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!

Henri pays Henry a Visit at Malvedos

Early in the week Henry and his team at Malvedos heard the weather forecast with some apprehension. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ was gathering strength over the Atlantic and fast approaching northwestern Portugal. On Tuesday, as predicted, ‘Henri’ hit the coast at Porto and quickly progressed inland where it buffeted the Marão mountains with strong winds and heavy rain. Vila Real, the district capital on the lee slopes of the range received 90mm of rainfall in just a few hours. As the front moved up the Douro Valley it lost some of its strength but it still delivered 54.8mm of rain over Malvedos on Tuesday alone, making September the wettest month at the quinta thus far this year. To offer some perspective, mean rainfall for September (30 year average) at Malvedos is 33.4mm.

Quinta dos Malvedos 16.09.15
Drying grapes at Quinta dos Malvedos.

But there’s rain and there’s rain, as any viticulturist knows. As the day wore on, the initial sense of foreboding gave way to a sense of relief; the rain did come down in buckets as forecast but not in the form of intense, damaging downpours. Rather it came down steadily, spaced evenly throughout the afternoon and the evening, allowing the soil to gradually absorb what it needed and permitting the run-off to drain away without causing any damaging erosion as so often happens in the Douro. Furthermore the strong winds, which came hand in hand with the rain, continued well after the rain had stopped in the early hours of Wednesday having the very positive effect of swiftly drying the grape bunches on the vines.

The winemaker at work
Henry Shotton working through the storm in the winery.

Once conditions became more settled Graham’s head winemaker Charles Symington, with Henry and Alexandre, took stock and decided that it was better to have had this rain rather than not have had it. Whilst the team at Malvedos initially feared a rerun of the 2014 harvest when the prospect of an excellent year was partially derailed by persistent rain halfway into the harvest, this year the situation is different. There was increasing concern that the hydric stress and consequent dehydration (following one of the driest springs and summers of the last half century) was beginning to take its toll on the vines.

Quinta dos Malvedos 16.09.15
A dark sky over the Port Arthur stone terraces.

Charles feels that this rain may well prove opportune, stopping further dehydration and allowing the unpicked grapes to get back into balance and fully ripen. There are still some very good parcels of Touriga Nacional to come in, and of course the whole of the Touriga Franca to pick. At this stage only one third of the Malvedos vineyard has been harvested. This timely rain, combined with the fact that the weather forecast for the rest of the month points to dry and sunny conditions with warm, even temperatures, means that ideal conditions should be in place for realising the full quality potential of this year’s harvest.

Quinta dos Malvedos 16.09.15
Glimmers of sun shining on the Malvedos’ winery, Wednesday afternoon.

To allow the finest grapes to dry fully and benefit from the favourable conditions developing in the vineyards, for the next few days at Malvedos the pickers will resume picking the Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, mixed plantings and younger plantings, leaving the Touriga Nacional for later. Meanwhile in the winery some exceptional lagares are being made from grapes brought in before the storm arrived; in particular two outstanding ferments of Touriga Nacional, which showed spectacular Baumés of 14.3º and 14.35º with amazing colour. Henry is impressed by the exceptional colour of the musts he is seeing in all the lagares so far this vintage; without exception all are displaying the maximum ‘A’ colour grading in the chromatic range of ‘A’ to ‘F’.

The sunshine returns to Malvedos, perfectly timed with Johnny Symington’s visit. Johnny brought some of the company’s market assistants (Mónica, Patrícia, Teresa and Leonor) to witness the vintage first-hand.


It was a busy weekend at Malvedos with attention focused on picking the quinta’s prized stone terraces vineyards and bringing the grapes into the winery under ideal conditions. At the end of the first day’s harvesting last Thursday, Alexandre Mariz (viticulturist) and Henry Shotton (winemaker) were undecided as to whether picking of the stone terraces should start on Friday or Saturday. The weather forecast indicated a sharp drop in temperature and likelihood of some rain over the weekend and rather than take any chances, picking was brought forward by a day.

Pickers on the Port Arthur stone terraces.

The grape pickers, known as the roga, worked their way methodically and swiftly through the two vineyard parcels that make up the stone terraces at Malvedos: the ‘Port Arthur’ and the ‘Cardenhos’ vineyards. Both of them hug the steep slopes below the ridge on which the quinta house is built: the Port Arthur being east-facing and the Cardenhos (which forms an amphitheatre behind the house), north-facing. These are the oldest vineyard terraces at Malvedos, having been hand-built in the 18th century and their aspects are in marked contrast to the predominantly south-facing Malvedos vineyards.

The roga having their breakfast overlooking the Cardenhos stone terraces.

The seasoned roga, 24 strong, managed to hand-pick the two parcels in under a day; quite normal as they barely make up two hectares between them (2,708 vines). Henry was excited by the quality of the perfectly formed bunches of predominantly Touriga Nacional grapes which delivered excellent Baumé readings of 13.75º. The small, compact bunches with perfectly formed berries also showed superb colour, registering the maximum colour grade of ‘A’ in a descending spectrum running to ‘F’ (‘A’ represents the deepest colour and hence the finest quality). Henry’s satisfaction was written all over his face and he commented “we have given the lagar a lot of work and the colour and aromatics are amazing.”

