Honey Buzzard Returned to the Wild at Quinta dos Malvedos

Peter Symington releasing the bird over Quinta dos Malvedos

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.

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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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A Year in the Vineyards – Part 7

In this seventh video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the maturation studies carried out in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, which will guide us in determining the vintage starting date.

Maturation studies, which normally begin around mid-August, are of great importance in setting the vintage starting date and in preparing an optimum picking sequence, this being determined by the different maturation rates of each grape variety, as well as other influencing factors such as the vineyards’ location, altitude and climate. Carefully devised picking schedules ensure that the grapes are picked at their optimal point of ripeness.

Whilst nowadays, several advanced techniques are employed to assess berry ripeness, these do not replace frequent field sampling by our viticulturists and winemakers. In the vineyards they sample the berries for feel, taste and colour. As grapes ripen they become softer to the touch and taste sweeter, revealing the desirable accumulation of sugar as the grapes’ organic acids gradually diminish through the ripening period. They will also check for colour by squeezing berries in the palm of their hands to reveal the pigments on the skins and the appearance of the juice. The seeds or pips will also be checked for colour, as this is another reliable gauge of fruit ripeness; yellowish-green means unripe, whilst dark brown means ripening is on track.

To get the full picture of balanced fruit maturations it is important to also screen phenolic ripeness. The phenolic compounds, which include tannins and anthocyanins — the pigments responsible for colour — are a prerequisite for balanced and well structured wines with fresh aromatics. This year, when our maturation studies began on August 15th, it became apparent that phenolic ripeness was evolving very well whilst sugar readings were lagging behind. However, these have since caught up and we are looking at evenly balanced fruit maturation — a good augury for the forthcoming grape harvest.

 

 

 

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A Year in the Vineyards – Part 3

In a series of video clips to be shown throughout the year we will be exploring the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the third of the videos, documents bud-break.

Bud-break marks the end of winter dormancy and the start of the vines’ new vegetative cycle.

With the arrival of spring, buds begin to sprout during March; the timing varies with each grape variety and air temperatures.

 

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Vintage postponed several days at Quinta dos Malvedos

In the end, the rain forecast for last Sunday (see previous post) never fell over Quinta dos Malvedos, instead temperatures spiked to 38.6 degrees Celsius over the weekend closing what was a very dry month indeed (2.8mm of rain fell over the course of the month). The August 30-year average rainfall for Quinta dos Malvedos is 13.6mm, and while not exactly a lot of rainfall, it is almost five times more than actually fell this year over the same period.

August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.
August temperature and precipitation at Quinta dos Malvedos compared to the 30-year average.

In many of the Douro Valley quintas that produce table wines, the vintage has already started, however, for the production of great Port, grapes are allowed to mature longer in order to raise their sugar levels. Whilst the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos was set to start on Monday next week (7th of September), Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, has decided to postpone picking until Thursday (10th of September) in light of a favourable weather forecast for the foreseeable future which will allow the grapes more time to reach the perfect point of maturation before harvesting.

A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca - a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
A ripening bunch of Touriga Franca – a variety often seen as the barometer of a good year in the vineyards.
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An Update from Malvedos

As August draws to a close and we come ever closer to the beginning of this year’s vintage, the typical scorching summer temperatures of the Douro Valley have not materialised. While there have been several hot days, with temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius), until now August has been the first month of the 2014/15 viticultural year with temperatures below the mean.

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Ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha) of Quinta dos Malvedos.

However, owing to the drought conditions throughout most of the viticultural year, these lower than average temperatures in August are a real boon. With just 4.8mm of rain falling over Malvedos since the beginning of July (see previous post), lower temperatures reduce the possibility of excessive hydric stress. Charles Symington, head winemaker at Quinta dos Malvedos, reminds us that at this juncture air temperature is also extremely important for another reason.

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More ripening grapes on the old vines (vinha velha).

Very high temperatures during the final maturation cycle can lead to higher sugar concentration in the berries to the detriment of acidity, which is of course very important for the wines’ balance and ageing potential. The lower than average daytime and nocturnal temperatures will ensure grapes with homogeneous maturations which will almost certainly result in very high quality wines.

In any case, with moderate rain forecast for tomorrow it looks like Malvedos will have the benefit of both relatively low temperatures and some useful additional water; meaning everything is still on track for a stellar harvest.

