The Earliest Vintage – Douro Harvest Report 2017

The Quinta da Cavadinha winemaking team celebrating after 5 weeks of harvest

This has been a very dry and warm year in the Douro. From December 2016 onwards, every month had substantially below average rainfall apart from a 30-mm downpour and some localised hail on the afternoon of 6th July. This rain increased the year’s figures, but was of minimal benefit as most simply ran off the vineyards in torrents, causing some damage to terraces. Lots of our valuable soil ended up in the Douro river, which flowed golden-brown for a few days.

Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão recorded just 302 mm of rain in the 11 months from 1st November 2016. This is exactly 50% below average. Considering that grape yields in the Douro’s mountain vineyards are 4,300 kg/hectare (compared to 10,200 kg/ha in Italy and 13,300 kg/ha in Chile) the drought conditions we experienced this year were always going to be challenging. It is difficult to farm these steep hillsides. Even in years with good weather conditions, production in the Douro is low. A year of drought and heat like 2017 really reinforces quite how challenging our growing conditions are.

A dry and relatively warm winter was followed by the three crucial spring months – March, April and May – that were cumulatively 2.6˚C warmer than average and equally dry. The only surprising interlude was a cold spell during the last 10 days of March that on the 23rd brought a rare snowfall and localised frost. April was the driest since records began in 1931 and delivered an absurdly low 2.6mm of rain.

Bud-break began between 8th and 10th March, a week earlier than average and the vine development advanced at an even faster pace, with flowering taking place between 4th and 5th May, two weeks earlier than normal. It was apparent from June that our vines were adapting to the dry conditions, with limited shoot and leaf growth. They seem to have an extraordinary ability to know when it is better not to be exuberant.

June was the hottest since 1980, with a heatwave between the 7th and 24th and temperatures reaching 43˚C in the Douro Superior.  Pintor (veraison) occurred at Bomfim on June 22nd, two weeks ahead of average. July was equally hot and dry, but thankfully August was more moderate with relatively cool nights, bringing a welcome respite in the final phase of ripening.

By early August it was clear that this was going to be an early vintage and that the prolonged drought would not be relieved by any late summer rain.  The forecast for the weekend of the 26th & 27th did predict rain, but only a modest 4mm fell at Quinta do Vesúvio and an even more modest 2 mm at Bomfim. Maturation was so advanced in most vineyards by this stage that the rain was of little benefit.

In order to prepare for the harvest, Charles Symington had to call his winemaking team back from their summer holidays – a measure of how advanced this year’s cycle has been. Picking for our white wines started on 23rd August and for our reds on the 28th, 10 days earlier than any previous date recorded. The vines were showing signs of stress from dehydration and graduations inevitably were high.

A year like this brings the diversity of the Douro into sharp focus; the south and westerly facing vineyards suffered from the long hours of afternoon sun, whilst those above 300 metres had an altitude advantage with cooler temperatures. There was a contrast between the younger vines that struggled with less-developed root systems and the older vines that hardly seemed to notice the drought. The former were shedding their lower leaves by mid-August, a sign of vines going into survival mode. Their older cousins soldiered on with fine dark green leaves but few berries on each vine. Barroca is a variety that does not like drought and yields were very low at under 500 grams per vine on some plots, but Roriz performed remarkably well, as did the Douro’s great classic; Touriga Nacional. Touriga Franca, always a late-ripener, was exceptionally good and thrived this year.

Expectations were not high, but confidence grew by the day as the Douro wines and Ports showed surprisingly good colour and aromas. The weather stayed perfectly serene throughout with clear skies and crucially, with cool nights during the last three weeks of September. Such harvesting weather is of huge value to the ripe and fragile fruit.

The Douro is one of the world’s lowest yielding wine regions, and this year’s drought reduced production even further. Some of our vineyards produced 35% less than normal and the average is likely to be less than 940 grams per vine.

While visitors enjoy the traditional aspects of the Douro, in reality this was a year for using the best of modern technology in some areas. With raisining being the inevitable consequence of such a year, our Bucher Vaslin Oscillys de-stemmer machines, installed at five of our estate wineries, performed superbly. These de-stemmers operate without beater shafts or centrifugal force and use a swinging motion to separate grapes from the stems and gently reject damaged berries without damaging the grapes that pass through for fermentation.

