The time-honoured traditional foot treading in large, shallow tanks made of granite called lagares, survives in just a handful of properties in the Douro Valley, among them the Symington family’s Quinta do Vesúvio. Inside the winery built in 1827, teams of 50 people, known as rogas, tread each lagar. The first stage is called the corte during which two to three rows of men and women, arms interlocked, march up and down the lagar with military precision, their discipline ensured by the head of the roga who resembles a drill sergeant as he bellows, ‘left-right, left-right, left right’. After about two hours, once the grapes have been thoroughly trodden, the treading team break up the rows and tread at random to their own rhythm, often dancing and joking to the sound of the local village band. This stage of treading is termed liberdade or liberty – for obvious reasons.
Once grape harvesting gets under way it is a non-stop marathon of round-the-clock activity in the vineyards and in the winery. At the Malvedos winery as in all our other specialist wineries, the grapes are still trodden; today in modern stainless steel lagares, which are simply an evolution of the time-honoured traditional foot treading in large, shallow basins made of granite, called lagares. The modern variants of these at Malvedos were installed in time for the 2000 vintage and they have worked extremely well ever since, making consistently outstanding wines. The lessons learnt here were then used in our other wineries up and down the valley where modern lagares have also been installed, namely at Quinta do Bomfim, Quinta da Cavadinha and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.
All grapes have to be picked by hand in the Douro as the mountainous topography with its very steep gradients renders mechanisation impossible. Teams of pickers, known as rogas, gather at the Quintas, some travelling from other areas of Portugal to supplement their incomes. In some vineyards, the same rogas return year after year, sometimes over several decades, through a sense of belonging and pride towards ‘their’ Quinta.
The grapes are gathered into small, shallow tray-like boxes and swiftly transported to the wineries on small tractor-drawn trailers. In the wineries the grapes are sorted, de-stemmed, gently crushed and conveyed to the lagares — traditional or modern — in readiness for treading and fermentation.
Over the last couple of weeks, harvest conditions could not have been better. Dry, sunny days have been followed by cool nights meaning that the late ripening Touriga Franca, one of the most important varieties for Port, has benefited from balanced maturations: good sugar graduations matched by very good phenolic development. With its late ripening cycle, the Touriga Franca is often the most vulnerable of the Douro’s varieties exposed as it can sometimes be to the unsettled weather which normally sets in towards the end of a Douro vintage. This was very much the case during the 2013 and 2014 harvests. The risk factor was even higher this year due to the late starting vintage. Last year, the very last grapes harvested came into the Malvedos winery on September 30th whereas this year the Touriga Franca began to be picked at Malvedos only from October 3rd.
From the very first Touriga Franca lagares filled this vintage, Henry enthused over the marvellous colour of the musts. One lagar recorded the deepest colour possible on our measuring spectrum: KA1. As picking progressed during the week and as the grapes from some of the more mature Touriga Franca vineyards at Malvedos arrived in the winery — some of them 1986 plantings — the sugar readings inched their way upwards from 13.2° Baumé to 14.02°. But as Charles has pointed out on several occasions during the vintage what has been particularly encouraging this year are the very balanced maturations evident in the all-important Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca varieties.
One-third of the Malvedos vineyard is planted with Touriga Franca, a variety well suited to the property’s predominantly south-facing aspect, requiring as it does abundant sunshine to fully realize its ripening potential. The Touriga Franca, together with the Touriga Nacional contribute the principal components to most of Graham’s Vintage Ports and Malvedos Quinta Vintage Ports and when the two varieties show so well we know we have the makings of a successful harvest. Between them, the Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional make up 60% of the Malvedos vineyard. In recent years, sizeable plantings of Sousão and Alicante Bouschet have been made at the Quinta reflecting Charles’s belief in the important contributions they can make, alongside others such as the Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and the Tinta Roriz.
On September 22nd, just a few days after the start of the vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos, two barn owls nursed back to health by the Wildlife Rescue Centre of the University of Trás-os-Montes & Alto Douro (UTAD) at Vila Real, were returned to the wild at the Vale d’Ossa vineyard located in one of the Quinta’s highest points. This is the third such release this year at Symington family owned vineyards in the Douro Valley. The previous species released included a Eurasian eagle owl and a peregrine falcon.
The Symington family has supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Both the family and the local university are committed to wildlife conservation in the Douro Valley.
As nocturnal birds of prey, the barn owls were released just after sunset in order to help ensure a successful return to the wild. Rupert Symington helped the first barn owl, a male, into the air and just before it flew away he named it Graham. Shortly after it was Charles Symington’s turn to launch the other bird, a female, which he named Malvedos. The vets who take care of the birds during their recovery period, which can sometimes last up to 8 months, refrain from naming the birds so as not to become too attached to them, knowing of course that they will eventually be released.
