On Saturday, November 25th Symington Family Estates presented, in the name of all its employees, a new ambulance to the Sabrosa Volunteer Fire Brigade in recognition of the vital services they offer to the local community in this rural area of the Upper Douro Valley. Since 2007, this is the 10th ambulance donated by the Symington family to fire services in the Douro region.
Symington Family Estates own 1,024 hectares of vineyards in the Douro and of its near 500 employees, 40% live and work in the region. Besides providing a livelihood for many families, Symington is a major contributor to the local economy, annually purchasing grapes from several thousand growers, as well as other goods and services essential to the smooth running of its operations in the Douro.
Present at the handover ceremony in representation of the company were Paul Symington, several other company directors as well as the head of Symington Viticulture, Pedro Leal da Costa and Sr. Américo, the farm manager of Quinta da Cavadinha, which is just a few kilometres from Sabrosa.
This year’s terrible wildfires throughout Portugal, which tragically claimed over 100 lives have again demonstrated the selfless dedication and courage of the nation’s firefighters who besides combatting forest fires, provide local communities with vital emergency medical coverage.
In December 2016, the Spanish Universities of Valencia and La Rioja, Wall-YE Robots & Software of France, Sundance Multiprocessor Technologies of the UK and Symington Family Estates formed a consortium to develop a vineyard robot. The three-year project (2016 – 2019) aims to design a vineyard monitoring robot that can aid wine producers throughout Europe in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and variations in plant vigour.
Existing vineyard data collection methods have many constraints because they are time-consuming, require skilled field operators and the use of expensive equipment and only deliver reduced sampling rates that are statistically insufficient and therefore do not accurately map the status and variability of a given vineyard. It is because of these limitations that most producers simply do not employ vineyard mapping, thus foregoing valuable data that could improve their vineyard management and ultimately influence the quality of their wine. It is this capability gap that VineScout will bridge by providing accurate, comprehensive and swift on-the-go data gathering. Furthermore, VineScout operates autonomously using GPS guidance and fitted sensors which allow it to navigate between rows of vines without a human operator. The collected data can be rapidly processed, providing the vineyard manager with valuable information that can be interpreted in real time, allowing for assessments of — and timely interventions in — the vineyard.
An overriding objective of the project is that VineScout must have a low carbon footprint. The robot is powered by electric batteries whilst the onboard sensors and other software are powered by energy generated by solar panels fitted to the vehicle. This solar energy can also further charge the batteries which propel the robot, whilst on the move, providing VineScout with additional range in the field. Furthermore, VineScout’s construction favours light and recyclable materials.
The VineScout prototype was field-trialled in the Grape Variety Research Vineyard at Quinta do Ataíde during the last week of August. The three-day trials included an open day, ‘Agronomy Day’, in which other wine producers from the Douro as well as universities, tech start-ups, and research institutes saw VineScout in operation. The open day included an end-user focused round table discussion to exchange ideas and review lessons learned. Professor Francisco Rovira-Más of the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, the consortium project coordinator and an expert in robotics and agricultural engineering, and Fernando Alves, the Symington Viticulture R&D manager, were delighted with the outcome of the field trials and with the participation at the seminars. They regarded the participants’ input as providing a valuable contribution to the project’s advancement.
VineScout is funded by the European Union H2020 ‘Fast Track to Innovation Pilot’ with the objective of developing a robot that is affordable, reliable and user-friendly. European Union funding accounts for €1.7 million of the total €2 million investment.
Symington Family Estates was invited to participate in this innovative project in April 2016 at the ClimWine 2016 International Symposium held in Bordeaux and which addressed the topic of “Sustainable Grape and Wine Production in the Context of Climate Change”. A presentation delivered at the symposium by the Symington Viticulture Research and Development Manager caught the attention of attending representatives from the University of La Rioja — one of the consortium members — and subsequently led to an invitation for Symington Family Estates to become the end-user member of the VineScout project. Symington Family Estates reputation in the field of viticultural and winemaking research and development in the Douro region, as well as its proven record as a leading producer of both Port and Douro wines, was also instrumental in it being invited to become the end-user partner in the VineScout consortium.
