A Viticultural Oddity

You can clearly see the old traditional pilheiro holes, and the vines growing from between the stones above

Mário Nátario, the viticulturalist for Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas is also responsible for Quinta do Vesuvio, next door.  At Vesuvio Mário is experimenting with pilheiros, a traditional method of planting vines in the schist walls of the vineyards.  We believe this is the only quinta in the Douro to be reviving this method of planting, even on a trial basis.

A pilheiro is a hole left high in the schist walls that form the traditional patamares (terraces) in the Douro.  Vines were traditionally planted in these holes and then trained horizontally over arbours, both to increase yield per hectare, and as a way of providing shade over the path below for vineyard workers.

The vineyard was first planted in the usual way, with vines growing along the front edge of the terraces.  We used cuttings taken from an old, traditional mixed-planting vineyard at Quinta do Retiro in the Rio Torto Valley – in other words, there is a mixture of grape varieties in this parcel, it is not a single-varietal block.

We planted americanos (American rootstocks), with the intent of grafting in our Douro varieties once the rootstocks were established.  The rootstock was planted into the hole in the wall and firmed in with soil, but we had many failures, with the rootstock simply dying rather than taking root.

Successfully rooted vines growing from the wall above the old pilheiro holes. Note the grapes beginning to change colour (5 July)

Mário then tried another planting technique which is very traditional in the Douro, known as layering.  In this case, Mário selected a cane from one of the vines growing in the usual fashion on the terrace above, and embedded the cane tip into the face of the wall.  He bypassed the large pilheiros, and instead drove the canes into smaller openings, in hopes that the rock and soil would hold the cane securely.  Sure enough, most of these canes have rooted successfully and are now in their fourth year.

But this means these vines – all indigenous Portuguese varieties – will be growing on their own rootstock.  In the mid-late 19th century American grape vines were imported to Europe, and in the years following European vineyards were nearly wiped out by a mysterious disease.  The problem was traced to a tiny louse, called phylloxera, that lives in the roots of American grape vines.  The American varieties have developed a tolerance for this insect, but when it infested the European vines, they quickly sickened and died.  Ultimately, European viticulturalists solved the problem by grafting local grape varieties onto American root stocks, and this practice has continued ever since.

I asked Mário if he was worried about phylloxera attacking the new layered vines.  He said, quite simply, we don’t know yet – we will have to wait and see.  We think the extreme climate of the Douro Superior, with its 35 – 40°C + summers and heavy winter rains may be in our favour as phylloxera doesn’t like either extreme heat or wet soil.

Vineyard and pilheiro vines during the 2010 harvest

Once the vines were established, they were severed from the original vines above, and we put in a trellising system of standard wooden vineyard posts every few metres with tensioned wires to support them, and a bamboo cane for each and every vine which is tied into the wires.

At four years old, the grapes from the pilheiro vines should be interesting for making wine this autumn – wait and see!

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Fire at Quinta dos Malvedos

A bad combination of hot, dry weather, dried vegetation and a few sparks from the vintage steam train passing on the tracks below the winery led to two fires at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos last Saturday.

One fire was in the strip of vegetation which runs from the railway tracks up towards the adega.  Arlindo, the caseiro, or bailiff, who resides on the property, took prompt action and was able to put out this fire himself before it spread further.

The second was more serious.  Just above the tracks, and at the foot of the eastern side of our Port Arthur vineyard is the dormitory where the winery team stay during the harvest.  Sparks set fire to dried grasses near the dormitory, and then the fire spread upward.  Luckily it did not get into either the dormitory or the Port Arthur vineyard, but it did run up a strip of wilderness alongside the vineyard and from there spread across a plot which fills the space above the vineyard up to the driveway into the quinta.

We have lost 1.5 hectares of vegetation, a mixture of olive, almond and cork trees, and also 150 mature grape vines that were planted along the margin of the entrance road.

The local volunteer fire department responded promptly, and was able to control and extinguish the fire before it spread into any vineyard parcels.

