August 2010 Douro Insider

This month’s report begins with a digression, if indeed it is possible to digress without properly starting.   There is a theory relating to the tail end (sorry, couldn’t resist it) of the dog days of August.   Widely held folk wisdom (or perhaps blind superstition) in parts of Portugal says that the weather during this period can be used to forecast that of the next year, with certain days corresponding to certain months.   The problem is, of course, that there are a number of different systems for matching the dates to the months and a predictable lack of consensus.   The 15th of August of 2010, for instance, is purportedly a microcosmic reflection of the conditions that we can expect in December of 2011 according to the most popular version.   Others say that it is in fact paired with January, and so on.   Thus if the day starts off wet but ends up sunny then we can expect the same sort of climatic development over the course of the corresponding month.   For once, however, no consensus is required.   For if there is any truth at all in any of these systems then 2011 will be hot and dry irrespective of which days represent which months.

For various reasons the weather in August was extreme for virtually all of Europe and Asia.  But curiously both the devastating Pakistani monsoons and the terrible Russian heatwave were born out of the same meteorological phenomenon.  In very simple terms, the jet stream blows from west to east, at high altitude, and can be thought of as basically dividing warm subtropical air from cold polar air.  This month it was not only usually strong but also developed with a pronounced kink.  First it blew in a northeasterly direction, passing much further north than usual and sucking hot African air into Europe.  It then turned southwards towards the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal where it blocked the usual passage of the Asian monsoons whilst at the same time drawing in more moist air off the Indian Ocean which of course turned into rain clouds.

Predictably, given the high temperatures and the lack of rain, the news in Portugal was dominated by the usual summer rash of forest fires, particularly during the early weeks of the month.  This year, however, the wave of destruction was massive in terms of both the number of individual blazes and their extension.  There were occurrences pretty much all over the country, of which some burnt out of control for over a week.  What was especially damaging from an environmental point of view is that several of the fires ignited inside Natural Parks, including the one in Madeira.  There was so much burnt across Portugal that it is probably fair to say that we saw more smoke than clouds.  Indeed, the only interruption of the brilliant sunlight that was so characteristic of the month came from occasional days of grubby haze, as these palls of smoke dissipated all over the country.  Mercifully the Douro was relatively unscathed by this devastating situation although in due course fires were responsible for the temporary closure of the IP4 near Alijó and also Vila Real.

Relief from the infernal heat appeared to be due with an apparent cessation of hostilities around the middle of the month.  Indeed, the heatwave surely seemed to be over with the arrival of a series of storms in Iberia.  Sudden flooding in the south of Spain killed three and was clearly marked by a reduction in temperatures on this side of the border and by the appearance of some vague clouds.  The relief was unfortunately only very temporary, and soon maximum temperatures were back into the 40ºs again and, to make matters worse, the humidity was increasing to unpleasantly sweaty levels.  In spite of this the late afternoon was still blighted at times by the usual strong and desperately desiccating gusts of wind, although perhaps the frequency was lower than usual.  Whilst this was going on there was some rain over the lodges in Gaia but absolutely no penetration inland beyond the Marão.

Going into the last week things continued more or less in this vein.  There were a series of low pressure areas that came in off the north Atlantic, the head of which brought gale-force winds, torrential rain and flooding to many parts of England and Wales.  The collateral effect on Portugal was that at the same time sporadic rain started to appear in parts of the country.  Drizzle in Porto and Gaia turned into substantial showers and the skies were overcast.  And the weather was substantially worse further south where terrible conditions were primarily to blame for the horrendous accident on the A25.  On the other hand, the Marão held firm and the Douro remained hot and dry.  Finally, in the last couple of days of the month, it all flared up again due to an anticyclone in the north Atlantic, stretching all the way from Madeira up to Ireland.  It brought more forest fires and pushed the mercury right up to the top end of the thermometer.  Temperatures climbed into the 40ºs even in Lisbon and the north of the country was smothered by yet another blanket of smoke.

A slim chance of a change came in the dying six hours of the month when a thunderstorm threatened, an offshoot of the Atlantic hurricanes.  The end of the afternoon of the 31st was quite sinister, with skies darkening and sudden spiralling winds whipping up dust spouts that span and skipped from one terrace to the next.  In the event nothing materialised that night but the following day, the 1st September, did indeed bring some rainfall just before midnight.  Its distribution was erratic and sparse but in one or two quintas there was in fact substantial precipitation.  Whether or not it will make a difference to the vines is not yet clear, but probably it could be considered just about on the lower limit of ‘viticulturally significant’.

By the end of the month we had gone 66 days without rain in Pinhão.  The last time there were two consecutive completely dry months was back in the summer of 2005.  Recently a number of similarities with that year have emerged in terms of the weather, which is not necessarily a good thing as most people would probably agree that the summer that year was a little too hot and dry for the vines.  The parallels are not altogether unwelcome, however, because 2010 differed significantly in terms of winter rainfall.  With good soil water reserves in place, the vines are much better equipped to deal with a hot and dry summer and as a result the quality of the grapes can be excellent.  The cumulative total rainfall for the year therefore still stands at 489 mm, with no change since the end of June, whereas the average value for this stage remains quite a bit lower on 386 mm.  The gap is of course closing.

