The seeds of a good vintage

While we wait patiently for the adega (winery) at Quinta dos Malvedos to open its doors this Thursday, the terraced vineyards continue to ripen under the watchful eyes of Graham’s experienced viticulturists. Of course, correct maturation is essential to a successful vintage and knowing when the grapes should be picked is fundamental to the production of great wine.

While an assortment of modern scientific techniques are nowadays employed to judge how ripe the grapes are, other more simple methods continue to be used, probably unchanged since man first began to cultivate the vine.

While judging the correct balance of sugar and acidity in the grapes by taste and an evaluation of the feel and outer colour of the grape are widely known methods of assessing maturation, the colour of a grapes seeds can also be used to gauge ripeness.

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An unripe grape (right) with a more mature one (left), taken several days ago.

As a grape matures its seeds will gradually change from a light green to a dark brown or almost black colour and as such are a quick and easy way to determine if a certain variety is maturing well or not.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on this years harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Vintage postponed several days at Quinta dos Malvedos

In the end, the rain forecast for last Sunday (see previous post) never fell over Quinta dos Malvedos, instead temperatures spiked to 38.6 degrees Celsius over the weekend closing what was a very dry month indeed (2.8mm of rain fell over the course of the month). The August 30-year average rainfall for Quinta dos Malvedos is 13.6mm, and while not exactly a lot of rainfall, it is almost five times more than actually fell this year over the same period.

August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.
August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.

In many of the Douro Valley quintas that produce table wines, the vintage has already started, however, for the production of great Port, grapes are allowed to mature longer in order to raise their sugar levels. Whilst the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos was set to start on Monday next week (7th of September), Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, has decided to postpone picking until Thursday (10th of September) in light of a favourable weather forecast for the foreseeable future which will allow the grapes more time to reach the perfect point of maturation before harvesting.

A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca - a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca – a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
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An Update from Malvedos

As August draws to a close and we come ever closer to the beginning of this year’s vintage, the typical scorching summer temperatures of the Douro Valley have not materialised. While there have been several hot days, with temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius), until now August has been the first month of the 2014/15 viticultural year with temperatures below the mean.

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Ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha) of Quinta dos Malvedos.

However, owing to the drought conditions throughout most of the viticultural year, these lower than average temperatures in August are a real boon. With just 4.8mm of rain falling over Malvedos since the beginning of July (see previous post), lower temperatures reduce the possibility of excessive hydric stress. Charles Symington, head winemaker at Quinta dos Malvedos, reminds us that at this juncture air temperature is also extremely important for another reason.

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More ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha).

Very high temperatures during the final maturation cycle can lead to higher sugar concentration in the berries to the detriment of acidity, which is of course very important for the wines’ balance and ageing potential. The lower than average daytime and nocturnal temperatures will ensure grapes with homogeneous maturations which will almost certainly result in very high quality wines.

In any case, with moderate rain forecast for tomorrow it looks like Malvedos will have the benefit of both relatively low temperatures and some useful additional water; meaning everything is still on track for a stellar harvest.

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The east facing side of the Port Arthur stone terraces, still under a cloudy sky.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Looking Forward to the Harvest

We are now in the final weeks before the culmination of the viticultural year and the beginning of this year’s harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos. Although the Portuguese Meteorological Institute is currently announcing severe drought warnings for the entire country, the vines look robust and healthy, and the viticultural cycle is approximately ten days ahead of schedule. The vintage plan has now been drawn up, and although it will no doubt undergo several changes before we begin to bring grapes into the winery next month, we are currently aiming to begin harvesting at Malvedos on the seventh of September, four days earlier than last year, when the vintage started on the 11th.

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Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

The Viticultural Year to the Present

On a whole the viticultural year was quite uniform, although unusual, as almost from start to finish it has been warmer than average, and very dry.

