February 2010 Douro Insider

February got off to an extremely cold start, with the very first day of the month awakening to a widespread and heavy frost, even down in Porto and Gaia.  It was, however, beautifully sunny nonetheless.  This pleasant beginning soon worsened into the sort of weather typical of a cold Douro winter, a pattern that, though common, we hadn’t really seen much of this year: the mornings alternated between beautifully clear and sunny with added frosting, or thick with fog with added frosting.  However, this period was short-lived too, as after only three or four days the rain returned for a week, and then there was another snowfall in the vineyards on the 10th.  And then, yet again, more snow on the 15th.  Many of the quintas didn’t work the vineyards these days as conditions were terrible.  None of the caseiros (vineyard managers) can remember a winter with so many snowfalls as this one.  The norm might be once every two or three years, yet this winter there have been more like half a dozen.

The middle of the month was characterised by an uninspired spell with plenty of fog, more rain, cold temperatures and several more snowfalls up on the Marão, which went on until about the 20th.  This is, of course, the date of the astoundingly destructive storm that hit Madeira with tragic consequences.  The tail end of it crossed the coast of the mainland just over 24 hours later.  By then it was much reduced in scale but still brought some very high winds, thunderstorms, stop-start downpours and even some hail.  Up in the Douro the cold weather had delayed the blossoming of the almond trees considerably, but it was exactly at this point that they came into flower.  The winds were so vicious that almost as soon as the buds began to open the petals of the blossom were promptly ripped off by the gusts.  Data from one of our weather stations recorded wind speeds reaching nearly 90 km/h in the vineyard.  Then suddenly there was a glut of ‘mini tornados’ across the country on three consecutive days.  The first, on the 22nd, damaged houses in Aveiro.  The next, in Nisa, ripped up 300 holm oaks and finally, on the 24th, some beach restaurants in Portimão were knocked about a bit.  On this same day massive amounts of hail fell in Gaia.

In the Douro the surribas (terrain preparation carried out prior to planting) ground to a halt once again as the machines had to stop work because of the mud, and by now there were huge puddles in the middle of the terraces that made them almost too waterlogged to work on even on foot.  But things didn’t let up: it was red alerts all round at the end of the month.  The depressed weather system that had caused so much damage in Madeira spawned a storm called Xynthia (or possibly Xanthia, depending on where you read it) which meandered its way across the sea for a while before eventually crashing into mainland Europe six days later, heading in a  northeasterly direction.  This meant that the last weekend of February was marked by terrible weather across the continent, with the predictable rounds of disrupted transport and power cuts as electricity lines were brought down.  There were also the usual instances of trees crushing cars, broached coastal defences and extensive flooding.  Around 60 people died on Europe’s Atlantic coast, the majority of them French.  The death toll in Portugal was mercifully restricted to a single casualty.  The Douro burst its banks at Régua, flooding the marginal, and in Porto the Ribeira was also briefly under water as wind speeds of 113 km/h were recorded at Porto’s airport.  From what had appeared to be a promising start, the deterioration was complete.

According to the Instituto de Meteorologia, it was the wettest February for 24 years across the country as a whole.  Furthermore, over the officially recognised winter period (comprised of the three months from December) it was the wettest on record for many locations.  Lisbon, for instance, had 775 mm of precipitation – more than in any other year going back to 1870.  In short, February of 2010 will long be remembered in Portugal as a month during which this country experienced some of the worst weather in its history.

Records show that Pinhão had nearly double its average precipitation for this month at 120 mm, a value which is way above the 73 mm that might have been expected.  Predictably then, our graph gives a cumulative total (now at 248 mm) that has comfortably increased its lead over the average line.  Regular readers will know that it almost goes without saying that the run of wetter than average months has again been extended, and now stands at five.

Unusually for such a rainy month, temperatures were also very low this February – thereby ending a sequence of six consecutive warmer than average months.  Pinhão had three sub-zero nights, contributing to an average of just 8.6 ºC, 1.1º below the mean value.  The absolute minimum was a decidedly frosty -1.4º and the maximum temperature a tolerable 20.5º.

February should mark the end of pruning if it hasn’t already finished by now.  At most places in the Douro it was definitely on the final straight, with the post-pruning cane shredding predominating, and also the training of the younger vines in the more recent plantations.  Some of the quintas were indeed a little late finishing the pruning due to days lost to bad weather but everything was wrapped up well before the end of the month.  As we saw in January’s report, next up on the to-do list for most places were trellis repairs and this was still ongoing in February.

After pruning, there are three main jobs which need to be carried out before the viticultural year begins in earnest when the sap begins to rise prior to budburst.  Two of them are closely related.  The first, replanting falhas (missing vines) with the American rootstock, is hard work but it needs to be completed before the leaves start to come out, and that is usually quite a bit earlier for rootstock species than it is for vinifera.  That means whilst our grapevines are still completely dormant the americanos (non-vinifera rootstock) planted last year are close to awakening, making it the perfect time to graft.  The renewed flow of sap within the plant ensures that the graft union heals successfully.  This method of first planting the rootstock and then grafting on the vinifera scion after a year or two (when the plant is thick enough to take the graft) is almost always used to fill in gaps in established vineyards.  Grafting is a specialised job and many quintas need to contract a grafting expert for a few weeks to ensure a good take rate.  Ready-grafted rootlings are not used to replace falhas as they would need to be watered a number of times in order to survive the summer, something that is not very practical when there may be hundreds such plants scattered across a quinta.  For new plantations, however, they are more practical.

The third job, herbicide application, was for once not even considered this month as it was simply far too wet.  New environmental rules do in fact state that herbicide applications cannot begin before the 1st March and as luck would have it the cold weather definitely appears to be holding back budburst.  It remains to be seen what might happen in a warmer year when we could find ourselves forced into spraying herbicides when the vines already have green tissue exposed.

With so much rain about it should come as no surprise to hear that many of the surribas were put on hold again.  Some of the machinery was used for road repairs instead as the damage went on.  Quintas with lots of walled terraces still had plenty of work to do repairing walls as well.  Other than that, there was not a lot else going on in the vineyards; February is a short month in any case and the unspeakable weather did not help us get a lot done.  One or another quinta still had some localised fertiliser applications to carry out – even at this late stage the soil water at field capacity will ensure that the nutrients dissolve quickly and become readily available to the vines in the spring.

Finally, with the vineyards basically under control, February provided some properties with a good opportunity to start pruning the olive trees.  This operation is not carried out every year as it is with the vines, but probably only once every three or four years.  Dead wood is removed and the tree is shaped into a low and relatively hollow canopy so that the fruit grows within easy reach of the pickers.