After successive months of unusually hot and dry weather and the rapid maturation of the vines, the earliest vintage in living memory is about to begin in Symington Family Estates’ Douro vineyards.
2017 saw the hottest June since 1980, a trend that continued into July and August, which have had well above average temperatures and rainfall 33 (Douro Superior) – 46%(Cima Corgo) down on usual levels. As such, veraison occurred 10-15 days earlier than usual and currently baumés are high and phenolics are advanced in line with the viticultural cycle.
Although early to predict, structure and concentration are likely to be the main virtues of this unconventional early vintage in the Douro.
The Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa spent part of his summer holidays in the beautiful Douro Valley, and during his stay visited the Symington family’s Quinta do Bomfim together with his wife and friends.
The PM was shown the vineyard, winery and cellars by Paul and Charles Symington, after which they gave him a tasting of some of the family’s renowned Ports and Douro wines.
The PM then enjoyed one of Quinta do Bomfim’s picnics while overlooking magnificent views across the Douro Valley from the terrace of Echo House, located in the middle of the estate’s vineyards.
The impressive Cockburn’s cellars, the largest in the old quarter of Vila Nova de Gaia hold 6,518 seasoned oak barrels of maturing Port, plus the equivalent of a further 10,056 barrels in larger oak vats are now once again open to the public.
Still a fully working Port Lodge, visitors will learn that even with modern technology, there will never be an alternative to the traditional slow ageing of fine Port in well-seasoned oak and will have the chance to see our seven coopers at work using the same tools and crafts that their ancestors used for centuries in what is the last fully equipped cooperage in operation in Vila Nova de Gaia.
The refurbished Lodge now also has a museum space that holds a collection of original 19th century watercolours painted by Baron Forrester, along with extracts from the unpublished 1930s diaries of another of Port’s legendary figures, John Smithes.
Paul Symington said ‘The opening of these cellars is another important step in the revival of this great Port house after decades of multi-national ownership. My family will continue to invest strongly in Cockburn’s to put the quality of the wines above all other considerations, and now visitors can come and see our work at first hand.’
Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Douro Valley and the arrival of spring this year was a perfect illustration of that. The period of the vines’ winter dormancy, during which the plants have minimal metabolic activity (they’re literally asleep) was fractionally warmer and drier than average and the spring followed a similar pattern — hot and dry. However, the season kicked off in the Douro with abundant snowfalls on March 23rd that shrouded the region’s higher altitude vineyards with blankets of snow. Widespread frost also affected the Douro Superior on the 25th. The chill, though, was short-lived and temperatures soon swung back up in April; it was the third hottest month of April of the last 40 years.
As well as unseasonably warm, this spring was also very dry due to the overall lack of precipitation. March did manage approximately half the monthly average rainfall but April was remarkable for the near total absence of rain; just 2.6mm was recorded at Quinta do Bomfim where the average for the month is 46.9mm. It was in fact the driest month of April since official weather records began in Portugal in 1931. Precipitation in May was closer to the mean, helping to raise soil moisture levels. For the spring as whole (March through to May), rainfall was approximately half the thirty-year average.
As a result of these climatic conditions, bud-break, which marks the beginning of the vine’s vegetative cycle, began between the 8th and 10th of March (Touriga Franca at Quinta do Bomfim), very similar dates to 2016 and approximately a week earlier than average. Although the start of this phase then slowed significantly, the vegetative cycle soon picked up and advanced at a very fast pace.
Flowering occurred three weeks earlier than in 2016, beginning between the 4th and 5th of May and was two weeks ahead of average dates. By the end of the month the cycle maintained this precocity with formed bunches well visible in the Touriga Franca.
The upside of the hot and dry conditions has been the very low disease threat levels (downy and powdery mildew), in sharp contrast to the comparable period in 2016. Vine canopy management was a priority during the final stage of the three month period, involving vine hedging (despampa), shoot topping (desponta) and shoot positioning (ampara) — guiding the shoots through the trellis wires. Weed control along the soil top cover also required great attention given the extra vigour of plant growth encouraged by a combination of the high temperatures at the start of this cycle and the availability of water in the soil, which although limited was sufficient to stimulate such growth.
At our Douro properties, new plantings were concluded at Quinta do Bomfim with 7.5 hectares of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca; Quinta da Macieira in the Vilariça Valley with 8 ha of Alicante Bouschet; Quinta dos Malvedos with 7 ha of Touriga Nacional and one hectare of top grafting (see definition below); Quinta da Telhada with 6.5 ha of Touriga Franca; Quinta de Roriz with 1.5 ha of Touriga Nacional and 1.9 ha of top grafting and finally Quinta da Perdiz with the planting of 4 ha of Touriga Nacional. This brings the total planting for this year to 34.5 ha of new vines and 2.9 ha of top grafting (changing over to Touriga Franca).
