Two Barn Owls Released into the Wild

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.

Rupert Symington and Dr Roberto Sargo at the Vale d’Ossa release point, high above the house at Quinta dos Malvedos

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.

Charles Symington prepares to help ‘Malvedos’ make its return to the wild

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.

Dr Roberto Sargo of the UTAD Wildlife Rescue Centre describes some of the barn owl’s characteristics

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.

Rupert Symington and Dr Roberto Sargo prepare to release one of the two barn owls, high above the Douro River at Malvedos



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Injured Peregrine Falcon Recovers

At the beginning of December 2015, the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens) at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, Portugal, received into care a young injured male peregrine falcon. Shot, presumably by hunters, near the town of Esposende on the Northern coast of Portugal, the bird was making his first migration south for the winter.

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.

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Black Kites over Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

The wilds of the Douro Valley are a haven to many species of plant and animal, and you don’t have to spend long there to witness birds of prey in their natural habitat.

Home to several species of eagle, vulture, falcon, owl and kite, these large birds, which are the top of their respective food chains, are an impressive site to behold.

This pair of black kites were photographed flying over an area of uncultivated land between Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas and Quinta do Vesuvio, deep in the Douro Superior. The pair was accompanied by another, perhaps their offspring.

Eagles Vesuvio

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Wild Boar in the Vineyards at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

Walking through the vineyard parcel at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas early the other morning we came across proof of the infamous Douro wild boar. Proof, amidst the winter landscape, of this regions important biodiversity, which has a particular stronghold at Vale de Malhadas because of the 112 hectares of native scrubland that is conserved as a natural wilderness.

The mud on the track had frozen in the early hours of the morning preserving the hoof-prints of the wild boar that had passed through during the night.

These boars are native to the Douro and are often hunted. They can cause a lot of damage to property and vineyards, since they tend to forage with their tusks, digging up the earth like a plough.

In fact, our vineyards have previously been the victims of such damage.

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Gum Cistus – the taste of the Douro

Sometimes, a smell or taste strikes us and we are transported to a specific place and moment in time. Wine, for example, has the ability to express a sense of place, which has been captured in the bottle and is then released in your glass.

This notion that wine reflects the essence of its origin, its Terroir, is not limited to only the soil or aspect of any given vineyard but also encompasses the native flora and fauna of the region. Vineyards are an integrated part of their native ecosystem, not as disconnected from it. Every aspect of the environment in which the vines grow contributes the final quality of the wine.

In the Douro Valley, we have a great example of this: the wild aromatic plant known variously as Esteva, Rockrose, or Gum Cistus. Gum Cistus, which grows in low banks of scrub, imparts its refreshing peppermint and eucalyptus flavours to the grapes in the neighbouring vineyards. As a result, Graham’s Ports gain the ability to inspire those olfactory ‘madeleine moments’ that recall the magic and the atmosphere of the Douro.

The 'Gum Cistus', 'Esteva', or 'Rock-rose' of the Douro Valley

The leaves of the Gum Cistus are coated with a natural resin, which protects the plant from the summer sun and bush-fires. In the heat, this resin vapourises and fills the air around the vineyards with a perfume that none who have visited the Douro in summer will easily forget.

The skins of the grapes similarly have a waxy coating, which captures aromas and particles from the atmosphere around the vineyards. These flavours are then imparted to the wine when the grapes are fermented with their skins (as they are when making Port or red wine).

Grapes from the Douro Superior, the eastern-most of the Douro’s three subregions, have a particularly pronounced ability to capture some of the characteristics of the Gum Cistus. There is also a noticeable difference across grape varieties. The Touriga Nacional, one of Portugal’s most famous varieties, expresses the essence of its native Douro terroir more than any other grape does.

This is perhaps the greatest power that wine has over us: to express the unique character of a magical place. It reminds us that wine is intimately connected to the soil and environment in which it is produced and that its taste is closely interwoven with its provenance.

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Birds of Prey in the Douro

A young eagle pauses at Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha

Graham’s and all of the Symington Family Estates’ quintas in the Douro – some 944 hectares (2,300 acres) – are on average only about 50% planted with vineyards, with the rest of the land being a mixture of olive or citrus groves and natural vegetation.  This creates a richly varied natural habitat for wildlife, and over the years the Symington family have observed a gradual increase in birds of prey in the Douro – a sure sign that other birds and animals in the food chain are  thriving and increasing.

