Paul Symington on Conditions in the Douro

Quinta dos Malvedos, early June

Paul Symington writes:

Irregular climate patterns are not uncommon in the Douro, but this year has been most unusual.  Observing the lovely green vineyards in the valley in June you could have easily been forgiven for thinking that all was well.  First impressions however, are not always right.

The data at Quinta do Bomfim in Pinhão, in the heart of the Douro region, indicate that the 2011/12 winter has been the driest in the Douro in the last 40 years, as well as the third coldest since 1931.  Readings show that soil humidity readings at various depths in our Douro quintas were at very low levels throughout this past winter.  In June and July the readings have been at levels normally only seen in August and September, the region’s very driest months.

The viticultural cycle starts in November, and to the end of June there has been a cumulative rain shortfall of 274 mm or 48%.  In other words, we have so far received only about half the average rainfall we would expect by this time of year.  In the 4 months from December to the end of March, a total of just 54 mm fell at Pinhão.  The average for the single month of January is virtually double that, at 104 mm.  As a result, by early April we were preparing to water our one-year-old vines, an unheard of requirement at that time of the year.

Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, late June

Thankfully April and May brought normal rainfall and even more important, the average temperatures have been below average for most of this year, hence the fine looking vineyards in June. But the Douro has missed out on a substantial part of the usual winter build up of water reserves.  The spring rain was not enough to reverse the rapidly declining soil moisture levels, whose steep downward curve commenced last November.  The Portuguese Meteorological Office has now classified over 50% of the country as being in ‘extreme drought’ conditions, mostly its central and southern areas.  The situation is not so dramatic in the Douro, but even here, most of the region— as of the first week of July — is now classified at the next level down from ‘extreme drought’ to ‘severe drought’, which is hardly comforting.

Overall, these conditions have resulted in poor fruit set in some varietals and this will result in a smaller than average crop.  This will be advantageous as there will be less demand on each vine to ripen its fruit.  The next 6 to 7 weeks leading up to the harvest will be crucial; we are hoping for some relatively cool weeks and hopefully even a little rain in August.  An absence of rain and very high temperatures would create conditions for a very challenging harvest, although the Douro’s hardy farmers and their indigenous vines are accustomed to those.

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Malvedos Hosts Filming for La Cage Dorée

Ruben Alves, Director of La Cage Dorée, with William Graham, one of the founders of Graham’s

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos has hosted a lot of guests in the past 120 years or so, mostly wine trade professionals, friends of the family, and the occasional head of state.  Some months ago Franco-Portuguese film director Ruben Alves sent a reconnaissance team to visit all the Symington quintas as well as other properties in the Douro and the director fell in love with Quinta dos Malvedos, as most people do.  As a result, last week Ruben returned with cast and crew to shoot scenes for a new movie.

Jackie Thurn-Valsassina, Graham’s Visits and Events Manager, who organises all visits to our quintas, was there during the shooting, and writes for the blog:

Last week Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos was the stage for the last days of the making of the French film La Cage Dorée.  Franco-Portuguese film director Ruben Alves chose Quinta dos Malvedos as part of his first feature film due to its spectacular location in the Douro valley.

Filming began in Paris two months prior with principal Portuguese actors, Joaquim de Almeida and Rita Blanco, playing a Portuguese couple who emigrated to Paris at a very young age.  After 30 years of living in France and having two children, they decide to return to Portugal earlier than planned, due to the inheritance of a house in the Douro.

The story of the film rolls out as a bittersweet comedy with the couple encountering many difficulties:  a group of friends who try to restrain them from returning home, family problems and adapting to life in Portugal after many years living away.

Well known Portuguese comedian actress Maria Vieira plays the emigrant housekeeper for a French family and leading Franco-Portuguese actress Barbara Cabrita and French actress Chantal Lauby also play prominent roles.

The French feature film will be released in cinemas in the Spring of 2013.


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New Ambulance Donated to Lamego Fire Department

The new ambulance for the Bombeiros Voluntários de Lamego, donated by the Symington Family

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates have donated a fully equipped ambulance to the Bombeiros Voluntários de Lamego, the Volunteer Fire Department of Lamego, to mark the celebation of their 135th year of service to their community.  The fire-fighting and emergency services in this town are carried out by volunteers who have other employment but when called upon drop everything to rescue and assist their neighbours.