Top grafting (sobre-enxertia): “Changing the fruiting vine variety of a mature vineyard by inserting a bud of a selected variety in each vine, but retaining the established root system.” (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, 2015).
At our principal grape variety library, established at Quinta do Ataíde in 2014, studies were carried out on the dynamics of bud-break and flowering for each of the 53 varieties planted and similar studies were also made at the Quinta do Bomfim Grape Variety Library.
It is with great sorrow that we learned that our friend and colleague Tim Stanley-Clarke passed away suddenly last week.
Tim joined the Symington Family from London wine merchant Christopher and Co., who at the time were the agents for Dow’s Port in the UK, in 1984. His good disposition, easygoing nature and obvious love for Port, and indeed all wines, made him not only the perfect addition to the company, but also immensely good company himself.
As a central figure in the UK Port trade, his humour and wit will be sorely missed by all who crossed paths with him.
After what has been an extremely dry Spring, Portugal has been in the grip of a heatwave since early June. While high temperatures are normal at this time of year, the prolonged high temperatures, which have seen some areas reach temperatures in the low 40º’s, are deeply worrying due to the potential negative effects on vineyards and agriculture, and the threat of forest fire.
One must only look to the tragic events unfolding in Pedrógão Grande to understand the violent and devastating and tragic impact of wildfire. We have nothing but respect for the courage and determination shown by the firemen, emergency services, and armed forces, in helping to protect the lives of people and their property.
In the Douro Valley, Symington Family Estates’ weather station in Quinta do Ataide recorded temperatures of 43.7ºC on the 17th of June, and had three consecutive days with temperatures above 43. The thermometers in Quinta do Bomfim, in Pinhão, peaked at 42.1ºC, the highest temperature ever recorded in the estate since records began in 1957.
Fortunately, the weather forecast shows a slight decrease in these temperatures over the next few days.
During the release of a honey buzzard back to the wild at Quinta dos Malvedos, we spoke to Dr. João Tomás, of the Wild Birds Recovery Unit of the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, about his life in the Douro and his passion for birds.
For more information on Wild Birds Recovery Unit visit their Facebook page, here (in Portuguese).
Adriano Ferreira Borges:Good morning. What’s your name, and what do you do for a living? João Tomás: Hello. My name is João Tomás and I’m a vet.
AFB:And where do you live? JT: At the moment in Vila Real, but originally, I’m from Batalha.
AFB:So, you’re not from the Douro then. Do you like it here? JT: Yes, of course! I came here to study in Vila Real, specifically, veterinary medicine in the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro in 2008. When I finished my studies, I had the luck to be able to stay on in the Wild Animal Recovery Unit (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens) of the University Veterinary Hospital. However, I was born in the centre of Portugal, in Batalha, but now I think I am more than part Trásmontano (a person from Trás-os-Montes)… I like it in Vila Real, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but for now I like it here.
AFB:You said you worked in the Wild Animal Recovery Unit. Do you only work with birds, or do you also treat other animals? JT: We work with wild animals in general, including, wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Normally the animals that find their way to us are found injured on the street, and are brought to us by members of the public. We then try and figure out what’s wrong, and return them to their home in nature.
AFB:But you have a special relationship with birds, right? JT: Yes, since I was young I’ve been fascinated with them, something I inherited from my father who also loved to study them when he was young. In 2010, I volunteered in a recovery unit, and worked with a group of people passionate about birds, which made my interest grow even more. So now, a day doesn’t pass that I don’t look at a bird, and I don’t walk in the field with my binoculars to see what I can see. At this time, it is a passion and a hobby, and I hope in the future I can work in the area.
AFB:Did you ever work with wine? JT: To be honest, I never had much contact with it! I have a friend from secondary school whose family produce some wine, but just for their own consumption. And now that I think of it, I helped my uncle during the harvest when I was very young.
AFB:So, you have been living in the Douro nine years now, what changes have you noticed in this time? JT: Well, everything I like about it has stayed the same! The things that I can put my finger on are the more negative things, like the increase in forest fires in the summer, and this year even in the spring.
AFB:How do you imagine the Douro in ten years’ time? JT: In the last 10 or 15 years, the Douro has already changed for the better due to increased tourism and investment, something the region badly needed due to the desertification of the region in the 80’s and 90’s. I think that developments in the vineyards, and in winemaking are very positive for the local populations as it has created jobs and the opportunity for more companies to invest in the region. Tourism has also allowed new people to get to know this beautiful place.
AFB:So, you think tourism is a positive thing? JT: On one hand it is, due to what I said earlier. On the other, we must be careful, as we need to remember to preserve all living things, which need their own space. We need to protect what is already here.
