Making new patamares vineyards at Quinta da Vila Velha

Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha is in one of the Douro’s prime locations for growing top quality Port grapes. It is almost directly opposite Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos but with its northerly aspect (being on the south side of the river) it produces wines with a distinctively different character from those of its neighbour.

For the last few months Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist managing this estate, has been overseeing the construction of the new earth-banked terraced vineyards, called patamares in Portuguese, which are being constructed in the vineyard parcel known as Merouços, high up near the top of the ridge.

We have decided to plant new Touriga Nacional vines in this parcel in the first few months of this year. This is partly because there is not currently a lot of Touriga Nacional planted at Vila Velha but chiefly because this particular parcel of vineyard has the potential to produce remarkable Touriga Nacional grapes.

The quality of this vineyard is immediately apparent from the colour of the soil. It is much darker, richer in organic matter and higher in clay content than many other vineyards in the region. It is at a relatively high altitude for a Douro vineyard at an average of 300 metres.

At this altitude, with the slightly cooler conditions and northerly aspect of the vineyard, the Touriga Nacional will achieve lighter, more fragrant and more aromatic characteristics compared to the richer and riper qualities that the same variety achieves in low-lying parcels next to the river. The difference really is astonishing when the two are compared in a blind tasting.

This parcel will therefore add a new component to the array of wines from which our winemakers make Graham’s Vintage Ports. The wines produced from this vineyard will bring more ethereal notes, complementing the opulence of the wines from Graham’s other great vineyards and enhancing the harmony and complexity of the wine.

The quality of Vila Velha’s vineyards is such that when the Symington family joined forces with Bruno Prats of Bordeaux to make the premier wine Chryseia and its second cousin Post Scriptum, Mr. Prats specifically chose selected parcels of Vila Velha’s vineyards for the Chryseia each year.

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The new Touriga Nacional plantings at Graham's Vale de Malhadas

Against the mighty sweep of the Douro River the tiny, two year old Touriga Nacional vines in their schist nests look incredibly vulnerable. The winter storm clouds gather further up the valley, the ground is still frozen hard and the vines shiver in the wind.

This is the vineyard parcel at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas known as ‘cento e vinte’, which means ‘one hundred and twenty’. “It has always been called this,” explains Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist for this property, “but no one really knows why.”

Malhadas is a very remote estate, where the majority of the land has been conserved as native wild scrub forest. This new Touriga Nacional vineyard is at the eastern extreme of the property’s 145 hectares (of which only 32 ha is planted with vines). The terraced slopes face east, situated on one side of the Murça River, a tributary of the Douro, and range from 250 to 400 metres altitude. This will give this parcel a distinct advantage when the cold winter turns into the equally unforgiving summer heat, since it will be cooler and less exposed to the full might of the sun.

These fledgling vines have already endured a lot since they were planted one year ago, proving their resilience. These vines were grafted a year before being planted out, which means they have to be regularly watered while they establish themselves.

The grapes from these Touriga Nacional vines, high in the Upper Douro, will complement the rich and full-bodied wines from their cousins in Graham’s vineyards at Malvedos and Tua, down river. Vale de Malhadas did not formerly have very much Touriga Nacional planted; but in light of successful trials, Mário discovered that this variety produced very distinctive wines when grown on this spot.

It will be a few more years before the grapes from these vines are ready to be incorporated into Graham’s Ports. When that time comes, though, it looks as if they will be exceptional. We will continue to follow these young vines’ progress with interest.

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Graham’s Roots in the Schist at Quinta dos Malvedos

If you had to choose the single most important thing about the Douro, it would be the Schist. The region’s soil is predominantly made up of this rock: in fact, it can hardly be called ‘soil’ at all. This aspect of the Douro terroir means the vines develop great resilience, producing very low yields of grapes with the necessary intensity to make Port.

Schist is the result of the build up of sediment over milleniums, which under immense geological pressure forms layers of rock. This layering, or foliation, is the vital component for our vines. The roots of the vines are strong enough to work their way through the shattered sheets of rock in their quest for water. They therefore develop root systems that reach many metres underground.

The schist at Malvedos also has a high component of quartz in it. It is this that makes the rock glisten and sparkle in the sun. This is important: a natural thermostat amongst the vines. The dark rocks absorbs the sun’s heat, reflecting it back onto the grapes at night, creating a more constant temperature and thus ensuring a more even maturation of the grapes. But at the same time, the quartz in the schist reflects some of the sun’s rays; the result is that the earth around the vines never becomes too hot.

Schist is strong enough to build houses out of (and we do build our houses out of it in the Douro), while at the same time being soft enough for the vines push their way through. These are just some of the natural wonders of the schist at Malvedos.

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Graham's roses amongst the vines

As you walk through Graham’s vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua you will pass roses planted at the head of each row of vines. But this splash of colour in the winter landscape is not only an eye-pleaser; it is also an ingenious and ornate part of our vineyard management: a natural method of disease diagnosis.

As is so often the case, this traditional viticultural practice provides a sustainable and minimum interventionist solution to a perennial concern. It is also a good example of how local knowledge, preserved by families who have worked the soil for generations, plays a major part in our vineyard management.

Since the mid-19th century Powdery Mildew, also known as Oidium, has been prevalent in European vineyards. It originated in the U.S.A and was the first fungal disease to be described by science.

Rose bushes are in fact more prone to contracting the Powdery Mildew fungus than the vines and they will therefore show signs of the disease before the latter. The rose bushes, therefore, act as a kind of ‘canary in the well shaft’: if they display signs of the disease then treatment can be applied immediately to the vines before they actually show visible signs of infection.

