January 2012 Douro Insider

With the exception of a moderately moist first day of the month, which very few people can remember anyway so it doesn’t really count, the New Year got off to an extremely dry start.  December’s fog still persisted in the Douro, however, although perhaps with a little less intensity.  Indeed, pretty much the only factor which differentiated one day from another was the varying thickness of the capacete (layer of fog).  When the fog was thin it burnt off quickly during the morning and the day warmed up quite pleasantly under a clear sky, but then of course the temperature amplitude was exaggerated since at night time it turned really quite cold due to lack of celestial insulation.  On other days, when the fog was thicker, the sun didn’t get through until much later and temperatures remained more stable (but just as cold, almost).  In spite of the actual numbers, the fact that there was plenty of sun certainly gave the erroneous impression (when the nights were taken into account too) that it was relatively mild for this time of the year.   Weather reports indicated that some more southerly parts of the country experienced days with temperatures getting over 20º C nevertheless.

Going into the second week the fog seemed to thicken, taking on an unpleasant dampness, and temperatures dropped, not even making it above 5º on some days.  There were, needless to say, icy conditions on the high ground around this time.  Nothing much really happened then until near on the end of the month when it clouded over briefly but still brought no precipitation of any consequence – just a spot or two of drizzle.  Then, for the last three or four days, it got really cold: there were even a couple of frosts down in Porto around the last weekend of January.  This was, of course, a result of Portugal just being caught on the periphery of the massive wave of cold weather that was getting started in central Europe at the same time.  We will be hearing much more about this in February’s report.

By comparison with the rest of the continent (where temperatures were plunging into the minus 20ºs) we were lucky – it only actually dropped below 0º on the last three days of the month in Pinhão.  That said, it was still colder than average for the third consecutive month, and the coldest January since 1993 with a mean monthly temperature of just 6.0º.  By comparison, the long-term average January temperature is 7.9º.  A deviation of nearly two degrees from the average is perhaps more significant during the winter since summertime temperatures are by their nature more volatile.

Rainfall was again disappointing.  Even though November had brought a reasonable amount of precipitation (albeit quite badly distributed, and on the back of a very dry year anyway) December was extremely weak – with well under half the average amount being delivered.  In January it just got worse.  Total precipitation was a meagre 9 mm when the mean for this month is nearly 90 mm.  Note that 9 mm is less than the average rainfall for July – our driest month.  This means that our precipitation graph already shows a significant shortfall in the cumulative total rainfall for the year – with the yellow marker dot only just perceptibly off the bottom axis.

Figures in from the Instituto de Meteorologia at the end of January classify the whole of mainland Portugal as being under drought conditions: 13 % of the area is under mild drought, 76 % moderate and 11 % is undergoing severe drought.  Yet again, it appears that the Azorean anticyclone is to blame, having stretched itself out towards the mainland into a kind of crest which is blocking the incoming wet weather fronts that can usually be counted on at this time of year.

One of the few good things to have come out of the drought is that there has been no excuse to get behind with work in the vineyards.  So far this winter not a day has been lost to one of those downpours of such intensely drenching rain that the workers are told to stay at home.  This meant that by and large the pruning and cane shredding were all tied up by around the middle of the month at long last.  It is a tiring time of the year and the end of the pruning season is always welcome, when we finally move on to training the second and third year vines onto the fruiting wire, or to a cordon.

Next on the viticultural agenda is trellis maintenance.  Before budburst (and the emergence of delicate shoots) is the best time to replace any missing staples, broken posts, damaged end assemblies and so on.  Wires that might have accidentally snagged on the pre-pruner or even the electrical pruning secateurs are repaired and tightened, and generally speaking the whole trellis system is given a thorough check.  Given the rock hard state of the soil at the moment it is easy to get the wires perfectly taut without a hint of give from the end posts.  Small mercies…

We then turn our thoughts to the americanos (non-vinifera vines planted as rootstocks which will then need to be grafted in the field).  There are really three different aspects to look at here, only one of which is actually planting them – and that part we will keep for next month.  But since the grafting season is soon to be upon us we need to be prepared.  This is particularly the case considering that grafting is a specialised job for which we pay an expert a handsome bonus, so the last thing we want to do is waste his time.  So that he can work as efficiently as possible we go through the vineyards beforehand with a hoe, looking out for any americanos planted last year (or perhaps two years ago) which might be candidates for grafting early this spring.  We then dig away the earth around the plants, leaving the stem completely exposed, and ready for grafting.  Should the grafter decide that the rootstock is not yet thick enough for grafting this year then at least we have created a depression at the base of the plant which will catch any rain that hopefully might come over the next few months.  And thus the plant will quietly wait until next year.

If we consider the ongoing process of replacing missing vines to be essentially a three-year activity, then planting the americano is just the work of year one.  Year two (or three, depending on how well the rootstock develops) involves the actual grafting, after which the graft union is buried under a little mound of soil to keep it from drying out.  The next year, again at around the same time, this mound is carefully removed to re-expose the taken graft.  Any superficial roots that might have grown out from the vinifera scion are then delicately removed since they are not resistant to phylloxera, and it is essential that the vine only takes root on the americano.  With bench grafted vines this process is obviously not necessary since the graft union is always above ground level.

There was one final job undertaken at several quintas this month which may or may not follow on from the pruning, depending on how much time is available, and that is pruning the olive trees.  Unlike with vines this does not need to be carried out every year (perhaps every three years would be normal) or even at all, should olive production not be considered advantageous.  The organic olive groves are obliged to yield a certain quantity of fruit each year, however, so regulating production is more important.  Dead wood is removed to stimulate new growth, and the canopy opened up to let in light and make picking easier.  Ideally a rough space more or less the shape of an inverted cone should be created in the centre of the olive tree.  Much like vines, olive trees only produce fruit on the previous year’s growth, so encouraging fresh shoots by pruning away old wood is vital in the long run.  The crop will normally be reduced in the year of pruning (since quite a lot of wood has to be removed) but it will then increase again over the next couple of years.  There is, as ever, an aesthetic component involved as well since olive trees are almost as much a feature of the Douro landscape as the grapevines are.