Impressive bunches of grapes from the stone terraces.

Alexandre Mariz, the experienced viticulturist who manages Malvedos and Graham’s neighbouring Tua vineyard, was pleased to see his predictions fulfilled; rarely if ever has he seen such beautifully ripened grapes with such balanced maturations (sugar levels, acidity and colour). He is keeping his fingers crossed that the remaining Touriga Nacional from Malvedos can be picked at their optimal point of ripeness under ideal conditions. The Touriga Franca continues to develop well on the vines although another couple of weeks are still needed for this late-ripening variety to realize its full quality potential.

The wine produced from the stone terraces.

On Sunday evening the stone terraces lagar was run off and the must fortified. The quality is outstanding and the colour of the wine also superb, reflecting the extraordinary potential of this wine. Henry and Alexandre have labelled some sample bottles and eagerly await the opportunity to taste the wine with Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker and his cousins, Paul, Johnny, Dominic and Rupert over the next days.

The good news also extended to other parcels being picked, namely the Sousão grapes coming from Malvedos’s sister vineyard of Tua, located on the opposite bank of the Tua River, at its confluence with the Douro. The Sousão was giving superb Baumés of just under 14º. The colour of the musts in the lagar is remarkable and the Sousão could well be chosen as one of the components of a potential future Vintage.

The east facing Port Arthur stone terraces.

At Malvedos we are bracing ourselves for some heavy rain forecast for north-western Iberia tomorrow. Tropical storm ‘Henri’ is racing across the Atlantic and it is predicted that it will combine with another storm in Western Europe and discharge heavy rainfall over northern Portugal and northwest Spain. The hope is that most of the rain will fall on higher ground in the lee of the Marão Mountains. The good news is that the storm is due to make rapid progress across the northwest tip of Iberia, and dry, sunny conditions are expected to follow.

The First Lagar of the 2015 Vintage at Quinta dos Malvedos.

This time yesterday (10th September) the last load of grapes from the first day’s harvesting at Quinta dos Malvedos were arriving to the adega (winery). Despite Wednesday (9th September) being overcast with a little drizzle, September has continued this summers’ trend of dry and slightly above average temperatures. The first day of the vintage was warm with blue skies and a light scattering of clouds, and as it was Port Wine day (which marks the demarcation of the Douro wine region on September 10th, 1756), it was a fitting date to begin this year’s harvest.

The roga in the Sibio vineyards, with the Port Arthur stone terraces in the distance.

The first day’s objective was to fill and begin to ferment one lagar (approximately 10,000 litres) of mixed variety organic grapes from Malvedos’ higher altitude Sibio vineyards. To fill the lagar, the 24 strong roga (group of grape pickers) handpicked an impressive 11,400 kilograms by hand, and in doing so almost completely picked the 10-hectares of organic vines in one day. Henry Shotton, head winemaker at quinta dos Malvedos, complained that the only problem he had was that the grapes were arriving to the winery too quickly!

The first trailer load of grapes of the 2015 harvest arriving at the adega on day one.

Planted in 1990, the Sibio vineyards contain some of the highest altitude vines on the property and were certified organic in 2014. Later this evening or early Saturday morning, the must from these vines will be fortified with organic brandy, making it the first time that organic Port will be made from the quinta’s own vines.

Grape reception at the adega.
Grape reception at the adega.

All the grapes looked in really fine condition coming into the winery and the Baumé reading from the lagar on Thursday evening was just over 13°. Pedro Leal da Costa, Symington Family Estates’ head of viticulture commented that this year all of the vines look really promising, and if the weather holds up, everything points to a Vintage year. Light rain has been forecast for Sunday however, but at this point we are not particularly worried about that.

The empty grape boxes returning to the vineyard from the winery.

Although we are still just at the beginning of what is always a few long weeks of very hard work in both the winery and the vineyards, everyone here is very optimistic that this will be a great year.

Over the next few weeks regular posts will be published providing regular updates on this years harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos.

The seeds of a good vintage

While we wait patiently for the adega (winery) at Quinta dos Malvedos to open its doors this Thursday, the terraced vineyards continue to ripen under the watchful eyes of Graham’s experienced viticulturists. Of course, correct maturation is essential to a successful vintage and knowing when the grapes should be picked is fundamental to the production of great wine.

While an assortment of modern scientific techniques are nowadays employed to judge how ripe the grapes are, other more simple methods continue to be used, probably unchanged since man first began to cultivate the vine.

While judging the correct balance of sugar and acidity in the grapes by taste and an evaluation of the feel and outer colour of the grape are widely known methods of assessing maturation, the colour of a grapes seeds can also be used to gauge ripeness.

Quinta dos Malvedos
An unripe grape (right) with a more mature one (left), taken several days ago.

As a grape matures its seeds will gradually change from a light green to a dark brown or almost black colour and as such are a quick and easy way to determine if a certain variety is maturing well or not.

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

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.

Crafting one of life's great traditions


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