Birth of a Region

Originally posted on Quentin Sadler's Wine Page:

We live in a golden age for wine, it has never been better made, more exciting or as affordable as now.

I often think though how much more thrilling it must have been to have been around while the great regions were emerging and while their reputations were being originally earned. All the truly great wine regions that we talk about in reverential and hushed tones – in the old world anyway – were established long ago and so now have something of the past about them. This is not to be critical by the way, merely acknowledging that these places are often steeped in tradition.

Of course what constitutes a great wine region can vary from opinion to opinion, but I am pretty sure there is a broad agreement about the very best wine regions. They must produce wines that talk of that place, be terroir wines, they must…

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The lower stone terraces next to the Síbio stream being planted in the spring.

Planting The Sousão at Malvedos – April 7th 2014 – Tracking the Season

The abundant winter rainfall at Malvedos, whilst desirable in terms of replenishing the much needed water reserves deep in the subsoil, has adversely affected progress in the reconstruction of the dry stone-walls at the entrance to the Quinta (see the previous two Tracking the Season posts for November and February). It was hoped that the stonemasons would have managed to conclude their task by February, after which the terraces would have been planted with the chosen variety – the Alicante Bouschet (a first at Malvedos) as well as some Touriga Franca. Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos pragmatically accepts that this will now have to be postponed for a year — at least on the upper terraces.

The Síbio stream running high

The very audible gushing sound of running water in the Síbio stream, rushing by in the gully which borders the stone terraces, is quite unusual at this time of the year and is clear evidence of just how much rain has come down over the winter months: 364mm (December 2013 – February 2014) compared to the average for this three month period which is 234mm — in other words 64% more rainfall than would be expected over the season.

On a positive note the lower section of this vineyard has sturdy dry stone-walls that have not required much attention from the stonemasons, a testament to the skill of their 18th century counterparts who originally built them. The supporting walls are quite massive; the tallest are 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) high and up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) wide. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Síbio stream, very close to where it flows into the Douro River.

Planting on these 5 larger terraces has therefore gone ahead as planned under the experienced supervision of Sr. Arlindo, the caretaker at Malvedos. He and his team of seven people have planted 1.400 bench-grafted Sousão vines over five days, starting on April 3rd. These particular terraces’ generous width has allowed for between two and three rows to be planted, the spacing between each row being 2 metres and the space between each vine just 80 cm. This planting of the vines close together is intentional, the aim being to encourage each vine to ‘compete’ with its neighbours for the scarce available resources (nutrients in the soil and water). In so doing they will generate berries with greater concentration and ultimately, finer quality wines.

The Sousão has been planted on these terraces located in the lower section of this west-facing slope because they are in a relatively sheltered area (the Sousão is susceptible to excessive heat and south-facing slopes are therefore generally avoided, unless they are planted at altitude). Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker is an advocate of the Sousão, a variety somewhat forgotten by many growers in the Douro but which is now slowly making a comeback. It is proving an important component in making our wines, principally due to its good levels of acidity and its deep colouring properties.

The stone terraces still undergoing reconstruction are higher up on a steeper section of the slope and they will each take just one row of vines and the varieties chosen are the Touriga Franca and the Alicante Bouschet, the latter a grape variety which Charles Symington has been championing in the Douro (more on the reasons for this in a future post).

Although the winter was very wet it was also quite mild, with mean temperatures above the average for all three months and this has brought forward the vegetative cycle of the vine by a little over than two weeks with bud-break occurring during the first week of March. Last year, bud-break was observed only during the last week of March.

Bud break and early leaf formation on the vines at Malvedos a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
Bud break and early leaf formation on the vines at Malvedos a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
Charles and his team assessing the wines from last year's harvest in the Tasting Room.

Graham’s 2013 Harvest – Tasting the Ports for the first time

When Charles Symington is in the Tasting Room it is very difficult to talk to him. He simply doesn’t hear you: he is intensely focused. All that can be heard is the sipping of wine, the clinking of glasses being placed back on the bench, and the low murmurs of the three tasters as they compare their impressions with one another.

“You need tranquility and peace when tasting,” Charles explains. There certainly is that in Graham’s Tasting Room: it is a place of deep concentration. Over recent weeks, samples of the 2013 Port Wine from each vineyard and each fermentation have been on their way from the Douro to the Tasting Room in Vila Nova de Gaia. Charles and his team, Nuno Moreira and Manuel Rocha, have been assessing each lote of young Port Wine and determining its future.

As they work through each sample, they determine which of Graham’s Ports the wine will be suitable for. This sometimes requires that they foresee the wine’s characteristics up to 40 years into the future for Graham’s 40 Years Old Tawny Port, for example. There is one special case though and that is Graham’s Six Grapes.