Lamego is the district south of the Douro River opposite Régua, and Symington Family Estates have several properties in the area, including the Quinta do Sol winery where our Douro DOC wines are made, and Peter Symington’s own Quinta da Fonte Branca, where he spends much of his time and produces many of the white grapes used in our wines, including Graham’s white ports.  During harvest we employ well over a hundred people at these properties, and a smaller number year round, so we have close ties with this community.

Peter Symington welcomes the ambulance with champagne while Dr. Helder Santos, President of the Bombeiros de Lamego and Paul Symington (behind the spray of champagne) look on.

The ambulance arrived in rather dashing style in a shower of confetti and Peter Symington himself, Graham’s head winemaker before retiring and handing over to his son Charles, welcomed it with a champagne bath.  Further celebrations on Sunday included a remembrance service for those who had given their lives in the volunteer service, as well as a dinner featuring Rancho à Bombeiro, a tradtional and very sustaining casserole of several kinds of meat, potatoes, chickpeas, kale, and pasta.

The Symington Family have for some years now donated medical and emergency equipment to Douro community organisations – we live and work here ourselves so we understand the needs of our neighbours and communities.  Previously we have donated ambulances to the Fire Departments of Carrazeda de Ansiães, Provesende, São João de Pesqueira, and Pinhão, as well as specialist medical equipment to the hospitals of Vila Real and Alijo and to the Red Cross Association of Sabrosa.

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Tracking the Season – 19 July

It has been three weeks since we visited Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua and much has happened in that time.

At the end of June we reported an odd spike in the weather:  after weeks of relatively cool and often at least partially cloudy conditions we suddenly had three days of 40ºC or more and blazing sunshine.  Since then, the weather settled down and for the first two weeks of July was again rather temperate for this time of year.  Last week it rose again and hovered near 40ºC at Malvedos and Tua for most of the week, but now the vines are accustomed to the heat and sun we had no further issues with sunburn.  No rain fell during the past few weeks at these quintas.

Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, says we have completed the desponta in both quintas, including the newly acquired Quinta do Sibio which has been added into Malvedos.  This process included both the mechanical hedging which trims the top as well as the sides of the vines, and another pass through the vineyard to manually remove any vines which have sported off the trunks.  Additionally we have cut the herbage growing between rows of vines to keep it easier and safer for the tractors and workers to pass through the vineyards.

Touriga Franca at Quinta do Tua
Touriga Nacional at Quinta do Tua

Pintor – the change in grape colour from green to red – has begun, although it is not officially declared for statistical purposes until 50% of the grapes have turned colour.  Tinta Barrocca and Touriga Franca have been, as usual, the first to turn.  At Quinta do Tua one of the main roads across the quinta divides the Touriga Franca from the Touriga Nacional on the lower part of the slopes.  These two photos are of vines on opposite sides of the road, and you can see the Franca is well along in its colour change whilst the Touriga Nacional is still green.  (Click to see the photos full size, and use your browser Back button to return to the blog).

The Touriga Franca we have been tracking at Malvedos has dense foliage but unfortunately was affected by desavinho (poor fruit set) so you can’t really see the few bunches it has, but they have begun to turn colour (see photo at start of article).

Quinta do Tua 19 July 2012 19:20
A few of the Malvedos winery bat colony

At Quinta do Tua, the new plantation continues in good health, and we will be irrigating this week.  Generally irrigation is not allowed in the Douro, with new plantations in their first year being the only routine exception.  The other work ongoing at Tua has been on the drainage system which was created in tandem with the new vineyard, so that when we again have heavy rains any runoff will be chanelled so as not to damage the terraces.

We visited the winery at Quinta dos Malvedos again and this time our colony of bats were a little less camera shy!  We counted a half dozen roosting over the aguardente tanks before they scattered and began fluttering about.

Finally, we stopped on the little local road that leads north away from the western end of Malvedos, and took a couple photos looking up and down river.  At 8:30 in the evening looking east, upriver, both Malvedos and Tua are largely in the shadow of the hill which rises to our west, though the uppermost reaches of Malvedos (off camera to left) are still in sun, as well as the area beyond Tua to the bend in the river before the Valeira Dam.  Compare this to the photo above of the new plantation at Tua, taken just one hour earlier, when the quinta was still largely in sun, and just a patch directly below us was in shade from the small hill within the quinta on which we were standing.

