In December 2017, Symington Family Estates and the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real signed an agreement establishing the Symington Scholarships, which will support aspiring students wishing to pursue studies at the university, namely in the Oenology and Agricultural Engineering degree courses. Over the last 30 years, the university, located in the Douro’s regional capital, has trained new generations of winemakers who have made and continue to make a vital contribution to the growing reputation of Douro wines, both dry and fortified.
Starting with the 2018/2019 academic year, two scholarships will be granted annually to cover the full tuition fees of two undergraduate students for the duration of their three-year courses. The selection process will be conducted by UTAD and the criteria will be as follows:
Candidates must be natives of or reside within the Douro Demarcated Region.
One student whose family lack the necessary financial resources to fund university education.
One student with proven academic excellence wishing to pursue his/her studies at university level.
Each year, two students will be supported and therefore within three years there will be six students benefiting from these scholarships. This support scheme will run for at least three years and will be automatically extended for similar time periods.
Symington Family Estates counts amongst its staff numerous holders of degrees in both Oenology and Agricultural Engineering from UTAD, many of whom occupy senior positions in the company in areas as varied as winemaking, viticulture, research and development, environmental certification/quality assurance, sales and wine tourism.
Symington Family Estates has a very significant presence in the Douro region where it owns and farms 1,024 hectares of vineyards spread across 26 different properties which are at the heart of the award-winning wines the company produces. Two-fifths of the company’s 500 employees live and work in the Douro and the company is thus a major contributor to the local economy, both in terms of providing a livelihood for many families and through the annual purchase of grapes from several thousand growers.
The Symington family values its social, environmental and cultural commitment to the region and over the last decade significant support has been granted to wildlife conservation through the annual support grant given to the Wildlife Rescue Centre, which operates within UTAD’s Veterinary Hospital. The centre is dedicated to nursing back to health hundreds of injured birds of prey (as well as other animals) and is recognized as one of the finest of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. Furthermore, the well-being of local communities is also of importance to the family through the annual donation of an ambulance to local fire brigades. To date, ten ambulances have been donated to the local fire services who are often the first responders in emergency situations to isolated rural populations.
On Saturday, November 25th Symington Family Estates presented, in the name of all its employees, a new ambulance to the Sabrosa Volunteer Fire Brigade in recognition of the vital services they offer to the local community in this rural area of the Upper Douro Valley. Since 2007, this is the 10th ambulance donated by the Symington family to fire services in the Douro region.
Symington Family Estates own 1,024 hectares of vineyards in the Douro and of its near 500 employees, 40% live and work in the region. Besides providing a livelihood for many families, Symington is a major contributor to the local economy, annually purchasing grapes from several thousand growers, as well as other goods and services essential to the smooth running of its operations in the Douro.
Present at the handover ceremony in representation of the company were Paul Symington, several other company directors as well as the head of Symington Viticulture, Pedro Leal da Costa and Sr. Américo, the farm manager of Quinta da Cavadinha, which is just a few kilometres from Sabrosa.
This year’s terrible wildfires throughout Portugal, which tragically claimed over 100 lives have again demonstrated the selfless dedication and courage of the nation’s firefighters who besides combatting forest fires, provide local communities with vital emergency medical coverage.
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.
In December 2016, the Spanish Universities of Valencia and La Rioja, Wall-YE Robots & Software of France, Sundance Multiprocessor Technologies of the UK and Symington Family Estates formed a consortium to develop a vineyard robot. The three-year project (2016 – 2019) aims to design a vineyard monitoring robot that can aid wine producers throughout Europe in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and variations in plant vigour.
Existing vineyard data collection methods have many constraints because they are time-consuming, require skilled field operators and the use of expensive equipment and only deliver reduced sampling rates that are statistically insufficient and therefore do not accurately map the status and variability of a given vineyard. It is because of these limitations that most producers simply do not employ vineyard mapping, thus foregoing valuable data that could improve their vineyard management and ultimately influence the quality of their wine. It is this capability gap that VineScout will bridge by providing accurate, comprehensive and swift on-the-go data gathering. Furthermore, VineScout operates autonomously using GPS guidance and fitted sensors which allow it to navigate between rows of vines without a human operator. The collected data can be rapidly processed, providing the vineyard manager with valuable information that can be interpreted in real time, allowing for assessments of — and timely interventions in — the vineyard.
An overriding objective of the project is that VineScout must have a low carbon footprint. The robot is powered by electric batteries whilst the onboard sensors and other software are powered by energy generated by solar panels fitted to the vehicle. This solar energy can also further charge the batteries which propel the robot, whilst on the move, providing VineScout with additional range in the field. Furthermore, VineScout’s construction favours light and recyclable materials.
