A VERY GOOD YEAR IN THE MAKING

This time last year almost to the day (tracking the season August 30th, 2013) the temperature by mid morning had already reached 33º Celcius at Malvedos. The highest temperature recorded during August 2013 at the Quinta was a sweltering 42.6ºC. This year it’s a different story, the summer thus far has been appreciably cooler than in recent years and this morning it was 28ºC, and by way of comparison the maximum temperature recorded during August this year was 36.3ºC. During the night there was some negligible rainfall which the farm manager, Sr. Arlindo, reported as barely having registered in the Quinta’s weather station. If nothing else though these few drops do seem to have ‘cleaned the air’; the light is beautifully clear and visibility is pin sharp even into the far distance. Normally in August due to the very high temperatures, heat haze rapidly develops and such crisp, pure light is very rare.

Arlindo and Alexandre during the morning rounds on a luminous August morning.
Arlindo and Alexandre during their rounds at Malvedos on a luminous August morning.

Thus far, only 4mm of rain has been recorded at Malvedos during August and this figure is unlikely to change with only two days of the month left and no rain forecast. July was wetter than usual at Malvedos (18mm compared to the mean of 10mm) and this has helped to redress August’s lower than average precipitation (4mm against a mean of 13.6mm). But more important for the grapes’ maturation cycle have been the unseasonably cool temperatures, this being — at least thus far — the coolest summer in recent memory. The impact on the vines has been very beneficial; there has been very little hydric stress and the berries on the vines are looking very healthy. Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker, often points out that air temperature can be a more critical factor during the grapes’ final ripening cycle through the summer than rainfall (i.e., the lack of it).

Alexandre samples Touriga Franca berries at Quinta do Tua, Friday, August 29th.
Alexandre samples Touriga Franca berries at Quinta do Tua, Friday, August 29th.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist who oversees Malvedos as well as Graham’s neighbouring Tua vineyard is very encouraged by the balanced maturation evident in the berries. He has been sampling the berries in both vineyards and is particularly impressed with the progress of the Touriga Franca, which makes up 28% of the Malvedos vineyard and 20% of Tua. When the Franca has reached such a favourable state of maturity at this stage leading up to the vintage, then results tend to be very good. All experienced Douro viticulturists and winemakers — and Douro farmers generally — know that when the Franca shows signs of developing its full potential then a very good year is in the making. Charles agrees with Alexandre and is upbeat about the prospects for a very good quality harvest. Last year at this stage, sugar readings had not achieved expected levels and phenolic ripeness was also lagging behind. Inevitably this lead to a delay in the vintage, which only kicked off at Malvedos and Tua on September 23rd.

Graham's Quinta do Tua, looking east. In the foreground, the Touriga Nacional vineyard planted in 2008.
Graham’s Quinta do Tua, looking east. In the foreground, the Touriga Nacional vineyard planted in 2008.

Based on maturation studies carried out over the last couple of weeks Charles has indicated September 8th as the likely start to this year’s harvest at Malvedos and Tua. Besides resorting to sophisticated vineyard mapping technology which uses infra-red aerial photography to reveal the ripeness of the various vineyard parcels (row by row), Charles — like his winemaking ancestors before him — also uses the well proven method of berry sampling in the vineyard. Over the last few days he has been able to confirm that sugars, phenolics and acidity in the berries are all showing an even and balanced development. The berries taste sweet with correct levels of acidity (showing no astringency) and when the berries are squeezed the juice already reveals good colour. Accordingly, a tentative picking order has been drawn up and is likely to be as follows: old mixed vines from Tua, followed by the Sousão and Tinta Amarela (also from Tua) and then from Malvedos the Barroca, Roriz and finally (from both vineyards) the Touriga Nacional and the Touriga Franca.

The new vineyard taking shape at the western extremity of Malvedos.
The new vineyard taking shape at the western extremity of Malvedos.

