In this fourth video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at shoot thinning (spring pruning) in the vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos.
The early spring is always a busy time for us as the vegetative vigour of the vines gets into its stride and the timely interventions of our teams in the field are essential to safeguard the success of the vines’ growing season. The first major operation that occupies us during April is shoot thinning, which is also referred to as spring pruning and is known locally as despampa. It entails the removal by hand from each and every vine of superfluous shoots, leaving only those deemed sufficient to deliver an optimum number of grape bunches. Limiting the number of shoots thus allows us to influence production, leaving behind only what the vine is able to support and thus concentrating its vigour, which leads to greater concentration of flavour and sugar in the berries that ultimately take form. Furthermore, this control ensures a balanced canopy layout with less dense foliage encouraging good aeration of the vines — important in minimizing the appearance of diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew.
For the third consecutive year, candidates for the title of Master of Wine have once again paid a visit to Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia before travelling up the Douro Valley to visit some of the regions most famous vineyards. While an important visit for the students, the fact that the Demarcated Douro Region has been recognised by the Institute of Masters of Wine as an important part of the curriculum of such a distinguished qualification, also makes the visit very important for Port, and the Douro Valley as a whole.
Founded in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine is one of the most prestigious communities of wine professionals in the world. To become a member 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 challenge of acquiring the qualification, there are currently only 343 Masters of Wine worldwide.
The first stop for the 18 MW students from all over the world who arrived in Porto on the 19th of April was Vinum, the restaurant located in Graham’s 1890 Lodge, for a dinner hosted by Paul Symington. Finishing with Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port, it was a fitting start to what would be three days immersion in the world of Port.
The next day saw the candidates participate in a tasting of Graham’s, and other leading producer’s, wines.
They then departed for the Douro Valley, where they visited Quinta do Bomfim, another of Symington Family Estate’s prime vineyards, where Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos’ winemaker, Henry Shotton (also a MW student himself), gave an in-depth explanation of the winemaking process, before being shown around the vineyards.
Once again, it was a pleasure to spend some time with the Master of Wine students, and we wish them the very best of luck in their studies.
Last month the Vintage Port Academy organised the first Port decanting competition in Shanghai. With eight two-person teams made up of sommeliers and service staff from the city’s leading hotels and restaurants taking part, there was a lot at stake!
Formed by Symington Family Estates and the Fladgate Partnership, the Vintage Port Academy aims to develop an understanding and enjoyment of Vintage Port among wine consumers and professionals around the world through a programme of seminars and courses for wine trade and hospitality personnel, as well as tastings and workshops for fine wine consumers, and collectors.
The decanting competition was judged on two elements; clarity (as in the lack of sediment in the poured wine) and wastage. Time would also be used as a tiebreaker if the teams were tied on clarity and wastage.
The winning team was Courtyard by Marriott, represented by Lobby Lounge Manager Jessi Peng and Café Supervisor Jacky Ma, who scored 17.5 out of 20 and each received a two bottle presentation box of 2003 Vintage Port.
We are happy to report that the bird has made a full recovery and will soon be returned to the wild in time to return to Northern Europe for the summer, this time fitted with a state-of-the-art GPS tracker in order for the centre’s dedicated team to follow its journey.
In this video, filmed several months ago, you can see the recovering bird making use of the centre’s octagonal flight tunnel.
Symington Family Estates supports the work of the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre and shares with it the values and commitment of protecting and preserving the wildlife and natural habitats of the Douro. We will be following the release of the falcon into the wild at a Symington Family Estate’s vineyard in the near future.
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.
In a series of video clips to be shown over 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 second of the videos, documents vine training and planting.
Training young vines and vine planting
Once winter pruning is concluded, the next task is to train the canes of the young two to three-year-old vines onto the lower wires of the vine trellises, known as the ‘fruiting wires.’ Vine-training in our vineyards follows the Royat single cordon system meaning that the cane (or cordon) is trained horizontally, only to one side of the vine trunk.
