Tracking The Season – 26 October

Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 26 October

It is just three weeks since we finished the harvest at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.  The leaves are turning colour and the Douro is every bit as spectacular as the fabled New England autumn landscapes.  The foliage on the Touriga Franca vine we have been monitoring since late March is turning deep red now.

It is a very quiet time in the Douro – not only are we all resting after the extraordinary work of the harvest season, but the vines are going through their final maturation before shutting down for the winter.  Ideally we do not want to start pruning until the leaves have fallen and their nutrients been re-absorbed into the vine, but we cannot leave it too late either, as we have a lot of vines to prune – especially after this year’s acquisition of Quinta do Sibio.

New terraces sculpted from the hillside at Malvedos

Until we can start the pruning in another week or two, our focus is on the new plantation at Malvedos, where we are re-landscaping 4 hectares of vineyard.  We began in late August, first “erasing” the old terraces from the hillside, then carving new earth walled patamares from the smoothed-out hill face.  The terraces here are noticeably broader than the ones created at Quinta do Tua – they will be planted with two rows of vines on each terrace, versus the single row on each at Tua.

In the past three weeks we have had some showers in the region.  As is typical at this time of year, northern Portugal gets a lot of squally weather spun off the back end of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, and Porto has been drenched a few times.  As is also typical, only a small fraction of that rain has made it over the Marão mountain range and as far east as Malvedos or our quintas in the Douro Superior.

After drenching Malvedos a small but heavy shower moved on over Tua 15:19

On Friday between noon and 18:00 we “enjoyed” thick cloud cover right down to ground level at the top of the quinta, a few very heavy showers that lasted just a few minutes each and plenty of blinding sunlight and deep blue skies in between.  We are grateful for the rain after two very dry years and are hoping for a more normal wet Douro winter.  You can follow the vicissitudes of the day’s weather in our photo gallery below.

In addition to visiting the works at Malvedos Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, was checking the drainage systems of the new plantation at Tua to ensure they were doing their job.  He was very pleased to see evidence of good runoff in the canals dug alongside the roadways and some puddles standing at the backs of the terraces, where the water can soak slowly into the soil where it will do the most good.

At 17:30 the sun was already low and golden across Quinta do Tua, and as the leaves are turning colour the young vines seem to disappear into the landscape.


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2012 Douro Harvest Report

Picking at Quinta do Malvedos. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges

The Douro vines and its vineyards have an extraordinary way of surprising even the old-timers in the mountain villages of Sabrosa, Alijo and Provesende.  In 2011, the region had a huge 40% drop in rainfall and this year 54% less has fallen than average to the end of September.  When a vineyard receives just 217 mm in 9 months, which was the case of the Quintas around Pinhão, the consequences are to be feared.  Many predictions of disaster were to be heard from farmers in the village squares on Saturday mornings before the harvest.  But yet again the Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Barroca, Roriz and others, showed that they are the real masters of our geography.  These Douro varieties can turn the little green berries of May and June into lovely dark red and ripe fruit, even when it has rained so little for the last 21 months.

The first three months of 2012 were really concerning with just 16.4 mm falling over 90 days; there was no effective winter rain from 1st January this year till April (we should have had over 200 mm).  It seemed that the gods were against us, because we then had 128 mm in April and May, just when the crucial flowering and fruit set takes place.  But the low bud-burst, in part due to conditions in the spring of 2011, was what we needed; relatively low quantities of fruit so that the vines would have fewer bunches and berries to ripen.

A burst of intense heat hit the Douro over the weekend of 23rd and 24th June.  Exactly the same had occurred over the same São João weekend in 2011.  Maybe the Port producers and farmers have to stop going to the traditional all-night festa on the 23rd June, with consequential hangovers, and stay in their vineyards during São João and shade their vines.  This sudden heat caused sunburn and raisining to some of the more exposed grapes.

July and August were relatively mild with average temperatures of exactly 23.7ºC in both months.  The 21 year average for July is 25.0ºC and for August 25.3ºC.  So these moderate temperatures had a profound and positive impact on the quality of the fruit and the wines.  Charles Symington, responsible for winemaking at our Quintas, commented that this year showed beyond doubt that excess heat before the harvest is more worrying for our vineyards than drought.  The Douro grape varieties will somehow find any humidity that there is deep down in the soil.  What they cannot cope with is extreme heat that will raisin their berries. In general there was very substantially less raisined fruit this year than we have had in the last two harvests.