There was a serious labour shortage in the Douro this year. This was partly due to the very early harvest but also because of the tourism boom in Portugal that has drawn people away from agricultural work. It is proving to be increasingly difficult to find pickers and this has become a serious problem as the grapes need to be harvested when they are ready. The Douro is waking up to reality; no other major European wine region is entirely picked by hand.

We finished harvesting our vineyards on 26th September, often the starting date of previous vintages. This has been a remarkable year but it is unlikely to be a one-off; there are clear indications that our future will increasingly be defined by climate change with higher temperatures and less rain. The Douro will need to adapt if it is to continue to make great wines and Ports from this, the largest area of mountain vineyards on earth.

Now that the dust has literally settled (the first rain for many months has just fallen) on our earliest ever harvest, we are pleased to see that some very good Douro wines have been made, particularly the red wines with gorgeous colour and concentration, and the Ports are also promising with purple-black colours and intense flavours.

Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, 18-10-17

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The Earliest Start to the Douro Harvest in Living Memory

Vintage 2017
Vintage 2017

The unprecedented early start to the Douro vintage, being at least a week earlier than the earliest we have ever started and in some cases nearly three weeks, has certainly been the right decision.

In the majority of the quintas, we are picking grapes with good graduations and good phenolic ripeness, lagares looking very promising in terms of colour and structure, although still early to assess aromas. We have picked most of the earlier ripening varieties: Barroca, Alicante-Bouschet, Sousão and Tinta Roriz. We have picked some Touriga Nacional and through this week we will be picking this variety at most quintas. This means it is likely that during the week of the 11th we will be picking mostly the Touriga Franca and that during the week of the 18th the vintage at our quintas will be largely concluded. We will in fact be finishing at many quintas on dates that would not be unusual to be starting!

Clearly the vintage in the Douro Superior is very much reduced due to the very low levels of rainfall throughout the year. It has not rained at riverside quintas in the Douro Superior since May. Last week we had an insignificant 2mm at Vesuvio and Senhora da Ribeira and not a single drop at Canais, Malvedos or Bomfim. Meanwhile there is no suggestion of rain forecast until the end of the month — not to mention maximum temperatures of 30-34ºC all through this week! So just as well we didn’t wait….

It is likely that the Douro Superior letter ‘A’ areas will produce 40% below average and that the Cima Corgo letter ‘A’ some 25% below average. The letter ‘B’ and ‘C’ areas and the Baixo Corgo are likely to have a normal or above average size vintage, it being likely that overall the region will have an average to just below average size vintage. What gives us some pause for thought is the fact that the yield of Kg to litres is very low, some 20% below-average.

Charles Symington
Douro · 4th September 2017

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Cockburn’s Lodge Open to Visitors

Cockburn's Lodge
Cockburn’s Lodge

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.’

As all visits are guided, reservation is required, and can be made online at www.cockburns.com/visit-us.

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A Year in the Vineyards, July 2017

Despite the hot and dry spring, the vines are looking verdant and healthy(Quinta do Vale da Malhadas, foreground and Quinta do Vale Coelho in the background).
Despite the hot and dry spring, the vines are looking verdant and healthy (Quinta do Vale da Malhadas, foreground and Quinta do Vale Coelho in the background).

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.

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My Favourite Vintage

Graham's Private Cellar
Graham’s Private Cellar
This week, journalist, wine critic, and founder of fortheloveofport.com, Roy Hersh, commits to the daunting task of selecting his favourite Symington Family Estates’ vintage.

Given the depth and breadth of vintages to consider, selecting an individual year produced by this esteemed stable of Port shippers, is no easy feat. In order to meet the criteria, a specific harvest had to produce a great bandwidth of outstanding Ports and be very drinkable today. While a vintage like 1927 would be an easy choice, it makes far more sense to choose a year that most Port lovers can relate to.

