A Winter’s Day in the Douro

Sr. Mariz, Sr. Arlindo and a young olive tree getting a thorough pruning

Many of you will remember Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturalist for Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua: during the harvest he was a frequent visitor, tasting grapes up in the vineyards and then working with Henry in the winery to settle the picking order, and of course checking on the wines in lagares or toneis, to satisfy himself Henry was doing full justice to his grapes!

So, what does he do on a cold winter’s day, when there isn’t a grape in sight?

Pruning the Vines at Quinta do Tua

For starters, he’s up in the vineyards several days a week.  From November through February, the primary activity is pruning the vines, and Sr. Mariz works with the caseiro, Sr. Arlindo, to establish the order of work and exactly how the vines should be pruned.  As a general rule, we start at the top of the quinta and slowly work our way down over the course of the winter.  At Quinta do Tua we have several young plantations, and how the vines are pruned in the first few seasons determines their configuration, and by extension their health and productivity, for the next sixty years or more.

Before pruning

We have a small team of skilled workers who do the pruning.  To fully appreciate the judgement and skill required, you need to understand a little bit about the growth cycle of a grapevine, and the critical point is to know that this year’s grapes will be produced from last year’s fresh growth.  In other words, around March of 2010 the cane left from last winter’s pruning began putting forth shoots – the long sappy green vines.  Throughout the spring and summer each of these vines was growing and putting forth leaves.  In the angle where leaves sprouted off from the vine, small nodes were formed.  Those nodes, or buds, are the point where the vine, throughout 2010, produced and matured the matter which will form 2011’s shoots, flowers and grapes.

During pruning: cane laid down, tied into place and double checking

The people who do the pruning have to look at the remains of 2010’s vines – which after harvest shed their leaves and mature from sappy green shoots to woodier canes – and decide which cane looks healthy, has a good number and arrangement of undamaged nodes to produce 2011’s growth, and is well positioned to maintain a good shape for the overall vine.  This last is not just a matter of aesthetics – if the chosen cane is jutting out to the front or back, rather than within the lines of the trellis system, there is a chance it could be caught and mangled in machinery passing down the inter-row space.  If that happened, we could lose the crop from that vine for this year.  Crop yields are low enough – we average only a little over 1 kg of fruit per vine – we can’t afford to lose production due to badly selected or trained canes.

After pruning, cut canes hang in the trellis above, to be cleared away by another team

In a 3 year old plantation of Touriga Francesa, the pruner assessed the growth, and cut all canes except the one he judged best.  That one cane was then cut to length, turned and laid along the lower wire of the trellis system and bound into place with a soft rubber tie that will hold the cane securely without cutting into the wood, and the length of the cane was adjusted if necessary to fit the space along the wires to the next vine.

Following after the men who were pruning were a couple more people whose job was to cut out and remove from the trellises all the waste canes, leaving the trellis clean and clear and ready for 2011’s growth.  The debris was laid in the middle of the row, to be removed later.

Sr. Mariz and Sr. Arlindo walked through the Touriga Francesa vineyard, watching the team pruning and discussing how the work was going, then continued on through several other plantations not yet pruned, to assess the work needed there.  Sr. Arlindo stopped at some Souzão which was planted only one year ago, and showed me how even these tiny plants need careful pruning to ensure their growth and health this year.

Everything Else at Quinta do Tua

Sr. Mariz is concerned with every aspect of the vineyards he tends, so once he was satisfied with the vines, he turned his attention to some young olive trees that needed pruning, and he and Sr. Arlindo worked on a couple trees at Tua, to get them into the correct open-cup shape (see photo at start of article).

Assessing the drainage concerns at Tua

From there, we paused to pick and eat some tangerines that grow conveniently near some drainage works that needed inspecting, and then walked up and down the hill along a water course beside one of the vineyard roads.  Clearly, water had been running down as planned, but there came a point where the water was dropping over an uncultivated ledge, and there is concern that really heavy rains might erode this further than desirable, but work will be undertaken to prevent that.

Meanwhile, Over at Malvedos

From Tua we went to Quinta dos Malvedos, where I was surprised to see a half dozen cars and trucks clustered around the winery.  Two things were going on here.

Nuno (the Malvedos tractorista) manning the pipe while Joaquim and Alexandre discuss the wine movements.

Most importantly, the first wine was being drawn out of its tank and moved to Gaia that day.  Normally this process might begin in March, but the winter has been very cold:  we have had freezing temperatures off and on since mid November, and even snow in some areas in November and December.  The cold helps the wines “fall bright” very quickly, so this particular wine was being moved at the end of January.  Joaquim, who lives year round at Quinta do Tua and has responsibility for the wineries at both Tua and Malvedos, monitors the wines all winter and advises colleagues in Gaia when they are ready to be transferred.

Finally, there are some minor building works in hand, small improvements to the loos and storage sheds behind the winery, as well as work in the mechanical plant room, which houses the works for the hydraulics and temperature control systems for the robotic lagares.  There were people from Symington’s own physical plant department up from Gaia, architects, engineers, and representatives from the local planning board all convened to review the plans and progress so far, and Sr. Mariz checked in with them as well.

And one other little visitor was very interested in the works in the plant room.

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