Henry mentioned in a recent post that the bitterly cold winters in the Douro play a crucial role in stabilising the new wines. I think he is quite right to point out that weeks on end of freezing fog is not an image that sits easily alongside most people’s impression of this region, but is nevertheless a part of the reality. Certainly it doesn’t attract many visitors during the off-season.
But there is another time of year that is very special in the Douro, and one that is almost completely overlooked as well. That time is now. Not only can the autumn bring some fantastic warm and sunny weather (which is more pleasant than the searing heat of the summer) but the air is also clearer, the first showers having settled the dust and calmed the heat haze.
It is also, of course, the time when the leaves of the vines turn, transforming the entire valley into a sea of translucent, glowing colour.
So here’s a secret: the very best time of all to visit the Douro is in the last week of October. It is honestly one of the most magnificent spectacles in the world. And there is one very simple two-word reason why the Douro can put on a better show than any other viticultural region. Touriga Francesa.
Not only does it make great wine, but it is also responsible for perhaps the most impressive autumn display of any grape variety. As luck would have it, the Francesa is the most widely planted casta in the Douro too, with well over 20 % of the total vineyard area.
This is in complete contrast to the fashionable Touriga Nacional which, although it makes up a relatively small percentage of the vines, is the most widely planted variety on the back label of wine bottles, as the local joke goes. For all its oenological brilliance the Nacional is a rather dull player in the autumn. Its leaves simply get paler, and go through an insipid green to a sickly yellow before drying to brown and dropping off.
But the Francesa is particularly colourful around the red and orange end of the spectrum, much like the Souzão:
Often very strongly pigmented varieties have more dramatic leaf colouring too – the Alicante for instance turns an impressive deep purple. The mixture of vines in the old vineyards offers a special multi-hued treat of course:
Aesthetics apart, this is also an extremely important time from a viticultural point of view. It provides me with an excellent opportunity to evaluate the state of the vineyards as the onset of winter very clearly shows up any differences in vigour between the vines. The weaker ones are the first to change colour and lose their leaves, whilst the plants with better reserves are able to extend their cycle by a few more days, staying green until later. Armed with this information it is easy to see where fertilisations need to be carried out. One of the projects I have started working on recently is trying to adapt the species of cover crop that we plant to the status of the vines. This means that in the weaker parts of a block I might plant just leguminous species (such as clovers) which fix nitrogen and give the vines a boost, whereas in the more vigorous areas I use a clover and grass mix, the net effect of which is probably nitrogen-neutral. Thus the plant mixture actually changes within the inter-row space as you move up or down the hillside. Usually, of course, the vines at the bottom of the slope are more vigorous since they benefit from water accumulation and some nutrient leaching from higher up.
Anyway, you are still in time to come and visit us, and to take in one of viticulture’s finest sights. This year the front row seats are likely to be in the cooler vineyards on the higher ground since down by the river the vines had already lost some of their leaves as a result of the hot and dry August. There may not be grapes on the vines any more but we are just getting to one of the highlights of the year.