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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the winter pruning concludes at Malvedos, there is time for reflection. Winter pruning is often thought to be the time of year when the mind switches into autopilot. But in Graham’s vineyards this is far from the truth. Pruning, which happens between November and February, is the single most important time of year in the lifecycle of our vines.
It is at this time that micro-viticultural decisions are made, which determine the individual future of every single vine and have a fundamental impact on the success of the next year’s crop of grapes. It is this that guides Graham’s approach and why we do not carry out mechanical pruning.
The other day, one of the men had just finished pruning one vine and was moving to the next one. He stood in front of it, bent over, examined the spurs where they grew out of the main cordon branch and examined each of the canes. Then after a few moments he made a few swift clips with his secateurs and moved on to its neighbour, where he repeated this process.
In those few moments, this pruner made the crucial decisions that will influence the growth of this vine over the next year. Its fate quite literally lay in the hands (holding the secateurs) of this man. It was then that the skill, knowledge and experience that these pruners have was fully impressed on me, proving that manual pruning of this nature really is an art form.
The pruners, guided by many years of experience, employ a different strategy for each vine in each vineyard parcel. In areas of low vigour, for example, they will reduce the number of fruit-bearing buds. This ensures that the yields of each vine are controlled in order to produce grapes of absolutely optimum quality. Each year, therefore, this strategy is altered depending on the present and previous year’s conditions. It is a dynamic process, designed in real time according to the needs of each vine.
Such individual care and personal attentiveness to the vines is unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha is in one of the Douro’s prime locations for growing top quality Port grapes. It is almost directly opposite Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos but with its northerly aspect (being on the south side of the river) it produces wines with a distinctively different character from those of its neighbour.
For the last few months Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist managing this estate, has been overseeing the construction of the new earth-banked terraced vineyards, called patamares in Portuguese, which are being constructed in the vineyard parcel known as Merouços, high up near the top of the ridge.
We have decided to plant new Touriga Nacional vines in this parcel in the first few months of this year. This is partly because there is not currently a lot of Touriga Nacional planted at Vila Velha but chiefly because this particular parcel of vineyard has the potential to produce remarkable Touriga Nacional grapes.
The quality of this vineyard is immediately apparent from the colour of the soil. It is much darker, richer in organic matter and higher in clay content than many other vineyards in the region. It is at a relatively high altitude for a Douro vineyard at an average of 300 metres.
At this altitude, with the slightly cooler conditions and northerly aspect of the vineyard, the Touriga Nacional will achieve lighter, more fragrant and more aromatic characteristics compared to the richer and riper qualities that the same variety achieves in low-lying parcels next to the river. The difference really is astonishing when the two are compared in a blind tasting.
This parcel will therefore add a new component to the array of wines from which our winemakers make Graham’s Vintage Ports. The wines produced from this vineyard will bring more ethereal notes, complementing the opulence of the wines from Graham’s other great vineyards and enhancing the harmony and complexity of the wine.
The quality of Vila Velha’s vineyards is such that when the Symington family joined forces with Bruno Prats of Bordeaux to make the premier wine Chryseia and its second cousin Post Scriptum, Mr. Prats specifically chose selected parcels of Vila Velha’s vineyards for the Chryseia each year.
Against the mighty sweep of the Douro River the tiny, two year old Touriga Nacional vines in their schist nests look incredibly vulnerable. The winter storm clouds gather further up the valley, the ground is still frozen hard and the vines shiver in the wind.
This is the vineyard parcel at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas known as ‘cento e vinte’, which means ‘one hundred and twenty’. “It has always been called this,” explains Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist for this property, “but no one really knows why.”
Malhadas is a very remote estate, where the majority of the land has been conserved as native wild scrub forest. This new Touriga Nacional vineyard is at the eastern extreme of the property’s 145 hectares (of which only 32 ha is planted with vines). The terraced slopes face east, situated on one side of the Murça River, a tributary of the Douro, and range from 250 to 400 metres altitude. This will give this parcel a distinct advantage when the cold winter turns into the equally unforgiving summer heat, since it will be cooler and less exposed to the full might of the sun.
These fledgling vines have already endured a lot since they were planted one year ago, proving their resilience. These vines were grafted a year before being planted out, which means they have to be regularly watered while they establish themselves.
The grapes from these Touriga Nacional vines, high in the Upper Douro, will complement the rich and full-bodied wines from their cousins in Graham’s vineyards at Malvedos and Tua, down river. Vale de Malhadas did not formerly have very much Touriga Nacional planted; but in light of successful trials, Mário discovered that this variety produced very distinctive wines when grown on this spot.
It will be a few more years before the grapes from these vines are ready to be incorporated into Graham’s Ports. When that time comes, though, it looks as if they will be exceptional. We will continue to follow these young vines’ progress with interest.
If you had to choose the single most important thing about the Douro, it would be the Schist. The region’s soil is predominantly made up of this rock: in fact, it can hardly be called ‘soil’ at all. This aspect of the Douro terroir means the vines develop great resilience, producing very low yields of grapes with the necessary intensity to make Port.