Charles explains that Six Grapes is so special that you only very rarely come across a wine of sufficient quality to make it. If you go looking for Six Grapes, you won’t find it: it is something that you come across while you’re not looking – and it doesn’t happen very often.

Like in an artist’s studio, the light in the Tasting Room is also extremely important. If it is not right Charles will often postpone his team’s work, especially when tasting Vintage Ports, which because of their deeper colour require the perfect conditions to be assessed properly. For the same reason, tasting is only done in the mornings.

It is a massive logistical challenge to gather all these samples. “You can’t just email wines around,” Charles remarks.

For some months after the brandy has been added to the wine, the young Port Wines cannot be tasted. They require this period of time to “fall bright”, that is, to become fully expressive in flavor and colour. During this period, the wine actually grows darker and the aromas intensify.

Charles and his team use this period to make fresh blends of Graham’s Aged Tawny Ports, which are then allowed to marry together for at least one year.

Charles, Nuno and Manuel conduct a quick first assessment of the wines, during which they record their first impressions and organize the wines accordingly into broad categories. They then work through them much more slowly, spending a long time over each lote, before deciding on their final classification.

Charles’ general comments about the 2013 wines were that they had remarkably good colour. A Port Winemaker, he then said, has to be fascinated by colour.

Have you got any questions for Charles regarding our 2013 wines? Ask him here – post us a comment.

The terrace at Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar

Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar – One Year On

One year ago today, on the 21st March 2013, we officially inaugurated the newly renovated Graham’s Lodge and Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar. Looking back, it has been a year of which we can be proud.

The Symington family’s partnership with Sagardi family has proved extremely successful. The Symington family has created an outstanding wine list, including their own Douro wines and ports as well as those of other winemakers with whom they have close relationships, from Portugal and around the world. While at the same time, Sagardi has brought together the best of traditional Portuguese cuisine with a cosmopolitan touch. The result is a menu, a wine list and a team that has now, already, made Vinum one of the top gastronomic destinations in the north of Portugal.

One of the year’s culinary highlights was the Boi de Trás os Montes menu prepared last autumn. Two oxen were specially selected from farmers in the Trás os Montes region (which literally means, Behind the Mountains): this is one of Portugal’s most exciting and relatively undiscovered culinary regions. This seasonal menu that was designed to accompany the meat celebrated the local ingredients of the region and the Portuguese wines that perfectly complement them.

Vinum also hosted the charity dinner at the end of last year for Bagos d’Ouro and the launch of the Symington family’s commemorative Graham’s 1982 Single Harvest Tawny Port. This raised a substantial sum for the Douro based charity.

There is no better place to be in Porto or in Vila Nova de Gaia when the sun is shining than the terrace outside Vinum with a glass of wine and tapas. Vinum’s mission is to set the standard for outstanding Portuguese cuisine, and the signs are so far very positive. Portugal’s food and wine are still relatively new on the international gastronomic scene. Thanks to projects like Vinum Restaurant, though, the country is starting to gain the reputation it deserves.

Vinum has recently received two important awards. First, it won the Best of Wine Tourism award for Best Portuguese Restaurant, in the Great Wine Capitals competition. Then second, at the annual Revista de Vinhos awards ceremony in Portugal, Vinum was named Best Restaurant of the Year 2013.

These two accolades are wonderful milestones by which to measure the Restaurant’s achievements over the last year. Really what they reflect though, is the passion and dedication to fine Portuguese food and wine that the whole of the Vinum team has embodied in their work in the last year. It is this that has built Vinum’s reputation as one of the best Portuguese restaurants around.

Find out more about Vinum, the menu or make a reservation here.

How the right glass perfects a wine.

Riedel glass tasting at Graham’s Lodge

Georg Riedel, the 10th generation of crystal glass makers in his family, held a unique tasting at Graham’s Lodge last week revealing how the shape of the wineglass influences the flavours and aromas of the wine.

The tasting showcased Riedel’s innovative Grape Varietal Specific range of glasses and was hosted at the Lodge by Portfolio Vinhos, distributors of Graham’s Port and Riedel’s glassware in Portugal.

By guiding participants through a tasting of three grape varieties, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet and Pinot Noir, Georg Riedel illustrated the crucial role that the glass plays in showing the wine at its best.

The reason for this is that the aromas of the wine are conveyed differently depending on the design of the glass and the size of its aperture: different varieties express themselves best in glasses of different shapes. Georg Riedel illustrated this by leading a tasting of the wines first in the same plastic mug, in which their characteristics were dulled and their individual expressiveness reduced. When in the glass specifically designed for them, however, each wine sang strongly and in its own unique way.