Further field tests have been programmed for 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde and at Quinta do Bomfim, during June, July, and August. VineScout is a logical evolution of the Vine Robot experimental project which ran from 2013 to 2017 and which has provided the succeeding VineScout project with a solid grounding and a useful springboard to fully develop a successful vine monitoring robot.
Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Douro Valley and the arrival of spring this year was a perfect illustration of that. The period of the vines’ winter dormancy, during which the plants have minimal metabolic activity (they’re literally asleep) was fractionally warmer and drier than average and the spring followed a similar pattern — hot and dry. However, the season kicked off in the Douro with abundant snowfalls on March 23rd that shrouded the region’s higher altitude vineyards with blankets of snow. Widespread frost also affected the Douro Superior on the 25th. The chill, though, was short-lived and temperatures soon swung back up in April; it was the third hottest month of April of the last 40 years.
As well as unseasonably warm, this spring was also very dry due to the overall lack of precipitation. March did manage approximately half the monthly average rainfall but April was remarkable for the near total absence of rain; just 2.6mm was recorded at Quinta do Bomfim where the average for the month is 46.9mm. It was in fact the driest month of April since official weather records began in Portugal in 1931. Precipitation in May was closer to the mean, helping to raise soil moisture levels. For the spring as whole (March through to May), rainfall was approximately half the thirty-year average.
As a result of these climatic conditions, bud-break, which marks the beginning of the vine’s vegetative cycle, began between the 8th and 10th of March (Touriga Franca at Quinta do Bomfim), very similar dates to 2016 and approximately a week earlier than average. Although the start of this phase then slowed significantly, the vegetative cycle soon picked up and advanced at a very fast pace.
Flowering occurred three weeks earlier than in 2016, beginning between the 4th and 5th of May and was two weeks ahead of average dates. By the end of the month the cycle maintained this precocity with formed bunches well visible in the Touriga Franca.
The upside of the hot and dry conditions has been the very low disease threat levels (downy and powdery mildew), in sharp contrast to the comparable period in 2016. Vine canopy management was a priority during the final stage of the three month period, involving vine hedging (despampa), shoot topping (desponta) and shoot positioning (ampara) — guiding the shoots through the trellis wires. Weed control along the soil top cover also required great attention given the extra vigour of plant growth encouraged by a combination of the high temperatures at the start of this cycle and the availability of water in the soil, which although limited was sufficient to stimulate such growth.
At our Douro properties, new plantings were concluded at Quinta do Bomfim with 7.5 hectares of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca; Quinta da Macieira in the Vilariça Valley with 8 ha of Alicante Bouschet; Quinta dos Malvedos with 7 ha of Touriga Nacional and one hectare of top grafting (see definition below); Quinta da Telhada with 6.5 ha of Touriga Franca; Quinta de Roriz with 1.5 ha of Touriga Nacional and 1.9 ha of top grafting and finally Quinta da Perdiz with the planting of 4 ha of Touriga Nacional. This brings the total planting for this year to 34.5 ha of new vines and 2.9 ha of top grafting (changing over to Touriga Franca).
Top grafting (sobre-enxertia): “Changing the fruiting vine variety of a mature vineyard by inserting a bud of a selected variety in each vine, but retaining the established root system.” (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, 2015).
At our principal grape variety library, established at Quinta do Ataíde in 2014, studies were carried out on the dynamics of bud-break and flowering for each of the 53 varieties planted and similar studies were also made at the Quinta do Bomfim Grape Variety Library.
A European honey buzzard — Pernis apivorus — nursed back to health by the UTAD (Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro) Wildlife Rescue Centre was returned to the wild at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos on May 18th. Peter Symington, the SFE’s retired winemaker, who has been staying at the quinta with family and friends, released the female honey buzzard from one of the property’s highest vineyards at 350 metres (1,148 feet).