The yearly cycle began with an extremely wet November that saw 179mm of rainfall (more that twice the 30-year average of 67.5mm) falling over the quinta. However, these conditions were not to last and as we moved into December and the new year, rainfall decreased dramatically (to less than half the 30-year average), a trend that would continue throughout the year.

Over the course of the year average temperatures always kept above the mean, but when we look back at the year as a whole what marked it was the lack of rainfall. Apart from ample precipitation in November 2014, this viticultural year, and especially the summer months, has been extremely dry. With only 2.6mm of rain falling in July. We were fortunate to have 2.4mm fall over the quinta last weekend and with more forecast for next weekend, it should be some relief for the vines, which are already reaching their limit.

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Temperature and precipitation over the last viticultural period (March to end of July). Note the proximity of 2015 to 2011 (a phenomenal vintage).
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Rare August clouds over Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

That being said the vines are now beautiful, and rarely in a year of such drought have they looked so fine. Still covered by a lush green canopy, only first growth lower leaves, now beginning to turn brown and dry, tell the story of their struggle for water throughout the year.

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A row of Touriga Franca planted in 1983 exhibiting fine green foliage.

The Vintage

Walking through the vineyards with Alexandre Mariz (the viticulturist responsible for Quinta dos Malvedos) as he tastes the grapes from each row of vines, evaluating them for the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness which indicates their level of maturation, you can see that he is quietly confident in the ability of the hardy Douro Valley grape varieties to withstand the severity of the region’s weather, and that this year’s vindima (harvest in Portuguese) promises to be a great one.

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Alexandre Mariz inspecting a row of Souzão, high above the river Douro.

One of the reasons for his confidence is that not only are the vines all in very fine condition, but that they are at the same level of maturation and their sugars, phenolic levels and acidity are all showing even development. In short, no variety is significantly lagging behind another.

This year the star of the vintage could be Touriga Franca, which is looking particularly good. Normally a late ripening variety, this year it started developing earlier than usual, giving it a head start and meaning that it will be perfectly matured closer to the beginning of the vintage rather than later, as is normal with this variety.

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The juice of a Souzão grape. This variety is known for the deep colour its wines.

Other Happenings at the Quinta

Besides preparations for the imminent vintage, work is also nearly complete on the creation of new terraces on the western side of the quinta. When complete, the 4.9 hectares of new terraces are due to be planted entirely with Alicante Bouschet, which at the moment only exists in very small quantity at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The new terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos (looking eastward).

All told, the vineyards are in great condition and everyone is going into the vintage with high expectations. Although there are always unknowns, everything is pointing to a great year for the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, and Graham’s Port.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at the Malvedos winery.

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Alexandre Mariz looking over the vines high above the Douro.
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Black Kites over Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

The wilds of the Douro Valley are a haven to many species of plant and animal, and you don’t have to spend long there to witness birds of prey in their natural habitat.

Home to several species of eagle, vulture, falcon, owl and kite, these large birds, which are the top of their respective food chains, are an impressive site to behold.

This pair of black kites were photographed flying over an area of uncultivated land between Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas and Quinta do Vesuvio, deep in the Douro Superior. The pair was accompanied by another, perhaps their offspring.

Eagles Vesuvio

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Veraison in Quinta dos Malvedos

With temperatures already reaching the 40s in the Douro Valley, it is now the time of year when the grapes change colour from a light pea green to the various tones of dark red that signify that veraison is well and truly underway.

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Veraison, a French loanword, describes the phase in which the grapes ripen and become sweet. At the same time the fruit also becomes softer and begins to plump due to the concentration and accumulation of sugars under their thick skins.

The most common phrase heard in Portuguese vineyards at this time of year must be “o pintor chegou”, which means “the painter has arrived.” The fruit starts to change colour relatively quickly, although not uniformly, and it is normal to find a palate of different colours present on just one single bunch of grapes.

This year veraison began about 10 days early due to the dry, warm weather since the spring, and the grapes are already unusually sweet.