As we bide our time with confident anticipation to get the vintage under way, the only other activity at Malvedos at this time is the ongoing surriba (terrain preparation) in the western boundary of the Quinta where 6 hectares will be replanted next winter, most likely with the two Tourigas, the Franca and the Nacional (see the previous tracking the season post, published a month ago). Some final work also continues in the rebuilding of the stone terraces (a section of the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard) at the other extremity of the Quinta.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing daily coverage of the harvest at the small Malvedos winery, where the winemaking team’s clear remit is always the same: to realize the Malvedos and Tua grapes’ maximum quality potential. Henry Shotton, the resident winemaker at Malvedos will keep readers up to speed with regular news on how the harvest is progressing.

Morning glory carpets a slope at Malvedos. In the distance, the new vineyard terraces ('patamares') taking shape.
Morning Glory carpets the slope that descends from the house at Malvedos down to the railway. In the distance, the new vineyard terraces (‘patamares’) taking shape.
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NEW VINEYARD TERRACES TAKE SHAPE AT MALVEDOS

The surriba (terrain preparation) begun almost two months ago at the western extremity of Malvedos is making good progress. Men and machines are at work on the steep slopes expertly carving the terraces on which vines will be planted during February/March 2015. Due to the gradient of the terrain (50% inclines in some sections) these new terraces or patamares have a relatively narrow platform and their supporting earth walls have to be quite substantial in order to support the platforms adequately. Given their narrowness, each terrace will have only one row of vines planted, meaning lower plant density. Thus, adding to the very high cost of building the terraces and replanting vines in this unforgiving topography, one has to factor in lower production as well. Ultimately though, the return will come in the form of high quality grapes to make high quality wines.

The area being worked on amounts to 5.85 hectares (14.5 acres) and is part of the Síbio vineyard that was incorporated into Malvedos two years ago. Almost half of the terrain abuts onto a pronounced shoulder of land, which follows the sharp bend in the River Douro below and forms an east and southeast facing aspect, in visible contrast to the predominantly south facing aspect of Malvedos. This will influence the choice of grape varieties planted; according to Alexandre Mariz (the viticulturist in charge of Malvedos) these are likely to be Touriga Nacional on the east / southeast facing terraces and Touriga Franca on the south facing terraces (as a late ripening variety the Franca handles the extra heat well). Virtually the only other established east facing vineyard at Malvedos is the ‘Port Arthur’ traditional stone terraced vineyard whose grapes contributed to the outstanding Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2011 Vintage Port. It is hoped that the vines planted on this newly laid out vineyard will one day deliver grapes of similar quality.

The Douro has the largest area of mountain vineyard in the world and over the last couple of decades in particular, advanced techniques have been developed to best address the challenges posed in laying out vineyards in such intractable terrain. Laser technology is employed to ensure that the earth-banked terraces are constructed with the required slight inward and longitudinal cant (3%), which has a twofold purpose: water retention and combating erosion. This double cant of the terraces helps retain sufficient water from rainfall, long enough for it to seep into the soil whilst simultaneously allowing excess rainwater to drain off gradually without washing away the valuable topsoil or causing erosion, which — if left unchecked — can provoke the collapse of the terraces themselves. It’s very much about striking the right balance between the volumes of water one wants to retain and allow to drain away.

New Terraces Malvedos July 2014

The only other activity at Malvedos at this quiet stage of the year (from a viticultural perspective) is the ongoing rebuilding of sections of the old stone terraces at the main entrance to the property. As commented in previous reports, this undertaking has taken much longer than originally envisaged. In hindsight, this was to be expected because unlike the construction of patamares, the socalcos (stone terraces) have to be rebuilt in very much the same way they were originally built two centuries ago, i.e. entirely by hand. Furthermore, experienced stonemasons aren’t as plentiful as they once were, but fortunately for the preservation of the Douro landscape there is still a school in the region which continues to teach this age-old skill.

