A Year in the Vineyards: Part 1

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.




Injured peregrine falcon recovers in the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro

At the beginning of December 2015, the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens) at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, Portugal, was entrusted with the care of a young, male peregrine falcon. Shot, presumably by hunters, near the town of Esposende on the Northern coast of Portugal, the bird was making his first migration south for the winter.

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.

The vets, Dr João Tomas and Dr Roberto Sargo examining the peregrine falcon

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.

Falco peregrinus
X-ray of the peregrine falcon
The peregrine falcon’s injured wing

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.

Dr Daniel Mosteiro, Dr João Tomas and Dr Roberto Sargo (left to right) outside the centre’s octagonal flight tunnel

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.

Dr Roberto Sargo preparing to weigh a Eurasian eagle owl

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.

The Eurasian eagle owl in the care of the rescue and recovery unit

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.

The Veterinary Hospital at UTAD

Mesa Marcada by Graham’s

Last Monday the Portuguese food blog Mesa Marcada held its annual award ceremony for the Top 10 Portuguese chefs and restaurants of 2015. Sponsored by Graham’s, the event was held at Honorato Hamburguers Artesanais in Lisbon, and awards were presented in several categories, including Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Mesa Diaria or “daily table” (for a reasonable priced/”day to day” restaurant) and Rising Chef (for a chef who placed significantly higher in the competition this year than the previous edition of the awards).

For the second year running it was José Avillez, and his two Michelin Star restaurant, Belcanto, that were awarded both Best Chef and Best Restaurant. Belcanto, which first opened in 1958 in Chiado, Lisbon (near the house where one of Portugal’s greatest writers and poets, Fernando Pessoa, was born), was refurbished by José Avillez in the Summer of 2011 and has since become a reference in Portuguese cuisine.

Second and third place for Best Chef were awarded to Leonel Perreira, of São Gabriel, and Hans Neuner, of Ocean, (which also placed second in the Best Restaurant category) respectively.

Over the course of what was a great evening, Graham’s filmed several interviews with some of the award winning chefs, and over the coming weeks we will publish them here. In order to sate your appetite until then however, below is a teaser of what is to come. You can also find the full list of winners and more information on the Mesa Marcada blog (in Portuguese).

High Water in Vila Nova de Gaia

After a week of heavy rains over Porto and further upstream in the Douro, last night saw high water and partial flooding in the lower lying area of Vila Nova de Gaia. Reaching its highest at around 3 o’clock in the morning, the water crept to within inches of the shop fronts and Port lodges on the quays. However, by 9.30, the water had receded to the just below the level of the street (pictured) and an impressive current was visibly carrying the water out to sea.

View of Porto across the high water of the Douro

While floods are relatively common in Porto, now due to the construction of successive dams on the river throughout the 20th century, they have become fewer and less destructive. The dams allow some degree of control over the water coming from the Douro catchment area, and only release when it is safer to do so.

Blue sky appearing above the Chapel of Our Lady of Piety for the first time in over a week

Graham’s is not in a position to worry too much however, as our lodge, constructed in 1890, is located about 50 meters above sea level, and as such is not in danger from flooding.


1965 Revisited

In 2015, to mark 125 years since Graham’s first acquired Quinta dos Malvedos, a very limited quantity of Graham’s 1965 Quinta dos Malvedos Single Quinta Vintage Port was released. Now 50 years old, this exceedingly rare wine is as much a part of the history of one of the Douro’s greatest quintas, as it is proof of the remarkable longevity of Vintage Port. What better way to celebrate the wines of one of the greatest Douro Valley quintas than with a vertical tasting of some of the vineyard’s greatest wines of the last 50 years?

Organised to coincide with one of the most important Portuguese wine fairs, Encontro com o Vinho e Sabores, which takes place in Lisbon every year, a small group of journalists and wine enthusiasts assembled to taste nine wines produced at Quinta dos Malvedos between 1965 and 2014. However, before any event of this nature, a certain amount of preparation must be done.