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The east facing side of the Port Arthur stone terraces, still under a cloudy sky.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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Looking Forward to the Harvest

We are now in the final weeks before the culmination of the viticultural year and the beginning of this year’s harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos. Although the Portuguese Meteorological Institute is currently announcing severe drought warnings for the entire country, the vines look robust and healthy, and the viticultural cycle is approximately ten days ahead of schedule. The vintage plan has now been drawn up, and although it will no doubt undergo several changes before we begin to bring grapes into the winery next month, we are currently aiming to begin harvesting at Malvedos on the seventh of September, four days earlier than last year, when the vintage started on the 11th.

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Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

The Viticultural Year to the Present

On a whole the viticultural year was quite uniform, although unusual, as almost from start to finish it has been warmer than average, and very dry.

The yearly cycle began with an extremely wet November that saw 179mm of rainfall (more that twice the 30-year average of 67.5mm) falling over the quinta. However, these conditions were not to last and as we moved into December and the new year, rainfall decreased dramatically (to less than half the 30-year average), a trend that would continue throughout the year.

Over the course of the year average temperatures always kept above the mean, but when we look back at the year as a whole what marked it was the lack of rainfall. Apart from ample precipitation in November 2014, this viticultural year, and especially the summer months, has been extremely dry. With only 2.6mm of rain falling in July. We were fortunate to have 2.4mm fall over the quinta last weekend and with more forecast for next weekend, it should be some relief for the vines, which are already reaching their limit.

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Temperature and precipitation over the last viticultural period (March to end of July). Note the proximity of 2015 to 2011 (a phenomenal vintage).
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Rare August clouds over Quinta dos Malvedos on Monday (24th of August).

That being said the vines are now beautiful, and rarely in a year of such drought have they looked so fine. Still covered by a lush green canopy, only first growth lower leaves, now beginning to turn brown and dry, tell the story of their struggle for water throughout the year.

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A row of Touriga Franca planted in 1983 exhibiting fine green foliage.

The Vintage

Walking through the vineyards with Alexandre Mariz (the viticulturist responsible for Quinta dos Malvedos) as he tastes the grapes from each row of vines, evaluating them for the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness which indicates their level of maturation, you can see that he is quietly confident in the ability of the hardy Douro Valley grape varieties to withstand the severity of the region’s weather, and that this year’s vindima (harvest in Portuguese) promises to be a great one.

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Alexandre Mariz inspecting a row of Souzão, high above the river Douro.

One of the reasons for his confidence is that not only are the vines all in very fine condition, but that they are at the same level of maturation and their sugars, phenolic levels and acidity are all showing even development. In short, no variety is significantly lagging behind another.

This year the star of the vintage could be Touriga Franca, which is looking particularly good. Normally a late ripening variety, this year it started developing earlier than usual, giving it a head start and meaning that it will be perfectly matured closer to the beginning of the vintage rather than later, as is normal with this variety.

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The juice of a Souzão grape. This variety is known for the deep colour its wines.

Other Happenings at the Quinta

Besides preparations for the imminent vintage, work is also nearly complete on the creation of new terraces on the western side of the quinta. When complete, the 4.9 hectares of new terraces are due to be planted entirely with Alicante Bouschet, which at the moment only exists in very small quantity at Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The new terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos (looking eastward).

All told, the vineyards are in great condition and everyone is going into the vintage with high expectations. Although there are always unknowns, everything is pointing to a great year for the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, and Graham’s Port.

In the coming weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on the harvest at the Malvedos winery.

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Alexandre Mariz looking over the vines high above the Douro.
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Replanting the "Port Arthur" Stone Terraces and the Origin of the Name

Japanese soldiers assaulting the Port Arthur defences, with a detail of the Russian surrender. Kobayashi Kiyochika. Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Japanese soldiers assaulting the Port Arthur defences, with a detail of the Russian surrender. Kobayashi Kiyochika. Boston Museum of Fine Arts

This year the west facing slope of the iconic “Port Arthur” stone terraces of Quinta dos Malvedos has been replanted. It will take some three years until the stone terraces, now planted with Touriga Franca and Alicante Bouschet, will once again produce fruit of sufficient quality to be part of Graham’s Port.

In the meantime, the east facing side of the terraces has been producing excellent grapes and has been the source of some of the best Port ever produced in the quinta.

In the Douro Valley vines were traditionally planted on terraces supported by large dry stone walls known as socalcos. They serve to support the soil and to create a flat place to work, enabling the cultivation of the steep hillsides of the Douro region. It is for these stone walls, which demonstrate the level to which human activity has shaped and sculpted the natural beauty of the area, that the Douro Valley was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

But why are the stone terraces of Quinta dos Malvedos known as the “Port Arthur” terraces?