Arlindo and Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturalist responsible for Malvedos, will be looking at clearing some of these overgrown wilderness areas adjacent to the tracks, and we will also be reviewing the placement of hosepipes at the property so we can be prepared to deal promptly if, heaven forbid, the need should arise again.

Update 27 July

Paul sent some more photos with the comment “We had a lucky escape.”

This first is a closeup of the charred soil and rock alongside the tracks, near the winery.

Standing next to the winery (on the upper right are the vines that grow up over the arbour outside the lower level) looking along the tracks downriver, that embankment has completely burnt, normally that is covered in undergrowth which helps to stabilise the soil on such a steep surface, so it doesn’t wash down in the rain.

Looking upriver now, the next photo shows clearly where the fire started alongside the tracks near the dormitorio (out of sight to right) and then spread upwards through the brush alongside the Port Arthur vineyard.

Luckily the fire did not get into the vineyard, but it did carry on  upwards and then spread across a parcel of wilderness above Port Arthur, devestating about 1.5 hectares of olive, almond and cork trees.  The road into the property formed a natural barrier which prevented the fire spreading across to the vineyards above, before the fire department was able to extinguish it.


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June 2011 Douro Insider

June turned out to be rather a strange month, surprising both in its extreme temperatures over one devastating weekend, and in its unseasonable coolness during the rest of the month.  After an abnormally hot May (which registered a mean temperature three degrees above average in Pinhão) it was hardly unexpected when things cooled down considerably as the new month got underway.  And although it was initially dry and sunny, it stayed remarkably fresh by the standards of this time of the year, at least for the first three weeks.  Furthermore, it felt much less oppressive than a usual June because of some quite windy days which were generally welcomed as they helped to bring about a reduction in the overall humidity.  The morning dews that had caused us problems with fungal diseases accordingly came to an end as a fortuitous consequence. Read Full Report

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What Charles Does in the Off Season

Charles Symington

What does the winemaker’s calendar look like for the other ten or eleven months of the year, when he is not harvesting and making the new port wines?  Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker, describes the annual cycle of his “To Do” list.

Tastings are a year round occupation.  After the new harvest wines are made, they remain in the Douro to settle in the cool winter conditions.  There is a major tasting of all new wines in December, on the basis of which Charles can begin to make decisions about blending lotes (batches).  As the wines are brought down from the Douro between approximately December and April the wines can be blended as necessary upon arrival for storage in our Lodge in Gaia.  Typically for Graham’s we will have ended harvest with around 100 lotes, and by this time the following year they will have been consolidated into roughly 65 wines.

Just some of the samples in our Tasting Room

Wines typically close up after harvest for a period of about six months, and often can get much darker, as well as generally developing their character, getting bigger and better (or perhaps not).  For this reason, beginning in April Charles again systematically tastes all the new wines to confirm or amend their quality categorisation and likely use, e.g. wines earmarked for possible use in Vintage ports, LBV, tawnies, and so on.  This is also the time of year when he reviews the wines initially flagged for likely Vintage use, and can begin the triage to move wines from Vintage to Six Grapes designation.

By the second January following harvest, he will have made his decision and if necessary his final blend for a Graham’s Vintage declaration or Quinta dos Malvedos  bottling.

In parallel with the assessment of the prior harvest wines, Charles and Manuel Rocha and Nuno Moreira of the Sala de Provas (Tasting Room) routinely review all our wines, of all appropriate ages, that have been earmarked for use in a particular style of wine.  For example, just recently they reviewed all the possible Reserve and LBV wines (stocks between 4 and 7 years old) and Charles finished blending the Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2007.  This new LBV will shortly be registered with the IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto, the Port trade’s regulating body) and will be bottled in January 2012.  Charles is very pleased with the 2007 wine – if any of you are familiar with the Vintage Ports from 2007, you know what a wonderful year it was.

When blending new batches of non-vintage wines, the team compare them with previously bottled wines to ensure consistency.

While ensuring we blend and bottle our ports of a specific harvest in a timely fashion (Vintages for release roughly 18 months after harvest, Crusted 2 to 3 years after harvest, and LBVs 4 to 6 years after harvest), Charles also keeps an eye on stocks of our blended wines, for example all our entry level and Reserve ports, as well as our 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawnies, and plans to blend and bottle new supplies of those products as needed.