Weather wise, July has been an unusual month at Malvedos inasmuch as the rainfall for the first three weeks (18mm) was almost double the monthly average for the Quinta which is 10mm (July is the driest month of the year in the Upper Douro). Fortunately this part of the Douro Valley was spared the sudden deluge which hit some areas on July 3rd: 80mm fell in just one hour in parts of the Pinhão Valley and 26mm in the village of Pinhão; both locations just 8km downriver from Malvedos (where 5mm was recorded over the same period). This rainfall has proven a boon for Malvedos as the previous four months had registered well below average rain and there are no signs of hydric stress in the vines. August can be — and usually is — a make or break month for the grapes’ final ripening stage but Alexandre and the caretaker, Sr. Arlindo, feel this extra water in the soil (coupled with relatively cooler temperatures throughout the month, thus far) has provided the vines with good conditions to stay the course.

This time last year, Véraison (known locally as pintor) at Malvedos was running about a week late. This year and in step with the generally precocious 2013 – 2014 viticultural cycle, the pintor gave its first signs 10 days earlier than average at Malvedos and most of the grapes on the vines have now changed colour. The berries look very healthy with good even ripening of the grape bunches boding well for the next few weeks.

Malvedos Véraison "pintor" July 2014 Photos: Filipe Potes

 

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A vineyard in balance – May 31st 2014

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos is pleased with the vines’ development at the Quinta; the vineyard is thriving and everything is in balance at this stage in the viticultural cycle. It is some years since everything has appeared to be developing so well — at this particular stage in the season. It is a precocious year with bud-break and flowering coming two weeks earlier than usual at Malvedos; not unexpected given the abundant winter rainfall and the unseasonably warm conditions through the spring. April brought a heat wave with temperatures at Malvedos reaching 30ºC on the 10th, 15th, 17th and 18th. During two consecutive months (March and April) the highest temperatures in the whole of Portugal were recorded in the Douro region by the Portuguese Met Office.

Fruit set is advancing very favourably with beautifully formed clusters developing evenly on the vines throughout the Quinta’s 89 hectares (220 acres) of vineyard. Given the conditions mentioned above vegetative growth has been quite vigorous and a team of 16 skilled vineyard workers has been working flat out under the watchful eye of Sr Arlindo, the vineyard manager, curtailing excessive shoot growth whilst at the same time taking the opportunity to guide the shoots (those that they choose to leave on the vines) between the trellis wires. This is an entirely manual operation and it is a testament to the labourers’ skill to witness just how speedily they progress through these tasks, which are essential in ensuring that the vines channel their energies into berry development rather than excessive vegetative growth.

The Touriga Nacional and Sousão vineyard parcels, planted during the spring of 2013 are flourishing and it seems incredible that they are just one year old. The Sousão is a heat sensitive variety and was therefore planted on one of the Quinta’s highest vineyard parcels located at 350 metres (1148 feet) altitude to benefit from the cooler conditions that elevation bestows. Besides this, the Sousão is laid out in a west facing amphitheatre-like bowl where conditions are relatively cooler than the predominantly south facing Malvedos vineyard. Furthermore, this bowl faces the valley formed by the Sibio stream which provides some additional humidity.

The view from the new Sousão vineyards at Malvedos

Facing this new Sousão parcel across the valley is the Sibio vineyard which was incorporated into Malvedos in 2012. Sibio has a combination of vertically planted and terraced vineyards, some of which are old, mixed vineyards whose organic certification is imminent. If all goes according to plan, Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker may have at his disposal during the 2014 vintage the first organically grown grapes from Malvedos. He can choose to use these together with the organically grown grapes from Graham’s Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto Valley.

