September and October 2008 Douro Insider

The final stretch of a remarkable agricultural year brought similar patterns to those we had been experiencing almost from the start.  It was cool and it was very dry.  But the weather differed from the rest of the year in one critical aspect too – in that the months of unsettled or overcast weather finally gave way to one long, calm spell of perfect harvesting weather, with day after day of bright sun, clear skies and not even a whisper of a breeze.  Without a doubt this serene autumn saved the harvest.  It had been a difficult year thus far, and the potential for a disastrous vintage was looming ominously.  Had it rained significantly all would have been lost, and another year like 2002 would have ensued.  As it turned out, we were blessed by an excellent harvest.  If any criticism could be made, it would be that some rain right at the start of September brought about dilution of sugars and, especially, acidity.  This of course had to be corrected in the winery.  Unfortunately there was none of the intensely hot weather required to initiate dehydration – a factor which is essential for producing really concentrated wines.  Phenolically the skins were also a little hard to start with, although they understandably softened up as the vintage progressed.

September did not start well.  It was initially overcast and sticky although not particularly hot.  It threatened to rain, but only one or two tiny drops fell out of the dark skies, whipped by cold winds.  But suddenly in the early hours of the 4th the rain started to come in seriously.  This coincided with a huge weather system that churned up a veritable flurry of hurricanes in the Caribbean and USA and which even made its effects felt into the north Atlantic.  Portugal just caught the edge of this major storm which also dumped plenty of rain on North-western Europe.  There were a few very wet days when we least needed them.

Although maturation studies had already revealed that the grapes were far from ripe (see August’s report) the downpours that came during the first week of the month (bringing around 20 mm of rain in total) held up ripening even more and set back picking by a further week or so.  Fortunately the nights were cool which helps the grapes to retain good acidity and also favours anthocyanin development, improving the colour of the grapes.  This was just as well because for a period of about three weeks there was relatively little change in the Baumés.  It is probable that this long ripening period allowed the skin tannins to develop as they had been very raw before, but in truth everything happened very slowly.  The excellent condition of the grapes, when less than 10 mm of rain had fallen during the last three months, once again backs up the commonly repeated assertion that irrigation does little for Douro varieties.  Indigenous castas are perfectly prepared to get by on very little water.  It is almost invariably extreme heat rather than water stress that reduces the quality of the fruit.  The last two summers have provided ample evidence.

With the passing of the wet spell temperatures dropped considerably.  When the sun eventually did come out again, the air was sticky and thundery, and occasional light showers came suddenly out of blue skies.  A few days later torrential rain swept across UK bringing massive flooding all over the country and six people were killed.  In many respects therefore, the Douro got off very lightly and conditions improved somewhat as the balmy autumn got underway.  Most properties started picking for Port production just before the equinox, which can often be a dangerous time.  True to form it started to rain on the 22nd and the prospects were again bleak.  Lightning flashed menacingly but again luck was on our side and little more than light drizzle materialised.  We definitely didn’t get the worst of the weather as there was serious flooding in many parts of the country, including in Porto, but very little of this reached the Douro.  Across the border there were dramatic floods in Madrid around this time, with massive hailstones also falling.

In our quiet little corner of Iberia things continued beautifully, however, and the gentle autumn days made for perfectly pleasant conditions for picking; the sunny weather kept spirits up and the cool nights also meant that the first few loads of grapes harvested each day enjoyed better conditions for transport.  Fruit coming into the winery at lower temperatures can also be more economical in terms of using the cooling equipment.  Specific values for the month show that Pinhão was nearly two degrees colder that the average, at just 20.1º C (compared with 21.8º).  This made it by far the coolest September for quite some years – we have to go back to 1996 to find a colder one.  Rainfall, at 29 mm, was also quite a bit below the mean of nearly 40 mm.  Absolute highs of 32.3º are unremarkable for the time of year (one of seven days that broke the 30º mark) and the minimum dropped to just 10.0º.