Devastating hail, the result of a thunderstorm, hit the Pinhão valley on the afternoon of Wednesday 25th July and swept over towards São João de Pesqueira.  This was one of the worst hailstorms of recent times and totally destroyed some vineyards (this storm knocked over the 83 year old mother of the writer of this report, breaking her rib).  As usual neighbouring vineyards simply got a welcome drenching.  A little rain fell again on the 15th August.

Picking started some 10 days later than normal this year on the 13th September at Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta dos Canais, on the 17th at Quinta dos Malvedos and on the 20th at Quinta do Bomfim and the Rio Torto Quintas.  The lead-up to picking had been complex, as Charles and his viticultural team analysed the relative ripeness of the different vineyards and grape varieties.  The drought caused the ripening to follow a somewhat erratic pattern, with cooler days causing sudden increases in sugar readings, it was important to have a very clear picture of what each variety and each vineyard was doing.   Heavy rain came from the Atlantic and over the Marão on the 23rd September with 20mm and again on the 25th with a further 23mm.  This rain brought far cooler night and daytime temperatures.  Previous to this it had been rather hot, requiring extensive cooling of the musts in the lagares.  Inevitably the water was swiftly taken up by the vines and some dilution occurred in the following days, not the harbinger of great wines.  Charles decided to suspend picking at the top vineyards on the 29th and 30th in order to allow the vines to recover their equilibrium and to concentrate the sugars.  This was a risky thing to do as the September equinox normally brings unsettled weather and we could have had a disaster on our hands if the rainy weather had persisted.  In fact the gamble paid off wonderfully and the Touriga Franca picked last week, and up until the 10th October, was harvested in perfect condition under clear skies and moderate temperatures.

Yields were remarkably low with many vineyards in the Douro Superior recording drops of up to 40%. Malvedos gave an average of just 0.65 kgs per vine, 50% less than average. This is an incredibly low yield of about 14 hectolitres per hectare (final figures need to be calculated over the coming weeks).  Other great vineyards elsewhere in the world will give 40 to 50 hectos or more per hectare on a regular basis.  The accountants will not be happy with 2012, but the winemakers and tasters certainly will be.

The Douro grapes this year were in lovely condition, with small berries giving excellent colour and flavours and the musts looked really first-rate. Early tastings confirm considerable acidity and freshness in the samples.  Not all vineyards produced great wines as the drought caused some stress to the more exposed vines and to the drier parcels, but overall this year was a remarkable example of how our Douro vines can cope with drought, as long as it is not too hot.

This year three young members of the 5th generation of the Symington family worked with the winery teams during the harvest, getting their first experience of hands-on winemaking.

Paul Symington,
16th October, 2012

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End of Harvest 2012 at Quinta dos Malvedos

We received 97 deliveries of grapes, vinified them into 19 lagares of wine, bagged and then lifted onto the truck and unbagged 18,000 kilos of the remaining pips and skins from the wine press afterwards, and after all that hard work all of us still managed to put on a bit of weight – a great tribute to Dona Sonia, Dona Fatima and all the ladies in the kitchen who kept us very well fed throughout the harvest.  On the other hand, we have been so busy that in three weeks time a team of 8 men only found time to drink 24 beers, which we think is a record low.

Juca serving the champagne

Yesterday we fortified the last lagar and worked on cleaning the winery and all the equipment which will now hibernate for 11 months, breaking only for celebratory drinks on the terrace up at the house, a tradition with the Symington family.

In the evening we went up to Arlindo’s house for the harvest dinner.  Dona Fatima and her mother prepared excellent roast lamb and vitela (young beef), potatoes, rice and salad, our viticulturist Alexandre Mariz contributed red wine from his own quinta, and Branca and Prazeres, the housekeeper and cook from the house at Malvedos, made four different wonderful cakes, which we enjoyed very much with the Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2007 which Paul sent over.  Henry and Harry both made speeches and toasts, and a good harvest came to a very good conclusion.

Harry, Henry, Cynthia & Graham’s LBV 2007

This ends our intensive Harvest blogging from Henry Shotton, the Quinta dos Malvedos winemaker, Harry Symington who contributed many of the photos and his wonderful video, and Cynthia Jenson who has been blogging for Graham’s since July 2010.  Going forward, Cynthia will contribute occasional viticultural content to this blog, but otherwise focus on The Vintage Port Site while Miguel Potes, Communications manager for Symington Family Estates, will take over Graham’s Blog and continue to bring you year round news of Graham’s Ports and our activities in the the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia and around the world.

