual decision, but one that makes sense given that the long-range weather forecast predicted good weather conditions for the coming days and it was felt that the Touriga Franca could still benefit from another few days of ripening before picking. All told, on Friday Charles Symington was very happy with how the year is progressing so far and felt that suspending the picking over the previous weekend had very visible results in the quality of the lagares that were fermented through the week.
Last week the winery team was reinforced by the arrival of Sofia Zhang. Sofia will be taking on the role of sales development manager in China and will be based in Shanghai and she was spending a few days with Henry Shotton and his team in order to learn more about how premium Port is produced. Sofia holds a master’s degree in viticulture and oenology, which will no doubt help her to pick things up quickly!
In the wake of tropical storm Henri, which passed overhead last Tuesday and Wednesday, the weather at Quinta dos Malvedos has thankfully returned to what would be considered normal for this time of year. These last few days have been sunny and warm, although not exceedingly so, and the long-range weather forecast suggests that things are going to stay this way for some time.
However, in the aftermath of the heavy rain, Charles Symington (Graham’s head winemaker) and Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua) found it necessary to carefully re-evaluate the condition of the quintas’ vines, and although the grapes were not adversely affected by the storm, on Friday afternoon they decided to call off all picking at both Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua. The reason for this is to allow the berries to benefit from the dry and sunny conditions, which should recover the Baumé levels by at least half a degree. Picking is now scheduled to begin again first thing on Monday morning.
This should work to counteract any dilution effect that the week’s rain may have had on the some of the quintas’ grapes, ultimately ensuring that they are able to fulfil the potential that is still very much in evidence.
Early in the week Henry and his team at Malvedos heard the weather forecast with some apprehension. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ was gathering strength over the Atlantic and fast approaching northwestern Portugal. On Tuesday, as predicted, ‘Henri’ hit the coast at Porto and quickly progressed inland where it buffeted the Marão mountains with strong winds and heavy rain. Vila Real, the district capital on the lee slopes of the range received 90mm of rainfall in just a few hours. As the front moved up the Douro Valley it lost some of its strength but it still delivered 54.8mm of rain over Malvedos on Tuesday alone, making September the wettest month at the quinta thus far this year. To offer some perspective, mean rainfall for September (30 year average) at Malvedos is 33.4mm.
But there’s rain and there’s rain, as any viticulturist knows. As the day wore on, the initial sense of foreboding gave way to a sense of relief; the rain did come down in buckets as forecast but not in the form of intense, damaging downpours. Rather it came down steadily, spaced evenly throughout the afternoon and the evening, allowing the soil to gradually absorb what it needed and permitting the run-off to drain away without causing any damaging erosion as so often happens in the Douro. Furthermore the strong winds, which came hand in hand with the rain, continued well after the rain had stopped in the early hours of Wednesday having the very positive effect of swiftly drying the grape bunches on the vines.
Once conditions became more settled Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, with Henry and Alexandre, took stock and decided that it was better to have had this rain rather than not have had it. Whilst the team at Malvedos initially feared a rerun of the 2014 harvest when the prospect of an excellent year was partially derailed by persistent rain halfway into the harvest, this year the situation is different. There was increasing concern that the hydric stress and consequent dehydration (following one of the driest springs and summers of the last half century) was beginning to take its toll on the vines.
Charles feels that this rain may well prove opportune, stopping further dehydration and allowing the unpicked grapes to get back into balance and fully ripen. There are still some very good parcels of Touriga Nacional to come in, and of course the whole of the Touriga Franca to pick. At this stage only one third of the Malvedos vineyard has been harvested. This timely rain, combined with the fact that the weather forecast for the rest of the month points to dry and sunny conditions with warm, even temperatures, means that ideal conditions should be in place for realising the full quality potential of this year’s harvest.
To allow the finest grapes to dry fully and benefit from the favourable conditions developing in the vineyards, for the next few days at Malvedos the pickers will resume picking the Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, mixed plantings and younger plantings, leaving the Touriga Nacional for later. Meanwhile in the winery some exceptional lagares are being made from grapes brought in before the storm arrived; in particular two outstanding ferments of Touriga Nacional, which showed spectacular Baumés of 14.3º and 14.35º with amazing colour. Henry is impressed by the exceptional colour of the musts he is seeing in all the lagares so far this vintage; without exception all are displaying the maximum ‘A’ colour grading in the chromatic range of ‘A’ to ‘F’.
It was a busy weekend at Malvedos with attention focused on picking the quinta’s prized stone terraces vineyards and bringing the grapes into the winery under ideal conditions. At the end of the first day’s harvesting last Thursday, Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist) and Henry Shotton (winemaker) were undecided as to whether picking of the stone terraces should start on Friday or Saturday. The weather forecast indicated a sharp drop in temperature and likelihood of some rain over the weekend and rather than take any chances, picking was brought forward by a day.