The VineScout prototype was field-trialled in the Grape Variety Research Vineyard at Quinta do Ataíde during the last week of August. The three-day trials included an open day, ‘Agronomy Day’, in which other wine producers from the Douro as well as universities, tech start-ups, and research institutes saw VineScout in operation. The open day included an end-user focused round table discussion to exchange ideas and review lessons learned. Professor Francisco Rovira-Más of the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, the consortium project coordinator and an expert in robotics and agricultural engineering, and Fernando Alves, the Symington Viticulture R&D manager, were delighted with the outcome of the field trials and with the participation at the seminars. They regarded the participants’ input as providing a valuable contribution to the project’s advancement.
VineScout is funded by the European Union H2020 ‘Fast Track to Innovation Pilot’ with the objective of developing a robot that is affordable, reliable and user-friendly. European Union funding accounts for €1.7 million of the total €2 million investment.
Symington Family Estates was invited to participate in this innovative project in April 2016 at the ClimWine 2016 International Symposium held in Bordeaux and which addressed the topic of “Sustainable Grape and Wine Production in the Context of Climate Change”. A presentation delivered at the symposium by the Symington Viticulture Research and Development Manager caught the attention of attending representatives from the University of La Rioja — one of the consortium members — and subsequently led to an invitation for Symington Family Estates to become the end-user member of the VineScout project. Symington Family Estates reputation in the field of viticultural and winemaking research and development in the Douro region, as well as its proven record as a leading producer of both Port and Douro wines, was also instrumental in it being invited to become the end-user partner in the VineScout consortium.
Further field tests have been programmed for 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde and at Quinta do Bomfim, during June, July, and August. VineScout is a logical evolution of the Vine Robot experimental project which ran from 2013 to 2017 and which has provided the succeeding VineScout project with a solid grounding and a useful springboard to fully develop a successful vine monitoring robot.
The unprecedented early start to the Douro vintage, being at least a week earlier than the earliest we have ever started and in some cases nearly three weeks, has certainly been the right decision.
In the majority of the quintas, we are picking grapes with good graduations and good phenolic ripeness, lagares looking very promising in terms of colour and structure, although still early to assess aromas. We have picked most of the earlier ripening varieties: Barroca, Alicante-Bouschet, Sousão and Tinta Roriz. We have picked some Touriga Nacional and through this week we will be picking this variety at most quintas. This means it is likely that during the week of the 11th we will be picking mostly the Touriga Franca and that during the week of the 18th the vintage at our quintas will be largely concluded. We will in fact be finishing at many quintas on dates that would not be unusual to be starting!
Clearly the vintage in the Douro Superior is very much reduced due to the very low levels of rainfall throughout the year. It has not rained at riverside quintas in the Douro Superior since May. Last week we had an insignificant 2mm at Vesuvio and Senhora da Ribeira and not a single drop at Canais, Malvedos or Bomfim. Meanwhile there is no suggestion of rain forecast until the end of the month — not to mention maximum temperatures of 30-34ºC all through this week! So just as well we didn’t wait….
It is likely that the Douro Superior letter ‘A’ areas will produce 40% below average and that the Cima Corgo letter ‘A’ some 25% below average. The letter ‘B’ and ‘C’ areas and the Baixo Corgo are likely to have a normal or above average size vintage, it being likely that overall the region will have an average to just below average size vintage. What gives us some pause for thought is the fact that the yield of Kg to litres is very low, some 20% below-average.
After successive months of unusually hot and dry weather and the rapid maturation of the vines, the earliest vintage in living memory is about to begin in Symington Family Estates’ Douro vineyards.
2017 saw the hottest June since 1980, a trend that continued into July and August, which have had well above average temperatures and rainfall 33 (Douro Superior) – 46%(Cima Corgo) down on usual levels. As such, veraison occurred 10-15 days earlier than usual and currently baumés are high and phenolics are advanced in line with the viticultural cycle.
Although early to predict, structure and concentration are likely to be the main virtues of this unconventional early vintage in the Douro.
The Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa spent part of his summer holidays in the beautiful Douro Valley, and during his stay visited the Symington family’s Quinta do Bomfim together with his wife and friends.
The PM was shown the vineyard, winery and cellars by Paul and Charles Symington, after which they gave him a tasting of some of the family’s renowned Ports and Douro wines.
The PM then enjoyed one of Quinta do Bomfim’s picnics while overlooking magnificent views across the Douro Valley from the terrace of Echo House, located in the middle of the estate’s vineyards.
