Tracking the Season – 10 & 11 January

Last week we we made our first visit of the new year to Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua to check on the viticultural progress in our Douro quintas.   In addition, we were able to visit Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, in the Douro Superior, which also contributes grapes to the Graham’s blends.

Weather Conditions

From Quinta do Tua low clouds moving over Quinta dos Malvedos
From Quinta do Tua low clouds moving over Quinta dos Malvedos on Friday

The two days were pretty typical mid-winter Douro weather:  at river level and the first 200 or 300 metres above we were in fog and the day was overcast.  But above that, from perhaps 400 metres or so, we could come out above the capacete, the cloud cover, and enjoy the real weather, which was a mixture of sun and clouds on Thursday and on Friday rather more sun.  In fact, on Friday Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, said it was the first proper sun – strong enough to cast a shadow – that we had had up there since before Christmas.

The rain fall the past month or two has been around the long term averages, but both Mário Natário, our viticulturist at Vale de Malhadas, and Alexandre said we need a lot more rain before they will be satisfied that the deep-level reserves, which are critical to enable our vines to keep going throughout the hot summer, have been replenished.

Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua

We are just about done with the job of pruning our vines at these two quintas, just a few parcels to go, notably the young Sousão at Quinta do Tua.  These vines were planted just three years ago and have so far been allowed to grow straight upwards.  This year, when they are pruned, we will be training them along the lowest wire of the trellis in a single cordon formation.  This is a specialist job, as the health and production of these vines for the next two or three decades depends a great deal on their being properly pruned and trained now.

Quinta do Tua 11 January 12:11 pm
Quinta do Tua 11 January 12:11 pm

As we looked across the parcels of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca planted last winter at Tua, you can see quite vividly the thick green herbage which has sprung up in response to the winter rains.  Any gardener will know that after double digging long buried weed seeds will come alive, and that is exactly what has happened here.  Actually, Alexandre could not be happier about this lush growth – all of that will be ploughed in and add much-needed organic matter to our soil, which is fundamentally little more than xistous rock dust.

Landscaping to replant northwestern parcels of Quinta dos Malvedos
Landscaping to replant north-western parcels of Quinta dos Malvedos

At Malvedos we have completed the surriba – the landscaping – of the terraces west of the caseiro’s house and are already well along the landscaping of another parcel for re-planting.  At the north-western edge of Malvedos, at one of the highest points in the quinta, we have taken out another 5 hectares of old, not terribly productive parcels of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, and are sculpting new terraces, which will be re-planted with Touriga Nacional and Sousão.

Vineyards on western side of Malvedos now under organic management
Vineyards on western side of Malvedos now under organic management

From that area we had a spectacular view of the vineyards added into the western side of Malvedos last summer.  If you look at the photo, you can see clearly above the cluster of buildings a broad swath of vertically-planted vineyards.  Below them in the centre of the photo inside the curve of the road is a narrow band of vineyard terraces and a large area of uncultivated land and olive groves on terraces, and to the right of those, more vineyard terraces which continue down and to the right out of sight into a narrow valley.  All of that area, since harvest, has been managed organically, and in three years time we hope to achieve organic (or produção biologica) certification for these vineyards.

Vertically planted vineyards on eastern side of Malvedos for organic management
Vertically planted vineyards on eastern side of Malvedos for organic management

Over on the north-eastern side of Malvedos is another area of vertical plantations, in three parcels of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca respectively.  These parcels are also being managed organically since the 2012 harvest.

One of the first steps in establishing our organic management regime has been the recent planting of cover crops between rows of vines.  These crops serve two purposes:  first and foremost to help prevent the erosion of soil down the hillside of these vertically planted parcels, and secondly to naturally enhance and balance the nutrients in the soil, by the planting of a mixture of leguminous plants and cereals.  When a plant is healthy and in equilibrium it is much less susceptible to attack by pests or disease, so maintaining soil quality for healthy vines is fundamental in an organic regime.  You can learn more about the importance and benefits of this practice in our feature article about Cover Crops in the Vineyards.

Malvedos Touriga Franca 11 January 14:05 pm
Malvedos Touriga Franca 11 January 14:05 pm

Finally, we paid one last visit to our Touriga Franca vine, which has been pruned.  We seem to have come full circle since we first began our tracking last March, looking at a dormant vine with just short spurs waiting for warmer weather to burst into life.   Beginning next month we will monitor progress in another part of Quinta dos Malvedos, and another grape variety.

Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

In the Douro Superior just east of Quinta do Vesuvio is Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, which is privately owned by three of the Symington cousins, and contributes grapes to the Graham’s blends (consult a map of Symington quintas).  Here again, the winter’s work is well in hand, and the team were working on the last of the pruning.  I noticed that while most of the vines had been pruned and the cuttings left on the ground, a few vines still had some neatly trimmed spurs in place.  Mário Natário, our viticulturist, explained that these were being left to grow a little thicker and sturdier, and would soon be harvested and used for enxertas, or grafting-in-place.

On the left you can see spurs left on the vine to be cut later for use as grafting scions
On the left you can see spurs remaining on the vine to be cut later for use as grafting scions

One of our tasks for late winter is the replacement of the odd dead or missing vines; every vineyard has a few of these each year.  Our routine is in the first year to remove the dead vine and plant an americano, an american root stock.  The following year, when we are satisfied that that has taken well, we trim down the americano to its stump, then split the stump and insert a scion – a length of matured vine such as those we saw at Vale de Malhadas – of our choice of indigenous grape variety.   The details of this process are fascinating, see our article with a step by step photo gallery about grafting new vines for more details.

Each year Charles Symington, our head winemaker, and our viticultural team estimate our grafting needs and then select the best source vineyards of plant material for each variety.  As we do our pruning we select and set aside lengths of matured vines from our own vineyards to do this in-situ grafting.  In this way we can slowly and surely improve our vineyards by selecting stocks that have performed well both in terms of their hardiness in our vineyards and in the quality of grapes and wines they produce.

Touching up the terraces at Vale de Malhadas before re-planting
Touching up the terraces at Vale de Malhadas before re-planting

At Vale de Malhadas we also have a re-planting project underway.  On the eastern most hillside face we had 4.5 hectares of Tinta Roriz which was old and ready for replacement.  Luckily, the patamares, the terraces, were generally in very good condition so we have not had to do the work of smoothing out the entire hillside and starting over, as at Malvedos.  Instead, the bulldozers are just correcting and refining the shape of the patamares as needed, particularly to ensure that the level terrace surface in fact cants slightly back into the hill, so any rainfall run off will run back into the hillside, where it can soak in.  In this easternmost part of the Douro an average year sees only 400 – 500 mm of rain, so capturing every drop in the soil is critical.

All told, the winter’s work is well in hand at our quintas, and we are looking forward to the new year.  The only thing we could wish for is some more rain.

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