On the Quinta’s western extremity on high ground overlooking the sharp curve in the River Douro, machinery is at work preparing the terrain for replanting during the spring of 2015 (grape variety/ies to be decided). The terraces here had fallen into disrepair (they formed part of the Sibio parcels) and the vines planted on them were in a sorry state. The opportunity is being taken to lay out the new terraces (known locally as patamares) using the latest techniques which involve sculpting the earth-banked terraces with a slight inward and longitudinal cant. This helps retain just the right amount of water from rainfall, long enough for it to seep into the ground whilst simultaneously allowing the rainwater from heavy downpours to drain off expeditiously but without eroding the soil (sometimes provoking the collapse of the terraces themselves).

Not far away a stone ‘shredder’ towed by one of the Quinta’s small tractors has been busy breaking up the larger stones and rocks on some terraces, leaving behind what looks like powdered schist soil. This operation brings with it several advantages: it avoids having to physically remove the larger rocks (saving in fuel emissions and costs); it resolves the problem of where to physically store or dispose of these rocks; the break-up of the soil top layer improves its aeration and drainage; it facilitates the passage of small tractors through the narrow terrace platforms, and makes it easier for vineyard workers to work on the vines (not to mention picking during the vintage); and of course it adds to, rather than subtracts from, the soil top layer.

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Planting The Sousão at Malvedos – April 7th 2014 – Tracking the Season

The abundant winter rainfall at Malvedos, whilst desirable in terms of replenishing the much needed water reserves deep in the subsoil, has adversely affected progress in the reconstruction of the dry stone-walls at the entrance to the Quinta (see the previous two Tracking the Season posts for November and February). It was hoped that the stonemasons would have managed to conclude their task by February, after which the terraces would have been planted with the chosen variety – the Alicante Bouschet (a first at Malvedos) as well as some Touriga Franca. Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos pragmatically accepts that this will now have to be postponed for a year — at least on the upper terraces.

The Síbio stream running high

The very audible gushing sound of running water in the Síbio stream, rushing by in the gully which borders the stone terraces, is quite unusual at this time of the year and is clear evidence of just how much rain has come down over the winter months: 364mm (December 2013 – February 2014) compared to the average for this three month period which is 234mm — in other words 64% more rainfall than would be expected over the season.

On a positive note the lower section of this vineyard has sturdy dry stone-walls that have not required much attention from the stonemasons, a testament to the skill of their 18th century counterparts who originally built them. The supporting walls are quite massive; the tallest are 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) high and up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) wide. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Síbio stream, very close to where it flows into the Douro River.

Planting on these 5 larger terraces has therefore gone ahead as planned under the experienced supervision of Sr. Arlindo, the caretaker at Malvedos. He and his team of seven people have planted 1.400 bench-grafted Sousão vines over five days, starting on April 3rd. These particular terraces’ generous width has allowed for between two and three rows to be planted, the spacing between each row being 2 metres and the space between each vine just 80 cm. This planting of the vines close together is intentional, the aim being to encourage each vine to ‘compete’ with its neighbours for the scarce available resources (nutrients in the soil and water). In so doing they will generate berries with greater concentration and ultimately, finer quality wines.

The Sousão has been planted on these terraces located in the lower section of this west-facing slope because they are in a relatively sheltered area (the Sousão is susceptible to excessive heat and south-facing slopes are therefore generally avoided, unless they are planted at altitude). Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker is an advocate of the Sousão, a variety somewhat forgotten by many growers in the Douro but which is now slowly making a comeback. It is proving an important component in making our wines, principally due to its good levels of acidity and its deep colouring properties.

The stone terraces still undergoing reconstruction are higher up on a steeper section of the slope and they will each take just one row of vines and the varieties chosen are the Touriga Franca and the Alicante Bouschet, the latter a grape variety which Charles Symington has been championing in the Douro (more on the reasons for this in a future post).

Although the winter was very wet it was also quite mild, with mean temperatures above the average for all three months and this has brought forward the vegetative cycle of the vine by a little over than two weeks with bud-break occurring during the first week of March. Last year, bud-break was observed only during the last week of March.

