In this seventh video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the maturation studies carried out in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, which will guide us in determining the vintage starting date.
Maturation studies, which normally begin around mid-August, are of great importance in setting the vintage starting date and in preparing an optimum picking sequence, this being determined by the different maturation rates of each grape variety, as well as other influencing factors such as the vineyards’ location, altitude and climate. Carefully devised picking schedules ensure that the grapes are picked at their optimal point of ripeness.
Whilst nowadays, several advanced techniques are employed to assess berry ripeness, these do not replace frequent field sampling by our viticulturists and winemakers. In the vineyards they sample the berries for feel, taste and colour. As grapes ripen they become softer to the touch and taste sweeter, revealing the desirable accumulation of sugar as the grapes’ organic acids gradually diminish through the ripening period. They will also check for colour by squeezing berries in the palm of their hands to reveal the pigments on the skins and the appearance of the juice. The seeds or pips will also be checked for colour, as this is another reliable gauge of fruit ripeness; yellowish-green means unripe, whilst dark brown means ripening is on track.
To get the full picture of balanced fruit maturations it is important to also screen phenolic ripeness. The phenolic compounds, which include tannins and anthocyanins — the pigments responsible for colour — are a prerequisite for balanced and well structured wines with fresh aromatics. This year, when our maturation studies began on August 15th, it became apparent that phenolic ripeness was evolving very well whilst sugar readings were lagging behind. However, these have since caught up and we are looking at evenly balanced fruit maturation — a good augury for the forthcoming grape harvest.
In this sixth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at versaison in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos.
Veraison, known in the Douro as pintor — literally ‘painter’ — is the process by which the grapes gradually change colour — in the case of red varieties from a bright green to a reddish colour, and eventually to deep blue/violet. The berries start to lose chlorophyll and acquire red pigments in the skins, hence the change in colour. Veraison marks the transition from the vines’ growing cycle to the maturation and ripening stages where rapid berry growth takes place. The pintor begins in the Douro around the middle of July. From this point on the berries soften and their sugar content steadily increases whilst the concentration of organic acids declines. Aroma and flavour components also begin to accumulate in the fruit.
During the month of July, some further vine canopy management is often required and this involves shoot-topping, in other words trimming back the tips of the vine shoots, important on various counts: it helps to redirect the vines’ energy away from gaining further unnecessary shoot length and towards maturing the fruit instead; it results in a better aeration of the vine canopy thus ensuring healthier vines; it keeps the space between the vine rows clear for ease of passage — essential for keeping a constant check on the vines’ health.
On a sunny morning at the end of June a young peregrine falcon, nursed back to health by the Wildlife Rescue Centre of the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) at Vila Real, was returned to the wild at Quinta dos Canais in the Douro. Canais is one of the Symington family’s remotest vineyards and is home to a rich variety of wildlife, and for both those reasons it was a natural choice for the falcon’s release. In particular, Canais has a remarkable variety of bird species, which include hoopoes, golden orioles, bee-eaters, turtle-doves, Iberian magpies and larger birds of prey such as black kites and short-toed eagles.
Injured during its first migratory flight from the British Isles to southern Europe in December 2015, the young falcon was treated at the University’s Veterinary Hospital, and over the last 7 months it has made a full recovery. Originally marked by the West Cornwall Ringing Group in the UK in November 2015, the bird’s provenance was clear.
The injured bird was found along the northern coast of Portugal and was first taken to the Parque Biológico de Gaia, a wildlife park and rehabilitation centre not far from the Symington family’s Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. The bird had sustained multiple fractures in one of its wings as a result of illegal gunfire. Lacking the proper facilities to treat the bird, the wildlife park swiftly organized its transfer to the University Veterinary Hospital at Vila Real, one of the finest in the Iberian Peninsula.
The veterinary hospital works hand in hand with the university’s wildlife rescue centre which specialises in treating and nursing back to health birds of prey. Approximately 350 birds are treated each year and on average their recovery period lasts from 6 to 7 months. The rescue centre has a large octagonal flight tunnel, the only one of its size in the Iberian Peninsula. It allows all but the largest birds to make manoeuvres in mid-flight that would not be possible in more traditional tunnels, and is thus a very effective facility for the rehabilitation of wild birds and in particular birds of prey. In this way they exercise and gradually regain their strength in readiness for a return to the wild.