Malvedos tasting
Johnny Symington examines the colour of the Quintas dos Malvedos 2014

A week before the tasting in Lisbon was due to take place, Johnny Symington spent an afternoon in the Graham’s tasting room in Vila Nova de Gaia tasting a number of Malvedos Vintages from the last half century. After much deliberation eight of the most representative examples of the unique terroir of Quinta dos Malvedos were selected join the 1965 at the tasting. From the most recent, the young and intense 2014, through the minty elegance of the 1995, and the surprising powerhouse of the 1986, the culmination of the tasting would undoubtedly be the fifty-year-old 1965.

A full house at the Quinta dos Malvedos vertical tasting in Lisbon
A full house at the Quinta dos Malvedos vertical tasting in Lisbon

Led by Johnny Symington and Henry Shotton, the winemaker at Malvedos, the tasting in Lisbon was a huge success, and both professional wine journalists and enthusiasts alike felt privileged to have the opportunity to experience some of the history of both Quinta dos Malvedos and of one of the world’s classic wines.

The power of the young Malvedos Vintage Ports, combined with the growing complexity of flavours and aromas found through the older wines was a tremendous experience, and when the tasting reached its pinnacle in the 1965, it was summed up in one word by Johnny Symington when he said, “paraíso” (paradise).

Johnny Symington and Henry Shotton presenting the Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Ports

The full list of wines tasted was:

2014, 2010, 2004,1999,1995,1986,1982,1976,1965.

Douro Harvest Report 2015

‘The Franca lagares have been spectacular’*

*Charles Symington, 5th October 2015

An exceptional viticultural year is coming to a close in the Douro with farmers and winemakers pleased that a year’s work has resulted in some very good Ports and Douro wines.

The rainfall figures for the viticultural year show a reduction of 44% on the 21 year average, with just 359 mm registered at Quinta do Bomfim, in the heart of the Alto Douro, for the 11 months to the end September 2015. This level of rainfall would cause serious concern in many wine areas, but does not in the Douro where the indigenous vines are superbly adapted to be able to mature fruit in dry conditions, albeit resulting in the very low yields which are so characteristic of the region.

The geography of the Douro and its schistous soils has an amazing ability to retain the winter rain and this is evidenced by the springs that continue to supply the Quintas and the villages scattered across the hillsides even after 8 or 10 weeks without any meaningful rainfall. Dry farming has recently become a fashionable topic in the world of wine but this subject causes wry amusement in the Douro where farmers have been ‘dry farming’ for centuries and irrigation only covers a tiny percentage of the vineyards.

The little rain that did fall this year in the Douro was nicely timed in May and June and was of ‘the right sort’, being steady and prolonged. This is important as short spells of very heavy rain will simply run off the Douro’s terraces, bringing little benefit and can cause serious erosion. Hence the fact that Douro wine makers never give full credence to the published rainfall figures, knowing that very heavy rain does not always reach the vines and often just ends up in the river.

The period between March and June this year was simultaneously the hottest and driest period for 36 years and flowering and veraison took place between 8 and 10 days earlier than normal, as expected given these conditions. However, July and August were cooler than average and this was of extraordinary benefit to the vines. If the normal heat of August had occurred, dehydration and raisining would certainly have followed, given the dry conditions, and the vines would have been forced to shed their lower leaves, reducing vital shade cover. The grape bunches were in really excellent condition by early September and have seldom looked so fantastic. The cool night-time temperatures had done wonders for the natural acidity in the berries.