In recent times, the 2011 vintage is a no-brainer. Low yielding and led by the near-perfect Dow and supported by many other excellent Vintage Ports from the Symingtons and others, it is a great year to have cases aging in the cellar. While delicious and approachable in their youth, I’d prefer these continue to age for another 12 to 15 years before beginning to pull corks; as the complexity and secondary nuances would really just be hitting their stride at that time. Overall, a great year, but it is just too soon to settle on the 2011 vintage.

While this may be an odd choice, I’ve always felt that the 1980 vintage was not only an under-appreciated year, but one in which the Symington Family Vintage Ports excelled. There are some other shippers that made fine Vintages too, however across the board, Dow’s and Graham’s are likely the two Ports at the top of the 1980 class, respectively. There are others from SFE too, such as Gould Campbell which over delivered in ‘80 and still show loads of upside from here, while Smith Woodhouse is a little more predictable, yet deeply extracted and with concentrated flavours.

1980 Warre’s is definitely a smooth and sexy Port and while it has already begun to develop secondary characteristics, its best drinking is still several years hence. Therein lies the conundrum, as the drinkability factor comes into question. At 37 years of age, it is hard for readers to understand when I say that this vintage is still drinking young. The Dow’s, Graham’s, Gould Campbell and Smith Woodhouse if tasted blind, would fool many into guessing that these Ports are from a younger vintage such as 1994 or even 1997… Which is saying a lot.

So, 2011 and even 1980 are a bit too young, 1945 and 1927 a bit obscure for the average Port consumer… How about we focus on the 1966 vintage which just passed the half century mark last year? For current drinking with serious Port friends, this is my go to vintage. 1966 was especially kind to the Port shippers that now make up the breadth of Symington Family Estates, even though several of these houses were acquired by the Symington family after these Ports were vinified and bottled. Across the board the 1966 vintage shows an exceptional number of Ports that are drinking à point today, but also well within their window of peak performance.

When I look at the Port houses owned by the Symington family and consider their 1966s, this would have to be the sweet spot for current consumption. Personally, I do prefer Vintage Ports that present secondary, if not tertiary, characteristics and well-defined flavour profiles. I am sure many others would select the 1970 vintage, 1963 or even choose 1994. But across the board, every 1966 Vintage Port by the Symington’s is still in fantastic condition, when one comes across bottles cellared properly.

If forced to select just one, there’s no question that for my palate preference the Dow, is at the top rung of the 1966 ladder for SFE. It has been drinking well for many years, and when I say well, that is an understatement here. I’ve had the good fortune to taste nearly a dozen bottles of this Vintage in the past six or seven years. Best bottles are still exhibiting a dark garnet colour, with gutsy structures, well-delineated aromas and an intensity and sophistication in both the utter richness and succulent dark berry flavours. Graham’s is also incredible and often this ’66 is picked as “group favourite” during blind tastings. It appeals in a smooth, ripe, approachable style that it is noticeably softer than the Dow’s tannic structure and may offer greater overall hedonism, vs. the Dow’s which shows extraordinary vibrancy and signs of power given its age.

It really depends on which house style appeals most. Warre’s is at a near-perfect place in its evolution today; at peak, it will never be better than it is right now. That being said, I’d be happy to drink the Warre’s any day of the week. It is a viscous and elegant Port stuffed with sweet black cherry and mocha and generous acidity to keep it interesting in the glass, with a memorably soft ending. The Smith Woodhouse ‘66 is a classic and this one has held up very well indeed. Broad shouldered, with layers of fragrant earth and grape, a meio seco core that’s somewhere between secondary and tertiary flavours. Gould Campbell is a rock star in this vintage and likely my second favourite Port of SFE’s 1966s. Spiced purple freshness on the nose with plum and boysenberry notes that translate to the palate. With a solid five hour decant the Gould morphs into a multi-layered rich wine, with plenty of time to drink well from here.

This handful of Vintage Ports make it very easy to choose 1966, which was not initially thought to be a great vintage. Critics back in the day believed this vintage was too tannic and would never come into full balance. In reality, the tannins have enabled these Vintage Ports to evolve and show an invincibility through their first half century, yet spotlight their seamless symmetry too. The best of the 1966s will continue to develop deeper and multifaceted personalities, and the best bottles will reward the patience of Port enthusiasts who appreciate what mature Vintage Port has to offer.