The hallmark of the iconic quinta, the concentric walls of the stone terraces, particularly evident on the west facing side, tower over the Douro River like a citadel. While these terraces are known as  “Port Arthur”, not everyone knows why.

The most likely answer is that they were named after the heavily fortified Chinese city of Port Arthur (now known as Lüshunkou or Lyushunkou District). Port Arthur was an important deep-water harbour for both military and trade, and from the end of the 19th into the 20th century was leased to Russia by China. As Russia’s only warm water port in the Pacific, control over it was essential, and the cities defences were bolstered by heavy fortifications and the presence of a garrison of 50,000 men and 506 pieces of artillery.

Im 1904 these defences would come under attack as Port Arthur became a fundamental point of contention in the Russo-Japanese War. The brutal Siege of Port Arthur (April 1904-January 1905), and the ensuing battles, saw the Japanese Third Army assault the concentric lines of defensive fortifications built on the three hills that protected the harbour. The siege and the battles that followed ultimately resulted in the the destruction of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the loss of Russian influence in the region, and increasing political unrest in Russia itself. This would have placed Port Arthur, and its colossal fortification very much in the public consciousness, and it is very likely where the stone terraces of Quinta dos Malvedos got their name.



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Masters of Wine candidates visit the Douro Valley

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The Institute of Masters of Wine

From the 14th to the 16th of April, Graham’s received 19 students from the Institute of Masters of Wine. The students, of 7 different nationalities, spent time in Porto where they visited several Port lodges before travelling upriver to the quintas of the Douro Valley.

Founded in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine is a respected community of wine professionals, and one of the most prestigious wine qualifications in the world. To become a Master of Wine you must undertake an in-depth three-year program of study, followed by practical and written exams, and the completion of a paper based on original research. Because of the difficulty of acquiring the qualification, there are currently only 318 Masters of Wine worldwide, and it was with great pleasure that we received some of the current candidates in Porto.

Arriving on the evening of the 14th, they barely had time to set down their bags before they were on their way to the Vinum restaurant in the Graham’s Lodge for dinner. After being welcomed by Paul Symington, the group settled into a dinner accompanied by Altano, Chryseia 2012, and a tappit hen of Graham’s 1970 Vintage Port.

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Paul Symington and Antonio Agrellos speaking in the Porto Factory House

The next morning the group had an early start, being greeted by Paul Symington, Antonio Agrellos (Noval), and Nick Heath (Taylor’s) at nine o’clock in the morning in the historic Porto Factory House. The hub of the Port trade for more than two centuries, it was in these surroundings that the group tasted a variety of Ports from the different houses before departing to visit several of Vila Nova de Gaia’s Port lodges.

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The wines tasted at the Graham’s Lodge

By two o’clock the group were at the Graham’s Lodge for another tasting, this time led by Dominic Symington. Here they tasted wine from several of Symington Family Estates Port houses, such as Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s, finishing with a magnificent Graham’s 1955 Vintage. This tasting, which consisted of wines from 2011 to 1955, demonstrated how Vintage Port evolves and matures, and the various stages it passes through in this process. Not a group to stay in one place to long, they then set off for the Douro and Quinta dos Malvedos.

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The group in Quinta dos Malvedos

When the group arrived at the quinta they were greeted by a meal accompanied by Quinta do Vesuvio Douro DOC, followed by Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port, before retiring for the night in preparation for a technical tour of Quinta dos Malvedos and its winery the following morning.

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Charles Symington and Simba

Waking up to a pleasant spring morning in a Douro Valley quinta is not something everyone gets to experience, but so it was that the Master of Wine candidates started their day. Met by Charles Symington (head winemaker), Henry Shotton (Vintage manager), and Charles’ dog Simba, (who as Charles himself says “gets more attention than the wine”), the group were shown around the famous quinta and its lagar winery, seeing first hand what they have been hearing about for the past two days. The visit to Quinta dos Malvedos came to an end with a tasting of five Quinta dos Malvedos Single Vintage Ports from 2009, 1996, 1988, 1979 and 1965. The group then departed for Porto, stopping off at several other Douro quintas along the way.

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Quinta dos Malvedos Single Quinta Vintages

 

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Inspecting vines at Quinta dos Malvedos

It was great to meet the candidates for the distinguished qualification of Master of Wine, and we hope that the information we imparted helps them to reach their goals. We wish them the best of luck in their studies.

 

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