So it was with some interest that Paul Symington read an article in the local Douro newspaper about a Birds of Prey recovery unit at the University of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, and asked António Filipe, SFE’s general manager, to learn more about the program for us.  What he learned so impressed the family that last week they visited UTAD to tour the facility and to make a donation on behalf of SFE to help sustain the extraordinary work of the program.  The Dean of UTAD, Prof Carlos Alberto Sequeira, welcomed them, and introduced  his colleagues who are directly involved with the Birds of Prey program.

L to R: António Filipe, Paul Symington, Dr. Filipe Silva, Dr. Roberto Sargo

UTAD has an extensive program of agrarian sciences, including a school of Veterinary Sciences, headed up by Dr. Filipe Silva, and a veterinary hospital which is open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The staff receive and treat up to 4,500 animals per year, including domestic and exotic pets, horses, farm animals, and any injured wild animals which people have found.  The hospital is well designed with extensive facilities for the reception, treatment, surgery and rehabilitation of all these different kinds of animals.

The Centro de Recepção, Acolhimento e Tratamento de Animais Selvagens (The Centre for Reception, Refuge and Treatment of Wild Animals) (CRATAS) is an additional facility which includes areas specifically designed for the rehabilitation of birds of prey.  The Centre receives an average of 200 wounded birds each year from right across the Trás os Montes region.

Scops Owls
Eagle Owl
Peregrine Falcons

Dr. Roberto Sargo, head of CRATAS, lead the tour through the facilities, explaining the program and showing the family and António some of the current residents, including a trio of Mochos de Orelhas (Scops Owls) the symbol of SFE’s Altano table wines, two magnificent Eagle Owls and a group of Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animal on earth, which can reach speeds over 325 km/h (202 miles per hour) as it dives to hunt.  With all the time spent in the Douro, the family are all familiar with many of these birds – and have been known to forget the grapes for a minute to point out an eagle or falcon overhead whilst leading visitors through Quinta dos Malvedos during harvest.

Most of the birds brought in to the centre have been shot, though some have been electrocuted by high tension cables or hit by cars.  After any necessary surgery has been performed in a dedicated facility, the birds are housed in a series of spaces of differing sizes, according to their capacity for flight: as the birds regain strength and it is safe for them to begin to fly again, they are moved to progressively taller and longer tunnels with more space to practice, the last being 25 metres in length.  In addition, their diet is gradually modified so that in the final stages of recovery they are hunting again within the tunnel, as they would in the wild.  The goal is always to return to the wild all birds that can survive again, and their recent release of a black vulture was featured on the news here in Portugal.

We are very pleased and proud to support the work of UTAD and the CRATAS program and the preservation of the birds of prey in the Douro region.

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The Douro Environment

Quinta das Lages, Rio Torto Valley, which supplies grapes for Graham's Ports

Recently one of Graham’s readers commented on an article  to express concern over the future of the extraordinary natural habitat of the Douro, and asked if it was under threat, perhaps from too-great vineyard development.  Whilst there has been some loss of natural habitat in the past, there are now regulations in place which strictly control and limit the development of the region, and help protect the area for the long run.

Establishing and Maintaining Vineyards

The Douro demarcated wine region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and under this regime there are strict controls about what can and cannot be done here.  For example, the beautiful schist dry-stone walls which buttress the oldest terraces in the region are protected: they cannot be willfully destroyed for any reason, and if they are damaged – as some were in the heavy rains of winter 2009/2010 – landowners are obliged to restore them.

Quinta da Cavadinha, March 2011

If we re-plant a vineyard, we must respect those walls and work within them – for example at Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha this past winter we cleared and re-sculpted the soil within and then re-planted some old socalcos, which are the type of terraces typically planted with a number of rows of vines on a gentle slope between stone retaining walls.  With the soil freshly turned, and the infant vines newly planted,  those terraces will look a bit bare and raw for a few years till the vines mature, but the renewal of too-old vineyards is an important part of keeping the overall environment healthy and thriving.

Vineyards cannot be planted just anywhere, in any fashion.  There are stringent licensing regulations which define exactly how a vineyard must be planted, according to the gradient of the slope:

  • Up to 30 % gradient you can plant vinha ao alto (vines planted in vertical rows up and down the hill face)
  • 30 to 40 % you can have two-row patamares (soil banked terraces with two rows of vines each)
  • 40 to 50 % must be patamares estreitos (single row terraces)
  • Above 50 % you cannot plant a new vineyard, but you may replant an existing vineyard

In addition, whether re-planting old vineyards or creating new ones, farmers must not touch certain trees, particularly any cork oak – we have one at Malvedos growing in the middle of a line of vines alongside the access road to the winery and house.