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Cockburn’s Declares Bicentenary 2015 Vintage

Quinta dos Canais
Quinta dos Canais. Photograph: Adriano Ferreira Borges
Today, Cockburn’s announced the declaration of the 2015 Vintage, and as such the second Cockburn’s Vintage Port produced under Symington Family stewardship. Below, we recapitulate the viticultural year in Quinta dos Canais.

The Year in the Making

Rainfall marked the beginning of the viticultural year in October, replenishing water reserves that had been diminished during the preceding summer. In the months to come, these water reserves would prove crucial, as the winter of 2014/2015 and the spring that followed were very dry.  As such, the period between the start of the vegetative cycle and the initial stages of the ripening season was simultaneously the hottest and driest of the last 36 years.

Fortunately, in the Douro Superior (where Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais and Quinta do Vale Coelho are located) rain arrived as temperatures began to rise in May. This rain was of enormous benefit and helped sustain the vines throughout June and July, although, the temperature fell in July, and August was significantly colder than usual, offsetting some of the effects of drought. Coupled to this, cool August nights proved decisive in preserving the natural acidity in the berries, and in the run up to the vintage the vineyards were in good condition.

The Vintage

Although the grapes were in good condition in early September, phenolic development was still incomplete and signs of hydric stress were beginning to show. As such, when the vintage started in Quinta dos Canais on September 7th, the vulnerable younger vines were picked first in the hope that rain would soon arrive to allow the final ripening of the most valuable grapes.

Charles Symington noted: “We held back and on the morning of the 15th [of September] a massive storm hit the Douro which lasted until early next morning, the skies then cleared and temperatures dropped to ideal ripening conditions…perfect! The vines responded to this miraculous rain and within 4 days the Touriga Nacional was transformed, skins having softened and flavours developed. At Canais picking resumed on the 21st and the Nacional was in fantastic condition and a week later the pickers moved on to the Touriga Franca, which was considerably advanced and showing great promise, possibly the most promising Franca I have seen.”

The Wine

Unsurprisingly, Touriga Franca constitutes the largest component of the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, with 41% (compared with 30% in the 2011). It is followed by Touriga Nacional with 37%— this variety also excelled at Canais where it was sourced from the distinctive, mature 30 years Bico de Pato (duck’s bill) vineyard. Picked 8 days after the rain of the 15th, the perfectly ripe berries delivered just 0.96 Kg/vine, giving the wine its velvety tannins and incomparable finesse and elegance.

The superb Touriga Franca was sourced principally from Canais, and complemented by a smaller quantity from Vale Coelho. The balance of the blend was made up of old mixed vines (9%); Sousão (7%) and Alicante Bouschet (6%), the latter from Quinta do Cachão de Arnozelo, which contributed to the structure of the wine. A co-fermentation from Vale Coelho of old mixed vines, yielding just 0.36 Kg/vine, combined with Sousão and Touriga Franca added great concentration, freshness and grip to the wine.

Tasting Note

The resulting wine is focused and precise, with great vitality and purity of fruit. Exuding freshness, it springs out of the glass with aromas of fleshy, black plums, and eucalyptus and flavours of red cherries. Well-toned and muscular, Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port is full-flavoured with a typical Cockburn’s ‘grip’.

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Port in the East

Dow’s 1963 Vintage Port served at the Ritz Carlton, Shanghai, last November. Photo: Sofia Zhang.
Jorge Nunes, Symington Family Estates’ market manager for Asia and the Pacific, writes about what brought him to Hong Kong, what keeps him there, and what he thinks is the future for the Port trade in the region.

For as long as I can remember, I had always dreamed of visiting Asia. Its long distance from Portugal (my home country) in a time before the internet and fast travel, the mystery and myths that envoloped its culture and history, the different people, languages, foods, and habits – Asia pulled me in like nowhere else on Earth. So, it was a happy coincidence that nine years ago, the Symington Family approached me with the challenge of travelling to the Far-East for several months a year, with the objective of developing the Port market there. This was no easy task, considering how undeveloped the wine market was at the time, but it was definitely an exciting project!

