A Day With the Winemakers and Viticulturalists

In the run up to harvest, our head winemaker Charles Symington and the rest of the Graham’s and Symington Family Estates (SFE) winemaking and viticultural teams spend their days in the vineyards assessing the quality and readiness of the grapes for harvest.

Most of the year each viticulturalist has charge of specific quintas associated with particular brands, but in this month before harvest everyone pitches in across the Douro and across brands to help with the grape assessment and planning the start of harvest and picking order for the grapes.  Yesterday the blogger joined some of them as they toured our quintas.

Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua

Collecting Grapes for Laboratory Maturity Studies:  At 8:00 AM I met Arlindo, the caseiro (bailiff) for Quinta dos Malvedos, and we drove up into the vineyards at Quinta do Tua to meet Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturalist for both of these Graham’s quintas.  I first helped Arlindo and Carlos (our tractorista) to collect samples of Tinta Amarela to be sent for analysis at the lab.

You would think this is pretty straight forward:  find a bunch of grapes, remove one berry and drop it in the bag, repeat 200 times.  But we need to get a representative sample from across the designated parcel, so there are in fact rules:

  • only one berry from each bunch
  • pluck berries from top, bottom, middle, front and backs of bunches
  • choose bunches from top, bottom, front, back and middle of vine canopy
  • select from vines throughout the parcel, not just at one end, as in our mountain vineyards one parcel can enjoy a wide range of different exposures to sun at a range of altitudes

It actually takes a lot of concentration to make sure you are being sufficiently random in your selection!

Alexandre Mariz tasting his way through the spectacular walled vineyard at Quinta do Tua

Quinta do Tua:  Whilst Arlindo and Carlos continued to collect samples from other parcels, I joined Mariz as he tasted the grapes from the famous walled Vinha Velha that faces south west, as well as some mixed variety plantings on the south facing section of the quinta, above the river and Tua train station.  Overall he was quite pleased, though clear that some of our grapes need more time to achieve the perfect, balanced ripeness that makes great port wines.  As we were getting ready to go, we saw the tanker truck arriving to deliver the aguadente to the wineries at Tua and Malvedos.  You know it’s almost harvest time when…

Vilariça:  From Tua, I went with Mariz to Vilariça, the valley in the far northeastern area of the Douro where SFE grows the grapes for the Altano range of Douro DOC wines.  Mariz also has responsibility for our three vineyards there:  Quinta do Ataide, Quinta da Canada, and Quinta de Assares.  We met Pedro Leal de Costa, the head viticulturist for SFE who has overall responsibility for all our Douro quintas, Pedro Correia who is responsible for making all SFE Douro DOC wines, but whose palate we rely on for tasting and assessing our Port grapes too, and José Daniel Soares who works with him on the Reserva DOC wines.

Parcel map in hand, the group fanned out through the vineyards, focussing on the Touriga Nacional and Barroca, two of our most important varieties.  They were pleased with the quality of the grapes, though naturally disappointed about the damage our Barroca plantations suffered out there, between the hail in early June and the sunburn during an extraordinarily hot spell at the end of June.  The photo shows the damage from the hail:  white scars on the vine from the impact of the hailstones, and tattered leaves.  Whilst these freak weather events have reduced the crop, the remaining fruit is of good quality.

Agreed on plans for the Vilariça vineyards, Mariz stayed behind and the rest of us drove down to the village of Senhora da Ribeira where we met Charles Symington, Mário Natario and Ricardo Carvalho.  Readers will know Mário as the viticulturalist for Vale de Malhadas and Vesuvio, and Ricardo has the responsibility for the quintas just opposite on the north side of the river:  Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais, and Smith Woodhouse’s Quinta do Vale de Coelho.    During lunch I was able to follow the conversation for the first five minutes whilst they discussed the vineyards, but when they got on to the football and the recent FC Porto v Barcelona game my Portuguese comprehension failed, I admit.

Tasting and Testing Grapes in the Vineyards:  Lunch over, we went into the vineyards at Senhora da Ribeira and then on to Canais.  The team walked through each parcel to be reviewed, and every one was plucking grapes and assessing the fruit:

  • tasting grapes to assess the flavour, sweetness, acidity and tannins of the fruit
  • chewing on the pips to determine their maturity and flavour as an indication of fruit ripeness
  • crushing grapes between their fingers to assess the water content and texture of the pulp
  • massaging the skin between their fingers to see how much colour the skin was yielding, and how easily
  • examining the pips – green pips are unripe, dark brown are mature
L to R: Pedro Leal da Costa, Charles Symington, Ricardo Carvalho, Pedro Correia, José Daniel Soares

Finally, the group convened at the vineyard office (the hood of the car) and laid out a tentative calendar of start dates for each variety in each of Ricardo’s vineyards.  They discussed the proposed picking order, start dates, and the logistics of manpower and winery capacity.

Charles has authorised me to tell you that he continues very happy with the quality of our grapes, and the weather outlook is good for the next ten days.  When I left him he was heading down to visit Malvedos and Tua himself before nightfall.

When he has completed the round of all our vineyards for the week Charles will give me a full update, so check back early next week for the latest plans and prospects for the 2011 harvest season.

7 thoughts on “A Day With the Winemakers and Viticulturalists”

  1. Please post the date of the start of the harvest for each quinta. So that, when my wife gives birth, I can know which is the matching quinta. Then, the difficult bit, please bottle me (yes, some in large size) some of that special little-Wiseman single-quinta vintage port.

    I promise to help her drink it.

    1. Hello you two! Charles did make a comment about not committing to any schedule till the last possible minute as it is all subject to change until then! But I will be posting start dates when he is ready to go public with them, don’t worry! Re the wine – will you be naming the child after the relevant quinta? Miss Malvedos Wiseman has a nice ring to it…

    1. Good luck Julian, and to Mrs Wiseman (or the Boss).
      Seriously, the very best to you all.
      I am in the Pinhao valley, having just done a long walk through my vineyards. It has rained quite a lot these last two days, the grapes are full and round. This evening the weather is clearing and we have ten days of sunny weather forecast. If that holds true, we will have some fabulous wines…..

  2. Hi Paul, Thanks for the update – good to know all is well at your own vineyards at Netas, near Provasende and Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha.

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