View upriver across Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua, 19 July 2012 20:28

The Douro makes an S curve downriver from Malvedos so the second photo is looking basically southward.  On the left is Quinta da Vila Velha, which is privately owned by one of the Symingtons; grapes from Vila Velha go into Graham’s Ports.  Just below centre you can see four broad undulating stripes of vertically planted vineyard divided by roadways, in the shade of the opposite hill.  But higher up the hillside there are terraced vineyards still catching the last of the sun.  Reading across to the right is a valley in shade, and then another hillside, also part of Vila Velha, in full sunlight.  Notice also just about centre there is one sliver of sunlight spilling down into that otherwise shady valley.

Quinta da Vila Velha 19 July 2012 20:29

It’s the small differences in terrain, vividly demonstrated here by the way the evening sunlight falls across the mountain landscape, that make for the exceptional micro-climatisation of the Douro.  This translates into the extraordinary complexity of our wines which are blended from grapes from different quintas or even, in the case of a Quinta Vintage Port, from different parcels within a single quinta.

Next time you enjoy a glass of Graham’s port, picture this…

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Crafting One of Life's Great Traditions

Asked about Port, most consumers are familiar with Graham’s Vintage Ports or relatively young Ruby styles such as Six Grapes or Late Bottled Vintage, and they think of Port as being rich and flavoured of red and black fruits.

But when Graham’s ports are aged in wood to create Tawny Ports, they develop a completely different character, redolent of dried fruits, nuts and spices.  Tawny Port can be a revelation, from its beautiful honey colours to its versatility as an aperitif or partner with food.

Whereas all wines derive their fundamental character from the work of the viticulturists and winemakers during their harvest year, Tawny Ports are unique in requiring the care of many more craftsman for years, even decades and generations after harvest.  The evolution in the expression of the style of these wines is based on valuing the three traditional arts that are at their core: the art of cooperage, the art of ageing and the art of blending.  Graham’s Tawny Ports are also the product of all the blenders, coopers and cellar masters who have worked for us over the past century.

After each harvest our head winemaker and master blender, Charles Symington, assesses each lot of wine and decides how it will be aged, according to its likely use for a finished Port style.  His father, uncles and grandfather before him did the same, and Charles continues to taste and assess the wines they set aside in small casks for ageing for Tawnies.  Every time we need to bottle one of our Tawnies Charles selects lotes and develops a blend which is consistent with Graham’s tradition of excellence and the unique flavour profiles for each The Tawny, 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawny Port styles.

Graham’s Cooperage

Key to the ageing process is the use of wooden casks.  Graham’s has 3,500 oak “pipes”, the traditional long narrow casks which hold just 550 litres of port.  The vast majority of our pipes are between 75 and 100 years old so they impart no “wood character” to the wines in the sense of oakiness such as you might find in a table wine.  What they do to perfection is allow the micro-oxygenation and slow evaporation and concentration of our Tawnies, which is what creates the extraordinary colour, flavour and complexity of these ports.  Our master cooper Emílio Oliveira has 50 years experience and together with his team knows and cares for every cask in our Lodge.

Our cellar master, António Monteiro, is responsible for the handling and storage of all the wines at Graham’s Lodge: from the new harvest wines less than six months old when they arrive, to lots which have been in cask 100 years old or more.  When Charles has decided a Tawny blend, António and his team are responsible to combine the chosen wines in the correct quantities, moving them out of the small pipes where they have aged into a larger tonel or balseiro where the blended lot will rest for a year so the wines can marry before bottling.

In the coming weeks we will talk more about how Graham’s Tawny Ports are made and how each style can best be enjoyed.

António Monteiro – Cellar Master, Charles Symington – Master Blender and Emílio Oliveira – Master Cooper
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Primum Familiae Vini in Burgundy

This past weekend Paul, Rupert and Dominic Symington were in Burgundy together with their colleagues from Primum Familiae Vini, a group of eleven of the most prestigious winemaking families in the world.

Every year the members come together to show their wines in a key market – this past February in London and in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil.  But in addition to the rather spectacular public events, including gala dinners, charity auctions and press tastings, the group also meet for private working weekends.  This weekend in Burgundy was the annual meeting to to share best practice, discuss developments in the wine world, and agree on activities for the coming year, as well as transfer the presidency – this year from Frederic Drouhin to Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild for 2013.

