Picking Order

Where shall we pick today? (Photo from Alexandre, our tractorista at Malvedos)

One critical aspect of the port harvest at Graham’s is picking the grapes at the peak of perfection.  The concept is of course beautifully simple… shame about Mother Nature and the sheer logistics of the process, which make it incredibly challenging sometimes to work out and execute the optimum picking order.

Some of the factors to consider:

  • Graham’s five quintas taken as a group have high percentages of several key varieties:  Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca.  Luckily as a very general rule, they mature and can be picked in that order.  But:  we also have significant holdings of other niche varieties, such as Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cão to fit in there some how, and then there are the old mixed-variety vineyards – when do you pick those? At Lages and Tua the mixed-variety vineyards represent a substantial percentage of the total quinta.
  • Overall weather patterns for the summer can favour the more rapid maturation of one variety over another, as each grape has its preferred optimum conditions, so that typical order mentioned above can change.
  • Another very general rule is that we can start picking at the lower altitudes and work our way up the quinta.  But with the intense micro-climatisation of the terrain here in the Douro – all those hills, valleys, gorges, different aspects to the sun, and vineyards spread over a rise of as much as 300 metres of altitude – and the way this year’s particular weather acted on that terrain, you cannot take that pattern for granted either.
Pedro Leal da Costa inspects and tastes his way down a row of vines

The best, almost only, way to decide when to pick is by looking at and tasting the grapes, lots of them.  Our winemakers and viticulturalists all rely on a tasting tour through the vineyards to help them decide picking orders.  That assessment also involves weighing a lot of information and picking the deciding factors from several indicators of ripeness:

  • Look at the bunches – are the grapes plump and healthy, are we starting to get that slightly dehydrated “washerwoman’s fingers” effect, or are the grapes beginning to turn into raisins?
  • The sugar content of the grapes
  • The flavour of each the pulp, the skin and the pips – sweet pulp, more complexity of flavour in the skins, and mature pips which are crunchy and give up a slightly burnt almond flavour
  • When the skin is crushed and kneaded between the fingers, does it stain your hand a good deep red-purple?

Then there’s the condition of the vines –

  • Are they still healthy and functioning well in the current weather conditions?
  • Are the stalks from which the bunches hang off the main vine ripe and brown, or still green?
  • Are the vines showing signs of water stress, or are they starting to turn to their autumn colours, which means they are starting to shut down for the season?

Based on the instinct derived from years of experience assessing all these factors and just plain knowing our vineyards and vines and how they behave, as well as how the wines from each parcel have worked out in prior years, our viticulturalists and winemakers may conclude, “Right, these parcels can be picked tomorrow and those parcels the day after.”

Map of all 91 parcels at Lages

But it’s not that easy, either.  Now for the logistical issues:  for any given day’s proposed list of vineyards-to-be-picked we have to think about:

  • How many vines are in each parcel?  This together with a knowledge of customary yields tells us how long it will take to harvest and how many kilos of grapes that parcel is likely to yield.
  • We have to think about meeting winery capacities:  too few grapes the winery is idle, too many and we may find ourselves with more grapes than lagares, or a half-lagar’s worth of grapes which is awkward to vinify, but we don’t like grapes to sit overnight until we can fill a lagar, either.
  • In a low yielding parcel you may have just as many hours work to get half the weight of grapes – we had a good example of this recently with some old vine Touriga Nacional at Malvedos, where we had lots of bunches to cut, but they were each very small, hence half the usual weight sent to the winery.
  • Logistics of moving a picking team around the quinta are a serious consideration

    Typically, the cutting team works through several small parcels in a day, it’s not often that a single block is large enough to take an entire day or even entire morning or afternoon to cut.  Can we cut adjacent blocks in a single day, rather than picking parcels on opposite sides of the quinta?  Moving the team from one side of the quinta to the other is incredibly time consuming:  20 odd pickers to load into a lorry with their respective buckets and personal belongings, 200 or so crates to gather and load up (some empty, some full), and two tractors (one for vineyard pickup, one for transport back to the winery) all need to shift around on generally diabolical roads within the quinta.  At Malvedos and Tua, we have so far been using one team to pick at both quintas – changing quintas mid day is time consuming, too.

The conference room at Quinta das Lages where decisions are taken about picking order. Pedro Leal da Costa, António, and Pedro Correia

Once the first grapes have been picked and vinified, the winemaker has the additional information of baumés and colour quality from the wines so far, and that knowledge can also influence his preference to continue with a given parcel or variety.  Alternatively as we come to the end of the harvest we may reach a point where we have only a partial lagar’s worth remaining of one variety, so we need to decide whether to vinify that half lagar or blend in a second variety – which one? – to fill the lagar before vinifying.

Also after a few days of harvest, the caseiro knows his team – what they can do, how long they take to shift around, and how many people he can count on in the days ahead.

And if, heaven forbid, the weather should threaten an unwelcome change, all decisions taken so far have to be re-thought, and fast, in terms of saving the best grapes from possible damage or loss.

Never a dull moment.

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