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This year veraison was about 10 days early due to the dry, warm weather since the spring, and the grapes are already unusually sweet.

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Symington Family Estates Donate Ambulance to Tabuaço Volunteer Fire Brigade

On Saturday 13th of June, Symington Family Estates presented the Tabuaço Volunteer Fire Brigade with a new ambulance in recognition of the vital service that they provide to the local farming communities of the Douro. This is the eighth ambulance donated by Symington to the region’s volunteer fireman since 2007.

During the ceremony the volunteer firemen were commended for the dedication and courage that characterise the service that they provide to the local community. The firemen provide a vital lifeline in the case of medical emergencies, as well as combating the dangerous forest fires that occur annually in the Douro during the dry summer months.

The Symington family have previously donated ambulances to the volunteer firemen in the following Douro municipalities: Pinhão (2007), S. João da Pesqueira (2009), Provesende (2010), Carrazeda de Ansiães (2011), Lamego (2012), Régua (2013) Foz-Côa (2014) and now Tabuaço in 2015.

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Masters of Wine candidates visit the Douro Valley

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The Institute of Masters of Wine

From the 14th to the 16th of April, Graham’s received 19 students from the Institute of Masters of Wine. The students, of 7 different nationalities, spent time in Porto where they visited several Port lodges before travelling upriver to the quintas of the Douro Valley.

Founded in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine is a respected community of wine professionals, and one of the most prestigious wine qualifications in the world. To become a Master of Wine you must undertake an in-depth three-year program of study, followed by practical and written exams, and the completion of a paper based on original research. Because of the difficulty of acquiring the qualification, there are currently only 318 Masters of Wine worldwide, and it was with great pleasure that we received some of the current candidates in Porto.

Arriving on the evening of the 14th, they barely had time to set down their bags before they were on their way to the Vinum restaurant in the Graham’s Lodge for dinner. After being welcomed by Paul Symington, the group settled into a dinner accompanied by Altano, Chryseia 2012, and a tappit hen of Graham’s 1970 Vintage Port.

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Paul Symington and Antonio Agrellos speaking in the Porto Factory House

The next morning the group had an early start, being greeted by Paul Symington, Antonio Agrellos (Noval), and Nick Heath (Taylor’s) at nine o’clock in the morning in the historic Porto Factory House. The hub of the Port trade for more than two centuries, it was in these surroundings that the group tasted a variety of Ports from the different houses before departing to visit several of Vila Nova de Gaia’s Port lodges.

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The wines tasted at the Graham’s Lodge

By two o’clock the group were at the Graham’s Lodge for another tasting, this time led by Dominic Symington. Here they tasted wine from several of Symington Family Estates Port houses, such as Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s, finishing with a magnificent Graham’s 1955 Vintage. This tasting, which consisted of wines from 2011 to 1955, demonstrated how Vintage Port evolves and matures, and the various stages it passes through in this process. Not a group to stay in one place to long, they then set off for the Douro and Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The group in Quinta dos Malvedos

When the group arrived at the quinta they were greeted by a meal accompanied by Quinta do Vesuvio Douro DOC, followed by Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port, before retiring for the night in preparation for a technical tour of Quinta dos Malvedos and its winery the following morning.

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Charles Symington and Simba

Waking up to a pleasant spring morning in a Douro Valley quinta is not something everyone gets to experience, but so it was that the Master of Wine candidates started their day. Met by Charles Symington (head winemaker), Henry Shotton (Vintage manager), and Charles’ dog Simba, (who as Charles himself says “gets more attention than the wine”), the group were shown around the famous quinta and its lagar winery, seeing first hand what they have been hearing about for the past two days. The visit to Quinta dos Malvedos came to an end with a tasting of five Quinta dos Malvedos Single Vintage Ports from 2009, 1996, 1988, 1979 and 1965. The group then departed for Porto, stopping off at several other Douro quintas along the way.