Viticultural Methods

Graham’s quintas and all the Symington properties have been managed for the past ten years according to the standards of the Modo de Produção Integrado, a strict regime of minimum intervention and integrated pest management which relies on the minimum use of the least disruptive products to prevent or manage disease or infestation in the vineyards.  The only exceptions to this regime are fully organic vineyards.  The Symington family have 126 hectares in the Vilariça valley in the northeastern corner of the region, which are certified organic (Modo de Produção Biológico).  These vineyards produce the grapes for the Altano Douro DOC wines as well as some port wines.  Additionally, Quinta das Lages, which produces grapes for Graham’s ports and is situated in the Rio Torto, has an organic vineyard.

Insects thrive in the cover crops of our vineyards

Another very important aspect of our farming which supports the ecology of the Douro is our use of cover crops between rows of vines, which help control erosion, conserve water in the soil, contribute to our pest and disease management regimes and increase organic matter and nutrition in the soil.  They also provide precious habitat for insects, which are the basis of the food chain for a great diversity of birds, reptiles and mammals.

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates invests substantially in viticultural and enological research and Miles Edlmann, our research viticulturalist, has been nurturing experimental vineyards for over a decade, investigating a wide range of subjects including the cover crop regime, soil erosion, a variety of measures to minimise pest attacks, and identifying optimum grape varieties, clones, root stocks and trellising systems for different terrains and altitudes, to name just a few.  The aim of all this research is to find ways to produce the best possible grapes and wines, of course, but importantly, we are trying to find the ways which best suit and support the unique ecology and extreme conditions of the Douro.

In addition, Miles is responsible for collecting and analysing the meteorological data collected at the weather stations located in five of our quintas across the Douro.  Drawing on more than 40 years of temperature and rainfall data Miles confirms that the temperature in the Douro has increased by 1.2⁰ Centigrade in the period 1967 to 2010 on a ten year moving average, to just under 16.5⁰C.  Though the past few years have shown a slight drop, the long term trend continues upwards.

Family Commitment

Left bank: Senhora da Ribeira, Santinho, Vale de Coelho, right bank Vesuvio and around the bend Vale de Malhadas - all owned by SFE or family members

The Symington family have a very strong sense of stewardship for the land we farm in the Douro, some of which was planted by our grandfathers and great grandfather at the beginning of the 20th century.  Today, as a group, we are the largest land owners in the region, responsible for 1,860 hectares (4,596 acres) of which only slightly more than half is vineyard (934 ha), the balance being olive, almond or citrus groves, or wild habitat – natural scrub or even sheer rock in a few places.   The fact that a large percentage of that land is owned by individual family members, not by “the firm” is a huge statement of personal commitment to the region.

Paul Symington, together with his brother Dominic and cousins Johnny, Rupert and Charles, is passionate about the region and the protection of the Douro environment, and recently spoke at the Third Annual World Congress on Climate Change and Wine.  He has also written about sustainability and organic viticulture in the Douro for Fugas, the weekly magazine of Portugal’s Publico newspaper, last 27 November  (no on-line link to this article, unfortunately).

So, whilst the Douro is protected to a great extent by its UNESCO status and DOC regulations, Symington Family Estates is also working to raise awareness and support for the protection of this extraordinary landscape, both through the example of our own practices in our properties, and through engagement in the debate through public channels.

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Olive Harvest at Malhadas

Are you wondering what we do up in the Douro all winter?  Whilst there is a lot of work going on in the Graham’s vineyards, which we will write about shortly, we also have another harvest we have to finish before year end:  the olives.

Graham’s quintas are typically only about 50% under vine, the balance of the land being either left wild or planted with olives and citrus.  When and where possible the olives are harvested and pressed at the local cooperative.  The resulting oil supplies the family, the quintas’ own tables, and the lunch room and kitchen at our offices in Gaia, year round.