Bud break and early leaf formation on the vines at Malvedos a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
Bud break and early leaf formation on the vines at Malvedos a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
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February 6th 2014 – The Stone Terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos

The tranquility of the winter landscape at Quinta dos Malvedos is broken only by the sound of the rushing torrent of the Síbio stream, swollen by January’s 133mm of rainfall — well above the monthly average of 78.7mm for this area. The Síbio divides in two the 18th century stone terraces at Malvedos known as ‘Port Arthur’, sections of which are still being restored, and in parts rebuilt, by a seven strong team of skilled Douro stonemasons who specialize in repairing dry stone vineyard terrace walls  (see Tracking the Season – 28th November 2013).

These artisans’ work is not easy, combining as it does substantial physical exertion with deft movements as the men manoeuvre schist rocks of various shapes and sizes, constantly calculating where the best fit is to be found, coaxing them into position with just their hands, aided by all manner of hammers, picks and mallets. This activity is no different to when the original vineyard terrace walls were built in the Douro over three centuries ago. The only concession to the twenty-first century is the use of one of the quinta’s small tractors to transport the heavier schist slabs close to the wall under repair where one of the master stonemasons expertly breaks them up into more manageable sizes.

Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.
Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.

When the stonemasons first begin on a section of wall it is difficult to imagine that what initially appears to be nothing more than a jumble of rocks can be so adeptly transformed into the pleasingly symmetrical end result: a straight and level retaining wall. Besides fulfilling its practical function it will also add to the beauty of the landscape: a perfect example of man and the environment working in harmony.

Today, the Douro’s terraced vineyards are principally sculpted by machinery, which construct earth-banks along the contours of the steep slopes of the Valley, the world’s largest area of mountain vineyard. Such contemporary terraces are known as patamares, Portuguese for step or platform. Where possible, however, great effort (and expense) is put into preserving the original dry stonewalls, known locally as socalcos.

The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.
The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.

Some of the finest examples of socalcos in the Douro are to be found at Malvedos and at the neighbouring Quinta do Tua, also owned by Graham’s. The Symington family, which owns and manages Graham’s, is thus conscious of playing its part in the upkeep and preservation of this important feature of the Douro’s traditional vineyard landscape. This helps to safeguard the Upper Douro Wine Country’s UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos and Tua is a little concerned that the work of the stonemasons is running behind schedule, hampered by the constant rain during the second half of December and through January. These terraces should have been ready for replanting during the month of February but this may have to be postponed to March. The 1.7 hectares involved will be replanted in even proportions with the Alicante Bouschet, Sousão and Touriga Franca varieties. It is the first time that Alicante Bouschet will be planted at Malvedos. More on this in the next Tracking the Season post.

 

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Tracking the Season – November 28th

Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.
Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.

The vintage in the Douro during September and October is the culmination of a year’s hard work in the vineyards. This very busy time at Quinta dos Malvedos is followed by a quieter period after all the grapes have been picked and all the wine has been made and stored. Calm descends on the Douro and it is time to take stock and make preparations for the new cycle, which begins afresh in the month of November, marking the start of the viticultural year (November – October).

Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) and the smaller terraces higher up.
Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) — called ‘socalcos’ in Portuguese — and the smaller terraces higher up.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua, does regular early morning rounds; over the last few days under clear blue skies and brisk temperatures around 3.5ºC. Recently he has been keeping a careful eye on the old stone-walled vineyard terraces at the entrance to the Quinta, which are being laboriously reconstructed following the fire that destroyed most of the vines there in 2010. This small vineyard was set alight by sparks, courtesy of an old historic steam locomotive that runs from Regua to Tua during the summer (picturesque, but not good for vines).

The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will take two to three rows of Sousão and Toriga Franca vines.
The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will each take two to three rows of vines. Note the rocky nature of the schist soil, which has been churned up to facilitate the planting of the vines early next year.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls.  Note how they were engineered, canting inward to avoid workers losing their balance and falling off the edge.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls. Note how they were engineered, canted inwards to avoid workers carrying heavy grape-laden vintage baskets falling off the edge.

