At the end of the first week of maturity studies Charles Symington, winemaker for Graham’s port wines, shared his impressions of how the harvest could shape up, based on conditions so far.
First and foremost, the vines at all five of the Graham’s quintas look sound and in “fighting form” going into the final stage of ripening. The heavy rains over the winter mean the vines have had reserves to draw on and are coping well with the heat, despite the lack of any rain since June.
Also welcome news is the fact that the grapes are showing a good balance of sugars and phenolic ripening – in other words, the maturation of pips and skin (the indicators of phenolic ripeness) is keeping pace with the development of sugar levels. This is grounds to hope that when the sugar reaches the optimum level for harvest to make port, the grapes will be fully ripe and ready to render the maximum flavour and colour to the wine.
The week’s lab tests showed generally high weight of berries and generous quantities of juice – both indicators that the vines are getting enough water, despite two months of high heat and dry conditions. Whilst the sugar readings are lower than average for this point in the season, this is not a cause for concern, especially given the balance of ripening as described above. What the low sugar readings do tell us is to expect a later than usual harvest, as the grapes need more time to ripen. This makes perfect sense given that pintor – the moment the grape colour begins to change from green to red – was a week later than average, and the latest Charles could call to mind in his career. At this point, the indication is that we should be ready to harvest at Malvedos and our other quintas somewhere between 16 and 20 September.
The lab results also showed that the Touriga Nacional generally is behind normal, a bit of an outlier in terms of still showing higher acidity than other varieties, despite good phenolic ripeness. On the other hand, Charles observed that the same pattern occurred in 2007. Anyone who has tasted Graham’s 2007 Vintage will agree with his rather modest statement, “this is not bad news.”
Lab tests are not everything in assessing harvest conditions, however. They tell us how well the grapes and vines are doing, and by comparing the data to prior years we can extrapolate the likely rate of development and estimate a harvest start date.
The quality of the harvest can only by judged by actually tasting the grapes. This early, a winemaker can assess just the acidity and freshness of the fruit; flavour is actually the last thing to develop as a grape matures. In the last week or two before harvest, tasting the grapes becomes like tasting the wines and Charles can begin to imagine the flavours and qualities of the lotes (batches) of wine to be made and decide which grapes should be blended in the winemaking and which should be vinified as single varietal wines. Finally the flavour of the grapes will also tell him when exactly the grapes should be picked – typically he can set a picking date 3 to 4 days ahead, but that is always subject to change, and decisions are confimed at the last minute.
In an ideal world, Charles could wish for a little rain before the end of the first week of September. A good rain, accompanied by a day or two of overcast, would break the momentum of this hot summer as typically, by this time of year, temperatures do not recover after a rain storm to the prior levels. If the heat continues unabated, it could stress the vines and arrest the progress of the phenolic ripening, whilst dehydrating the grapes and causing a too-great concentration of sugar.
So, all told: present condition of the grapes is promising, hope for a bit of rain but not too much, or at least a decisive break in the heat, and expect a slightly later than usual harvest at Graham’s quintas in the Douro.