Olives dripping rain at Cavadinha, 7 December

We thought you might be interested to see the olive harvest.  You may also be interested and amused to know what it took to get this story!  The first week I was due to go up and join Miles at Quinta da Vila Velha to see the start of harvest there, but Miles called to say it was postponed.  The local cooperative was shut down, waiting for parts for a broken bit of equipment,  and we have no capacity for holding the olives, we have to be able to take them directly to the cooperative after picking.  The second week, the cooperative was back in business, and Miles and I agreed I should come up on the Wednesday.  It wasn’t till around 5:00 AM that morning, as I was getting ready to catch the train up river, that it dawned on me it was the day of a general strike in Portugal, so there was no relying on the train service to run to the Douro.  The third week, I did succeed in getting up river by car with Miles as far as Cavadinha, the lead quinta for our sister brand, Warre’s.  Whilst checking out the state of the drainage in the heaving rain, Miles got the call that the olive harvesting that day at Vila Velha was being cancelled, due to the rain.  Finally, week 4, I gave up on reaching Vila Velha with Miles and went to Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, just beyond Vesúvio in the Douro Superior to – at last! – watch and photograph the olive harvest.

The wait was worth it – the day was spectacular, perfect harvest weather:  clear and sunny, albeit at around 10° C it was 15 to 25 degrees cooler than we are accustomed to for the grape harvest.

Follow the harvest in our photo gallery:  click on an image, which will open in a new blog page, then follow the links at the bottom of each photo back and forth through the series.  When you want to return to the blog, click on the post title at the top of the individual photo display page.

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It Ain’t Just Grapes

Olive grove at Tua on old northwest facing terraces
Arlindo's kale at Malvedos
Bumper crop of pumpkins and squashes at Vale de Malhadas

On average, Graham’s quintas have vineyards over about half of the land.  What’s on the other half?  Lots of things.

This landscape doesn’t lend itself to monoculture – too vertical, rocky and unuseable in too many places, which have been allowed to remain wild.  Many old terraced vineyards that were abandoned after the phylloxera are now too badly damaged to be repairable for vineyard use, so have been planted with olives, and at Vale de Malhadas we also have an extensive almond plantation.

Nearly all our properties have a resident caseiro – the property manager who lives there year round – and most of them have gardens and vegetable plots tucked into the terraces adjacent to their houses or wherever there is a break in vegetation.  Kale is a staple everywhere, Tua had a fine plantation of tomatoes on an old terrace, and the winter squashes and pumpkins at Malhadas were formidable – one vine even making it out into a nearby tree.

There are citrus groves yielding lemons, oranges and grapefruit, so much so that the family often brings back cases of citrus to their homes in Porto and Gaia.  In his memoir, James Symington tells a story that during one of the periods of political unrest the police were keeping an eye on the cars as they crossed the bridge into Porto, and after three or four Symington cars full of citrus passed the checkpoint, they stopped the next one, convinced it was some kind of cover for smuggling arms – no one could possibly have or need so much fruit!

Olives starting to ripen at Tua
Bird of prey over Malvedos

The olive groves are extensive and every year the olives are harvested and the oil made at a local co-operative for the family’s use.

Needless to say, such an incredibly diverse landscape supports a diversity of wildlife.  There is a constant murmur of songbirds, wildfowl on the river, and birds of prey are common – eagles, falcons and hawks of every kind.  A walk through the old terraces at Tua on a quiet afternoon recently put up two good coveys of wild partridge.  We’ve seen all kinds of snakes and lizards, a frog the size of a grapefruit tripped up a visitor one evening in the middle of the road, and we have bats living in the winery at Malvedos – we were watching their antics in the floodlight the other night, but haven’t been able to get photos yet.

And then there’s Paul’s personal favourite, the wild boar.  Still haven’t sighted one of those for a photo either, but frankly hope not to.

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Wild Boar in our Vineyards

On Monday, whilst showing visitors through the vineyards at Malvedos, Dominic Symington pointed out the hoof marks of wild boar imprinted deep in the schistous soil, quite high up on the quinta.  The boar was apparently just passing through, no signs of damage to the vines, luckily.

Well, it seems he was on his way to Paul Symington’s own quinta in the Pinhão valley, Quinta das Netas.  It also is clear the boar is a connoisseur of port grapes:  realising the nearest plantation was only a few years old, and not yet up to vintage production standards, he took out his frustration on the back lawn.  In Paul’s own words:

The wild boar came in from the pine forests and wild scrub that surround my vineyard and had a real party.   I am hoping to make at least one of these critters into a good wild boar sausage, if I can catch them.

Good luck, Paul! We look forward to the celebratory barbecue when you do catch one.

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