Likewise, the size of the aperture determines exactly where on the palate the wine is directed. The human palate has specific areas for sensing each of the principle components of taste. The right glass allows the natural balance of the wine’s flavours to be properly felt.

Georg Riedel held another tasting with us in Portugal a couple of years ago in a quest to discover the perfect glass to drink Vintage Port from.

Do you have any thoughts? Send us a comment.

Here's proof that the wild boar still roam in the Douro.

Wild Boar in the Vineyards at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas

Walking through the vineyard parcel at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas early the other morning we came across proof of the infamous Douro wild boar. Proof, amidst the winter landscape, of this regions important biodiversity, which has a particular stronghold at Vale de Malhadas because of the 112 hectares of native scrubland that is conserved as a natural wilderness.

The mud on the track had frozen in the early hours of the morning preserving the hoof-prints of the wild boar that had passed through during the night.

These boars are native to the Douro and are often hunted. They can cause a lot of damage to property and vineyards, since they tend to forage with their tusks, digging up the earth like a plough.

In fact, our vineyards have previously been the victims of such damage.

The young vines on the hillside above the river.

The new Touriga Nacional plantings at Graham’s Vale de Malhadas

Against the mighty sweep of the Douro River the tiny, two year old Touriga Nacional vines in their schist nests look incredibly vulnerable. The winter storm clouds gather further up the valley, the ground is still frozen hard and the vines shiver in the wind.

This is the vineyard parcel at Graham’s Quinta do Vale de Malhadas known as ‘cento e vinte’, which means ‘one hundred and twenty’. “It has always been called this,” explains Mário Natário, Graham’s viticulturist for this property, “but no one really knows why.”

Malhadas is a very remote estate, where the majority of the land has been conserved as native wild scrub forest. This new Touriga Nacional vineyard is at the eastern extreme of the property’s 145 hectares (of which only 32 ha is planted with vines). The terraced slopes face east, situated on one side of the Murça River, a tributary of the Douro, and range from 250 to 400 metres altitude. This will give this parcel a distinct advantage when the cold winter turns into the equally unforgiving summer heat, since it will be cooler and less exposed to the full might of the sun.

These fledgling vines have already endured a lot since they were planted one year ago, proving their resilience. These vines were grafted a year before being planted out, which means they have to be regularly watered while they establish themselves.

The grapes from these Touriga Nacional vines, high in the Upper Douro, will complement the rich and full-bodied wines from their cousins in Graham’s vineyards at Malvedos and Tua, down river. Vale de Malhadas did not formerly have very much Touriga Nacional planted; but in light of successful trials, Mário discovered that this variety produced very distinctive wines when grown on this spot.

It will be a few more years before the grapes from these vines are ready to be incorporated into Graham’s Ports. When that time comes, though, it looks as if they will be exceptional. We will continue to follow these young vines’ progress with interest.

The vine's roots find their way through the layers of the schist rock in their search for water.

Graham’s Roots in the Schist at Quinta dos Malvedos

If you had to choose the single most important thing about the Douro, it would be the Schist. The region’s soil is predominantly made up of this rock: in fact, it can hardly be called ‘soil’ at all. This aspect of the Douro terroir means the vines develop great resilience, producing very low yields of grapes with the necessary intensity to make Port.

Schist is the result of the build up of sediment over milleniums, which under immense geological pressure forms layers of rock. This layering, or foliation, is the vital component for our vines. The roots of the vines are strong enough to work their way through the shattered sheets of rock in their quest for water. They therefore develop root systems that reach many metres underground.

The schist at Malvedos also has a high component of quartz in it. It is this that makes the rock glisten and sparkle in the sun. This is important: a natural thermostat amongst the vines. The dark rocks absorbs the sun’s heat, reflecting it back onto the grapes at night, creating a more constant temperature and thus ensuring a more even maturation of the grapes. But at the same time, the quartz in the schist reflects some of the sun’s rays; the result is that the earth around the vines never becomes too hot.

Schist is strong enough to build houses out of (and we do build our houses out of it in the Douro), while at the same time being soft enough for the vines push their way through. These are just some of the natural wonders of the schist at Malvedos.

Graham's plants roses amongst the vines throughout its properties to help diagnose the early stages of Powdery Mildew.

Graham’s roses amongst the vines

As you walk through Graham’s vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua you will pass roses planted at the head of each row of vines. But this splash of colour in the winter landscape is not only an eye-pleaser; it is also an ingenious and ornate part of our vineyard management: a natural method of disease diagnosis.

