Tracking the Season – 29 November

Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 29 November
Quinta dos Malvedos Touriga Franca 29 November

A month has passed since our last visit to Quinta dos Malvedos and Tua, and whilst the grass is much greener and a few vines still have brightly coloured leaves clinging, the vineyards generally appear more barren as the leaves have fallen and we have begun the annual pruning.

The train trip was a good study in localised climate:  in Vila Nova de Gaia it was clear and quite cold (beautiful full moon and stars visible as I walked), at Campanhã train station on the other side of the river in Porto there was a thick mist which more or less persisted as we got up into the mountains around Marco de Canaveses where, in addition to the mist, there was thick frost on the ground.  As we came out of a tunnel onto the Douro River west of Regua there was no sign of frost and the sun was starting to penetrate the mist, and before we reached Regua the sun through the train window was strong enough make you wish for sun cream.  In the morning as we walked through Quinta do Tua it was warm enough to shed the coat.  Welcome to winter in northern Portugal.

Quinta do Tua 29 November 12:13
Quinta do Tua 29 November 12:13

Our viticulturist Alexandre Mariz says November’s weather pattern has been pretty normal – meaning, we have had some rain most weeks, as evidenced by the rather lush grass in our terraced vineyards.  Compare our photo of the new plantation at Quinta do Tua 1 June – very green vines, but utterly barren brown soil – with Thursday’s photo – the vines are invisible without leaves and the Touriga Nacional in the foreground has been pruned, but each terrace is carpeted in green.

The focus of our work in the vineyards is now the pruning.  To give you an idea of the scale of the task:  our annual labour costs in the quintas work out roughly one-third harvest, one-third winter pruning, and one third everything else all year round.

Every vine is pruned by hand, using electric secateurs
Every vine is pruned by hand, using electric secateurs
Pruning leaves two buds on each spur to become next year's growth
Pruning leaves two buds on each spur to become next year’s growth
Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua shows the results of good pruning last winter
Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Tua shows the results of good pruning last winter

To prune, we make three passes through all our vineyards.  First, the pre-pruning is a mechanical process, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the entirely manual job of pruning each and every vine, and then pulling off the remaining pieces caught in the trellis and leaving them on the ground.  Finally the third pass is the cane shredding, where a tractor tows a device that breaks up and shreds the old canes lying on the ground.  This shredded plant fibre is left to break down and add much-needed organic matter to our rocky soil.  In some of the old walled vineyards where we cannot pass through with a tractor, the pre-pruning is manual and the cut canes are not shredded, but collected by hand and burned.

At Malvedos and Tua we have a gang of six who do the manual pruning.  Each worker has electric secateurs which make the job much easier on their hands, and much faster generally.  Their red vests contain a battery pack to power the secateurs, which are strong enough to cut through an old thick vine if need be.

The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but to select and trim down vine spurs with two buds which will become next year’s vines.  When well done, the vines grow in neat pairs along the length of the spur from the main trunk, and this is the best time of year to appreciate the stark beauty of a well-trained vine, before it has been pruned.

Pruning will continue through February, with the youngest vines done last, as they need special attention to begin shaping them properly.

The Douro DOC region is defined by its schist soil – and in fact our “soil” is fundamentally rock dust, hence the need to plough in our pruned and shredded vines each year to add organic matter to the soil.  People wonder how the vines can grow in near solid rock.  Our answer is that schist is layered – try to imagine something like phyllo dough but stone – and the roots of the vines actually penetrate between those layers.  At Quinta dos Malvedos we have been doing some landscaping work to re-build terraces, and the bulldozers uncovered this outcropping of schist where you can see clearly roots emerging from between the layers of stone.  Our Douro grape varieties are nothing if not determined!

Roots penetrate the layers of schist
Roots penetrate the layers of schist

4 thoughts on “Tracking the Season – 29 November”

  1. Obrigado.I sit here at my desk having a glass of port and enjoying your post. Thanks,Rod Terra, ps ,could write in Portuguese but would take all night.

  2. When you write the December Tracking the Season report, please include a little more information on how the water levels. Have the water levels in the ground recovered to normal for this time of year or are they still very low after 12 months of drought and only a few weeks of normal rainfall?

    Thanks

    1. Hi Alex, Thank you, yes, that is on my own list of questions. Train strikes permitting, I plan to spend tomorrow at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas and Quinta do Vesuvio with Mário Natário, and Friday at Malvedos and Tua with Alexandre Mariz. Between them, I hope to get all the meteorological and viticultural news from one end of the Douro to the other.

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