The grape pickers, known as the roga, worked their way methodically and swiftly through the two vineyard parcels that make up the stone terraces at Malvedos: the ‘Port Arthur’ and the ‘Cardenhos’ vineyards. Both of them hug the steep slopes below the ridge on which the quinta house is built: the Port Arthur being east-facing and the Cardenhos (which forms an amphitheatre behind the house), north-facing. These are the oldest vineyard terraces at Malvedos, having been hand-built in the 18th century and their aspects are in marked contrast to the predominantly south-facing Malvedos vineyards.
The seasoned roga, 24 strong, managed to hand-pick the two parcels in under a day; quite normal as they barely make up two hectares between them (2,708 vines). Henry was excited by the quality of the perfectly formed bunches of predominantly Touriga Nacional grapes which delivered excellent Baumé readings of 13.75º. The small, compact bunches with perfectly formed berries also showed superb colour, registering the maximum colour grade of ‘A’ in a descending spectrum running to ‘F’ (‘A’ represents the deepest colour and hence the finest quality). Henry’s satisfaction was written all over his face and he commented “we have given the lagar a lot of work and the colour and aromatics are amazing.”
Alexandre Mariz, the experienced viticulturist who manages Malvedos and Graham’s neighbouring Tua vineyard, was pleased to see his predictions fulfilled; rarely if ever has he seen such beautifully ripened grapes with such balanced maturations (sugar levels, acidity and colour). He is keeping his fingers crossed that the remaining Touriga Nacional from Malvedos can be picked at their optimal point of ripeness under ideal conditions. The Touriga Franca continues to develop well on the vines although another couple of weeks are still needed for this late-ripening variety to realize its full quality potential.
On Sunday evening the stone terraces lagar was run off and the must fortified. The quality is outstanding and the colour of the wine also superb, reflecting the extraordinary potential of this wine. Henry and Alexandre have labelled some sample bottles and eagerly await the opportunity to taste the wine with Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker and his cousins, Paul, Johnny, Dominic and Rupert over the next days.
The good news also extended to other parcels being picked, namely the Sousão grapes coming from Malvedos’s sister vineyard of Tua, located on the opposite bank of the Tua River, at its confluence with the Douro. The Sousão was giving superb Baumés of just under 14º. The colour of the musts in the lagar is remarkable and the Sousão could well be chosen as one of the components of a potential future Vintage.
At Malvedos we are bracing ourselves for some heavy rain forecast for north-western Iberia tomorrow. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ is racing across the Atlantic and it is predicted that it will combine with another storm in Western Europe and discharge heavy rainfall over northern Portugal and northwest Spain. The hope is that most of the rain will fall on higher ground in the lee of the Marão Mountains. The good news is that the storm is due to make rapid progress across the northwest tip of Iberia, and dry, sunny conditions are expected to follow.
This time yesterday (10th September) the last load of grapes from the first day’s harvesting at Quinta dos Malvedos were arriving to the adega (winery). Despite Wednesday (9th September) being overcast with a little drizzle, September has continued this summers’ trend of dry and slightly above average temperatures. The first day of the vintage was warm with blue skies and a light scattering of clouds, and as it was Port Wine day (which marks the demarcation of the Douro wine region on September 10th, 1756), it was a fitting date to begin this year’s harvest.
The first day’s objective was to fill and begin to ferment one lagar (approximately 10,000 litres) of mixed variety organic grapes from Malvedos’ higher altitude Sibio vineyards. To fill the lagar, the 24 strong roga (group of grape pickers) handpicked an impressive 11,400 kilograms by hand, and in doing so almost completely picked the 10-hectares of organic vines in one day. Henry Shotton, head winemaker at quinta dos Malvedos, complained that the only problem he had was that the grapes were arriving to the winery too quickly!
Planted in 1990, the Sibio vineyards contain some of the highest altitude vines on the property and were certified organic in 2014. Later this evening or early Saturday morning, the must from these vines will be fortified with organic brandy, making it the first time that organic Port will be made from the quinta’s own vines.
All the grapes looked in really fine condition coming into the winery and the Baumé reading from the lagar on Thursday evening was just over 13°. Pedro Leal da Costa, Symington Family Estates’ head of viticulture commented that this year all of the vines look really promising, and if the weather holds up, everything points to a Vintage year. Light rain has been forecast for Sunday however, but at this point we are not particularly worried about that.
Although we are still just at the beginning of what is always a few long weeks of very hard work in both the winery and the vineyards, everyone here is very optimistic that this will be a great year.
Over the next few weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on this years harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.