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Quinta dos Malvedos Single Quinta Vintages

 

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Inspecting vines at Quinta dos Malvedos

It was great to meet the candidates for the distinguished qualification of Master of Wine, and we hope that the information we imparted helps them to reach their goals. We wish them the best of luck in their studies.

 

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THE 5TH GENERATION GAINS WORK EXPERIENCE AT MALVEDOS

Henry’s Malvedos winery team was recently reinforced with the arrival of Oscar Symington one of the 5th generation youngsters of the family which owns and runs Graham’s. Oscar’s father, Rupert, is one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors. The 18 year old lost no time mucking in, carrying out the multitude of tasks required of him, from helping to unload the trailers of grape laden boxes, taking his turn on the sorting table as well as helping out with the envasilhamentos (running off the must from the lagares for fortification). Oscar soon discovered that this particular task is a bit like doing your watch on a ship, involving as it does taking turns with your colleagues in this round-the-clock activity which can happen anytime — day or night. The eight-strong winery team are glad to have this extra pair of hands to lighten their burden; they have all been working continuously for three weeks since the vintage began at Malvedos on September 11th.

Oscar helps select incoming Touriga Franca grapes on the sorting conveyor.
Oscar helps Luís select incoming Touriga Franca grapes on the sorting conveyor.

Oscar himself has barely had a chance to catch his breath since beginning his gap year; before coming to help out at Malvedos he had already worked for 10 days at the family’s Quinta do Sol winery followed by another 10 days at Quinta de Roriz jointly owned by the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux and where they produce one of the Douro’s iconic table wines — Chryseia. The majority of the grapes for Chryseia are sourced from the Roriz vineyard but an important element has always been drawn from the neighbouring property of Vila Velha, owned by Oscar’s grandfather, James Symington. Besides the contribution Vila Velha provides for the landmark Chryseia Douro red, the finest production is also supplied to Graham’s, making important contributions to the premium Ports it produces. The highly acclaimed Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port was comprised of components from all five Graham’s Quintas; Vila Velha making up 18% of the final lot.

One of Oscar's ligher duties: tasting a Touriga Nacional - Sousão co-fermented Port with Malvedos winemaker, Henry Shotton.
One of Oscar’s ligher duties: tasting a Touriga Nacional – Sousão co-fermented Port with Malvedos winemaker, Henry Shotton.

Like his siblings and cousins, Oscar is following in the tradition of young members of the family working a vintage at the family Quintas, during school or university holidays. Graham’s is a family wine business through and through and it is very much part of the philosophy to let the youngsters gain practical experience in what is after all the family’s lifeblood: producing the great wines of the Douro Valley. Oscar’s great-grandfather, Ron Symington who like his twin brother John and first cousin Maurice was passionate about the Douro is known to have often said, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” by which he meant that the older generation had to give the younger members of the family a chance to get involved. We’re not sure whether Oscar is comfortable with the metaphor but we are sure that he understands what his ancestor meant. Following his gap year Oscar will continue his higher education at Durham University in northern England.Ron Symington, Oscar's great-grandfather would often say, "You have to let the dog see the rabbit" — and he wasn't referring to his gun dog!

Ron Symington, Oscar’s great-grandfather would often say, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” — and he wasn’t referring to his gun dog!

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ON THE HOME STRAIGHT BUT IT'S STILL TOUCH AND GO WITH THE WEATHER

We thought that we were almost home and dry (literally) but following a welcome spell of three days in a row with no rain and quite a lot of sunshine, the rain put in an appearance again yesterday (Saturday). Thursday and Friday started off with crisp, sunny conditions, the maximum temperature reaching a balmy 28ºC on Friday and although yesterday was still quite warm (26ºC) the rain returned, dashing our hopes of a final stretch of harvesting under completely dry conditions. We were counting on no more rain in order to give the late ripening Touriga Franca a chance to dry off and ripen completely. Alas it was not to be.

