January 2009 Douro Insider

In many respects it seems that Portugal got off lightly in January, even if it didn’t appear so from our perspective. The truth of the matter is that for all the bad weather we experienced, there were extreme weather patterns right across Europe, and by comparison we were lucky to have escaped the worst. The problems started right at the beginning of the month, with a mass of polar air that was caught up by the circulation of an anticyclone hanging over the British Isles. This meant that the UK suffered its longest cold spell in 10 years over Christmas, the New Year and early January and it remained remarkably dry, an effect of the clear skies. It was so cold that even the sea froze in Dorset. The knock-on effects of this weather system brought us exactly the same scenario here, albeit to a lesser degree, with clear skies and extreme cold taking over after the damp end to December.

Next came heavy snowfalls over much of Europe, and whilst we’re not sure about the three wise men Jack Frost definitely came to visit with a vengeance on Twelfth Night. It was blisteringly cold in the Douro, with sheets of ice on the ground, and the cold spell continued on into the weekend. A few tiny snowflakes were seen over the roofs of the port lodges in Gaia on the morning of the 9th, whilst across the river in Porto large snowflakes came down hard and even settled, briefly turning the ground white for the first time in 25 years. There were also snowfalls across the tops of the quintas in the Douro, and the whole region was cut off from the coast for several days as roads were closed up in the Marão hills. Snow settled briefly on the terraces in the higher-altitude vineyards.

Elsewhere in Iberia the snow was heavy enough to close Madrid airport, and temperatures in far northeast of Portugal and in the centre of the Alentejo came very close to negative double figures. The snow quickly gave way to rain – lots of it – and then about a week later we had a repeat show, with more snowfalls. A third snowy spell fell across north of country on the penultimate weekend but the only significant effect it had on the Douro was its temporary isolation as roads were cut off yet again. As before, it gave way to plenty of rain and temperatures rose once more.

As if all this was not enough a depression then formed out in the Atlantic, and the front that developed when masses of polar air met with warmer, humid air turned into a vicious storm of huge dimensions. As a result Western Europe and the Mediterranean were struck by appalling weather on the last weekend of the month, with hurricane force winds and torrential rain ripping in over the ocean. More than 26 people were killed in Spain and France, and there was very significant damage to building, forests and communications and electrical networks as winds reached nearly 200 km/h.

It was the fiercest storm in a decade, and Portugal was again lucky to have escaped almost unscathed, especially given our geographical position. That said, there were 20 metre high waves off the coast, a small tornado struck the central town of Batalha and there was hail in Porto. Yet more snow was sighted in the north with roads shut again across many parts of the country. In the Douro the effects of these serious storms were also felt. Branches came down in the wind and ferocious gusts also brought the olive harvest to a sudden end for anyone who was still picking, as any remaining fruit was stripped from the trees overnight.

Moving from the general to the specific, life in the vineyards was not particularly pleasant either. Broadly speaking, the month could be basically divided in half, with an intolerably cold first half and an only just tolerably cold (but very wet) second half. In Pinhão the second week produced six negative days during a spell in which the daily maximum temperatures didn’t even get close to 10º. It was much like spending the days in a refrigerator and the nights in a freezer. Things only really picked up in the last week, when we had a couple of days around the 15º mark.

The good news was that we enjoyed a magnificently wet end of January. There was a total of 134 mm of precipitation, a welcome 50 % extra on top of the average of 89 mm. This figure is significant for other reasons too: it finally puts an end to the eight consecutive months with below-average precipitation that the Douro has suffered. Perhaps it will go some way to mitigating the drought in the grip of which the country has been for so long. It rained every day from the 12th onwards with only four exceptions. On the back of such even distribution, we are hoping for good penetration into the soil.  The figure below ignores last year’s precipitation shortfall and shows us that we have got off to an excellent start in 2009.

In spite of all the snow that fell in Portugal, down by the river Douro the large mass of water obviously insulated the river quintas against the worst of the temperatures to some degree. Pinhão came in with a monthly mean of 7.6º C, which is only three-tenths of a degree below average. The range of absolutes peaked at 16.6º, and dropped to a minimum of -1.7º. These temperatures mark the continuation of a prolonged rather cold spell; we have now had seven consecutive months with below average monthly means (the last warmer-than-expected month was all the way back in June).

As the preceding paragraphs illustrate, January is not an especially agreeable time to work in the vineyards, and particularly when not when it is as cold, wet and, on occasions, as windy as the start of this year has been. By far the predominant activity across the region this month was pruning which was at its peak. In the vast majority of cases it is preceded by pre-pruning (mechanical or otherwise) and followed by cane removal and/or destruction. Signs that pruning is starting to come to an end are appearing, however, such as the fact that we are in general moving into the newer vineyards. They are normally left until last as these vines that still require training make the process far more time consuming. Other hints include the appearance of erguida on the list of jobs (tying down the canes of cane-pruned vines onto the bottom wire), a process which is again normally left until near the end too.

What usually follows pruning as the next major operation, if time permits, is trellis maintenance. Broken or missing posts and staples and so on are replaced, and wires are tightened. By the end of the month this was underway at many quintas, whilst others had opted for replanting falhas (missing vines) which is another crucial task for this time of the year. That said, some prefer to get whatever herbicide applications might be required out of the way first. The rest of the vineyard work comprised of a more or less random selection of activities depending on the specific needs of each property. In some areas fertilisers were spread (which obviously need to be incorporated into the soil before any herbicides are used as ploughing counteracts the anti-germination effects of the weedkiller). At other quintas there was ploughing going on as ever, as an alternative means of weed control, and growth of undesirable plants on the taludes (the terrace banks) can be tackled by hand.

Stone removal featured too at some properties, and this can be done by simply removing stones from the vineyard manually and using them elsewhere (for repairing tracks or dry stone terrace walls, for instance) or by piling the stones in the middle of the rows of vines and literally pulverising them with a britadeira (a stone grinding machine towed by a tractor). Such machines do not work particularly well in the winter, however, as they need a hard soil to crush the stones against. Our soft schist is easily broken up, but if it is too muddy the stones will just be pushed intact into the surface of the soil rather than crumbled. It is important not to have large stones in the vineyards where tracked tractors work as they tend to seesaw over them, dramatically changing the operating angle of any machinery that they might be using.

Elsewhere caldeiras (water-gathering depressions) were being dug around the bases of younger vines so as to maximise their ability to intercept water, and some farmers were already seen installing grow-tubes in their new vineyards. These may help young vines to develop within a more humid environment during a dry year, but their principal advantage is the protection offered against rabbit attacks.

Whilst on the subject of new vineyards, progress on the very newest of all, the 2009 plantations, was meeting with some hiccoughs because of all the rain. There were cases where the soil became so saturated that the bulldozers were unable to work effectively. Not only was there a tendency for them to become bogged down in the mud, but the effectiveness of the work itself is much reduced. Instead of breaking up the compacted layers of rock and earth, they end up aimlessly stirring a slushy sludge. Furthermore, building terraces out of mud is not easy. In some cases the giratórias (excavators) were able to keep working since the bucket has a different mode of action from the blade, but although they might fine to use on terraces (albeit a bit slower), they are not nearly so good for altering the profile of the terrain for vertical plantings.