The Symington family have supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Conditions for the release at Quinta dos Canais were perfect, the high temperatures (30ºC) generating the thermals that help birds gain altitude rapidly. Just before it took to the freedom of the skies the falcon was aptly named ‘Canais’. The falcon had not been fed intentionally on the morning of the release in order to sharpen its hunting instincts and thus increase its chances of survival. It was observed over the skies of Canais for several hours after the release and the vineyard caretaker, Sr. Orlando reports that he continues to spot ‘Canais’ flying over the property, a very encouraging sign that the bird’s return to the wild has been a complete success.
Yesterday saw the Symington running team take part in the first edition of the Great Douro Vineyard Run. Formed by members from diverse areas of the company, Symington Family Estates won first place in the team event and saw every member placing highly, with second place in the women’s race going to Mariana Ameixieira, and third in the men’s to Pedro Silva, the team’s invaluable trainer.
The event, which was one of the first of its kind in the Douro, saw almost 300 runners compete in a gruelling trail half marathon through some of the most beautiful vineyards of the Douro. From the starting line on the banks of the Douro in Pinhão, the course rose and fell through the vineyards of Quintas Junco, Cavadinha, Terra Feita, Cruzeiro, Noval, Bomfim and finally Roeda, before crossing the finish line on the riverfront in Pinhão.
The half marathon was also accompanied by a 12km walk, which saw almost 1000 participants take part.
With high temperatures and a total elevation gain of 1000m, the race was not easy, but the determination of the 10-man team from Symington Family Estates, and the support of everyone at Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Cavadinha, meant a great overall result. Congratulations to all involved!
Flowering in the Douro vineyards usually occurs around the middle of the month of May, approximately two months after bud-break. This year flowering was up to 10 days later than last year in most of our vineyards, on account of the unusually wet and cool conditions of this spring. After the embryo bunches begin to flower, pollination is triggered almost immediately and is followed by fertilization, resulting in the formation of tiny berries. Fruit set, involving the rapid transformation of the embryo bunches into small clusters of green, pea-like berries, follows on quite swiftly from flowering. The berries gradually expand and ultimately become grapes.
The vine continues with its vegetative growth although at this stage there is a gradual slowing down of the vigour of the growing tips in favour of the developing bunches. Further canopy management is required at about the same time as flowering, namely guiding the shoots upwards through the twin wires of the trellis known as the foliage wires. This entirely manual operation is known as shoot positioning and ensures a good layout of the vine canopy in order to facilitate ongoing operations in the vineyard as well as helping to prevent vine diseases.
In this fourth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at shoot thinning (spring pruning) in the vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos.
The early spring is always a busy time for us as the vegetative vigour of the vines gets into its stride and the timely interventions of our teams in the field are essential to safeguard the success of the vines’ growing season. The first major operation that occupies us during April is shoot thinning, which is also referred to as spring pruning and is known locally as despampa. It entails the removal by hand from each and every vine of superfluous shoots, leaving only those deemed sufficient to deliver an optimum number of grape bunches. Limiting the number of shoots thus allows us to influence production, leaving behind only what the vine is able to support and thus concentrating its vigour, which leads to greater concentration of flavour and sugar in the berries that ultimately take form. Furthermore, this control ensures a balanced canopy layout with less dense foliage encouraging good aeration of the vines — important in minimizing the appearance of diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew.
Last month the Vintage Port Academy organised the first Port decanting competition in Shanghai. With eight two-person teams made up of sommeliers and service staff from the city’s leading hotels and restaurants taking part, there was a lot at stake!
Formed by Symington Family Estates and the Fladgate Partnership, the Vintage Port Academy aims to develop an understanding and enjoyment of Vintage Port among wine consumers and professionals around the world through a programme of seminars and courses for wine trade and hospitality personnel, as well as tastings and workshops for fine wine consumers, and collectors.
The decanting competition was judged on two elements; clarity (as in the lack of sediment in the poured wine) and wastage. Time would also be used as a tiebreaker if the teams were tied on clarity and wastage.
The winning team was Courtyard by Marriott, represented by Lobby Lounge Manager Jessi Peng and Café Supervisor Jacky Ma, who scored 17.5 out of 20 and each received a two bottle presentation box of 2003 Vintage Port.
We are happy to report that the bird has made a full recovery and will soon be returned to the wild in time to return to Northern Europe for the summer, this time fitted with a state-of-the-art GPS tracker in order for the centre’s dedicated team to follow its journey.
In this video, filmed several months ago, you can see the recovering bird making use of the centre’s octagonal flight tunnel.
Symington Family Estates supports the work of the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre and shares with it the values and commitment of protecting and preserving the wildlife and natural habitats of the Douro. We will be following the release of the falcon into the wild at a Symington Family Estate’s vineyard in the near future.
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.