Nine years have passed (already?), and it has been almost five years since my “travelling” became permanent. It was when both the Symingtons and myself thought it would make sense that someone from the company be stationed there permanently that I made Hong Kong my home.

Although I now live there, Asia  continues to be the most exhilarating part of the world but is now much more open, and known to, the West, whilst being incredibly easy to travel to and from. Luckily, the wine market has followed much the same path and I am now working in an environment very different than it was when I found it – its quite incredible how much has happened in only ten years!

Consumers are now more mature, open-minded, motivated to experiment, and above all, eager to learn more. The later being, in my opinion, one of the most important cultural differences between our part of the world. Personal interest in learning more about a specific subject, allied with a fierce competitive streak, makes many Asians extremely motivated to learn. Most Europeans, myself included, all too often have a tendancy to disregard learning in our daily lives.

So considering the aforementioned changes, how has the Port market evolved over the last ten years? Well, first of all, it’s important to define “Asia”. In the West we tend to consider Asia as one single body, when, of course, it is quite the contrary. It is instead a multitude of cultures, languages, foods, climates, habits, etc., and this means the way a market responds to a particular product or promotional campaign is entirely different from others, even when they are neighbouring countries.

Having said this, we have found that Port is beginning to find its place in similar moments of consumption and occasions across Asia. Apart from what we consider the “normal” dessert/after dinner consumption of Port – that without a doubt still exists – we also find more consumers beginning to socialise with Port on their tables, amongst friends and family, or in relaxed environments where they are not concerned about food-pairing.

This is, in my opinion, the right way to go.

Attempting to “force” our ways on the habits of others, i.e., “pair this with that” or “drink Port after dinner”, is a mistake that we make all too often do, and will inevitably lead to failure. The best path has been to educate, allow people to try the wine, and explain the context of Port in our culture while leaving it open for people to find their own space and context in which to enjoy Port. Fortunatly, this is now happening, albeit slowly.

From our experience of conducting many tastings throughout Asia, Tawny Port seems to be a firm favourite. The lack of tannins, smoothness, and ease with which they can be understood and appreciated, puts wines such as the 10 and the 20 years old Tawny Ports amongst the favourites almost every time. As an added plus, they also seem to pair quite well with many different cuisines: from the Shanghainese, to the Sichuanese and Cantonese, etc.

However, that’s not to say that other categories don’t also have their space. Vintage Port, Reserve Ruby and the easy-drinking Ruby & Tawny, all have established their roles in the development of this exciting region.

There’s still much to be done before Port becomes as popular in Asia as in the West, but the task that looked so daunting just a few years ago, is now starting to look a lot more achievable. No doubt, when that happens, Symington Family Estates will be seen as one of the pioneering companies in the region, and I, I hope, have contributed to that.

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Portraits of the Douro
– António Augusto Ribeiro –

António Augusto Ribeiro. Portraits of the Douro
António Augusto Ribeiro. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges.
In this series we will interview the people that live, work and travel in the Douro Valley. This week, Adriano Ferreira Borges speaks to António Augusto Ribeiro, Douro farmer and ardent Benfiquista.
AFB: Good morning! What’s your name, and what do you do for a living?
AAR: My name is António Augusto Ribeiro, and I’m a farmer.

AFB: Are you from around here?
AAR: I am indeed. I’m from Fiolhal (Carrazeda de Ansiães).

António Augusto Ribeiro and his van. Photo: Adriano Ferreira Borges.

AFB: Great! So you like living in the Douro I take it?
AAR: Definitely! It’s the best place in the country!

AFB: What’s your favourite food?
AAR: Feijoada à transmontana (this is a typical bean stew from the Trás-os-Montes region of Portugal).

AFB: Have you ever worked in wine production?
AAR: Yes, many years ago, it must be 40 now, I worked for Smithes (referring to John Smithes, the pioneering Cockburn’s winemaker known as the “cowboy of the Douro”). Then we used to carry the grapes on our backs. It was hard work I’ll tell you!

AFB: And do you think the Douro has changed much since then?
AAR: Or course. In the past, this was a difficult place to live and work, but now, with machinery it’s much easier.