The Graham’s winery team, left to right:  Paulo, Fernando, Alexandre (our tractorista), João, Harry, Henry, Fonseca, Tiago and Juca.

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The Next Generation: Anthony Symington

What do you do during that interval between finishing university and landing a job?  If you are a Symington, and it’s September, you could go to work in a Douro winery.

Dominic’s son, Anthony, had already worked the 2007 harvest at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, so this year he asked to work with our Douro DOC winemaking.  He is spending the harvest season at the Prats + Symington winery at Quinta de Roriz where, in collaboration with Bruno Prats, we make the elegant Douro DOC wines Chryseia, Post Scriptum and Prazo de Roriz, as well as Vintage Port.

Anthony was keen to learn the winemaking techniques which of course are very different from Port making, and has found a wonderful teacher in Luis Coelho, the resident viticulturist and oenologist.  Luis has ensured that Anthony has worked at every task in the winery, and that he understands what he is doing and why and how it affects the finished wines.  They have tasted the wine lots together daily to monitor the fermentation and development of the wines, which has been a great learning experience too.

After studying languages and history (he speaks both Portuguese and Spanish) including 6 month placements in each Brasil and Spain, Anthony is very interested in the political and business environments in South America, and hopes to find work to suit these interests.  Like his cousins Harry and Tom, he would like eventually to work for the family firm if there is an opportunity and a place for him, but feels it is important to work outside first for some years.  He understands, as they do, that he will have to prove his business skills and have something to offer when and if there is an opening.

His grandfather Michael used to dip his finger in a glass of Port so Anthony and the other grandchildren could have just a taste when they were small, and as they grew older he would give them a sip from his own glass  – Michael was very keen for the children to learn about Port.  Later, when Anthony and Paul’s son Harry had a joint celebration of their 21st birthdays, they chose to have what he called “a very Douro meal” at Paul’s Quinta das Netas:  a soup (served with Altano Branco), roast pork, green beans and batatas a murro (bashed potatoes), served with an old Quinta de Roriz Reserva and for the Port they enjoyed Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 1989 Vintage Port in honour of their birth year.

Many of Anthony’s friends are very keen on food and cooking, and he helps them with the wine pairing for their dishes.  With their passion for good food and wine, Port is a natural fit, but he does feel that Port needs to change its historically rather grand image to be marketed successfully to this younger generation.  He spoke of a memorable picnic meal in the Douro of rather light Moroccan or Greek dishes of chicken or lamb with couscous and a salad of rosemary, chicken and plum tomatoes, and how a very old, delicate and nuanced Vintage Port was the perfect conclusion to this eclectically flavoured meal.  An example, if ever there was one, of how to simply enjoy Port, as the pleasure it is, at any time, in any setting.  We like Anthony’s approach!

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Malvedos Winemaker's Update: Saturday, 6 October

Picking the grapes from the arbour at the winery

We all got into the winery a bit later today as we were not receiving any more grapes – and when I arrived at 08:15 it was a pleasantly cool morning, which turned into another warm autumn day.

Though we have finished picking the vineyard parcels, there are always a few odd lots left to pick from places like the arbour behind the winery, the vines that line the driveway into the Quinta and up to the house, and a few demonstration rows of vines near the winery which are convenient for visitors to see the different varieties side by side.  As these grapes taken altogether are nowhere near enough to fill a lagar, Arlindo had a small team picking for just a few hours this morning and the grapes went over to Quinta do Tua, which is better equipped to vinify small lots like this.

We are now fermenting our last lagar, so most of the time today was taken up with cleaning the winery – everything has to be spotless before we leave.  Today we dismantled the grape receiving area – sorting carpet, scales, box washer – and also began cleaning the automated lagares and their toes as well as the crusher and de-stemmer.

Cleaning continues tomorrow and we look forward to our last visit from the bagaço truck which is expected around 10am in the morning!

Stay tuned for our end of harvest dinner tomorrow night…


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Malvedos Winemaker's Update: Friday, 5 October

At 07:30 this morning it was a cool autumn morning with a clear sky, and it became progressively warmer as the day went on so that it was extremely hot by the time we finished picking for the day and the 2012 harvest!