The impressive Cockburn’s cellars, the largest in the old quarter of Vila Nova de Gaia hold 6,518 seasoned oak barrels of maturing Port, plus the equivalent of a further 10,056 barrels in larger oak vats are now once again open to the public.
Still a fully working Port Lodge, visitors will learn that even with modern technology, there will never be an alternative to the traditional slow ageing of fine Port in well-seasoned oak and will have the chance to see our seven coopers at work using the same tools and crafts that their ancestors used for centuries in what is the last fully equipped cooperage in operation in Vila Nova de Gaia.
The refurbished Lodge now also has a museum space that holds a collection of original 19th century watercolours painted by Baron Forrester, along with extracts from the unpublished 1930s diaries of another of Port’s legendary figures, John Smithes.
Paul Symington said ‘The opening of these cellars is another important step in the revival of this great Port house after decades of multi-national ownership. My family will continue to invest strongly in Cockburn’s to put the quality of the wines above all other considerations, and now visitors can come and see our work at first hand.’
Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Douro Valley and the arrival of spring this year was a perfect illustration of that. The period of the vines’ winter dormancy, during which the plants have minimal metabolic activity (they’re literally asleep) was fractionally warmer and drier than average and the spring followed a similar pattern — hot and dry. However, the season kicked off in the Douro with abundant snowfalls on March 23rd that shrouded the region’s higher altitude vineyards with blankets of snow. Widespread frost also affected the Douro Superior on the 25th. The chill, though, was short-lived and temperatures soon swung back up in April; it was the third hottest month of April of the last 40 years.
As well as unseasonably warm, this spring was also very dry due to the overall lack of precipitation. March did manage approximately half the monthly average rainfall but April was remarkable for the near total absence of rain; just 2.6mm was recorded at Quinta do Bomfim where the average for the month is 46.9mm. It was in fact the driest month of April since official weather records began in Portugal in 1931. Precipitation in May was closer to the mean, helping to raise soil moisture levels. For the spring as whole (March through to May), rainfall was approximately half the thirty-year average.
As a result of these climatic conditions, bud-break, which marks the beginning of the vine’s vegetative cycle, began between the 8th and 10th of March (Touriga Franca at Quinta do Bomfim), very similar dates to 2016 and approximately a week earlier than average. Although the start of this phase then slowed significantly, the vegetative cycle soon picked up and advanced at a very fast pace.
Flowering occurred three weeks earlier than in 2016, beginning between the 4th and 5th of May and was two weeks ahead of average dates. By the end of the month the cycle maintained this precocity with formed bunches well visible in the Touriga Franca.
The upside of the hot and dry conditions has been the very low disease threat levels (downy and powdery mildew), in sharp contrast to the comparable period in 2016. Vine canopy management was a priority during the final stage of the three month period, involving vine hedging (despampa), shoot topping (desponta) and shoot positioning (ampara) — guiding the shoots through the trellis wires. Weed control along the soil top cover also required great attention given the extra vigour of plant growth encouraged by a combination of the high temperatures at the start of this cycle and the availability of water in the soil, which although limited was sufficient to stimulate such growth.
At our Douro properties, new plantings were concluded at Quinta do Bomfim with 7.5 hectares of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca; Quinta da Macieira in the Vilariça Valley with 8 ha of Alicante Bouschet; Quinta dos Malvedos with 7 ha of Touriga Nacional and one hectare of top grafting (see definition below); Quinta da Telhada with 6.5 ha of Touriga Franca; Quinta de Roriz with 1.5 ha of Touriga Nacional and 1.9 ha of top grafting and finally Quinta da Perdiz with the planting of 4 ha of Touriga Nacional. This brings the total planting for this year to 34.5 ha of new vines and 2.9 ha of top grafting (changing over to Touriga Franca).
Top grafting (sobre-enxertia): “Changing the fruiting vine variety of a mature vineyard by inserting a bud of a selected variety in each vine, but retaining the established root system.” (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, 2015).
At our principal grape variety library, established at Quinta do Ataíde in 2014, studies were carried out on the dynamics of bud-break and flowering for each of the 53 varieties planted and similar studies were also made at the Quinta do Bomfim Grape Variety Library.
It is with great sorrow that we learned that our friend and colleague Tim Stanley-Clarke passed away suddenly last week.
Tim joined the Symington Family from London wine merchant Christopher and Co., who at the time were the agents for Dow’s Port in the UK, in 1984. His good disposition, easygoing nature and obvious love for Port, and indeed all wines, made him not only the perfect addition to the company, but also immensely good company himself.
As a central figure in the UK Port trade, his humour and wit will be sorely missed by all who crossed paths with him.