The Malvedos honey buzzard was taken to the University’s Veterinary Hospital in August 2016 after it had been found by members of the public, downed and injured near Miranda do Douro, a town in the north-eastern extremity of Portugal where the Douro marks the international border with Spain. The bird had been illegally shot, sustaining two fractures in one of its wings. It was operated on successfully at the veterinary hospital — which works closely with the wildlife rescue centre — and from October it began its recovery programme which consisted of several months of flying exercises in the rescue centre’s dedicated circular flight tunnel, the only one of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s unique in that it allows large birds of prey to fly continuously, thus regaining muscular strength and recovering flying proficiency in preparation for a return to nature.
Although its steady recovery was completed during the middle of winter, the rescue centre could not release the bird as it belongs to a migratory species, which flies south to sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the European Autumn in search of better feeding grounds, returning to Europe only in the spring for the mating season. As its name suggests, the honey buzzard feeds on bees and wasps and their larvae, raiding their nests. Its thick plumage, its claws covered with thick protective scales and narrow slit nostrils, protect it from attack by its preferred prey.
Dr. João Tomás, the veterinarian who accompanied the honey buzzard for release at Malvedos explained to those present that during the second week of May, approximately 8,000 honey buzzards were tracked over the Strait of Gibraltar, flying north on their return to Europe where they will mate, usually with the same partner, build nests and raise their chicks. He said that sightings of honey buzzards had already been reported in the Douro Superior and in the Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta districts of Portugal. This was the signal that the timing was right to release ‘their’ bird.
The Symington family has supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens — CRAS, for short) since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Malvedos is home to a remarkable variety of bird species, which include golden orioles, bee-eaters, turtle doves, Iberian magpies and larger birds such as black kites, which frequently nest in the wooded areas of the quinta. Just moments after the release of the honey buzzard, João Tomás identified a Bonelli’s eagle gliding effortlessly on the thermals above the vineyards.
Miguel Potes, no stranger to the ups and downs of a year in the vineyards, talks about winter pruning, low temperatures, and a lot of hard work.
The winter pruning of the 2016/2017 viticultural year was largely concluded in our vineyards by the third week of February, a little later than usual due to the fact that in many of our properties in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro work only began during the first half of December. Typically, winter pruning would be well underway during the month of November, but this year’s delay can be explained by the longer than usual vegetative cycle of the vines over the preceding season (2015/2016), which meant that after the vintage the vineyards were still relatively lush and the onset of leaf-fall was delayed by approximately two weeks. The above-average temperatures during the first half of November accentuated this further.
The relatively late start to the 2016 harvest also inevitably influenced the delay in winter pruning. In some of our principal vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos, picking during the harvest was halted on two occasions to work around some (beneficial) rain that arrived during the middle of September. Some of the finest grape varieties, including the Touriga Nacional, only began to be picked from September 26th, which meant that the harvest finished quite late, well into October.
Our pruning teams did not have to contend with much rain; in fact over the winter the lack of rain has given us some cause for concern, the shortfall being approximately 40% when compared to the 30-year-average. However, they did face very cold conditions, especially through January, which records showed as being the third coldest January of the last 30 years. The lowest temperature was registered at Quinta do Ataíde’s weather station on January 19th: 5.6°C below zero, which underlines the continental climate of the easternmost part of the Douro region.
Fortunately our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which not only increase productivity but also make the task much less physically demanding. They do, however, have to face the whims of winter weather for weeks on end, not to mention having to negotiate the steepness of the terrain, which really doesn’t make their task any easier.
Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and one of its prime objectives is to influence the following season’s yield by controlling the number of buds and therefore those that will potentially burst and give rise to the desired number of bunches of grapes per vine. Because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming it accounts for around a third of the annual costs in our vineyards.
Electric secateurs notwithstanding, winter pruning in our vineyards is still an entirely manual task. It is one of the single most important periods of the year in the lifecycle of our vines for it is at this time that decisions are made that will determine the individual future of every single vine and have a significant impact on the success of this year’s crop. During the moments the pruner spends on each vine his or her decisions influence its growth over the new vegetative cycle, its fate quite literally in their hands. Manual pruning requires great skill, knowledge and experience if it is to be carried out successfully and one of its great advantages, as opposed to mechanical pruning, is the precision it offers given that each vine is tended with individual care, one of the indispensable prerequisites for the production of the finest possible wines.