Powdery Mildew is a fungal mould that attacks vines and fruit-trees. It is a very visible disease, spreading a translucent, cobweb-like growth around the infected area, which later sprouts greyish spores. To the eye, the mould looks like a powdery white ash or soot: hence its name. This disease affects all green parts of the vine and will reduce fruit set and ripening of the grapes. No wine is made from vines that become infected by the Powdery Mildew.

As a prevention of this disease an organic copper sulphate mixture can be applied to the vines. The roses in the Douro tell us when it is necessary to treat the vines and when not, ensuring minimum intervention. We also have an ally in nature. The dry climate of the Douro Valley helps to moderate the risk of fungal infections to the vines. But the risk is still there. Planting roses at the head of each row and at strategic places throughout the vineyards is a traditional Douro method of pre-diagnosing the presence of Powdery Mildew in the vineyard.

This means that we only apply the absolute minimum amount of treatment against the disease and only in a localized way when it is needed. Nothing is ever done en masse in the Douro. Less intervention with the vines and with nature, in our view, produces better wines that are more intense and better express their natural varietal characteristics and the uniqueness of our terroir.

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February 6th 2014 – The Stone Terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos

The tranquility of the winter landscape at Quinta dos Malvedos is broken only by the sound of the rushing torrent of the Síbio stream, swollen by January’s 133mm of rainfall — well above the monthly average of 78.7mm for this area. The Síbio divides in two the 18th century stone terraces at Malvedos known as ‘Port Arthur’, sections of which are still being restored, and in parts rebuilt, by a seven strong team of skilled Douro stonemasons who specialize in repairing dry stone vineyard terrace walls  (see Tracking the Season – 28th November 2013).

These artisans’ work is not easy, combining as it does substantial physical exertion with deft movements as the men manoeuvre schist rocks of various shapes and sizes, constantly calculating where the best fit is to be found, coaxing them into position with just their hands, aided by all manner of hammers, picks and mallets. This activity is no different to when the original vineyard terrace walls were built in the Douro over three centuries ago. The only concession to the twenty-first century is the use of one of the quinta’s small tractors to transport the heavier schist slabs close to the wall under repair where one of the master stonemasons expertly breaks them up into more manageable sizes.

Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.
Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.

When the stonemasons first begin on a section of wall it is difficult to imagine that what initially appears to be nothing more than a jumble of rocks can be so adeptly transformed into the pleasingly symmetrical end result: a straight and level retaining wall. Besides fulfilling its practical function it will also add to the beauty of the landscape: a perfect example of man and the environment working in harmony.

Today, the Douro’s terraced vineyards are principally sculpted by machinery, which construct earth-banks along the contours of the steep slopes of the Valley, the world’s largest area of mountain vineyard. Such contemporary terraces are known as patamares, Portuguese for step or platform. Where possible, however, great effort (and expense) is put into preserving the original dry stonewalls, known locally as socalcos.

The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.
The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.

Some of the finest examples of socalcos in the Douro are to be found at Malvedos and at the neighbouring Quinta do Tua, also owned by Graham’s. The Symington family, which owns and manages Graham’s, is thus conscious of playing its part in the upkeep and preservation of this important feature of the Douro’s traditional vineyard landscape. This helps to safeguard the Upper Douro Wine Country’s UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos and Tua is a little concerned that the work of the stonemasons is running behind schedule, hampered by the constant rain during the second half of December and through January. These terraces should have been ready for replanting during the month of February but this may have to be postponed to March. The 1.7 hectares involved will be replanted in even proportions with the Alicante Bouschet, Sousão and Touriga Franca varieties. It is the first time that Alicante Bouschet will be planted at Malvedos. More on this in the next Tracking the Season post.


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Paul Symington named Wine Personality of the Year

Paul Symington was humbled and honoured to receive Wine Magazine’s Wine Personality of the Year award on behalf of the Symington family on Friday night.  This award, from one of Portugal’s leading wine publications, was made in recognition of the continued commitment and investment that the family company, Symington Family Estates, has made in the Douro region and in Port Wine over the last few years.

The awards ceremony was held in the Porto suburb of Foz, where the Douro River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, having run its course through the whole latitude of Portugal and beyond into Spain. It is here that the two places that in Port Wine’s lifecycle converge. Port is born in the Douro Valley, where the grapes are grown, and then in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Foz and Porto, the young Port Wine matures and is bottled.

It was therefore fitting that this should be the setting for this event.  The Port Wine man Paul Symington, whose ancestors have been ambassadors for Port and the Douro for over a century, is very much rooted in this place and by this river. And it is always the Douro and the people in the vineyards that he celebrates.

The Symington family has remained unwaveringly committed to the Douro region throughout the difficult economic times in Portugal. 2013 saw the family initiate a number of significant projects to raise the profile of the Douro, a region whose economy is almost completely focused on Port and wine.

The renovation of the Graham’s 1890 Lodge and Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar in Vila Nova de Gaia at the beginning of the year put Port and of the Douro in the limelight once again, adding to the world class wine and gastronomic experiences on offer in Porto. This was followed by the declaration of the fine 2011 Vintage Ports, which it seems likely will evolve to be monumental wines.

The Symington family is also building a state of the art visitors centre in the Douro town of Pinhão, next to the family’s Quinta do Bomfim. Easily accessible by train and road, this will give visitors the opportunity to visit the beautiful Douro Valley, to taste wines in the family’s vineyards and to understand firsthand what Port is all about. This, along with the family’s other Douro projects, exemplifies unrivalled commitment to the Douro region, its people and its economy.

Paul was described as passionate about the Douro, about Port and about Portugal; both the Portuguese and the British claim him as their own. This is true not just of Paul but of the whole Symington family: a family that has lived and breathed the Douro and Port for many generations.

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