Schist is the result of the build up of sediment over milleniums, which under immense geological pressure forms layers of rock. This layering, or foliation, is the vital component for our vines. The roots of the vines are strong enough to work their way through the shattered sheets of rock in their quest for water. They therefore develop root systems that reach many metres underground.
The schist at Malvedos also has a high component of quartz in it. It is this that makes the rock glisten and sparkle in the sun. This is important: a natural thermostat amongst the vines. The dark rocks absorbs the sun’s heat, reflecting it back onto the grapes at night, creating a more constant temperature and thus ensuring a more even maturation of the grapes. But at the same time, the quartz in the schist reflects some of the sun’s rays; the result is that the earth around the vines never becomes too hot.
Schist is strong enough to build houses out of (and we do build our houses out of it in the Douro), while at the same time being soft enough for the vines push their way through. These are just some of the natural wonders of the schist at Malvedos.
As you walk through Graham’s vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua you will pass roses planted at the head of each row of vines. But this splash of colour in the winter landscape is not only an eye-pleaser; it is also an ingenious and ornate part of our vineyard management: a natural method of disease diagnosis.
As is so often the case, this traditional viticultural practice provides a sustainable and minimum interventionist solution to a perennial concern. It is also a good example of how local knowledge, preserved by families who have worked the soil for generations, plays a major part in our vineyard management.
Since the mid-19th century Powdery Mildew, also known as Oidium, has been prevalent in European vineyards. It originated in the U.S.A and was the first fungal disease to be described by science.
Rose bushes are in fact more prone to contracting the Powdery Mildew fungus than the vines and they will therefore show signs of the disease before the latter. The rose bushes, therefore, act as a kind of ‘canary in the well shaft’: if they display signs of the disease then treatment can be applied immediately to the vines before they actually show visible signs of infection.
Powdery Mildew is a fungal mould that attacks vines and fruit-trees. It is a very visible disease, spreading a translucent, cobweb-like growth around the infected area, which later sprouts greyish spores. To the eye, the mould looks like a powdery white ash or soot: hence its name. This disease affects all green parts of the vine and will reduce fruit set and ripening of the grapes. No wine is made from vines that become infected by the Powdery Mildew.
As a prevention of this disease an organic copper sulphate mixture can be applied to the vines. The roses in the Douro tell us when it is necessary to treat the vines and when not, ensuring minimum intervention. We also have an ally in nature. The dry climate of the Douro Valley helps to moderate the risk of fungal infections to the vines. But the risk is still there. Planting roses at the head of each row and at strategic places throughout the vineyards is a traditional Douro method of pre-diagnosing the presence of Powdery Mildew in the vineyard.
This means that we only apply the absolute minimum amount of treatment against the disease and only in a localized way when it is needed. Nothing is ever done en masse in the Douro. Less intervention with the vines and with nature, in our view, produces better wines that are more intense and better express their natural varietal characteristics and the uniqueness of our terroir.
By 11 am on Friday morning, August 30th, the temperature had already reached 33ºC at Malvedos. Although we had abundant rainfall in the Douro over the first few months of the viticultural year (i.e. from November 2012 to April 2013), precipitation levels began to fall sharply from May. At Malvedos, just 3.5mm of rain was recorded during the whole month of June, 4mm during July and not a single drop in August, well below average for all three months.
To further complicate matters, air temperatures since the summer solstice and over the last two months in particular, have been rising steadily, with Malvedos registering an average daytime temperature of 28ºC during the month of July and 27.7ºC during August, in both cases that is approximately 3ºC above the mean. Also significant were the maximum daytime temperatures recorded at Malvedos, a sweltering 42.3ºC (July) and 42.6ºC (August); for those readers who think in Fahrenheit — that’s 107 degrees…
The Portuguese Meteorological Office advised that the heat wave registered between the 3rd and 13th of July, which affected the whole of the country, but particularly its north-eastern corner (where the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior sub-regions are located), was the “most significant” (a euphemism for ‘severe’) observed since July of 1941 (July 2006 also came close).
Our vines have therefore been subjected to a double onslaught of hydric stress and thermal stress and they have had to ‘batten down the hatches’ to withstand these challenging conditions and thus far they have done this incredibly well. The accumulated water reserves (from the winter/spring rainfall) have made a real difference and our older vines (with more developed root systems that go deeper into the soil) have fared very well. Whereas the younger vines with their shorter roots, have struggled to tap into the moisture, which inevitably retreats lower down into the schist soil as the drought has depleted the water reserves.
As the Malvedos viticulturist, Alexandre Mariz pointed out, however, it is quite remarkable how well adapted these hardy vines are to their tough environment; the grape clusters and berries are looking well formed and healthy. The size of both the grape bunches and the berries is quite small, a telltale sign of quality (concentration as opposed to volume). Despite the difficulties, the vines at both Malvedos and Tua are looking very healthy, the only signs betraying the lack of rain and high temperatures being the parched brown vine leaves along the lower sections of the plants, with some of them already falling off the vines. This is one of the vines’ self-defence mechanisms when faced with such trying conditions; the vine sacrifices part of its leaves to lessen the pressure on the plant, which has less water to continue the maturation cycle. It is the lower leaves that are shed, partly because they are closest to the hot soil surface, which radiates heat back up towards the vine but also because the vine preserves the mid and top layers of leaves in order to provide the all important shade that the grape bunches require to shelter them from the fierce sunshine.