Both birds swiftly took to the air and were seen to fly around the vicinity of their release point, apparently to familiarise themselves with the terrain and, hopefully, their new home. The Vale d’Ossa vineyard was chosen as the location of the release, not just for its altitude but also because of the presence of several abandoned outbuildings, such as barn owls are known to use as nesting sites.
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. Just days before this release a short toed snake eagle was observed gliding in the valley formed by the Síbio stream at the Quinta.
Over these last few days picking has continued under perfect weather with maximum daytime temperatures climbing just above 30°C (32°C on Thursday), making it feel very much like summer. The cool mornings and cold nights, though, remind us that autumn has arrived. Not a single drop of rain has fallen since the 13th and since starting the vintage on the 19th the absence of rain and the prevailing constant hot temperatures have favoured the final ripening of the Touriga Nacional, which has been picked through this week at both Tua and Malvedos. Henry believes that some of the best wines of this vintage began to be made after last weekend’s picking pause, vindicating Charles’s decision to allow the Touriga Nacional a few more days’ ripening on the vines.
The weather forecast indicates continuing dry, sunny conditions which are exactly what is required for the Touriga Franca to be picked through the coming week. On Thursday, Charles, Alexandre and Henry did their rounds of the Malvedos and Tua vineyards to finalise the picking order of the remaining Touriga Nacional vineyards and to determine which Touriga Franca vineyards will be harvested first. We will start harvesting the Franca from Monday morning at Malvedos and finish with the youngest plantings of the variety at Tua, possibly by the end of the week if all goes according to plan.
On Friday, the remaining Sousão from Malvedos was brought into the winery and was co-fermented with the Touriga Nacional; this grape variety combination in the lagares has given very good results over these last few years, the Sousão’s good acidity marrying well with the Touriga Nacional’s concentration and intensity.
Visitors continue to call at Malvedos and this week, Isabel Monteiro, the market manager who looks after Ireland brought some very good-humoured Irish visitors from Graham’s importer and distributor, Findlater. Besides helping out unloading the Touriga Nacional at grape reception on Wednesday afternoon, they brought some beers around on Thursday, enjoyed by all the team after the day’s busy picking schedule was concluded.
On Thursday our colleagues from the IT department, headed by Manuela Caldeira, called at Malvedos to check on the connectivity in the house and winery. This vintage, things have been working without a hitch, probably due in part to the absence of thunderstorms. Henry showed Manuela, Isabel and Bruno around the winery, from grape reception, through to vinification and the lodge where the newly made wines are stored.
Following a three-day pause in picking decided by Charles last Thursday, September 22nd, the roga returned to the vineyards on Monday morning to begin harvesting the prized Stone Terraces vineyards at Malvedos. These are the Cardenhos vineyard, with its north/northeast aspect set in a small amphitheatre behind the Quinta house and the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, straddling the Síbio stream, close to the point where it joins the Douro. Port Arthur has a westerly and an easterly facing vineyard. The terraces of the latter accompany the contours of the ridge on which the house is built, curving around to a south facing aspect. The various sections of the Stone Terraces vineyards face all four cardinal points giving a mix of characteristics, intensity and richness from the westerly aspects and freshness and aromatics from the easterly and north facing parts of the vineyard.
The roga began picking under cloud cover but fortunately this has since cleared and the weather continues ideal with mainly clear sunny days, maximum temperatures hovering around the upper 20’s degrees Celsius. Night time temperatures have been dipping quite markedly which is ideal as it allows the grapes still on the vines to conserve their natural acidity, which lends greater freshness and balance to the wines.
On arrival at the winery, the bunches undergo the newly introduced two-stage grading and selection system, whereby the bunches are first sorted on the triage conveyor (as in previous vintages) after which they are gravity-fed into the new Bucher-Vaslin Delta-Oscillys de-stemmer. This equipment represents a significant advance at Malvedos because the de-stemming is selective and very effective, leaving unwanted raisined berries attached to the stalks and releasing only the healthy berries. This is achieved through a pendulum swing whose intensity can be adjusted. The released berries are then gently crushed through rollers, which can be adjusted in accordance with the required berry size and weight.
The first Stone Terraces lagar from the Cardenhos vineyard showed very good colour and gave a sugar reading of 13°, not unexpectedly because of its cooler aspect, a little below the graduation of the Port Arthur lagar (east and south facing sections) which recorded a Baumé of 14.05° and an equally encouraging colour.