Starting in February and continuing through March is the planting (or replanting) of vines. Our vineyards are planted from the end of winter until the start of spring of the year after the preparation of the terrain, known as the surriba, which involves the turning over of the topsoil and subsoil, whilst at the same time building the terraces on which the new vines will be planted. In the past the vines were planted in two stages, one year apart; first the phylloxera-resistant rootstock was planted and a year later the scion of the chosen variety would be field-grafted onto it. In recent years the vast majority of our vineyards are planted with bench-grafted rootlings, which already combine the rootstock and the scion. The great advantage of this method is the greater uniformity of the planted vineyard, which thus comes into full production earlier.
Hosted by Berry Brothers & Rudd at their historic St. James’s Street offices in London, on Wednesday March 30th four members of the Symington family, together with their friends at Berrys, launched Graham’s 90 Very Old Tawny Port, a limited edition of 500 bottles to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s forthcoming 90th birthday. Paul, Johnny, Rupert and Charlotte Symington presented the special commemorative Port to a group of UK wine writers and journalists, as well as two of Portugal’s leading wine writers. The Portuguese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, João de Vallera, was also present.
Paul introduced the three venerable cask-matured wines of which the Graham’s 90 is composed. He took with him from Portugal the original vintage records for those years, one of which written by his great grandfather Andrew James Symington. He read the entry dated 14th October 1935, the year in which one of the component wines for the Graham’s 90 was made. Andrew James Symington describes the quality of the year and alludes to the reigning monarch of the day, King George V (the Queen’s grandfather): “I am inclined to think that the quality and good colour inspires hope that the 1935 may prove good enough to make a Jubilee Vintage – quantity is less than last year – but quality appears to be better.”
Johnny went on to explain that Port has long been used to toast royal and historic occasions by every conceivable British institution for centuries and this seemed an entirely appropriate association. This isn’t the first time that the Symington family and Berry Brothers have come together to mark a royal occasion. In 2012 they jointly launched the Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Port, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. Again the challenge was to create an exceptional Port to pay a fitting tribute to the Queen’s dedicated lifetime of service to the nation. Port has always been served at every state occasion at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle during Her Majesty’s long reign and this has helped to project Port as one of the world’s premier wines.
Berry Bros. & Rudd, Port Buyer, Simon Field MW commented, “The prospect of working with Charles Symington [Graham’s head winemaker] is always one that we relish and when we approached Charles, Paul and Johnny for ideas for something rather special to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday we were confident that they would unearth something exceptional. They have.” These were Simon’s first impressions when he tasted this remarkable Port: “The fruits of very old casks from three venerable vintages, of which two are significantly over 90 years of age, this outstanding blend impresses immediately with its deep colour and richly generous aromas. The palate is even more intriguing, teasing initially with a beguiling cocktail of high spirits and spritely wisdom. It’s only with a little time in glass that the true greatness becomes evident…patience is rewarded. There is no substitute for experience, and our experience should be accompanied by humility and gratitude.”
Victoria Moore in the Daily Telegraph (March 30th) also eloquently described the Graham’s 90 (“A very special toast to the Queen”) as follows: “Graham’s 90 blended by Charles Symington, is far more than the sum of its parts: a finessed, complex Port, with fine layer upon fine layer of flavour, like a mille-feuille, opening gradually, a kaleidoscope of roasted nuts, honey, raisins, tobacco and spice.”
This rare Port will be available in the UK exclusively through Berry Bros. & Rudd as from March 30th 2016 and will be priced at £700 per bottle. From each bottle sold, a contribution will be made by Graham’s to the Patron’s Fund, which supports a collection of UK and Commonwealth charities of which Her Majesty is the patron. The minimum contribution guaranteed by the Symington family is £10,000.00. A very restricted number of bottles will be available for sale in Portugal, some of which at the Graham’s 1890 Lodge.
On Saturday 13th of February, Symington Family Estates donated a new ambulance to the Vila Flor Volunteer Fire Brigade. Since 2007 the company has donated nine ambulances to the Fire Brigades of the Douro Valley in recognition of the invaluable services, that range from combating forest fires to emergency medical assistance, that they provide to the region’s communities.
