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.
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.
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!