On Wednesday, the third day of the harvest the first Sousão grapes from the neighbouring Graham’s Quinta do Tua, began to arrive at the Malvedos winery. As soon as we began to fill the lagar, and even before treading began, the impressive colour was clearly visible from the free-run juice. The Sousão is valued in our winemaking for its good acidity and for its colouring properties, but to see such colour even before treading had begun really caught Henry’s attention. Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at both Malvedos and Tua, had commented that the Sousão from Tua was looking particularly good, so Henry was not entirely surprised. Once the lagar was filled the baumé reading was taken and it registered a very satisfactory 13.4°.
Charles commented that these balanced graduations are encouraging and that higher sugar readings are not necessarily a prerequisite for producing great wines.
Rupert Symington, hosting a group of guests from the USA at Malvedos, invited by the family’s import and distribution company — Premium Port Wines — visited the winery and the old lodge, originally built in 1895. Rupert and Henry talked the visitors through the winemaking process, explaining how well the modern lagares have performed since 2000, the year they were first employed at Malvedos; a great year whose finest wines made an outstanding Vintage Port.
Into the fourth day of the vintage, after all of the Sousão was harvested and before confirming the picking schedule for the next varieties, Charles, Henry and Alexandre made a thorough visit to the finest Touriga Nacional vineyards at both Malvedos and Tua. Charles determined that the berries would benefit from a few more days on the vines and decided to postpone further picking until after the weekend.
The busy visiting schedule continued: João Vasconcelos, Graham’s market manager for the UK market, showed some visitors from the UK around the winery, just an hour or so after his colleague, Gonçalo Brito, had done the same with a group from Smart Wines, Germany.
The vintage at Malvedos started yesterday, September 19th, approximately a week later than last year’s starting date. Normally, the vintage in this part of the Douro Valley, the Cima Corgo, kicks off during the second week of September; rarely later than the middle of the month. This year’s delay can be explained by the unseasonably cool and wet spring, which set back flowering and veraison — both by almost two weeks. The exceptionally hot summer, which brought two heat waves during August, slowed things further as the maturation rates lost pace due to the very high temperatures. Fortunately, the abundant winter rainfall, which replenished the quinta’s soil water reserves, helped to sustain the vines over this period and the maturations and phenolic ripeness steadily recovered. Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker thinks that conditions point to a very good year.
A further reason for putting back the vintage was the heat surge felt during the first week of September with maximum temperatures in the Douro reaching 43°C and setting a new record for highest ever recorded maximum temperatures for this month. Luckily, some timely rain came to the rescue in the build up to the vintage: 20mm falling at Malvedos on just one day (13th September). To put this into perspective, the 30-year average rainfall for September at Malvedos is 33.4 mm. These conditions have allowed for further gradual evolution of sugars and colour in a balanced way. This rain may well prove to be one of the decisive moments of the vintage. Experience tells us that just the right amount of rain during the first half of September, especially after a very hot and dry summer, is often a defining moment of a Vintage year.
The weather forecast until the end of the month is very positive, indicating warm, dry weather (but not excessively hot); just what is needed for some of the later ripening varieties to catch up and deliver good Baumés and balanced phenolic ripeness. On the first day of picking here at Malvedos the maximum temperature was just a fraction above 30°C. Night time temperatures have been dipping a fair bit (minimum was 14°C), which is desirable and to be expected with the the autumn equinox just around the corner. This is exactly what we need for a great year: dry, sunny days and cold nights.
As is customary, the Tinta Barroca was the first variety to be picked, closely followed by the mixed parcels from the Síbio section of Malvedos. Henry Shotton, the winemaker who runs the winery — this is his 17th vintage at the Quinta — was well satisfied with the colour and the good graduations of the Barroca, an encouraging sign but not surprising for this particular variety; the real test will come when the Tourigas, the Touriga Nacional and the Touriga Franca begin to arrive at the winery, from later this week or early next. In the following post, further details on the other varieties to be picked will be provided.
We are happy to report that the bird has made a full recovery and will soon be returned to the wild in time to return to Northern Europe for the summer, this time fitted with a state-of-the-art GPS tracker in order for the centre’s dedicated team to follow its journey.
In this video, filmed several months ago, you can see the recovering bird making use of the centre’s octagonal flight tunnel.
Symington Family Estates supports the work of the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre and shares with it the values and commitment of protecting and preserving the wildlife and natural habitats of the Douro. We will be following the release of the falcon into the wild at a Symington Family Estate’s vineyard in the near future.