The Symington family have previously donated ambulances to the volunteer fire brigades of the following Douro municipalities: Pinhão (2007), S. João da Pesqueira (2009), Provesende (2010), Carrazeda de Ansiães (2011), Lamego (2012), Régua (2013) Foz-Côa (2014), Tabuaço (2015), and now Vila Flor in 2016.
In a series of video clips to be shown over the coming year we will explore the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the first of the videos, documents winter pruning.
Winter pruning (November – January)
Winter pruning of the vines is a crucial, almost entirely manual operation that marks the beginning of the viticultural year in the Douro. Normally starting during the second half of November, it can go on for up to three months and ideally should be 50% complete before the end of the year. Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming, it accounts for around a third of our annual viticultural costs at Quinta dos Malvedos.
The process involves three separate stages. First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the redundant vine growth is removed with the use of cutters attached to small tractors. Next is the highly skilled manual task of pruning each vine, and removing the remaining tendrils caught in the trellis. Our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which increase productivity and make the task much less physically demanding. Finally comes the shredding of the spent canes lying on the ground. This plant fibre is then left to break down and adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil of Quinta dos Malvedos.
Since 2011 Symington Family Estates has supported the important work of this specialist centre with which it shares the values and commitment of protecting and preserving all forms of wildlife in the natural habitats of the Douro region. Of the Symington family’s total landholding of 2,118 hectares in the Douro Valley, approximately half is under vine and the remainder is largely made of natural vegetation, woodland, olive groves, fruit orchards, etc. — besides which all the vineyards are managed under integrated production management and organic viticulture, which translates into minimum intervention in the vineyards. This helps safeguard a balanced environment and many of the properties are in effect havens for wildlife.
The young peregrine falcon was brought to the centre on the first of December with a broken wing resulting from a gunshot. He has since undergone surgery and is now being prepared to return to the wild. What is interesting about this particular bird is that he was ringed by the West Cornwall Ringing Group in Morvah, Cornwall in July of last year. As the first ringed bird the group have ever relocated alive in Portugal, it was with great interest that they learned of the 2000 kilometre journey he made before his unfortunate encounter. You can read what they say on their blog, here.
X-ray images show that the bird’s wing was fractured by a relatively close range shotgun blast and some of the shotgun pellets are visible in the x-ray (below), and will now remain in the bird.
Since its surgery the bird’s fracture has consolidated, allowing him to move from intensive care to a semi-covered aviary in which he will be able to further heal. Although a fracture in a bird this size can recover in approximately 3 weeks, it takes significantly longer for a bird to once again become fit for the wild. If things are made too easy for them in captivity they have a tendency to become lazy, something that creates difficulties when they are reintroduced into their natural habitats.
The next step in the bird’s recovery is for him to be introduced into the centre’s flight tunnel. A two-storey, octagonal structure, it is the only one of its size in the Iberian Peninsula and enables recovering birds to fly continually at some height in order to recover muscle mass. It allows all but the largest birds to manoeuvre in mid-flight, something that would not be possible in smaller tunnels, and is thus a very effective facility for the rehabilitation of wild birds, and in particular birds of prey. When the peregrine falcon is capable of flying 500 meters without stopping he will be deemed to have recovered enough muscle mass to be returned to the wild.
Long considered a noble bird, since the Middle Ages the peregrine falcon has been associated with the title of prince in the hierarchy of birds of prey. It is also the fastest member of the animal kingdom, and has been recorded flying at speeds of up to 389 kilometres per hour when diving to strike its prey.
Also in the care of the centre at the moment is a magnificent Eurasian eagle owl, which following several months of care should soon be returned to the wild in one of Symington Family Estate’s vineyards.
Hopefully by March the peregrine falcon will be fit enough to return to the wild accompanied by a GPS tracker that will trace his flight to his summer destination. In the meantime, we will follow his recovery, and the outstanding work of the centre’s dedicated team with several follow-up blog posts over the next couple of months.