Picking at Quinta dos Malvedos

The harvest started earlier than normal and the quality of the grapes was immediately apparent. Our sorting tables were seeing hugely reduced rejection levels to the delight of our farm managers and our winery teams. Heavy rain fell on Tuesday 15th September and on the morning of the 16th, but this was followed by a strong wind that very satisfactorily dried the grapes. After 10 weeks with no meaningful rain, the vines greedily absorbed the water and dilution in the berries inevitably followed. This was the critical moment of this year’s harvest and Charles immediately called a halt to picking in our best vineyards. This is never an easy decision given the unsettled weather that often comes towards the end of this month. Picking in our vineyards only resumed on 21st September and Charles said a few days later: ‘It is amazing how much difference 4 or 5 days can make’. Without this rain the final phase of maturation of the Touriga Nacional and especially the Touriga Franca would not have been ideal, as dehydration would certainly have occurred after such a prolonged period with no rain. In the circumstances the steady rain of 15th and morning of 16th September (77mm at Quinta da Cavadinha, 52mm at Quinta do Bomfim, 63mm at Quinta dos Malvedos and 27mm at Quinta do Vesuvio) was absolutely perfect, provided picking was suspended for a few days. The Nacional and Franca picked during the week of the 21st and that of 28th September were of simply extraordinary quality, as were some of the old mixed plantings picked during this period. The rain softened the skins, allowing the colour and flavours to merge superbly into the wine.

Yields were somewhat below the already small average in the Douro, and Charles recorded 25% less Franca at Quinta do Bomfim this year with just 1.05Kg per vine, but with a perfect level of ripeness.

Picking at Quinta dos Malvedos

Only on Sunday 4th October (General Election day in Portugal) did the weather break and by then our very best grapes were safely in our wineries. Courage was needed to suspend picking in mid-September, but the days that followed the resumption of the vintage were beautifully sunny and calm: the risk was well worth taking and paid off handsomely. These 13 days, from 21st September to 4th October will come to be seen as the key to the great Ports and Douro wines made this year, we have no doubt.

Paul Symington.

Douro, Portugal

7th October 2015

2015 Vintage at Malvedos Concluded

On Wednesday September 30th the last grapes from the 2015 vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos arrived in the estate winery. After twenty days of late nights, early mornings and all-night shifts, the harvest was over. In the end, the vintage came in under the wire as on Friday another rainstorm bore down on the Douro, this time damaging some of the region’s vineyards. Malvedos escaped any significant damage, which was particularly fortunate when we consider the new vineyards being lain out at the western extremity of the quinta.

Work in the winery continued until the weekend but the winery team were content, both because the quality of the wines made was superb and also because a well-earned rest was just around the corner. The bulk of the work was now well behind them and they could begin to wind down the operation until next year. The door to the winery was finally closed on Friday evening after the fermentation of the last lagares and the cleaning of the winery. 

Zimba, Charles Symington’s dog, enjoying a nap after the vintage.

While many of those involved in the harvest will now make the most of their welcome rest, Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist at Quinta dos Malvedos) is already planning the next year in the vineyards. At the same time he is also supervising the shaping of new terraces at the western end of the quinta. In February or March of next year 4.9 hectares will be planted with Alicante Bouschet, an increasingly important grape variety that until now has been under represented in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos.

The next viticultural year will kick off with winter pruning, which usually begins in November.

We will soon be publishing a full harvest report.

The last grapes from Quinta do Tua

Last week was indeed that of the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grape varieties at Quinta dos Malvedos. Since our last post several more lagares of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (and a lagar of mixed Touriga Nacional/Franca) have been fermented, and all have shown the great colour and high Baumé readings required for the production of high quality Port.

Three of Quinta dos Malvedos’ dedicated pickers.

On Thursday the last of the grapes from Quinta do Tua came into the winery at Malvedos signifying that we have moved well beyond the halfway point in this year’s vintage. However, given that at the last count 62% of Quinta dos Malvedos’ vineyard parcels had been picked, there is still some distance to go before the winery shuts its doors for another year. This can be explained by the fact that almost exactly one-third of the Malvedos vineyard is planted with the late ripening Touriga Franca, much of which still has to be harvested.

Henry Shotton showing that we have reached the “fim do Tua” or the last of Quinta do Tua’s grapes!

Friday saw the fermentation of a mixed lagar of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca from younger vines. It is worth noting that young plantings tend to produce less concentrated wines with lower Baumé levels, however, in years to come the vines will produce progressively more concentrated wines.

