The Douro Environment

Quinta das Lages, Rio Torto Valley, which supplies grapes for Graham's Ports

Recently one of Graham’s readers commented on an article  to express concern over the future of the extraordinary natural habitat of the Douro, and asked if it was under threat, perhaps from too-great vineyard development.  Whilst there has been some loss of natural habitat in the past, there are now regulations in place which strictly control and limit the development of the region, and help protect the area for the long run.

Establishing and Maintaining Vineyards

The Douro demarcated wine region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and under this regime there are strict controls about what can and cannot be done here.  For example, the beautiful schist dry-stone walls which buttress the oldest terraces in the region are protected: they cannot be willfully destroyed for any reason, and if they are damaged – as some were in the heavy rains of winter 2009/2010 – landowners are obliged to restore them.

Quinta da Cavadinha, March 2011

If we re-plant a vineyard, we must respect those walls and work within them – for example at Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha this past winter we cleared and re-sculpted the soil within and then re-planted some old socalcos, which are the type of terraces typically planted with a number of rows of vines on a gentle slope between stone retaining walls.  With the soil freshly turned, and the infant vines newly planted,  those terraces will look a bit bare and raw for a few years till the vines mature, but the renewal of too-old vineyards is an important part of keeping the overall environment healthy and thriving.

Vineyards cannot be planted just anywhere, in any fashion.  There are stringent licensing regulations which define exactly how a vineyard must be planted, according to the gradient of the slope:

  • Up to 30 % gradient you can plant vinha ao alto (vines planted in vertical rows up and down the hill face)
  • 30 to 40 % you can have two-row patamares (soil banked terraces with two rows of vines each)
  • 40 to 50 % must be patamares estreitos (single row terraces)
  • Above 50 % you cannot plant a new vineyard, but you may replant an existing vineyard

In addition, whether re-planting old vineyards or creating new ones, farmers must not touch certain trees, particularly any cork oak – we have one at Malvedos growing in the middle of a line of vines alongside the access road to the winery and house.

Viticultural Methods

Graham’s quintas and all the Symington properties have been managed for the past ten years according to the standards of the Modo de Produção Integrado, a strict regime of minimum intervention and integrated pest management which relies on the minimum use of the least disruptive products to prevent or manage disease or infestation in the vineyards.  The only exceptions to this regime are fully organic vineyards.  The Symington family have 126 hectares in the Vilariça valley in the northeastern corner of the region, which are certified organic (Modo de Produção Biológico).  These vineyards produce the grapes for the Altano Douro DOC wines as well as some port wines.  Additionally, Quinta das Lages, which produces grapes for Graham’s ports and is situated in the Rio Torto, has an organic vineyard.

Insects thrive in the cover crops of our vineyards

Another very important aspect of our farming which supports the ecology of the Douro is our use of cover crops between rows of vines, which help control erosion, conserve water in the soil, contribute to our pest and disease management regimes and increase organic matter and nutrition in the soil.  They also provide precious habitat for insects, which are the basis of the food chain for a great diversity of birds, reptiles and mammals.

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates invests substantially in viticultural and enological research and Miles Edlmann, our research viticulturalist, has been nurturing experimental vineyards for over a decade, investigating a wide range of subjects including the cover crop regime, soil erosion, a variety of measures to minimise pest attacks, and identifying optimum grape varieties, clones, root stocks and trellising systems for different terrains and altitudes, to name just a few.  The aim of all this research is to find ways to produce the best possible grapes and wines, of course, but importantly, we are trying to find the ways which best suit and support the unique ecology and extreme conditions of the Douro.

In addition, Miles is responsible for collecting and analysing the meteorological data collected at the weather stations located in five of our quintas across the Douro.  Drawing on more than 40 years of temperature and rainfall data Miles confirms that the temperature in the Douro has increased by 1.2⁰ Centigrade in the period 1967 to 2010 on a ten year moving average, to just under 16.5⁰C.  Though the past few years have shown a slight drop, the long term trend continues upwards.

Family Commitment

Left bank: Senhora da Ribeira, Santinho, Vale de Coelho, right bank Vesuvio and around the bend Vale de Malhadas - all owned by SFE or family members

The Symington family have a very strong sense of stewardship for the land we farm in the Douro, some of which was planted by our grandfathers and great grandfather at the beginning of the 20th century.  Today, as a group, we are the largest land owners in the region, responsible for 1,860 hectares (4,596 acres) of which only slightly more than half is vineyard (934 ha), the balance being olive, almond or citrus groves, or wild habitat – natural scrub or even sheer rock in a few places.   The fact that a large percentage of that land is owned by individual family members, not by “the firm” is a huge statement of personal commitment to the region.

Paul Symington, together with his brother Dominic and cousins Johnny, Rupert and Charles, is passionate about the region and the protection of the Douro environment, and recently spoke at the Third Annual World Congress on Climate Change and Wine.  He has also written about sustainability and organic viticulture in the Douro for Fugas, the weekly magazine of Portugal’s Publico newspaper, last 27 November  (no on-line link to this article, unfortunately).

So, whilst the Douro is protected to a great extent by its UNESCO status and DOC regulations, Symington Family Estates is also working to raise awareness and support for the protection of this extraordinary landscape, both through the example of our own practices in our properties, and through engagement in the debate through public channels.