Has Spring Sprung at Last?

It takes a patient temperament not to feel slightly prickly when, at around this time of year, someone slips the following observation into the conversation yet again:

‘Yes, but of course Portugal only really has two seasons nowadays’.

Now I obviously don’t remember if the climate was somehow different when we were kids but I’m pretty sure that it has always been the case that winter turns to summer rather quickly, and vice-versa. Because, after the spring equinox, each week brings us about 20 minutes more day time, and therefore reciprocally 20 minutes less night time. What that means is that since the end of the winter half of the year (around the 20th March) our day has already grown to very nearly 14 hours long, and our nights shrunk to just ten. More hours of sun equals warmer temperatures, and we have just passed the tipping point whereby the warming part of the day begins to outweigh the cooling part.

This is why the darker line on the following graph takes an unequivocal upward trajectory over the course of the last month or so. The two lines plotted here are the daily maximum temperature in Pinhão (in the lighter red) and the seven day moving average. So yes, we do have a short spring and a short autumn but I’m a little tired of this fact being presented so frequently as if it were some reflection of the speaker’s personal insightfulness. I don’t mean to sound less cheerful than my usual sunny self but this winter has been the worst I can remember in terms of damage to the vineyards, and incessant months of rain have dampened even the brightest spirits in the Douro.

Various comments regarding this winter’s extraordinary weather have already been made in previous posts. To those I would only add the following points, the first of which relates specifically to the situation in Pinhão:

  • In the six months from October to March inclusive, we had 788 mm of precipitation yet the annual average is 675 mm. In each of these six months more than 100 mm of rainfall came down. This has never happened before since our records began in 1967.
  • 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.
  • None of our 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.
  • October and November were warmer than usual, with December and January just about average. February and March were considerably colder than average, in spite of all the rain. Usually it acts as a thermal buffer, ruling out temperature extremes. Although the final results are not in yet, April is on course to be above average by about 1º C.

Cold temperatures at the start of the year meant that budburst came about 10 days later than usual. This was just as well since the occasional clear sky at night allowed temperatures to drop very low and there was accordingly a slight danger of frost damage which fortunately did not materialise. What it did mean, however, was that initial shoot growth was very slow and somewhat stunted in appearance.

Once the shoots had reached the length of a hand span, around the 20th April, we were unlucky enough to suffer the combination of more than 10 mm of rainfall and temperatures remaining above 10º during a 24 hour period, the prerequisite conditions theoretically sufficient for a primary infection of downy mildew. Given the more-than-damp winter, we were taking no chances and the first preventative treatment is currently being carried out, combined with some wettable sulphur for added protection against powdery mildew. This one is less predictable, but it likes thundery weather and humidity is high at the moment.

In the last seven days the rapidly increasing temperatures meant that the shoots probably grew as much as they had in the preceding five weeks, effectively doubling their length at a stroke. As a result the flowers have just become visible but it is still far too soon to make any predictions about potential crop size. I will stick my neck out no further than to say that the number of bunches appears to be about normal, although they do look a little on the short side at the moment.

And so, to get to the point at last, the Douro has been transformed over the last few days. The terraces are now picked out in fine green contours as the vines push their tender shoots up the trellis wires. The poppies have finally appeared at the roadside, and about time too. The clover in the cover crops is smelling richer than ever as it comes bursting into flower, thick with appreciative bees. Perhaps as a result, the equally appreciative bee-eaters have never been seen in greater numbers, even though they only arrived back last week, and the afternoons are alive with their happy chirping and iridescent flashes.

I can go out to work and not take a jumper with me. When I get home in the evenings I open the doors to let the warming breeze flow through the house. I have abandoned the winter’s comforting whisky and water for the zing of a G & T before supper.

And when I have finished eating I sit outside for a few moments and listen to the nightingales. There are two of them out there, one on each side of my house, and they take turns to warble and trill, rarely interrupting each other’s phrases. From my vantage point between them I get to hear their songs in stereo.