With only one tiny hiccough, October continued exactly as September left off – with extremely pleasant weather perfect for picking.  This was just as well as the late start to the harvest meant that many more grapes were still to come in.  The aforementioned blip came when it rained hard on the night of the 6th and the morning of 7th.  Although it eventually cleared up by the end of lunchtime by then most quintas had already abandoned picking for the day.  Down in Porto on the same date a massive volume of rain fell in a half-hour downpour.  It caused plenty of flooding (including to parts of the Metro) and damaged some buildings.  In the Douro there were the usual minor landslides and some slippage of the earth banks between the terraces as one might expect, but nothing serious.  The next day normality resumed and the harvest went on with no apparent detrimental effects on the grapes.

On balance then we enjoyed an extraordinary long, sunny and dry autumn, with very reasonable temperatures holding steady almost right up to the end of October (when a considerable dip brought down the monthly average).  This cold last week of the month corresponded with a sudden freezing spell in the UK which brought the first snowfalls of the winter.  Flights had to be diverted from some airports and a day or two later hail storms and caused absolute chaos in the south-west of England.  In the Douro we definitely felt some pretty cold rain to round off the month, but nothing more.

Records from Pinhão unsurprisingly showed October to be our fourth consecutive month with below-average temperatures, with a mean of just 16º.  This is a little under the long-term value of 16.7º.  It also turned out to be our sixth month in a row with below-average precipitation.  We have had just 112 mm of rainfall since the end of April whereas a normal year should bring more than double that over the summer.  But, as was mentioned earlier, the vines showed no signs whatsoever of water stress on account of the cool temperatures.  Perhaps the term ‘heat stress’ would be a more accurate description for this condition in the future.  Pinhão experienced just 24 mm of rain during the month but more than half of it came after picking had finished.  Bear in mind that the average for October is 76 mm.  We would need to go back ten years to 1998 to find a drier October.  Temperatures were rather steady (with the exception of the last few days) and on nine days it rose above 25º.  The absolute range started at a very fresh 5.4º, but climbed as high as 28.7º on one occasion.

Looking back over the course of the year in the following graphs, it is apparent that only two months so far have brought above-average rainfall, and the cumulative total  (421 mm so far) is still almost 100 mm short of where it should be.  What really saved the crop was the month of April, responsible for 29 % of the year’s precipitation.  Although at the time it caused some headaches with regards to the treatments, without this water we would have had a very poor vintage indeed.  Temperatures have also been below average (sometimes considerably) for the last four months and this was very fortunate, given the lack of water.

Needless to say activities in the vineyards were almost entirely restricted to the main business of the season, although it is worth considering that the late start to picking meant that something had to be found to keep idle hands occupied whilst waiting for the grapes to finish ripening.  One of the most important operations that needs to be tackled out before the vintage starts (especially in years like this where lack of water stress meant that the vines were still growing vigorously, and leaf-drop had been negligible) is desponta, or shoot tipping.  This can be carried out mechanically (taking care not to damage the bunches) or manually.  There are two main effects: firstly it improves mobility of people and machines down the rows of vines – in extreme cases access can be totally cut off when shoots from one row become entangled with those from the next across the mid-row space.  Additionally, it makes the fruit easier to find and pick, thus speeding up the harvesting process.  Despontas were therefore on the cards as soon as the vineyard workers returned from their summer holidays, and directly preceded the harvest at all of the properties.

Other activities carried out over the course of this period were principally related to the new plantations, or just general vineyard tidiness.  Watering of the 2008 rootlings was necessary on account of the dry summer and there was also ploughing done to keep weeds down at many properties.  Several quintas used the time for keeping clean the taludes (the earth banks that support the terraces), and localised stone removal featured too but to a lesser extent.  Once the vintage is over all the vineyard workers typically take off a week or so of holidays to recover, but even so it is noted that preparation of the olive groves for the olive picking season also got underway.  This procedure mostly involves clearing out the major weeds from under the olive trees so that the nets can be easily spread out on the ground.

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