Tracking the Season – November 28th

Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.
Alexandre Mariz surveys the section of dry stone terraces that are being reconstructed at Malvedos.

The vintage in the Douro during September and October is the culmination of a year’s hard work in the vineyards. This very busy time at Quinta dos Malvedos is followed by a quieter period after all the grapes have been picked and all the wine has been made and stored. Calm descends on the Douro and it is time to take stock and make preparations for the new cycle, which begins afresh in the month of November, marking the start of the viticultural year (November – October).

Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) and the smaller terraces higher up.
Note the massive dry stone terraces (lower) — called ‘socalcos’ in Portuguese — and the smaller terraces higher up.

Alexandre Mariz, the viticulturist at Malvedos and Tua, does regular early morning rounds; over the last few days under clear blue skies and brisk temperatures around 3.5ºC. Recently he has been keeping a careful eye on the old stone-walled vineyard terraces at the entrance to the Quinta, which are being laboriously reconstructed following the fire that destroyed most of the vines there in 2010. This small vineyard was set alight by sparks, courtesy of an old historic steam locomotive that runs from Regua to Tua during the summer (picturesque, but not good for vines).

The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will take two to three rows of Sousão and Toriga Franca vines.
The terraces lower down, closer to the Sibio stream will each take two to three rows of vines. Note the rocky nature of the schist soil, which has been churned up to facilitate the planting of the vines early next year.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls.  Note how they were engineered, canting inward to avoid workers losing their balance and falling off the edge.
Steps built into the dry stone terrace walls. Note how they were engineered, canted inwards to avoid workers carrying heavy grape-laden vintage baskets falling off the edge.

The lower section of the vineyard has sturdy dry stonewalls that have not required any particular attention, a testament to the skill of the hardy men who built them during the 18th century. These supporting walls are quite massive, the highest (3.5 metres/11.5 feet) and thickest (up to 1.5 metres/5 feet wide) at Malvedos. This vineyard is directly opposite the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard, the two divided by the Sibio stream close to where it flows into the Douro. These large terraces are relatively wide providing a spacious platform, which will each take between two and three rows of vines. The Symington family has chosen the grape varieties that will be planted on them in February 2014: the Sousão (on the lowest, more sheltered terraces bordering the gully) and the Touriga Franca slightly higher up. The family believes this is a prime site for the Franca as the south and west-facing aspect of the vineyard ensures plenty of exposure to the sun — ideal for the Franca.

Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: "Cheia 1909" ('cheia': flood). This will be placed in its original position.
Arlindo points to a slab of schist (which subsided from the terrace wall) with a flood mark: “Cheia 1909” (‘cheia’: flood). This will be repaired and placed back in its original position.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.
Alexandre (centre) and Arlindo (right) lend scale to the rampart-like dry stone walls supporting the terraces.

Higher up the slope there is a steeper gradient, which dictated the smaller size of the dry stone walls (shorter and narrower) when they were hand-built, over two centuries ago. These sustained more damage as a result of the fire and accordingly have required painstaking reconstruction, again all done by hand by skilled stonemasons — a vital breed of craftsmen in the Douro. Machinery has only been employed when larger rocks have had to be moved and repositioned. These smaller terraces will be replanted with Alicante Bouschet (just one row on each), a variety not widely seen in the Douro but one in which Charles Symington places great faith due to its generous colouring properties, good acidity and useful contribution to a wine’s structure.

Alexandre is satisfied with the progress of the rebuilding of the old dry stone terraced vineyard, although there is still quite a lot to do. He and Sr Arlindo have also had to turn their attention to the pruning of the vines; the activity which best represents the start of the new viticultural year. Pruning will be the focus of the work at Malvedos and at neighbouring Tua for the next two to three months. To put the importance and scale of this manual task into perspective, suffice it to say that approximately one-third of the annual labour costs of the estate is the winter pruning, one-third is harvest related and one-third are all the other vineyard costs.

One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent
One of the Malvedos team of skilled labourers pruning the vines and removing the spent growth.

At Malvedos and Tua there is an experienced team of six people who do the manual pruning.  Each worker uses an electric secateur, which makes the job much easier on the 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. Another advantage of these secateurs is that they ensure an effective clean cut, precluding the need for additional corrective trimming. The point of the pruning job is not only to clear away this year’s spent growth, but also to select and trim down vine spurs (leaving two buds on each spur), which will become next year’s growth.

A row of pruned vines at Malvedos
A row of freshly pruned vines at Malvedos.
Spent leaves and canes left behind two rows of vines to await shredding.
Spent vine leaves and canes left behind between two rows of vines await shredding.

Vine pruning at Malvedos and Tua involves making three separate operations in all the vineyards.  First, there is the pre-pruning, whereby the bulk of the vine growth is roughly sheered off.  Next is the careful and very skilful 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 operation is the cane shredding, where a small estate 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 adds much-needed organic matter to the rocky, schistous soil. Nothing goes to waste at Malvedos.

Judging by the lush green of the cover crops carpeting each terrace (see image below), one could be misled into thinking that abundant rainfall has come down recently but nothing could be further from the truth; the weather station at Malvedos has recorded a paltry 2.6mm of rain for the month of November thus far, with the forecast indicating zero precipitation for the last few days of the month. November is normally a wet month at Malvedos — 69mm was recorded in 2012 and 85mm in 2011 (the mean for the Quinta is 67.5mm). This is in sharp contrast to the previous month’s 110mm (double the monthly average for October at Malvedos which stands at 55mm). Fingers crossed for a lot more rain over the winter; this is really needed to replenish the water reserves, which the soil humidity readings indicate as being at a five-year low.

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