February brought a very welcome relief from the somewhat depressing winter weather that had preceded, with the heavy fog finally evaporating after all these weeks. There was actually a very bright start to the month with fantastic blue skies and really quite warm sunshine, especially in the afternoons. But, as we well know, clear skies also mean cold nights and there were still some frosty mornings. Admittedly, the frost was quicker to melt away when it was no longer shrouded in fog but in any case consumption of firewood remained high across the Douro.
In one of the great examples of meteorological bad timing of recent times, the press sensationally announced in mid-February that Portugal was suffering its worst drought for 91 years. Three days later it rained so spectacularly in the Lisbon area that there was widespread flooding (over two metres deep in places) that caused several fatalities. Nothing quite so dramatic happened in the Douro, however, but it nevertheless remains the case that we are still in the grip of a seriously worrying dry spell. February brought only two-thirds of the precipitation that the means would have had us expect, and seven out of the last eight months have delivered below average rainfall, January being the only exception.
Data from Pinhão shows that there was jut 49 mm of rain in February, compared with a mean value of 73 mm. Most of this came in the last ten days of the month, although there were a couple of showers in the first week. Generally speaking it was relatively low intensity precipitation with perhaps only four days actually raining hard or for any length of time.
In terms of temperatures it was a month of two distinct halves; although both were very stable there was something of an upward step in the middle separating them. The first two weeks fluctuated little with an average daily temperature around 8º C and maximums around 15º, then these figures jumped by around 5º for the second half of the month. The overall mean came in at 10.5º which was somewhat warmer than the long-term figure of 9.7º.
In the vineyards there had been some suggestion that the generally mild winter weather would bring forward budburst this year, and by the very end of the month the buds had indeed started to swell slightly in some of the warmer spots and were showing a hint of wool, suggesting that this could be accurate. In zones where frosts might still be a threat, there is a useful practice which can be adopted to reduce the risk of the new shoots being ‘burnt’ off by a sudden freeze. This is, of course, to prune as late as possible which then results in a later budburst. To this end pruning was still an ongoing concern in many parts of the Douro.
After pruning much of our effort is concentrated on trellis maintenance because this is a time-sensitive operation which (for obvious reasons) needs to be carried out after pruning but before budburst. Usually this consists of tightening the wires and replacing broken trellis posts. This is particularly time-consuming in the vinhas velhas, or old vineyards, where the actual trellis posts are still made out of the traditional stone, cloven from the blue schist outcrops of the Douro Superior. There is also a different kind of vineyard maintenance that needs to be undertaken at this time of year, and that is of the vegetative kind. Wherever there are falhas or spaces in the vineyards these vines need to be replaced, and every year at least a part (if not all) of each quinta must be thoroughly checked and the gaps in the rows of vines plugged with a rootstock rootling. Obviously older vineyards destined for reconversion in the foreseeable future are exempt from this process. At the same time as this is being carried out, it is common for a grafter to seek out the americanos (rootstock plants) that were planted the previous year and graft on the appropriate vinifera variety. The subject of replanting should remind us that terrain preparation was in progress across the Douro and that this year’s new plantations are imminent or already underway. We will be hoping for plenty of rain in the spring to ensure the survival of these fragile rootlings.