AFB: In ten years, where do you see the Douro?
AAR: How should I know! Why don’t you go and ask António Costa (the prime minister) and Marcelo (the president)!

AFB: Good answer. I’ll leave you to it so!

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A Year in the Vineyards, March 2017

Frost on the vine in the vineyards of the Douro
Frost on the vine. Photograph: Fernando Alves
Miguel Potes, no stranger to the ups and downs of a year in the vineyards, talks about winter pruning, low temperatures, and a lot of hard work.

The winter pruning of the 2016/2017 viticultural year was largely concluded in our vineyards by the third week of February, a little later than usual due to the fact that in many of our properties in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro work only began during the first half of December. Typically, winter pruning would be well underway during the month of November, but this year’s delay can be explained by the longer than usual vegetative cycle of the vines over the preceding season (2015/2016), which meant that after the vintage the vineyards were still relatively lush and the onset of leaf-fall was delayed by approximately two weeks. The above-average temperatures during the first half of November accentuated this further.

The relatively late start to the 2016 harvest also inevitably influenced the delay in winter pruning. In some of our principal vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos, picking during the harvest was halted on two occasions to work around some (beneficial) rain that arrived during the middle of September. Some of the finest grape varieties, including the Touriga Nacional, only began to be picked from September 26th, which meant that the harvest finished quite late, well into October.

Our pruning teams did not have to contend with much rain; in fact over the winter the lack of rain has given us some cause for concern, the shortfall being approximately 40% when compared to the 30-year-average. However, they did face very cold conditions, especially through January, which records showed as being the third coldest January of the last 30 years. The lowest temperature was registered at Quinta do Ataíde’s weather station on January 19th: 5.6°C below zero, which underlines the continental climate of the easternmost part of the Douro region.

Fortunately our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which not only increase productivity but also make the task much less physically demanding. They do, however, have to face the whims of winter weather for weeks on end, not to mention having to negotiate the steepness of the terrain, which really doesn’t make their task any easier.

Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and one of its prime objectives is to influence the following season’s yield by controlling the number of buds and therefore those that will potentially burst and give rise to the desired number of bunches of grapes per vine.  Because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming it accounts for around a third of the annual costs in our vineyards.

Electric secateurs notwithstanding, winter pruning in our vineyards is still an entirely manual task. It is one of the single most important periods of the year in the lifecycle of our vines for it is at this time that decisions are made that will determine the individual future of every single vine and have a significant impact on the success of this year’s crop. During the moments the pruner spends on each vine his or her decisions influence its growth over the new vegetative cycle, its fate quite literally in their hands. Manual pruning requires great skill, knowledge and experience if it is to be carried out successfully and one of its great advantages, as opposed to mechanical pruning, is the precision it offers given that each vine is tended with individual care, one of the indispensable prerequisites for the production of the finest possible wines.

 

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To New Beginnings

Sundial at Symington Family Estates Quinta do Vesuvio
Sundial, Quinta do Vesuvio. Photograph: Adriano Ferreira Borges

For the last eight years, the Graham’s blog has routinely and reliably provided information on the ebb and flow of the viticultural year in Quinta dos Malvedos, along with other reports and updates from the Douro Valley and Vila Nova de Gaia. To our great satisfaction, our content appealed to a wide audience, from wine critics and writers, to wine enthusiasts and everyone with an interest in the wines of Symington Family Estates, and what is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world.

As such, after almost 650 posts, it is with some apprehension that we have decided to stop updating Graham’s blog and replace it with this, the Symington Family Estates’ blog. Of course, the Graham’s blog will remain online for some time, after which its contents will be archived here for future reference

Here we will continue to publish the content for which the Graham’s blog was known; updates from the viticultural year in our Douro vineyards, the yearly harvest reports, and other assorted announcements from the Port trade. However, we also want to tell the stories of what are Symington Family Estate’s greatest assets, our wines, our quintas, and the people of the region.

Who knows what platforms we will use to share our stories a decade from now, but we do know that many of the wines we produce, such as Graham’s 2009 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port, the first of our wines whose production was chronicled online, will still be slowly ageing, as they have been for generations.

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