Miguel Torres and Francois Perrin in earnest discussion waiting for the bus

Dominic wrote in to say “It was great fun, with many members of all the families, including a good number from the next generation.  It’s always nice to mix with friends and fellow wine-makers in an environment away from commercial pressure.”  Though their wineries are located in a dozen different regions, the group share many common concerns not just of wine production and distribution, but managing and ensuring the future of a family business, and the protection of their vineyards, regions and unique heritage.

Business and pleasure naturally go together among winemakers, and Dominic describes the weekend’s events as a combination of serious discussions and brilliant wine and food:

At the end of the Annual Meeting we had a picnic lunch in Drouhin’s Premier Cru Clos de Mouches vineyards south of Beaune which began with a delicious Chablis Premier Cru aperitif, followed by both white and red wines from the Clos de Mouches.  During the picnic we enjoyed a fascinating talk from Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, on the history and terroir of Burgundy and his efforts to get the region classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site.  This was followed by a very technical presentation on the geology and different soil types within the region and their influence on the wines.

Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, Paul Symington

In the evening the team from the Michelin starred restaurant Hostellerie de Levernois served dinner in the Chambre du Roi at the Hospices de Beaune.  Naturally more superb wines from fellow PFV members were served including Pol Roger 2002 magnum, Meursault Premier Cru Perrières 2002, Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche Grand Cru 2004 magnum, Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2001, an outstanding Griotte Chambertin Grand Cru 1985 and a fantastically youthful Warre’s 1980 Vintage Port.

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Charles Symington on The Season So Far

An east facing plantation of Tinta Roriz at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior

It’s July, which means Graham’s will soon begin our preparations for the 2012 Harvest.  We caught up with head winemaker Charles Symington to get his perspective on how prospects for 2012 are shaping up.

Naturally the conversation focussed on the weather, which seems to have been unseasonable every month so far this year.  Though the Portuguese meteorological authorities declared this past winter the third coldest since records began in 1931, it was also the driest.  March was 1º C warmer than average with very little rain, less than 15% of average.  Relative to averages at Pinhão, April was cooler with slightly more rain, May was a little warmer with a little more rain, June was cooler with less rain… it’s been a funny old year so far.

Despite all this, budburst occurred around the usual time, though we had a slightly less than average nascença – which refers to the number of bunches formed on each vine.  Additionally, some areas suffered a bit of desavinho, or poor fertilisation and fruit set.  This generally results from unsettled conditions during the period of flowering – which fits, as this would have been in mid to late May, a time when, after the on-again-off-again showers of late April and early May, the vines were putting on a bit of a burst of growth and the temperatures were pretty variable – some days barely 20ºC, other days well into the 30ºs.  On the upside, we have had no mildew this year and only a little very localised and easily controlled oidium.

Healthy young Sousão at Quinta do Tua

Given the very low rainfall so far this year, a smaller than average crop size is not a bad thing, and the vines are naturally producing fewer bunches which so far appear generally smaller as well.  Charles observed that although soil humidity measurements are comparable to 2009 when the vines suffered hydric stress, this year the vines are coping remarkably well with the conditions, and if you didn’t know what a dry year it had been, you would not guess it by looking at the vineyards, which are green, healthy and growing well.  The mild spring and the timing of the rain we did receive in April and May have been very welcome.

At this point in time, Charles would expect that we, with our quintas concentrated on the river in the central and easternmost parts of the region, will have an average to possibly slightly less than average crop size.  The region overall could have an average to slightly larger crop, due to the fact that the Baixo Corgo and the higher ground vineyards away from the river generally enjoy higher rainfall, and the vines in those areas generally have more bunches and larger bunches.  Of course this outlook can change in the next few months before harvest, depending on the weather and rainfall.

If he could plan the ideal weather pattern from now till harvest, Charles could wish for a coolish summer and ideally a little more rain in July and August to minimise any chance of hydric stress and put us in a good position for harvest.  Our maturation studies will begin in mid-August as usual, and based on the analysis done then, both in the lab and tasting grapes out in the vineyards, we will be able to start fine tuning our predictions for the timing and quality of the harvest.

Stay with us for all the developments for the Douro Harvest 2012.

