Vineyard Monitoring Robot Trialled at Quinta do Ataíde

Vineyard Monitoring Robot Trialled at Quinta do Ataíde
Vineyard Monitoring Robot Trialled at Quinta do Ataíde

In December 2016, the Spanish Universities of Valencia and La Rioja, Wall-YE Robots & Software of France, Sundance Multiprocessor Technologies of the UK and Symington Family Estates formed a consortium to develop a vineyard robot. The three-year project (2016 – 2019) aims to design a vineyard monitoring robot that can aid wine producers throughout Europe in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and variations in plant vigour.

Existing vineyard data collection methods have many constraints because they are time-consuming, require skilled field operators and the use of expensive equipment and only deliver reduced sampling rates that are statistically insufficient and therefore do not accurately map the status and variability of a given vineyard. It is because of these limitations that most producers simply do not employ vineyard mapping, thus foregoing valuable data that could improve their vineyard management and ultimately influence the quality of their wine. It is this capability gap that VineScout will bridge by providing accurate, comprehensive and swift on-the-go data gathering. Furthermore, VineScout operates autonomously using GPS guidance and fitted sensors which allow it to navigate between rows of vines without a human operator. The collected data can be rapidly processed, providing the vineyard manager with valuable information that can be interpreted in real time, allowing for assessments of — and timely interventions in — the vineyard.

An overriding objective of the project is that VineScout must have a low carbon footprint. The robot is powered by electric batteries whilst the onboard sensors and other software are powered by energy generated by solar panels fitted to the vehicle. This solar energy can also further charge the batteries which propel the robot, whilst on the move, providing VineScout with additional range in the field. Furthermore, VineScout’s construction favours light and recyclable materials.

The VineScout prototype was field-trialled in the Grape Variety Research Vineyard at Quinta do Ataíde during the last week of August. The three-day trials included an open day, ‘Agronomy Day’, in which other wine producers from the Douro as well as universities, tech start-ups, and research institutes saw VineScout in operation. The open day included an end-user focused round table discussion to exchange ideas and review lessons learned. Professor Francisco Rovira-Más of the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, the consortium project coordinator and an expert in robotics and agricultural engineering, and Fernando Alves, the Symington Viticulture R&D manager, were delighted with the outcome of the field trials and with the participation at the seminars. They regarded the participants’ input as providing a valuable contribution to the project’s advancement.

VineScout is funded by the European Union H2020 ‘Fast Track to Innovation Pilot’ with the objective of developing a robot that is affordable, reliable and user-friendly. European Union funding accounts for €1.7 million of the total €2 million investment.

Symington Family Estates was invited to participate in this innovative project in April 2016 at the ClimWine 2016 International Symposium held in Bordeaux and which addressed the topic of “Sustainable Grape and Wine Production in the Context of Climate Change”. A presentation delivered at the symposium by the Symington Viticulture Research and Development Manager caught the attention of attending representatives from the University of La Rioja — one of the consortium members — and subsequently led to an invitation for Symington Family Estates to become the end-user member of the VineScout project. Symington Family Estates reputation in the field of viticultural and winemaking research and development in the Douro region, as well as its proven record as a leading producer of both Port and Douro wines, was also instrumental in it being invited to become the end-user partner in the VineScout consortium.

Further field tests have been programmed for 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde and at Quinta do Bomfim, during June, July, and August. VineScout is a logical evolution of the Vine Robot experimental project which ran from 2013 to 2017 and which has provided the succeeding VineScout project with a solid grounding and a useful springboard to fully develop a successful vine monitoring robot.

 

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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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2017 Vintage About to Begin

Quinta dos Malvedos

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.

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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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A Year With a Special Rhythm – 2016 Douro Harvest Report

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos. Symington Family Estates. Harvest Report
Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Miguel Potes

This was the year to really know your vineyard in the Douro; each location and each variety developed at its own individual rhythm and winemakers had to be constantly in the vineyards. Deciding to harvest on a hunch or following fashion was definitely not a good idea in this special year. Intimate knowledge of the vineyards combined with patience has delivered the just reward of some beautiful Ports and Douro wines.

The viticultural year started well with a good wet winter, bringing more than double the rainfall of the previous 2014/15 winter and some 80 mm more than the average of the last 30 years. Warmer than usual temperatures advanced the vegetative cycle by 10 days in most areas. However, the challenge came when unexpectedly the wet weather continued into April and May, with three times the average rainfall for these two months. Locals were presented with the extraordinary site of the Douro in full spring flood. This made the river unnavigable and all boat traffic was stopped, resulting in countless tourists being unable to board their hotel-boats and cruise up the valley to Spain.