The lower section of the vineyard has sturdy dry stonewalls that have not required any particular attention, a testament to the skill of the hardy men who built them during the 18th century. These supporting walls are quite massive, the highest (3.5 metres/11.5 feet) and thickest (up to 1.5 metres/5 feet wide) at Malvedos. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Sibio stream close to where it flows into the Douro. These large terraces are relatively wide providing a spacious platform, which will each take between two and three rows of vines. The Symington family has chosen the grape varieties that will be planted on them in February 2014: the Sousão (on the lowest, more sheltered terraces bordering the gully) and the Touriga Franca slightly higher up. The family believes this is a prime site for the Franca as the south and west-facing aspect of the vineyard ensures plenty of exposure to the sun — ideal for the Franca.

Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: "Cheia 1909" ('cheia': flood). This will be placed in its original position.
Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: “Cheia 1909” (‘cheia’: flood). This will be repaired and placed back in its original position.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.

Higher up the slope there is a steeper gradient, which dictated the smaller size of the dry stone walls (shorter and narrower) when they were hand-built, over two centuries ago. These sustained more damage as a result of the fire and accordingly have required painstaking reconstruction, again all done by hand by skilled stonemasons — a vital breed of craftsmen in the Douro. Machinery has only been employed when larger rocks have had to be moved and repositioned. These smaller terraces will be replanted with Alicante Bouschet (just one row on each), a variety not widely seen in the Douro but one in which Charles Symington places great faith due to its generous colouring properties, good acidity and useful contribution to a wine’s structure.

Alexandre is satisfied with the progress of the rebuilding of the old dry stone terraced vineyard, although there is still quite a lot to do. He and Sr Arlindo have also had to turn their attention to the pruning of the vines; the activity which best represents the start of the new viticultural year. Pruning will be the focus of the work at Malvedos and at neighbouring Tua for the next two to three months. To put the importance and scale of this manual task into perspective, suffice it to say that approximately one-third of the annual labour costs of the estate is the winter pruning, one-third is harvest related and one-third are all the other vineyard costs.

One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent
One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent growth.

At Malvedos and Tua there is an experienced team of six people who do the manual pruning.  Each worker uses an electric secateur, which makes the job much easier on the hands, and much faster generally.  Their red vests contain a battery pack to power the secateurs, which are strong enough to cut through an old thick vine if need be. Another advantage of these secateurs is that they ensure an effective clean cut, precluding the need for additional corrective trimming. The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but also to select and trim down vine spurs (leaving two buds on each spur), which will become next year’s growth.

A row of pruned vines at Malvedos
A row of freshly pruned vines at Malvedos.
Spent leaves and canes left behind two rows of vines to await shredding.
Spent vine leaves and canes left behind between two rows of vines await shredding.

Vine pruning at Malvedos and Tua involves making three separate operations in all the vineyards.  First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the careful and very skilful manual job of pruning each and every vine, and then pulling off the remaining pieces caught in the trellis and leaving them on the ground.  Finally the third operation is the cane shredding, where a small estate tractor tows a device that breaks up and shreds the old canes lying on the ground.  This shredded plant fibre is left to break down and adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil. Nothing goes to waste at Malvedos.

Judging by the lush green of the cover crops carpeting each terrace (see image below), one could be misled into thinking that abundant rainfall has come down recently but nothing could be further from the truth; the weather station at Malvedos has recorded a paltry 2.6mm of rain for the month of November thus far, with the forecast indicating zero precipitation for the last few days of the month. November is normally a wet month at Malvedos — 69mm was recorded in 2012 and 85mm in 2011 (the mean for the Quinta is 67.5mm). This is in sharp contrast to the previous month’s 110mm (double the monthly average for October at Malvedos which stands at 55mm). Fingers crossed for a lot more rain over the winter; this is really needed to replenish the water reserves, which the soil humidity readings indicate as being at a five-year low.

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