July is typically the time of year when stocks are lowest, so a full inventory is taken and double checked against our records before pretty nearly the entire firm takes holiday the first two weeks of August, and then begins countdown to the next harvest.

And no, Charles didn’t say a word about plans for 2010 declarations or bottlings.  Even the blogger will have to wait till next spring for that news.

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Graham’s Supports Cycling for Cancer Research

Louis, Tom, Archie and Harry

Today the Graham’s Port Lodge was used as the send off of four young cyclists who have together raised the truly spectacular sum of £231,475 (€275,565) for the cancer research charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. They have already cycled from London to Nice and today started another leg of this epic journey, from Oporto to Lisbon.

The four boys, Louis Metcalfe, Archie Gilmour, Harry Pearson Gregory and Tom Prebensen are aged between 16 and 17. They are all school friends and decided to take on this challenge after Louis lost his mother to cancer in July 2005. In London the Mayor Boris Johnson and Alistair Campbell (Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research’s chairman of fundraising) joined the send off on the 5th July.

When they finally reach Lisbon on Thursday 21st July they will be welcomed at the Ritz Hotel by the British Ambassador Jill Gallard.

In Oporto, the four cyclists visited the Graham’s Lodge and Vintage Port cellar and each received a bottle of Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 Vintage Port before setting off on their ride to Leiria and then to Lisbon.

For further information see: http://www.beatbloodcancers.org/get-involved/london-lisbon

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May 2011 Douro Insider

Although generally very warm, April ended on something of a sour note with a quite wet last two days. May, however, saw conditions swiftly returning to earlier form. With the exception of the first day, it basically didn’t rain at all in many places and the daily maximum temperatures set off on a steep upward trajectory almost immediately. With the clear skies and longer hours of sun each day it got hotter and hotter, so that by about the 10th we had passed 30º C, still rising. With most of week two in the thirties it was already clear that we were looking forward to an unseasonably hot average for the second consecutive month. The unmistakable feeling that summer was setting upon us was further reinforced as soon as the hot winds that blow up the Douro valley started to be felt at the end of the day. These strong, dehydrating gusts pick up towards dusk, but only in the summer months, and readily bring on a peculiar kind of thirst which can only be slaked by reacquainting oneself with an icy glass of Alex and Johann’s most successful joint venture, indispensably garnished with a decently-sized slice of one of Malvedos’s juiciest lemons. Read Full Report

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Getting Ready for Maturation Studies

Steve Rogerson in his office

A recent visit to Steve Rogerson, our research enologist, found him working behind a growing pile of boxes.  He is already gathering supplies to take up to the Douro in the next few weeks, in preparation for the maturation studies that mark the countdown to harvest.

Steve was also busy reviewing all his data from the past years, and preparing fresh spreadsheets and charts so that as the analysis is completed on this year’s grape samples, he can enter the statistics and immediately see how we are doing compared to prior years.  This data analysis will not only help us to assess conditions and plan timing and picking orders for this year’s harvest, but forms part of a long term database which is fundamental to many of his ongoing research projects.

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First Prospects for Harvest 2011

Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker, has characterised the 2011 growing season so far as ‘unusual’, citing the late budburst followed by extraordinarily rapid vine development which has put us fully two weeks ahead of average for this time of year.  In the Douro Superior (the area east of the dam at Valeira) he was seeing the beginnings of pintor (colour development in red grapes) as early as mid June, which is very unusual.

Weather conditions have been a challenge, with the Douro ‘quite tropical’ in Charles’s words.  The month of May was warmer than usual by 2.5 to 4 degrees Celcius across all of Portugal, and humidity has been high with some on and off rain in the Douro region, though not a remarkable amount.  We had a wet enough winter, and if the summer is a typical one, we do not anticipate any trouble with vine stress. 

Whilst there have been issues in the Douro generally with mildew and oidium, Charles feels they have been controllable, and certainly we have been vigilant and implemented our control regime according to conditions, not the calendar, so we should be ok.  If there is any effect, it will be in terms of reducing quantity, and not quality.