The wet and cool April and May made it absolutely necessary to work intensively to protect the vines. The Douro is not well suited to such a challenge, with its incredibly steep vineyards and its highly fragmented land ownership. The largest area of mountain vineyard on earth has 17,000 farmers owning less than one hectare of heavily inclined hill-side vines. Many are elderly and have neither the time nor the resources to undertake the necessary measures to protect the vines in such conditions, and it is estimated that the Douro will have produced at least 25% less wine than in a normal year. Those that were able to care for their vines during this period, emerged with a fine and healthy crop of grapes, although the lower temperatures slowed development.

June and July brought a return to more normal weather but August was unusually hot and this further slowed the maturation and put considerable strain on the vines. The miraculous, rare, and much-desired August rainfall fell on the 24th and 26th August, but was localized with little evident in the Pinhão valley. Useful amounts fell at Malvedos (18mm), Vesuvio (7mm) and Ataíde (12mm), exactly where it was most needed.

September started with an intense heat wave and a high of 43.0 ̊C on Tuesday 6th measured at Quinta do Bomfim. The Douro has become very busy with tourists this year and they could be seen crowding into the few air-conditioned locations to escape the heat, mixing with worried looking farmers in the cafés of Pinhão, Pesqueira and Tua. The stress on the younger vines, with their less developed root systems, was clear. However, the older vines were coping well, with fine green leaves and healthy looking fruit, their deep roots drawing on the humidity from the wet winter and spring. But ripeness for the vines was still some way off as they coped with the special conditions of 2016, and it was clear that a late harvest was desirable in order to bring the vines to optimal maturity. A hasty rush to harvest early for those who were not aware of what was really happening in the vineyard following weeks of intense heat, would be to miss a golden opportunity.

From 7th September the temperatures began to reduce and after weeks of careful monitoring of the vines, using modern analytical methods but also the ancient but utterly reliable method of tasting berries in each vineyard, Charles Symington set the picking dates for the 15th for some of our more easterly Quintas, and the 19th for the others. On the 12th and 13th rain fell across the entire Douro region, with 18mm at Cavadinha, 16mm at Bomfim, 20mm at Malvedos, 15mm at Canais, 12mm at Vesuvio and 13mm at Ataíde. Charles suspended picking of the best varieties, either sending the pickers home, or switching them to the younger or less important varieties. Following this well timed rainfall, the harvest resumed on our vineyards on Monday 19th once the vines had accommodated these refreshing showers and had adequate time to rebalance. Charles took another important decision on the 22nd September and delayed picking the Touriga Nacional until the 26th, as the vines were taking their own time to reach maturity. Since then the vintage has proceeded with perfect weather and cool nights. It is rare to be finishing the Douro harvest during the week of the 10th October having had four perfect picking weeks under blue skies.

With this year’s special conditions, the vines chose their own rhythm and it was absolutely necessary to understand what was happening in the vineyard after the hot summer. There is no doubt that this year the vines took far longer to regain their all-important balance. This knowledge could only be acquired by many hours of careful analysis amongst the vines. It is only necessary to see the lagares of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and of old mixed Douro vines, currently ending their fermentations, to see what an exceptional result awaited those who did the essential work and had the necessary patience.

Paul Symington,

12 October, 2016

A note from the winemaker:

“The weather throughout the vintage has been exceptionally good and this has allowed for maturations to develop perfectly. We have been able to decide when to pick without the concern of the weather changing, having stopped the vintage at different properties to allow for ideal ripening to be achieved when necessary. The lagares have been giving balanced Baumés and exceptional colour and the Touriga Franca may well be the best wine of the vintage. The wines have wonderful freshness and elegance as well as structure.”

Charles Symington

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A Year in the Vineyards – Part 10

In this tenth video of ‘A year in the vineyards’, the last in the series, we look at traditional treading at Quinta do Vesuvio, where the grapes are foot trodden in granite lagares.

The vintage · Traditional treading

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqhZI3eIo4A]

The time-honoured traditional foot treading in large, shallow tanks made of granite called lagares, survives in just a handful of properties in the Douro Valley, among them the Symington family’s Quinta do Vesúvio. Inside the winery built in 1827, teams of 50 people, known as rogas, tread each lagar. The first stage is called the corte during which two to three rows of men and women, arms interlocked, march up and down the lagar with military precision, their discipline ensured by the head of the roga who resembles a drill sergeant as he bellows, ‘left-right, left-right, left right’. After about two hours, once the grapes have been thoroughly trodden, the treading team break up the rows and tread at random to their own rhythm, often dancing and joking to the sound of the local village band. This stage of treading is termed liberdade or liberty – for obvious reasons.

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