The Caseiro, Arlindo, and his team of pickers set off for their final day this morning at the top of the Quinta.  They worked their way down collecting the last of the Touriga Franca, which they managed to finish by 5.30pm this afternoon – much to the delight of the team in the adega and the pickers themselves!

We sent down our penultimate lagar, which was run off with a lovely rich purple colour and is currently in the cap plunger tank.  We then continued to fill our last lagar throughout the day until it was full and thankfully there were no more grapes to come in! The team is looking forward to making this final Touriga Franca port tomorrow.

Given that it was our last day of picking today, it was particularly fitting that lunch was an old favourite – chicken and chips (served with rice, bread and salad).  Dona Sonia, Dona Fatima and their team in the kitchen have kept us VERY well fed throughout the harvest, bets are on as to who gained the most weight this year.


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The Next Generation: Harry Symington

Harry Symington unloading grapes at the Malvedos winery

After  graduating from Edinburgh University and an internship in London, Paul’s son Harry joined us 17 September at Malvedos to work the entire harvest period with the winery team.  Harry has been doing all the many tasks that the rest of the team have to do, from the initial grape selection on the sorting table, right through to emptying the lagares and tanks after fermentation.  While it was a bit of a culture shock to come here straight from the City, Harry is thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Naturally, he grew up here in Portugal and around Port – some of his earliest memories are of family birthday parties in the Graham’s Lodge and playing hide and seek around the casks, and later he and his cousin Anthony would go for adventurous walks through the vineyards all around the Douro.

Although he knew the fundamentals of how to make Port, Henry Shotton has spent time showing him some of the more scientific and mathematical details of the process – such as calculating the quantity of brandy, the baumé and temperatures, as well as the final corrections to lotes based on the analyses sent back from our lab.  Harry says it has been an incredible experience, very hard work and full on from the time you wake up till you go to bed at night (or early morning if there’s a late fortification), but the comraderie with the team has made it very enjoyable.  He has also really liked the food – getting a full hot meal at lunch and dinner, after years of sandwiches at university, has been a treat, and he has put on at least two kilos so far. Getting off occasionally with the rest of the team to the Calça Curta (the local bar and restaurant) in Tua has been a welcome break, especially when the vintage work requires a full 7 day week.

Malvedos 2012: Tiago, Paulo, Fonseca, Harry, Tom, Juca, Fernando, João

After the harvest, he will be in for the reverse culture shock, returning to London to take up another internship.  Harry plans to pursue a career in marketing or advertising, starting in London, but hopes to be able to come back to Portugal, saying he could never sever the ties here.  Like some of his cousins, he would like eventually to work for the family firm if given the chance, but says there is no pressure to do so, and he is pragmatic about the chances of there being an opportunity for him.

One of Harry’s interests is video – as a kid he started filming James Bond type adventures with his cousins and friends, complete with bad guys lurking in the vineyards.  He says the acting was terrible, but he really enjoyed framing the shots, the Douro is spectacular for this kind of thing.  Although his subject matter has moved on a bit, he still enjoys experimenting with both the filming and the editing processes, as well as finding the perfect musical score.  You can see his short film of the harvest below and more on his Green Man Means Go site.


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Malvedos Winemaker's Update: Thursday, 4 October

Touriga Franca near the entrance to the quinta

This morning at 07:30 it was a cool and crisp autumn morning with a clear blue sky. The weather forecast promised more sun and in the afternoon it was another hot day.

The first grapes we received were from block 64 near the Quinta entrance where they left off yesterday.  For those of you who have been following our “Tracking the Season” series – our Touriga Franca vine was harvested today from this parcel.

As we are likely to finish the Vintage over the weekend, Charles and Mariz came for a final review of the picking order.  It was decided that tomorrow the pickers will start at the top of the Quinta in block 3 whose mature vines from 1988 and west facing aspect are now in perfect condition to pick.

By lunchtime tomorrow we will be in a better position to predict how many more lagares of Franca we will be fermenting – most likely one, perhaps two. After lunch we ran off another lagar of Franca which again demonstrated the fantastic colour that this variety is giving this year.

We are now planning our end of Vintage dinner and are currently in negotiations with a shepherd… more on this to follow!


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Berry Bros. & Rudd and Graham's

For generations the Berrys, of London wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd, and the Symingtons have worked together to bring Graham’s Ports to England, the oldest and still one of the strongest markets for fine Port wines.  Every harvest season we enjoy hosting members of BBR’s team in the Douro so they can better understand the region and winemaking behind these superb Ports.