As is so often the case, this traditional viticultural practice provides a sustainable and minimum interventionist solution to a perennial concern. It is also a good example of how local knowledge, preserved by families who have worked the soil for generations, plays a major part in our vineyard management.

Since the mid-19th century Powdery Mildew, also known as Oidium, has been prevalent in European vineyards. It originated in the U.S.A and was the first fungal disease to be described by science.

Rose bushes are in fact more prone to contracting the Powdery Mildew fungus than the vines and they will therefore show signs of the disease before the latter. The rose bushes, therefore, act as a kind of ‘canary in the well shaft’: if they display signs of the disease then treatment can be applied immediately to the vines before they actually show visible signs of infection.

Powdery Mildew is a fungal mould that attacks vines and fruit-trees. It is a very visible disease, spreading a translucent, cobweb-like growth around the infected area, which later sprouts greyish spores. To the eye, the mould looks like a powdery white ash or soot: hence its name. This disease affects all green parts of the vine and will reduce fruit set and ripening of the grapes. No wine is made from vines that become infected by the Powdery Mildew.

As a prevention of this disease an organic copper sulphate mixture can be applied to the vines. The roses in the Douro tell us when it is necessary to treat the vines and when not, ensuring minimum intervention. We also have an ally in nature. The dry climate of the Douro Valley helps to moderate the risk of fungal infections to the vines. But the risk is still there. Planting roses at the head of each row and at strategic places throughout the vineyards is a traditional Douro method of pre-diagnosing the presence of Powdery Mildew in the vineyard.

This means that we only apply the absolute minimum amount of treatment against the disease and only in a localized way when it is needed. Nothing is ever done en masse in the Douro. Less intervention with the vines and with nature, in our view, produces better wines that are more intense and better express their natural varietal characteristics and the uniqueness of our terroir.

A winter's morning at Malvedos: below the house, the Cardenhos vineyard, a component of The Stone Terraces Vintage Port.

February 6th 2014 – The Stone Terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos

The tranquility of the winter landscape at Quinta dos Malvedos is broken only by the sound of the rushing torrent of the Síbio stream, swollen by January’s 133mm of rainfall — well above the monthly average of 78.7mm for this area. The Síbio divides in two the 18th century stone terraces at Malvedos known as ‘Port Arthur’, sections of which are still being restored, and in parts rebuilt, by a seven strong team of skilled Douro stonemasons who specialize in repairing dry stone vineyard terrace walls  (see Tracking the Season – 28th November 2013).

These artisans’ work is not easy, combining as it does substantial physical exertion with deft movements as the men manoeuvre schist rocks of various shapes and sizes, constantly calculating where the best fit is to be found, coaxing them into position with just their hands, aided by all manner of hammers, picks and mallets. This activity is no different to when the original vineyard terrace walls were built in the Douro over three centuries ago. The only concession to the twenty-first century is the use of one of the quinta’s small tractors to transport the heavier schist slabs close to the wall under repair where one of the master stonemasons expertly breaks them up into more manageable sizes.

Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.
Skilled Douro Stonemasons individually shape each stone to build the dry-stone terrace walls.

When the stonemasons first begin on a section of wall it is difficult to imagine that what initially appears to be nothing more than a jumble of rocks can be so adeptly transformed into the pleasingly symmetrical end result: a straight and level retaining wall. Besides fulfilling its practical function it will also add to the beauty of the landscape: a perfect example of man and the environment working in harmony.

Today, the Douro’s terraced vineyards are principally sculpted by machinery, which construct earth-banks along the contours of the steep slopes of the Valley, the world’s largest area of mountain vineyard. Such contemporary terraces are known as patamares, Portuguese for step or platform. Where possible, however, great effort (and expense) is put into preserving the original dry stonewalls, known locally as socalcos.

The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.
The symmetry of a partially completed stone wall.

Some of the finest examples of socalcos in the Douro are to be found at Malvedos and at the neighbouring Quinta do Tua, also owned by Graham’s. The Symington family, which owns and manages Graham’s, is thus conscious of playing its part in the upkeep and preservation of this important feature of the Douro’s traditional vineyard landscape. This helps to safeguard the Upper Douro Wine Country’s UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist responsible for Malvedos and Tua is a little concerned that the work of the stonemasons is running behind schedule, hampered by the constant rain during the second half of December and through January. These terraces should have been ready for replanting during the month of February but this may have to be postponed to March. The 1.7 hectares involved will be replanted in even proportions with the Alicante Bouschet, Sousão and Touriga Franca varieties. It is the first time that Alicante Bouschet will be planted at Malvedos. More on this in the next Tracking the Season post.


Crafting one of life's great traditions


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