Picking the Touriga Franca from parcel 15 at Quinta dos Malvedos.
Picking the Touriga Franca from parcel 15 at Quinta dos Malvedos.

On Thursday, as planned we started bringing in the Touriga Franca (TF), initially from Quinta do Tua and then from Malvedos as well. The first lagar of TF from Tua gave 12.5º Baumé, evidently reflecting some dilution resulting from the wet as well as humid conditions of the last week or so. Subsequent loads began to show improved Baumés of around 13 and 13.5º. In the vineyards our pickers have been quite selective and this has meant we have been receiving good fruit in the winery. Objectively however, we have to accept that the rain that arrived about halfway through our vintage here at Malvedos did have some adverse effects on the Touriga Franca. But we count ourselves lucky because we have faired much better than many other Quintas, particularly downriver from us.

Picking the Touriga Franca above the house at Malvedos, while clouds laden with rain loom overhead.
Picking the Touriga Franca above the house at Malvedos, while clouds laden with rain loom overhead.

Charles pointed out that Malvedos has had by far the least amount of rain of any of the vineyards owned by the Symington family and he can categorically say that the wines made so far (in particular before the Franca was harvested) here at Malvedos have been exceptionally good. The weather really has been totally unpredictable and the fact that Malvedos has had comparatively less rain is indicative of just how localized some storms have been. And then there’s rain and there’s rain…Charles explained that whereas at Malvedos and further upriver into the Douro Superior the rain has come mainly in the form of sudden concentrated downpours which run off quite easily down the vineyard slopes, the persistent rain in the lower Douro that has fallen on and off has created a situation of continuous humidity with inevitable results. In Charles’s opinion, this difference in the way the rain has come down in certain areas will almost certainly prove decisive in the outcome of this vintage.

Quinta dos Malvedos looking towards the West.
Quinta dos Malvedos looking towards the West.

Johnny Symington, one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors came by Malvedos on Wednesday on his whistle-stop tour of some of the family’s Douro wineries. Johnny tasted the newly made wines at each Quinta visited. He started at Vesuvio and wound his way down the valley to Senhora da Ribeira, Canais, Malvedos, Bomfim and ended up at Sol. He was accompanied by Paula Pontes, who was reviewing the telecommunication systems at the various adegas (wineries), ensuring the systems were functioning well and seeing what improvements can be made for the future.

Johnny and Paula tasting a Touriga Nacional - Sousão co-fermented wine.
Johnny and Paula tasting a Touriga Nacional – Sousão co-fermented wine.

Johnny was especially impressed with the excellence of the wines from Malvedos and from the Douro superior Quintas. Of exceptional note, were the Touriga Nacional wines, some of them fermented together with Sousão grapes (including some of the lots vinified at Malvedos). They were very impressive. “It is certainly a great Touriga Nacional year from what I have seen”, said Johnny.

Paula and Johnny joined Charles Symington, Henry Shotton and the winery teams from Malvedos and Tua for lunch in the Tua canteen. They seemed equally impressed with the excellence of the lunch.  A healthy black bean stew with grilled pork, rice and plenty of vindima banter round the table. It was a welcome break during their whistle-stop tour. Johnny said it was magnificent to see the Bomfim lagar winery up and running and making some excellent wines. Again, it was two Touriga Nacional wines that won the day from this impressive new facility.

Finishing off at Sol, presented an opportunity to taste the Douro DOC wines the Symington family also produces. Pedro Correia tasted with Johnny three beautiful Vesuvio lots that show real potential. A quick visit to the Sol canteen (not to eat this time!) to see how the cooks, Filomena and Adelina, were coping with the 120 meals served at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day to the winery and administration teams. As usual, they were full of beans as were the extra-large cooking pots. The excellent aroma of the evening barbeque was proof enough that the old military adage “An army marches on its stomach” is equally applicable to the good functioning of a winery team.

 

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