This year, as is customary, our guests stayed at Quinta dos Malvedos and Graham’s winemaker Henry Shotton showed them over the winery and then took them up into the vineyards.  With Malvedos as their base of operations Johnny Symington led the group on visits to Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, Quinta do Vesuvio and to Quinta de Roriz, where in collaboration with Bruno Prats we make our finest Douro DOC wines, Chryseia and Post-Scriptum, as well as a Vintage Port in extraordinary years.

The highlight of the visit, however, was a celebratory dinner at The Factory House hosted by Graham’s to thank Berry Bros. & Rudd as well as the SFE team who contributed in their respective ways to the outstanding success of the Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port in the UK market.

Berry Brothers & Rudd and Graham’s celebratory evening at the Factory House

Left to right, back row:  Richard Girling, John E Fells & Sons; Johnny Symington, Joint Managing Director, SFE; Charles Newman, Sales and Services, BBR; Jonathan White, Direct & Interactive Marketing Manager, BBR; Euan Mackay, Sales Director, SFE; Miguel Potes, Communications Manager, SFE; Henri Sizaret, Vice President, Marketing, SFE; Left to right, front row:  Jackie Thurn-Valsassina, Event & Visits Manager, SFE; Vicky Williams – PR Manager, BBR; Irene Fernandes, Market Assistant (UK), SFE; Laura Atkinson – Fine Wine Private Account Manager, SFE; Anabela Mouta, PA to Johnny Symington & Vintage Port Management, SFE; Eliana Soares, Graham’s Marketing Manager, SFE; Corinne Graham – Cellar Plan and Wine Club Administrator

The evening at the Factory House began with cocktails, and Euan Mackay, Graham’s Sales Director, explained the history and significance of The Factory House as the home of the Port trade and Vintage Port.

Dinner naturally featured our Altano and Chryseia wines with the main courses before moving on to a spectacular succession of fine Ports.  The Graham’s 30 Year Old Tawny was served with a chocolate fondant with tangerine sorbet and mascarpone, perfect to enhance the complex flavours of this old Tawny.

As is traditional at the Factory House, the guests then moved through to the second dining room, the better to savour their after-dinner Ports away from any lingering aromas of food.

Johnny Symington raised a toast to Her Majesty the Queen of England and The President of Portugal, with a glass of the 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port.  He went on to make a brief speech thanking Berry Bros. & Rudd for the long association and friendship we have shared for generations, and the role BBR has played in establishing Vintage Port as one of the world’s greatest wines.  Johnny went on to thank all present from both Berry Bros. & Rudd and Graham’s for their various contributions to the success of the 1952 project in the UK.

Vicky Williams, Public Relations Manager for Berry Bros. & Rudd, responded with a toast to friendship.  The evening continued over a superb bottle of Graham’s Vintage Port 1970.


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Malvedos Winemaker's Update: Wednesday, 3 October

First grapes of the day were processed at 8:00 AM

This morning there was low hanging grey cloud over the valley, however that cleared away and by the afternoon it was sunny and quite hot, rather like the first week of the Vintage.

The pickers covered quite a lot of ground today as they started at the top of the Quinta, by 11 o’clock were picking blocks 29 and 31 down by the river, and ended the day in parcels near the Quinta entrance.  In total 11,200 Kilos were picked, which was perfect to fill our lagar.

Today was very busy at the winery, beginning with a fortification at 5:00 am (poor Fonseca!), first grape deliveries at 8:00 am and continuing steadily all day, another lagar to run off, the usual paperwork to document all the grapes and wines and samples, and only ending at 11 o’clock at night, after a visit from our R&D enologist Dr Steve Rogerson, who came round to pick up some of our Touriga Nacional samples for his research.

Henry Shotton explaining our use of cap plunger tanks during the fermentation of Port

After last night’s fantastic dinner we had the pleasure of showing the Berry Brothers & Rudd visitors around the winery, where they were particularly interested in the different fermentation techniques we use.  The Malvedos winery has three options:  traditional stone lagares, the modern lagares in which we have made most of our Ports since 2000, and cap plunger tanks which we often use in the final hours of a fermentation before fortifying the wine.  Afterwards we drove up into the vineyards to see the Touriga Franca being harvested.

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