A view looking east across Quinta dos Malvedos
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Vintage Port Site Mobile

Would you like to have information on all your favourite Graham’s Vintage Ports at your fingertips?  Now you can.  The Vintage Port Site – the ultimate reference for both novice and connoisseur – has been optimised for viewing on a mobile device.

When you access The Vintage Port Site from your phone or tablet device you will automatically be redirected to the mobile version, which takes you straight to the Knowledge Base at the heart of this great reference site.  Search for wines by year or brand, or search for the wines reviewed by your favourite critic or wine publication.  The site has details of every Vintage Port made by Symington Family Estates since 1945 – almost 300 different wines.  From the list of results, click on your choice of wine to see release notes and quick reference information on decanting, serving and storing your Vintage Port.

One-click sidebar navigation takes you to a view of the most recent tasting notes from top critics, or the Harvest Report for that year.  Want to share the information with a friend?  Click to enter an email function to send a message and the link for the most recently viewed wine to your friends, together with a print-friendly version of all the details and reviews of the wine and the Harvest Report.  Alternatively, you can post the link directly to your Facebook page or send it in a Twitter message.

Browsing the database raise questions in your mind?  You can go to the Links list to enter the full on-line version of the VPS with its wealth of detailed reference articles and news stories, or click on Ask the Expert to send your question directly to us, and we will post your question with our reply on the Vintage Port Site, normally within two business days.

We think you will find this pocket reference a great help, whether you are at your wine merchant’s trying to choose which Vintages to buy, want detailed information about the wine and the harvest year to share with friends at table, or are looking for a quick way to share your wine choice with friends through social media.  Enjoy!

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Graham’s Profile: Peter van Houtert of Verbunt Wijnkopers

Graham’s Ports are distributed in 50 markets around the globe, and our own market managers here in Vila Nova de Gaia rely on the expertise of our world-wide network of distributors to share their enthusiasm for Port in their own regions and countries.

Peter van Houtert, standing right, leading a tutored tasting of Graham’s Ports

In Holland, Peter van Houtert, Purchasing and Sales Director of Verbunt Wijnkopers, is passionate about Port wines, and his broad knowledge and love of fine wine, fine dining and cigars have made him an extraordinary ambassador for Graham’s.

Peter organises 100 events a year to educate both the on-trade wine and food professional customers of Verbunt and the retail consumers of affiliate Wijnkring.  Many of these events go beyond basic education and tastings to demonstrate how wines can be enjoyed in the context of fine dining.

Typical of his approach is the masterclass held at DaVinci Restaurant last year.  The idea came about when Peter and his family stopped there for lunch themselves one day, and Peter enjoyed a dish of hare which had been prepared with chocolate.  It occurred to him that Port could pair well with the dish, and he spoke with Margo Reuten, the two-star Michelin chef of DaVinci, about his idea.  Intrigued, Margo agreed to collaborate with Peter on an event to showcase Port with both savoury main course dishes as well as desserts.  The resulting event was a tremendous success, and the video produced by Verbunt does a wonderful job of conveying the curiosity, pleasure and enthusiasm of the diners for both the wines and the food pairings.

Similarly, Peter himself takes great pleasure in the combination of Port with cigars, as he feels that Port has the optimum alcohol level and flavour profile to balance well with fine handmade cigars.  He has teamed up with Hajenius, a nearly two-century old cigar emporium in Amsterdam, to hold regular tastings of Graham’s Ports with selected cigars.  These tastings have proven very popular, and have introduced many people to Port who might not otherwise have explored the wine.

Paul Symington and Euan Mackay welcomed Peter, centre, as a member of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto

In recognition of his passion and innovation in promoting Port Wine in the Netherlands, Graham’s Sales Director Euan Mackay nominated Peter to become an Honorary Member of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, the Porto-based organisation of Port wine professionals.  Peter was enthroned just before the São João holiday, and went on to spend the weekend in the Douro at Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim and Graham’s own Quinta dos Malvedos with Euan, returning on Sunday in time to join the annual race of the barcos rabelos aboard Graham’s boat.

We are looking forward to working with Peter on some special events this year – if you are in Holland watch the Verbunt, Wijnkring and Hajenius websites for notices, and of course we will continue to highlight his extraordinary dinners and tastings here on the Graham’s Blog.

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