At this point, regarding size of harvest, it may come out comparable to 2010 – as always hard to say so early, when there are still at least eight to ten weeks to go.

In short, Charles summed it up as likely to be an earlier than usual harvest and generally “so far… so good.”

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OIV Award Winner

You may recall that Graham’s was well represented at the recent OIV International Congress of Vine and Wine, with Steve Rogerson (research enologist) and Paulo Macedo (viticulturalist) both presenting summaries of their recent research in poster format, and Charles Symington making an oral and slide presentation about the robotic lagares which he and his father Peter Symington invented in the late 90s.  The lagares have been in use for the past 11 years at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, and during that time we have monitored the quality of the wines and our research has compared them – very favourably – with the wines made by traditional foot treading.

The OIV has awarded a prize for Best Oral Communication to Charles Symington for his presentation “Constructing Quality Ports with Automated Robotic Lagares” which was one of 32 in the conference program about “Designing for Wine.”  Whilst Charles made the presentation at the conference, the research work behind it was a combined effort between Charles, Steve Rogerson, António Serôdio (one of our winemakers at the time of the development of the lagares), and Paul Symington.

No doubt one reason the presentation was recognised was not only for the quality of the research, but because the presentation itself was rather entertaining, as Charles included side by side video clips of treading by foot versus treading by robotic lagar.  The clips were edited from this video, which is also available  on Graham’s YouTube Channel:

We are very proud that Charles and our winemaking and research team, and the cutting edge research and development we have done and continue to do at Graham’s and Symington Family Estates has been recognised by the OIV, a prestigious inter-governmental scientific and technical organization focussed on encouraging and disseminating the latest research in viticultural and oenological subjects.

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Graham’s Hosts Olly Smith

Last Friday Graham’s hosted UK wine and food personality Olly Smith at the Lodge.  UK readers will know Olly from his work presenting Channel 4’s Secret Supper Club as well as his appearances in a broad range of food and wine shows on all the major channels, and his role as Wine Editor of The Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, and contributions to Sainsbury’s Drinks Magazine.

With only a little more than an hour to spare before heading to the airport, Lodge tour guide Emiliano gave Olly a very succinct introduction to our Lodge, our winemaking and Douro vineyards, pausing only to indulge a little wishful thinking when they visited the Garrafeira (wine cellar) where we keep our oldest bottles of port.

Paul Symington then met Olly and took him upstairs to the Board Dining Room for a tasting of a range of Symington Family Estates wines.  They began with three of SFE’s Douro DOC wines (Altano Branco 2010, Altano Tinto 2009 and Altano Quinta do Ataide Reserva 2008), which are produced from organically farmed grapes at our estates in the Douro Superior.  Olly and Paul discussed the rise in interest in Portuguese table wines, and the viability of Douro wines as an attractive choice for palates jaded by all the usual suspects.

They then enjoyed a broad range of Graham’s Ports, including Six Grapes, our 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawnies, the 2005 Late Bottled Vintage, and of course our extraordinary Vintage Ports, including the 1999 Quinta dos Malvedos and Graham’s 1994, 2000 and 2007 Vintages.

Throughout the tasting Paul explained the making of our wines and shared anecdotes of the harvests and the family’s history in the Port trade.  Olly was already familiar with many of our wines (this past winter he recommended our LBV 2005, calling it “life affirming”!), but was very enthusiastic, enjoying both the wines and the opportunity to discuss them with Paul.

Finally, Paul shared a wine from one of our sister brands, the just-released Warre’s Vintage Port 2009.  This special edition Vintage Port has been released to commemorate the liberation of Porto from the French by the Duke of Wellington, and the proceeds from the sale of the wine will go to veterans’ charities in the UK and Portugal.

Naturally a discussion of the wine led to a discussion of the events it commemorates, and Paul and Olly stepped out onto the balcony.  The spectacular view from Graham’s Lodge encompasses both the Porto and Gaia sides of the river, so Paul was able to point out various landmarks from the Peninsular War, as well as recommend other places to visit when Olly returns, as he clearly would like to, soon.

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