December 2008 Douro Insider

The month awoke to a scattering of snow on the high ground and ice almost everywhere else.  There were actually quite heavy snowfalls on the Serra do Marão and even significant amounts on the Alto de Quintela.  It wasn’t just the north of the country that was affected as the bad weather caused chaos on the roads in other parts too, and played havoc especially with the daily commute when people returned to work after the first long weekend.  Roads were closed in some of the higher mountain ranges, and the main road between Porto and Vila Real was shut for some time when the peaks of the Marão became impassable.  It even snowed a little on the very tops of the hills in the Douro, reaching one or two quite high vineyards, but it didn’t quite stretch down as far as the river quintas.

The cold snap was short-lived, and was quickly followed by the onset of heavy rain that mercifully brought about an increase in temperatures.  Nearly two weeks of wet weather ensued and this was obviously extremely welcome in light of the drought that has been with us since April.  Towards the middle of the month the rain passed and we enjoyed a few beautifully clear days with a blemish-free sky and even some pleasant temperatures in the sun.  But it remained an inescapable fact that an intense cold came on very fast each evening as soon as the sun dropped below the horizon, and on a few occasions a bitter wind got up too.  The last few days of the month turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.  It was either extremely cold and damp with plenty of freezing fog or it was extremely cold, crisp and clear.  Occasionally it was extremely cold and raining.  Temperatures only recovered to something even remotely tolerable in between Christmas and the New Year, when light showers returned.

Temperatures were therefore predictably quite a lot under the average, but it might come as something of a surprise to hear that they were more than two and a half degrees below normal in Pinhão, at just 6.5º C.  Bear in mind this was the coldest December since 2001, and compares with an average of 8.6º.  The pattern of cool weather that so dominated the last year continued then, with the last six months (and eight out of the last 12) all colder than average.  The absolute range of temperatures ran from -1.6º up to 16.2º, and included four days with minimums below freezing, and only four days on which it made it above 15º.

As has been mentioned earlier there was finally some significant rainfall in December, almost entirely concentrated in the first two weeks.  Pinhão managed to produce a total of 84 mm, which is almost spot on the average of 85 mm.  But, whilst not wishing to sound ungrateful, we cannot escape the fact that December was still the eighth consecutive month with below-average precipitation, and that 10 out of the 12 months this year brought sub-mean quantities.  And, as the surribas (see last month’s report for an explanation) are now revealing, the little rainfall we have had has not penetrated very deep into the soil profile.  The usual graph showing the year’s cumulative total demonstrate that we have ended up with a considerable shortfall (a deficit of nearly 150 mm).

December does, of course, mark the end of the year, and as such it is a perfect time for looking back and taking stock of the previous 12 months.  There has always been some debate about whether we should be presenting data from the agricultural year, which starts on the 1st November, or the calendar year.  The former perhaps makes more sense from the point of view of farmers and viticulturists (effectively marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of dormancy, and including the majority of autumn rainfall on the next year’s balance sheet) whereas the rest of the world, less concerned with growing seasons, naturally prefers to work from January to December.  In any case we finished up with an atypical year although, for those who have been following these reports with any degree of attention, the fact that it was considerably colder and drier than average will come as no surprise.  In Pinhão the overall mean temperature for the year was more than half a degree below average, at just 15.25º, compared with the long term value of 15.94º.  This made it the coldest year since 1993.

Total precipitation came in at 542 mm, well behind the annual average of 675 mm.  Of this, more than a quarter fell in April.  The year was not as dry as 2007 (when Pinhão registered only 380 mm) but two dry years in a row is a bad sign.  We have had just two thirds of the expected water over the last two years, a shortfall of more than 200 mm per year.  On the graphs note especially the considerable precipitation in April and the cool summer and autumn, the two features which best characterised the year.  Incidentally, whilst we might complain that the total precipitation for Pinhão was low, it compares quite favourably with some of the other parts of the Douro.  Annual totals for weather stations around the region reveal that some vineyards enjoyed less than 400 mm in 2008.

Amazingly there were still quite a few leaves on the vines right at the beginning of the month but the freezing start to December soon put an end to all that.  In the vineyards things carried on pretty much as they had left off at the end of November, with pruning and the associated jobs (pre-pruning, cane collection and cane destruction) still taking up an overwhelming part of the month in the various quintas.  What with time taken off over the Christmas and the New Year period (both falling inconveniently in the middle of the week) the number of working days was cut too, but on balance the majority of properties are still well on schedule or even ahead.  The lack of autumn rain has made the pruning go quicker than we would normally have counted on.

Olive picking continued to feature heavily as the other main occupation during the month, much as it had in November.   As we said last month, the crop is of a good size but there are some question marks over quality caused by significant fly attacks.  Terrain preparation for the new vineyard plantations continued throughout the month.  Good weather meant that the surribas progressed rapidly in December and were well on course by the end of the year in spite of the fact that the machines lost several working days over the festive season.  One of the problems that often occurs at this time of year is that the bulldozers have to stop due to excessive rain.  They cannot easily work in waterlogged soils where they run the risk of getting bogged down, and there is little point in wasting time trying to un-compact mud.  These problems have not troubled us so far during the current planting season.  On the contrary, the soils are still alarmingly dry beneath, once the surface has been scraped.  It seems that the recent lack of clouds does have a silver lining after all as this situation makes the work far more efficient.  Stone clearing featured too, as this is an indispensable part of the land preparation.

In some vineyards it was decided to take advantage of such circumstances to start drilling holes for replanting.  Every year the falhas (missing or dead vines) should be replaced in at least a percentage of the vineyards.  Although the rootlings won’t be planted until early in the spring, if the equipment is available it might as well be put to use.  Elsewhere we witnessed optimistic fertiliser applications – optimistic because nutrients will never become available to the vines without a certain level of soil water – and the ubiquitous task of scarification also featured across the Douro.  Controlling weeds is an endless task, and so virtually every month clearing the taludes (the banks of the terraces) is on the cards somewhere.  And of course, other minor activities featuring in December that usually accompany pruning (or follow soon after) include trellis repairs and maintenance (see last month’s report for more details) and this procedure also took up some time.