This last weekend Charles Symington and Alexandre Mariz decided to postpone picking at the quinta for the second week in a row. An unusual decision, but one that makes sense given that the long-range weather forecast predicted good weather conditions for the coming days and it was felt that the Touriga Franca could still benefit from another few days of ripening before picking. All told, on Friday Charles Symington was very happy with how the year is progressing so far and felt that suspending the picking over the previous weekend had very visible results in the quality of the lagares that were fermented through the week.

Last week the winery team was reinforced by the arrival of Sofia Zhang. Sofia will be taking on the role of sales development manager in China and will be based in Shanghai and she was spending a few days with Henry Shotton and his team in order to learn more about how premium Port is produced. Sofia holds a master’s degree in viticulture and oenology, which will no doubt help her to pick things up quickly!

Sofia Zhang learns from Henry in the Malvedos winery.

Excellent Touriga Nacional at Malvedos

The decision to delay the picking of the Touriga Nacional vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua in the aftermath of last week’s rain has been amply vindicated. Early on Monday morning the roga returned to hand-pick the best parcels of Touriga Nacional at Malvedos and by evening one lagar had been filled. Henry and his winery team recognised that they had some exceptional grapes in the lagar from the amazing colour and aromatics that the must was showing and the Baumé was a promising 14.4º.

Nuno shows the depth of colour in the first lagar of Touriga Nacional.

Later in the evening, treading of this lagar began and on Tuesday morning Henry was pleased when he checked on the lagar’s progress. Both he and Alexandre agreed that it showed the best colour and the most attractive aromas that they’ve seen this vintage. It is worthwhile noting that last week’s day of rain did not in any way affect the grapes. In fact it is clear that the rain was actually a real bonus and helped the grapes realize their full potential, particularly in the case of the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca varieties (which make up, respectively, 27% and 33% of the Malvedos vineyard). These varieties are the principal contributors to any potential Vintage Port and the team at Malvedos have real cause for optimism as the harvest continues.

A second lagar of Touriga Nacional was filled during Tuesday afternoon and treading began in the evening. Colour was again very good and the Baumé reading showed an excellent 13.8º.

Meanwhile Henry and Alexandre confirmed the picking order for the next few days and they are looking forward to the first Touriga Franca from Tua coming into the winery on Wednesday. These last few days of perfect weather have been ideal for the Franca to show its outstanding quality as it completes its maturation cycle and, as Alexandre does not tire of pointing out, this year’s Touriga Franca is perhaps the best he has seen in his long career as a viticulturist and vineyard manager.

Henry Shotton and Alexandre Mariz studying a plan of Quinta dos Malvedos.

This will almost certainly prove to be the crucial week of the entire harvest for the making of the very best Ports. The lovely period of fine weather that we have enjoyed since last Thursday is forecast to continue through to about the 3rd or 4th October, which is ample time to pick the very best grapes in our all our vineyards.

Picking continues in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos.

Picking at Malvedos Postponed Over the Weekend

In the wake of tropical storm Henri, which passed overhead last Tuesday and Wednesday, the weather at Quinta dos Malvedos has thankfully returned to what would be considered normal for this time of year. These last few days have been sunny and warm, although not exceedingly so, and the long-range weather forecast suggests that things are going to stay this way for some time.

Henry and Nuno in the adega on the first evening
Nuno and Henry discussing the next few days in the winery.

However, in the aftermath of the heavy rain, Charles Symington (Graham’s head winemaker) and Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua) found it necessary to carefully re-evaluate the condition of the quintas’ vines, and although the grapes were not adversely affected by the storm, on Friday afternoon they decided to call off all picking at both Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua. The reason for this is to allow the berries to benefit from the dry and sunny conditions, which should recover the Baumé levels by at least half a degree. Picking is now scheduled to begin again first thing on Monday morning.

Charles Symington and Alexandre Mariz rethinking the picking order.

This should work to counteract any dilution effect that the week’s rain may have had on the some of the quintas’ grapes, ultimately ensuring that they are able to fulfil the potential that is still very much in evidence.

Charles’ dog, Zimba, agrees that the Touriga Nacional still needs some more days to fully ripen!

Crafting one of life's great traditions


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