Needless to say, the balance of the month was much hotter than average all across Portugal and the Douro was no exception.  In Pinhão the mean temperature was a full 2º C above the mean, at a considerable 26.6º.  Our data reveals a couple of interesting facts: firstly, 10 out of the last 12 months have been hotter than average, and this is the fifth such month in a row.  Secondly, August in Pinhão was the second consecutive month for which the average of the daily maximum temperatures was actually over 35º.  A trawl through the records was unable to turn up another example of this since their inception in 1967.  By this criterion alone, it has been a hotter summer even than 2005 or 2006, and therefore, purely terms in of consistently hot daily maximum temperatures, the hottest summer in more than 40 years.

The casual observer of Douro quintas at this time of year might be forgiven for wondering why there are any viticulturists or winemakers working in the region at all.  The reason for this is that in the final weeks of August and the start of September the vineyards are populated by a small army of estagiários (work experience students), many of them getting their first real taste of actually working in the wine industry.  Predominantly they are students at UTAD (the university in Vila Real) and for many of them this might be their first real job, albeit a temporary one.  They come in to help us out for the dreaded maturation studies.  They toil daily under 40º conditions, trudging up and down steep and rocky slopes, brows slippery with sweat and fingers sticky with grape juice and dust, collecting grape samples for analysis.  Then they pile into a small jeep, bump across more dirty tracks, and visit another casta, parcela or quinta to stuff more grapes into a plastic bag.  It is a thankless task, and a real test of dedication.  Those who stick it out have proved their commitment to the cause when any sane person would probably think about quitting, and the desire must be strong to phone up the University, tell them you have made a terrible mistake, and ask to change course.  There is perhaps one moment that makes it all seem bearable, the famous ‘19th sample’ – an icy beer on the way back, to wash the dust from your throat at the end of the morning’s work.

The samples are taken to the laboratory where the afternoon is spent analysing the grapes, an area where the students’ technical training is put into useful practice.  These analyses are of course invaluable when it comes to deciding when to start harvesting, and in what order to pick the various varieties at each quinta.  For those estagiários on a winemaking course University lectures start around a month later than for the other subjects.  This means that these students can stay on with us for the harvest where they are posted to one of the wineries to gain some real hands-on experience of the vintage, whilst also providing useful back-up for the overworked técnico in charge of running the adega.  This relationship has worked very well in the past – the students who will soon be coming onto the employment market get to know the wine producers and vice-versa.  There have been many cases of people who started out like this and, after two or three years of maturation studies and vintage jobs, they have been offered a permanent post.

In addition to these opportunities, the maturation studies provide an unparalleled practical learning experience.  What better way to get to know the various Douro varieties, from leaf to bunch to berry? How else might one have a chance to accompany the maturation process, tasting the specific characteristics of the fruit and following the way that they change during ripening? This is precisely the kind of practice that a winemaker needs in order to decide when to start picking the grapes in each part of the Douro, and in what order to harvest the different castas in any one year.

At this stage the news is as follows: the quality of the fruit appears excellent.  There are few signs of fungal attack and the quantity is probably something a bit over average too.  Sugar levels are lower than usual for this stage, probably because over the last few weeks temperatures have been above the upper limit for photosynthesis for much of day.  On the other hand there is so far little sign of dehydration of the fruit, although slight symptoms of water stress have started to appear in some of the vines.  Some of the basal leaves have dried out but given the relatively still conditions many of them have not yet been blown off by the wind.  As a result they are still carrying out an important role in shading the fruit against the brutal sun.

On a very positive note, the seeds were already remarkably dark still well inside August and the skins surprisingly developed phenolically for this relatively low level of sugar.  A more usual problem in the Douro is that sugar production outstrips phenolic maturation.  Thus by the time the fruit is properly flavour-ripe there is a tendency for it to produce wines that are high in alcohol and care is also required to ensure that the acidity is correct.  This year, however, the wines could be extremely well-balanced if maturation keeps following the same path.  Currently the Touriga Nacional is looking particularly good as (perhaps due to its late veraison) levels of sweetness are lower than would be expected when sometimes they can verge on the excessive.

Given that the usual vineyard workers were on holiday for the month of August there was very little else going on.  The vines do not really need our help at this stage as they concentrate on ripening the fruit.  At most quintas there was someone on call at least a few days a week for general housekeeping duties, although this might not go much beyond watering the vegetable patch and feeding the pigs.  The viticultural team was also away on holiday for the first half of the month, before the maturation studies got underway.  Nevertheless, contractors were still at work in the new plantations, watering the young rootlings to ensure that they survive their first summer.  After this year’s heat they will be well prepared for anything.  The rest of the time this month was spent preparing for the vintage – lining up transport for the grapes, for example, or meeting with the contractors who will be supplying picking teams for us.