AFB:Well, although you live in a beautiful place, you must go on holidays sometimes. Where do you go? JT: Good question! Basically, my holidays revolve around observing birds! I try and go to areas of the country that I know are inhabited by species of birds I haven’t seen before, and try to observe them.
AFB:That’s dedication! What sort of food do you like? JT: I like traditional Portuguese cooking, and principally my mother’s! AFB:Any favourite? JT: I love cozido á Portuguesa and posta Maronesa (steak maronesa)
AFB:Do you not mean to say Mirandesa (a breed of cow)? JT: No, no. The breed is Maronesa, from the Marão mountains, although now you find more of them in the Alvão.
AFB:I won’t argue with you! Thanks for talking to me. JT: You’re welcome!
A European honey buzzard — Pernis apivorus — nursed back to health by the UTAD (Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro) Wildlife Rescue Centre was returned to the wild at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos on May 18th. Peter Symington, the SFE’s retired winemaker, who has been staying at the quinta with family and friends, released the female honey buzzard from one of the property’s highest vineyards at 350 metres (1,148 feet).
The Malvedos honey buzzard was taken to the University’s Veterinary Hospital in August 2016 after it had been found by members of the public, downed and injured near Miranda do Douro, a town in the north-eastern extremity of Portugal where the Douro marks the international border with Spain. The bird had been illegally shot, sustaining two fractures in one of its wings. It was operated on successfully at the veterinary hospital — which works closely with the wildlife rescue centre — and from October it began its recovery programme which consisted of several months of flying exercises in the rescue centre’s dedicated circular flight tunnel, the only one of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s unique in that it allows large birds of prey to fly continuously, thus regaining muscular strength and recovering flying proficiency in preparation for a return to nature.
Although its steady recovery was completed during the middle of winter, the rescue centre could not release the bird as it belongs to a migratory species, which flies south to sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the European Autumn in search of better feeding grounds, returning to Europe only in the spring for the mating season. As its name suggests, the honey buzzard feeds on bees and wasps and their larvae, raiding their nests. Its thick plumage, its claws covered with thick protective scales and narrow slit nostrils, protect it from attack by its preferred prey.
Dr. João Tomás, the veterinarian who accompanied the honey buzzard for release at Malvedos explained to those present that during the second week of May, approximately 8,000 honey buzzards were tracked over the Strait of Gibraltar, flying north on their return to Europe where they will mate, usually with the same partner, build nests and raise their chicks. He said that sightings of honey buzzards had already been reported in the Douro Superior and in the Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta districts of Portugal. This was the signal that the timing was right to release ‘their’ bird.
The Symington family has supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens — CRAS, for short) since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Malvedos is home to a remarkable variety of bird species, which include golden orioles, bee-eaters, turtle doves, Iberian magpies and larger birds such as black kites, which frequently nest in the wooded areas of the quinta. Just moments after the release of the honey buzzard, João Tomás identified a Bonelli’s eagle gliding effortlessly on the thermals above the vineyards.
Andrew James Symington was the first of the Symington family to work in the Port trade, and came to Porto in 1892. He is the great-grandfather of the current generation of the Symington Family running the company. In the below excerpt from his book, “A Life in the Port Trade”, James Symington briefly describes a Porto that once was, and his grandfather’s penchant for motoring.
“AJS (Andrew James Symington) prospered in the Port business and acquired a fine house in the Avenida da Boavista. This was a major new artery running from the city, through what up to that time had been farmland, down to the sea. His son, Maurice was born in this house in 1895 and was to die there in 1974, in the same room in which he had been born. The house had a fine garden and AJS built a lovely and very English drawing room which gave onto it. He also had a special ceiling constructed in the dining room with a ventilator so that the cigar smoke could escape.
My grandfather was an early enthusiast of motoring and acquired a 1912 Daimler in which he ventured on occasion to the Douro over the appalling roads of the time. More usually however the train was the comfortable and practical way to visit the Douro, some three and a half hours’ journey from Porto. Although AJS was a keen motorist his skill at the wheel never matched his enthusiasm and he regularly battered his cars. On one occasion when he had just acquired a new car – a 1922 Cadillac – he decided he did not much like its colour and resolved to have it repainted. His sons, knowing full well that it would require a repaint very soon in their father’s hands, persuaded him that the colour was very pleasant and so it remained unaltered. Sure enough a few weeks later whilst driving out of his front gate, he scraped the whole side of the car and it had to be repaired and was then painted in his chosen colour.”
As part of the anual Symington Family Estates’ sales and marketing meeting, the SFE team assembled eight bicycles that were donated to the Associação Protetora da Criança – Valadares(Association for the Protection of Children – Valadares).
The association, founded in Valadares (a parish of Vila Nova de Gaia) in 1953, aims to support disadvantaged children and young people on various levels, providing them with a stable environment within which to grow, both intellectually and emotionally.
Symington Family Estates is proud to support such a fine institution.