Stop press: on Thursday morning, September 5th, when this post was about to be published we awoke to a real surprise at Quinta dos Malvedos; during the middle of the night, a thunderstorm rolled in and delivered a bounty of rain: about 10mm, which came down steadily over around three hours, according to our caseiro (farm manager), Senhor Arlindo, who was woken up by the thunder and witnessed the downpour. Dominic Symington who was at Malvedos entertaining some Russian guests from our importer there, had a broad smile of contentment. He was later joined at the Quinta by Charles Symington, our head winemaker, and he too was all smiles. Charles is in no doubt that this welcome rain has made a real difference and that the final stretch of ripening has been given just the fillip we were praying for. We still do not have a firm starting date for the harvest but Charles says it will be later than usual (up to 10 days) and will probably start during the third week of September.
This year what is readily apparent at this stage in the season is the generally healthy appearance of the vines — not just the homogeneous, lush green foliage but also the perfectly formed clusters of berries showing varying stages of development; some still almost entirely green, others already changing colour, whilst others at a more advanced stage of ripening with almost the whole bunch displaying the blue-purple tones of the varieties that turn colour more precociously such as the Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca. This is the beginning of the ‘pintor’, (literally ‘painter’ in Portuguese), the stage in the annual cycle of the vine known as ‘véraison’ when ripening of the grapes begins in earnest as the sugar content in the berries begins to rise steadily.
Alexandre Mariz, the Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua viticulturist informed us that the pintor began about a week late, in step with the generally later vegetative cycle of the vine this year, which as he explained can be largely attributed to the generally cooler conditions experienced during the first half of 2013. However, this is of minor concern to Alexandre who is upbeat about the prospects for a good year. He pointed out the very encouraging progress of the ‘atempamento’, the process whereby the vine stems and stalks transition from the vivid green ‘herbaceous’ stage to a red-brown woodier colour (becoming less sappy and more rigid). This is always a sure sign of quality, revealing that the plant is filtering water more sparingly to the clusters of berries which will lead to greater concentration and ultimately, higher fruit quality.
Alexandre commented that he has often been reminded this year of how things used to be many years past, when the seasons were more clear-cut and the vines’ annual development cycle followed a more predictable and even pattern. He told us that the ‘maias’, small yellow wildflowers (yellow broom), which normally appear in May (hence the name ‘maia’ from ‘Maio’ – Portuguese for May), did actually bloom in May, whereas over the last few years they have often arrived precociously in February or March, ‘duped’ by earlier than normal spring conditions.
The two replanted vineyard plots at Malvedos are looking splendid; the bench-grafted vines planted in March are prospering in their mountain vineyard environment. Alexandre was visibly satisfied by how well the new plantations have been settling in, helped along by some drip-feed irrigation, which is allowed during this early stage of the vines’ life in order to help them get established. At the northwestern edge of the Quinta, at approximately 350 metres (1,150 feet), where we have planted four hectares of Touriga Nacional and two hectares of Sousão, the newly sculpted terraces, known as patamares, looked impressive and one wonders at the skill of the hardy men and women who shape them out of such steep slopes.
Alexandre is pleased with the drainage ditch, which will collect and channel excess (rain) water, which would otherwise contribute to erosion – one of the toughest challenges we face in our vineyards in the Douro. The terraces are canted slightly inwards towards the hillside to retain some rainwater, whilst also moderately arched along their length so that excess water can run off and gather into the drainage system.
Alexandre took the time to share some of his deep knowledge of the Douro’s vineyard environment. He provided some fascinating insights on the schist soil and how it creates the unique identity of the Douro’s wines. Schist is formed into laminated layers with many fissures and cracks which eventually crumble into loose rocks of varying size and also over time into a fine dust. This allows the vines’ roots to progress deep into the soil in search of water and moisture. The strata at varying angles have many fissures along which rainwater collects and is evenly distributed, and thus the schist acts as a water retainer and distributor. The vine roots not only develop downwards but also across (along the fissures) to tap as much available moisture as possible.
Schist is also a temperature regulator. The mica (a shiny silicate mineral) present in the schist refracts much of the sun’s powerful rays creating a twofold effect; first, heat is radiated off the stony surface upwards into the vines, contributing to the grapes’ ripening and, secondly, this deflected heat means that the temperature of the subsoil is lower than at surface level. Importantly this translates into less evaporation, conserving the moisture in the soil that sustains the vines over the long hot months of the ripening season. Alexandre illustrated this phenomenon by digging just a little into the soil and grabbing a handful of soil, which he formed into a moist pasty cake in his palm. Considering we’re in the second half of July with midday air temperatures well over 30ºC, this really demonstrated the point.
The old west-facing stone terraces at Malvedos (opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard) suffered damage from a fire started by sparks from a passing preserved steam locomotive 3 years ago. Next year we plan on replanting these terraces with Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional.