The last grapes from Quinta do Tua

Last week was indeed that of the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grape varieties at Quinta dos Malvedos. Since our last post several more lagares of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (and a lagar of mixed Touriga Nacional/Franca) have been fermented, and all have shown the great colour and high Baumé readings required for the production of high quality Port.

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Three of Quinta dos Malvedos’ dedicated pickers.

On Thursday the last of the grapes from Quinta do Tua came into the winery at Malvedos signifying that we have moved well beyond the halfway point in this year’s vintage. However, given that at the last count 62% of Quinta dos Malvedos’ vineyard parcels had been picked, there is still some distance to go before the winery shuts its doors for another year. This can be explained by the fact that almost exactly one-third of the Malvedos vineyard is planted with the late ripening Touriga Franca, much of which still has to be harvested.

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Henry Shotton showing that we have reached the “fim do Tua” or the last of Quinta do Tua’s grapes!

Friday saw the fermentation of a mixed lagar of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca from younger vines. It is worth noting that young plantings tend to produce less concentrated wines with lower Baumé levels, however, in years to come the vines will produce progressively more concentrated wines.

This last weekend Charles Symington and Alexandre Mariz decided to postpone picking at the quinta for the second week in a row. An unusual decision, but one that makes sense given that the long-range weather forecast predicted good weather conditions for the coming days and it was felt that the Touriga Franca could still benefit from another few days of ripening before picking. All told, on Friday Charles Symington was very happy with how the year is progressing so far and felt that suspending the picking over the previous weekend had very visible results in the quality of the lagares that were fermented through the week.

Last week the winery team was reinforced by the arrival of Sofia Zhang. Sofia will be taking on the role of sales development manager in China and will be based in Shanghai and she was spending a few days with Henry Shotton and his team in order to learn more about how premium Port is produced. Sofia holds a master’s degree in viticulture and oenology, which will no doubt help her to pick things up quickly!

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Sofia Zhang learns from Henry in the Malvedos winery.
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Picking at Malvedos Postponed Over the Weekend

In the wake of tropical storm Henri, which passed overhead last Tuesday and Wednesday, the weather at Quinta dos Malvedos has thankfully returned to what would be considered normal for this time of year. These last few days have been sunny and warm, although not exceedingly so, and the long-range weather forecast suggests that things are going to stay this way for some time.

Henry and Nuno in the adega on the first evening
Nuno and Henry discussing the next few days in the winery.

However, in the aftermath of the heavy rain, Charles Symington (Graham’s head winemaker) and Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua) found it necessary to carefully re-evaluate the condition of the quintas’ vines, and although the grapes were not adversely affected by the storm, on Friday afternoon they decided to call off all picking at both Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua. The reason for this is to allow the berries to benefit from the dry and sunny conditions, which should recover the Baumé levels by at least half a degree. Picking is now scheduled to begin again first thing on Monday morning.

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Charles Symington and Alexandre Mariz rethinking the picking order.

This should work to counteract any dilution effect that the week’s rain may have had on the some of the quintas’ grapes, ultimately ensuring that they are able to fulfil the potential that is still very much in evidence.

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Charles’ dog, Zimba, agrees that the Touriga Nacional still needs some more days to fully ripen!
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Henri pays Henry a Visit at Malvedos

Early in the week Henry and his team at Malvedos heard the weather forecast with some apprehension. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ was gathering strength over the Atlantic and fast approaching northwestern Portugal. On Tuesday, as predicted, ‘Henri’ hit the coast at Porto and quickly progressed inland where it buffeted the Marão mountains with strong winds and heavy rain. Vila Real, the district capital on the lee slopes of the range received 90mm of rainfall in just a few hours. As the front moved up the Douro Valley it lost some of its strength but it still delivered 54.8mm of rain over Malvedos on Tuesday alone, making September the wettest month at the quinta thus far this year. To offer some perspective, mean rainfall for September (30 year average) at Malvedos is 33.4mm.

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Drying grapes at Quinta dos Malvedos.

But there’s rain and there’s rain, as any viticulturist knows. As the day wore on, the initial sense of foreboding gave way to a sense of relief; the rain did come down in buckets as forecast but not in the form of intense, damaging downpours. Rather it came down steadily, spaced evenly throughout the afternoon and the evening, allowing the soil to gradually absorb what it needed and permitting the run-off to drain away without causing any damaging erosion as so often happens in the Douro. Furthermore the strong winds, which came hand in hand with the rain, continued well after the rain had stopped in the early hours of Wednesday having the very positive effect of swiftly drying the grape bunches on the vines.

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Henry Shotton working through the storm in the winery.

Once conditions became more settled Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, with Henry and Alexandre, took stock and decided that it was better to have had this rain rather than not have had it. Whilst the team at Malvedos initially feared a rerun of the 2014 harvest when the prospect of an excellent year was partially derailed by persistent rain halfway into the harvest, this year the situation is different. There was increasing concern that the hydric stress and consequent dehydration (following one of the driest springs and summers of the last half century) was beginning to take its toll on the vines.

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A dark sky over the Port Arthur stone terraces.

Charles feels that this rain may well prove opportune, stopping further dehydration and allowing the unpicked grapes to get back into balance and fully ripen. There are still some very good parcels of Touriga Nacional to come in, and of course the whole of the Touriga Franca to pick. At this stage only one third of the Malvedos vineyard has been harvested. This timely rain, combined with the fact that the weather forecast for the rest of the month points to dry and sunny conditions with warm, even temperatures, means that ideal conditions should be in place for realising the full quality potential of this year’s harvest.

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Glimmers of sun shining on the Malvedos’ winery, Wednesday afternoon.

To allow the finest grapes to dry fully and benefit from the favourable conditions developing in the vineyards, for the next few days at Malvedos the pickers will resume picking the Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, mixed plantings and younger plantings, leaving the Touriga Nacional for later. Meanwhile in the winery some exceptional lagares are being made from grapes brought in before the storm arrived; in particular two outstanding ferments of Touriga Nacional, which showed spectacular Baumés of 14.3º and 14.35º with amazing colour. Henry is impressed by the exceptional colour of the musts he is seeing in all the lagares so far this vintage; without exception all are displaying the maximum ‘A’ colour grading in the chromatic range of ‘A’ to ‘F’.

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The sunshine returns to Malvedos, perfectly timed with Johnny Symington’s visit. Johnny brought some of the company’s market assistants (Mónica, Patrícia, Teresa and Leonor) to witness the vintage first-hand.
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THE STONE TERRACES HARVESTED AT QUINTA DOS MALVEDOS

It was a busy weekend at Malvedos with attention focused on picking the quinta’s prized stone terraces vineyards and bringing the grapes into the winery under ideal conditions. At the end of the first day’s harvesting last Thursday, Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist) and Henry Shotton (winemaker) were undecided as to whether picking of the stone terraces should start on Friday or Saturday. The weather forecast indicated a sharp drop in temperature and likelihood of some rain over the weekend and rather than take any chances, picking was brought forward by a day.

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Pickers on the Port Arthur stone terraces.

The grape pickers, known as the roga, worked their way methodically and swiftly through the two vineyard parcels that make up the stone terraces at Malvedos: the ‘Port Arthur’ and the ‘Cardenhos’ vineyards. Both of them hug the steep slopes below the ridge on which the quinta house is built: the Port Arthur being east-facing and the Cardenhos (which forms an amphitheatre behind the house), north-facing. These are the oldest vineyard terraces at Malvedos, having been hand-built in the 18th century and their aspects are in marked contrast to the predominantly south-facing Malvedos vineyards.

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The roga having their breakfast overlooking the Cardenhos stone terraces.

The seasoned roga, 24 strong, managed to hand-pick the two parcels in under a day; quite normal as they barely make up two hectares between them (2,708 vines). Henry was excited by the quality of the perfectly formed bunches of predominantly Touriga Nacional grapes which delivered excellent Baumé readings of 13.75º. The small, compact bunches with perfectly formed berries also showed superb colour, registering the maximum colour grade of ‘A’ in a descending spectrum running to ‘F’ (‘A’ represents the deepest colour and hence the finest quality). Henry’s satisfaction was written all over his face and he commented “we have given the lagar a lot of work and the colour and aromatics are amazing.”

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Impressive bunches of grapes from the stone terraces.

Alexandre Mariz, the experienced viticulturist who manages Malvedos and Graham’s neighbouring Tua vineyard, was pleased to see his predictions fulfilled; rarely if ever has he seen such beautifully ripened grapes with such balanced maturations (sugar levels, acidity and colour). He is keeping his fingers crossed that the remaining Touriga Nacional from Malvedos can be picked at their optimal point of ripeness under ideal conditions. The Touriga Franca continues to develop well on the vines although another couple of weeks are still needed for this late-ripening variety to realize its full quality potential.

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The wine produced from the stone terraces.

On Sunday evening the stone terraces lagar was run off and the must fortified. The quality is outstanding and the colour of the wine also superb, reflecting the extraordinary potential of this wine. Henry and Alexandre have labelled some sample bottles and eagerly await the opportunity to taste the wine with Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker and his cousins, Paul, Johnny, Dominic and Rupert over the next days.

The good news also extended to other parcels being picked, namely the Sousão grapes coming from Malvedos’s sister vineyard of Tua, located on the opposite bank of the Tua River, at its confluence with the Douro. The Sousão was giving superb Baumés of just under 14º. The colour of the musts in the lagar is remarkable and the Sousão could well be chosen as one of the components of a potential future Vintage.

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The east facing Port Arthur stone terraces.

At Malvedos we are bracing ourselves for some heavy rain forecast for north-western Iberia tomorrow. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ is racing across the Atlantic and it is predicted that it will combine with another storm in Western Europe and discharge heavy rainfall over northern Portugal and northwest Spain. The hope is that most of the rain will fall on higher ground in the lee of the Marão Mountains. The good news is that the storm is due to make rapid progress across the northwest tip of Iberia, and dry, sunny conditions are expected to follow.

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The First Lagar of the 2015 Vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos.

This time yesterday (10th September) the last load of grapes from the first day’s harvesting at Quinta dos Malvedos were arriving to the adega (winery). Despite Wednesday (9th September) being overcast with a little drizzle, September has continued this summers’ trend of dry and slightly above average temperatures. The first day of the vintage was warm with blue skies and a light scattering of clouds, and as it was Port Wine day (which marks the demarcation of the Douro wine region on September 10th, 1756), it was a fitting date to begin this year’s harvest.

The roga in the Sibio vineyards, with the Port Arthur stone terraces in the distance.

The first day’s objective was to fill and begin to ferment one lagar (approximately 10,000 litres) of mixed variety organic grapes from Malvedos’ higher altitude Sibio vineyards. To fill the lagar, the 24 strong roga (group of grape pickers) handpicked an impressive 11,400 kilograms by hand, and in doing so almost completely picked the 10-hectares of organic vines in one day. Henry Shotton, head winemaker at quinta dos Malvedos, complained that the only problem he had was that the grapes were arriving to the winery too quickly!

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The first trailer load of grapes of the 2015 harvest arriving at the adega on day one.

Planted in 1990, the Sibio vineyards contain some of the highest altitude vines on the property and were certified organic in 2014. Later this evening or early Saturday morning, the must from these vines will be fortified with organic brandy, making it the first time that organic Port will be made from the quinta’s own vines.

Grape reception at the adega.
Grape reception at the adega.

All the grapes looked in really fine condition coming into the winery and the Baumé reading from the lagar on Thursday evening was just over 13°. Pedro Leal da Costa, Symington Family Estates’ head of viticulture commented that this year all of the vines look really promising, and if the weather holds up, everything points to a Vintage year. Light rain has been forecast for Sunday however, but at this point we are not particularly worried about that.

The empty grape boxes returning to the vineyard from the winery.

Although we are still just at the beginning of what is always a few long weeks of very hard work in both the winery and the vineyards, everyone here is very optimistic that this will be a great year.

Over the next few weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on this years harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The seeds of a good vintage

While we wait patiently for the adega (winery) at Quinta dos Malvedos to open its doors this Thursday, the terraced vineyards continue to ripen under the watchful eyes of Graham’s experienced viticulturists. Of course, correct maturation is essential to a successful vintage and knowing when the grapes should be picked is fundamental to the production of great wine.

While an assortment of modern scientific techniques are nowadays employed to judge how ripe the grapes are, other more simple methods continue to be used, probably unchanged since man first began to cultivate the vine.

While judging the correct balance of sugar and acidity in the grapes by taste and an evaluation of the feel and outer colour of the grape are widely known methods of assessing maturation, the colour of a grapes seeds can also be used to gauge ripeness.

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An unripe grape (right) with a more mature one (left), taken several days ago.

As a grape matures its seeds will gradually change from a light green to a dark brown or almost black colour and as such are a quick and easy way to determine if a certain variety is maturing well or not.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on this years harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Vintage postponed several days at Quinta dos Malvedos

In the end, the rain forecast for last Sunday (see previous post) never fell over Quinta dos Malvedos, instead temperatures spiked to 38.6 degrees Celsius over the weekend closing what was a very dry month indeed (2.8mm of rain fell over the course of the month). The August 30-year average rainfall for Quinta dos Malvedos is 13.6mm, and while not exactly a lot of rainfall, it is almost five times more than actually fell this year over the same period.

August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.
August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.

In many of the Douro Valley quintas that produce table wines, the vintage has already started, however, for the production of great Port, grapes are allowed to mature longer in order to raise their sugar levels. Whilst the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos was set to start on Monday next week (7th of September), Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, has decided to postpone picking until Thursday (10th of September) in light of a favourable weather forecast for the foreseeable future which will allow the grapes more time to reach the perfect point of maturation before harvesting.

A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca - a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca – a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
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An Update from Malvedos

As August draws to a close and we come ever closer to the beginning of this year’s vintage, the typical scorching summer temperatures of the Douro Valley have not materialised. While there have been several hot days, with temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius), until now August has been the first month of the 2014/15 viticultural year with temperatures below the mean.

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Ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha) of Quinta dos Malvedos.

However, owing to the drought conditions throughout most of the viticultural year, these lower than average temperatures in August are a real boon. With just 4.8mm of rain falling over Malvedos since the beginning of July (see previous post), lower temperatures reduce the possibility of excessive hydric stress. Charles Symington, head winemaker at Quinta dos Malvedos, reminds us that at this juncture air temperature is also extremely important for another reason.

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More ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha).

Very high temperatures during the final maturation cycle can lead to higher sugar concentration in the berries to the detriment of acidity, which is of course very important for the wines’ balance and ageing potential. The lower than average daytime and nocturnal temperatures will ensure grapes with homogeneous maturations which will almost certainly result in very high quality wines.

In any case, with moderate rain forecast for tomorrow it looks like Malvedos will have the benefit of both relatively low temperatures and some useful additional water; meaning everything is still on track for a stellar harvest.

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The east facing side of the Port Arthur stone terraces, still under a cloudy sky.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Looking Forward to the Harvest

We are now in the final weeks before the culmination of the viticultural year and the beginning of this year’s harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos. Although the Portuguese Meteorological Institute is currently announcing severe drought warnings for the entire country, the vines look robust and healthy, and the viticultural cycle is approximately ten days ahead of schedule. The vintage plan has now been drawn up, and although it will no doubt undergo several changes before we begin to bring grapes into the winery next month, we are currently aiming to begin harvesting at Malvedos on the seventh of September, four days earlier than last year, when the vintage started on the 11th.

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Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

The Viticultural Year to the Present

On a whole the viticultural year was quite uniform, although unusual, as almost from start to finish it has been warmer than average, and very dry.

The yearly cycle began with an extremely wet November that saw 179mm of rainfall (more that twice the 30-year average of 67.5mm) falling over the quinta. However, these conditions were not to last and as we moved into December and the new year, rainfall decreased dramatically (to less than half the 30-year average), a trend that would continue throughout the year.

Over the course of the year average temperatures always kept above the mean, but when we look back at the year as a whole what marked it was the lack of rainfall. Apart from ample precipitation in November 2014, this viticultural year, and especially the summer months, has been extremely dry. With only 2.6mm of rain falling in July. We were fortunate to have 2.4mm fall over the quinta last weekend and with more forecast for next weekend, it should be some relief for the vines, which are already reaching their limit.

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Temperature and precipitation over the last viticultural period (March to end of July). Note the proximity of 2015 to 2011 (a phenomenal vintage).
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Rare August clouds over Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

That being said the vines are now beautiful, and rarely in a year of such drought have they looked so fine. Still covered by a lush green canopy, only first growth lower leaves, now beginning to turn brown and dry, tell the story of their struggle for water throughout the year.

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A row of Touriga Franca planted in 1983 exhibiting fine green foliage.

The Vintage

Walking through the vineyards with Alexandre Mariz (the viticulturist responsible for Quinta dos Malvedos) as he tastes the grapes from each row of vines, evaluating them for the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness which indicates their level of maturation, you can see that he is quietly confident in the ability of the hardy Douro Valley grape varieties to withstand the severity of the region’s weather, and that this year’s vindima (harvest in Portuguese) promises to be a great one.

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Alexandre Mariz inspecting a row of Souzão, high above the river Douro.

One of the reasons for his confidence is that not only are the vines all in very fine condition, but that they are at the same level of maturation and their sugars, phenolic levels and acidity are all showing even development. In short, no variety is significantly lagging behind another.

This year the star of the vintage could be Touriga Franca, which is looking particularly good. Normally a late ripening variety, this year it started developing earlier than usual, giving it a head start and meaning that it will be perfectly matured closer to the beginning of the vintage rather than later, as is normal with this variety.

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The juice of a Souzão grape. This variety is known for the deep colour its wines.

Other Happenings at the Quinta

Besides preparations for the imminent vintage, work is also nearly complete on the creation of new terraces on the western side of the quinta. When complete, the 4.9 hectares of new terraces are due to be planted entirely with Alicante Bouschet, which at the moment only exists in very small quantity at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The new terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos (looking eastward).

All told, the vineyards are in great condition and everyone is going into the vintage with high expectations. Although there are always unknowns, everything is pointing to a great year for the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, and Graham’s Port.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at the Malvedos winery.

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Alexandre Mariz looking over the vines high above the Douro.
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THE 5TH GENERATION GAINS WORK EXPERIENCE AT MALVEDOS

Henry’s Malvedos winery team was recently reinforced with the arrival of Oscar Symington one of the 5th generation youngsters of the family which owns and runs Graham’s. Oscar’s father, Rupert, is one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors. The 18 year old lost no time mucking in, carrying out the multitude of tasks required of him, from helping to unload the trailers of grape laden boxes, taking his turn on the sorting table as well as helping out with the envasilhamentos (running off the must from the lagares for fortification). Oscar soon discovered that this particular task is a bit like doing your watch on a ship, involving as it does taking turns with your colleagues in this round-the-clock activity which can happen anytime — day or night. The eight-strong winery team are glad to have this extra pair of hands to lighten their burden; they have all been working continuously for three weeks since the vintage began at Malvedos on September 11th.

Oscar helps select incoming Touriga Franca grapes on the sorting conveyor.
Oscar helps Luís select incoming Touriga Franca grapes on the sorting conveyor.

Oscar himself has barely had a chance to catch his breath since beginning his gap year; before coming to help out at Malvedos he had already worked for 10 days at the family’s Quinta do Sol winery followed by another 10 days at Quinta de Roriz jointly owned by the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux and where they produce one of the Douro’s iconic table wines — Chryseia. The majority of the grapes for Chryseia are sourced from the Roriz vineyard but an important element has always been drawn from the neighbouring property of Vila Velha, owned by Oscar’s grandfather, James Symington. Besides the contribution Vila Velha provides for the landmark Chryseia Douro red, the finest production is also supplied to Graham’s, making important contributions to the premium Ports it produces. The highly acclaimed Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port was comprised of components from all five Graham’s Quintas; Vila Velha making up 18% of the final lot.

One of Oscar's ligher duties: tasting a Touriga Nacional - Sousão co-fermented Port with Malvedos winemaker, Henry Shotton.
One of Oscar’s ligher duties: tasting a Touriga Nacional – Sousão co-fermented Port with Malvedos winemaker, Henry Shotton.

Like his siblings and cousins, Oscar is following in the tradition of young members of the family working a vintage at the family Quintas, during school or university holidays. Graham’s is a family wine business through and through and it is very much part of the philosophy to let the youngsters gain practical experience in what is after all the family’s lifeblood: producing the great wines of the Douro Valley. Oscar’s great-grandfather, Ron Symington who like his twin brother John and first cousin Maurice was passionate about the Douro is known to have often said, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” by which he meant that the older generation had to give the younger members of the family a chance to get involved. We’re not sure whether Oscar is comfortable with the metaphor but we are sure that he understands what his ancestor meant. Following his gap year Oscar will continue his higher education at Durham University in northern England.Ron Symington, Oscar's great-grandfather would often say, "You have to let the dog see the rabbit" — and he wasn't referring to his gun dog!

Ron Symington, Oscar’s great-grandfather would often say, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” — and he wasn’t referring to his gun dog!

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