In this seventh video of our series ‘A year in the vineyards’ we look at the maturation studies carried out in the vineyards of Quinta dos Malvedos, which will guide us in determining the vintage starting date.
Maturation studies, which normally begin around mid-August, are of great importance in setting the vintage starting date and in preparing an optimum picking sequence, this being determined by the different maturation rates of each grape variety, as well as other influencing factors such as the vineyards’ location, altitude and climate. Carefully devised picking schedules ensure that the grapes are picked at their optimal point of ripeness.
Whilst nowadays, several advanced techniques are employed to assess berry ripeness, these do not replace frequent field sampling by our viticulturists and winemakers. In the vineyards they sample the berries for feel, taste and colour. As grapes ripen they become softer to the touch and taste sweeter, revealing the desirable accumulation of sugar as the grapes’ organic acids gradually diminish through the ripening period. They will also check for colour by squeezing berries in the palm of their hands to reveal the pigments on the skins and the appearance of the juice. The seeds or pips will also be checked for colour, as this is another reliable gauge of fruit ripeness; yellowish-green means unripe, whilst dark brown means ripening is on track.
To get the full picture of balanced fruit maturations it is important to also screen phenolic ripeness. The phenolic compounds, which include tannins and anthocyanins — the pigments responsible for colour — are a prerequisite for balanced and well structured wines with fresh aromatics. This year, when our maturation studies began on August 15th, it became apparent that phenolic ripeness was evolving very well whilst sugar readings were lagging behind. However, these have since caught up and we are looking at evenly balanced fruit maturation — a good augury for the forthcoming grape harvest.
For the third consecutive year, candidates for the title of Master of Wine have once again paid a visit to Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia before travelling up the Douro Valley to visit some of the regions most famous vineyards. While an important visit for the students, the fact that the Demarcated Douro Region has been recognised by the Institute of Masters of Wine as an important part of the curriculum of such a distinguished qualification, also makes the visit very important for Port, and the Douro Valley as a whole.
Founded in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine is one of the most prestigious communities of wine professionals in the world. To become a member you must undertake an in-depth three-year program of study, followed by practical and written exams, and the completion of a paper based on original research. Because of the challenge of acquiring the qualification, there are currently only 343 Masters of Wine worldwide.
The first stop for the 18 MW students from all over the world who arrived in Porto on the 19th of April was Vinum, the restaurant located in Graham’s 1890 Lodge, for a dinner hosted by Paul Symington. Finishing with Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port, it was a fitting start to what would be three days immersion in the world of Port.
The next day saw the candidates participate in a tasting of Graham’s, and other leading producer’s, wines.
They then departed for the Douro Valley, where they visited Quinta do Bomfim, another of Symington Family Estate’s prime vineyards, where Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos’ winemaker, Henry Shotton (also a MW student himself), gave an in-depth explanation of the winemaking process, before being shown around the vineyards.
Once again, it was a pleasure to spend some time with the Master of Wine students, and we wish them the very best of luck in their studies.
In a series of video clips to be shown throughout the year we will be exploring the annual cycle of the vine at Quinta dos Malvedos, culminating in the vintage during September/October. This, the third of the videos, documents bud-break.
Bud-break marks the end of winter dormancy and the start of the vines’ new vegetative cycle.
With the arrival of spring, buds begin to sprout during March; the timing varies with each grape variety and air temperatures.
Vintage Port’s standing as one of the world’s great classic wines was confirmed and strengthened at Christie’s Fine Wine Auction held in London on October 23rd, 2014. The majority of the Vintage Port lots submitted for auction achieved prices above Christie’s High Estimate price markers, reflecting the great interest generated by some very rare lots of wine that attracted high bids.
The auction revealed Vintage Port’s relevance in today’s market for fine wines with bidders willing to pay final hammer prices, which in many cases were well above the High Estimate price. An apt example of this was provided by an auction lot of 6 bottles of Graham’s legendary 1945 which went for £6,500, well above Christie’s indicated High Estimate of £4,800 and also — very significantly — 30% more than an identical lot of Graham’s ’45 that was auctioned at a Christie’s Fine Wine Sale two years ago in Amsterdam. A reminder if one were needed that the 1945 Vintage Port, one of the twentieth century’s finest, is now extremely rare.
The Graham’s 1963 also achieved a magnificent result with an auction lot of 6 bottles going for £1,800, again well above Christie’s High Estimate indication of £1,100 (or 64% more than the High Estimate marker).
Graham’s Johnny Symington who attended the auction was very pleased with the outstanding performance of Graham’s Vintage Ports, not just with regard to the older wines but also more recent Vintages such as the 2011 (Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port) and the 2000. Johnny and his cousin Clare were invited to host a pre-sale dinner at Christie’s attended by Christie’s guests on the night before, and this proved an equally successful event, which paved the way for the auction itself.
Edwin Vos, Christie’s International Senior Wine Specialist, wrote to Johnny the day after the auction: “I guess we have shown that vintage port is very much alive. The interest the Symington wines received from our dinner guests and during the sale was encouraging.”
Paul Symington sums up the 2014 Douro harvest. From the Douro, October 13th, 2014 —
This was a challenging year in the Douro. We had a very wet period from December through to February with 44% more rain than normal. Apart from the difficulties encountered by those engaged in replanting vineyards, this rain was most welcome. It was coupled with mild temperatures that encouraged early bud-break in the first week of March at Malvedos. The weather remained unsettled through the early summer and on 3rd July a huge rainstorm hit parts of the Douro, with over 80mm falling in a few hours, mainly around Pinhão. This caused extraordinary damage, flooding the local railway station and precipitated an avalanche of rock and mud that destroyed the car of a well-known wine maker in the village (fortunately nobody was in the car at the time). Many farm roads were ruined and for a few days the River Douro ran golden yellow with the large amounts of precious soil that had been washed off the hillsides, once again highlighting the challenge of farming in the largest area of mountain vineyard on earth. Thankfully no hail fell and the vines themselves were largely unharmed, but the farmers had the unwelcome added expense of getting JCB’s in to re-build their farm tracks.
Once the mess caused by this July storm was cleaned up, it became clear that the vines were enjoying the cooler weather which persisted through August. In fact we all began to think of 2007, when an equally cool August delivered some stupendous quality grapes to our wineries.
The maturation continued some two weeks ahead of last year and picking started on 11th September at Malvedos, earlier at our more easterly vineyards. The grapes were in really lovely condition; soft skins, full berries and balanced sugars and acidity, perfect for making great Port and very good Douro wines. But Mother Nature was not in a mood to help us and the weather remained unsettled. In some areas this caused problems, in others the rain made little impact. It is clear that some extraordinarily good wines were made in the Douro Superior which had only occasional rainfall and that was of short duration and therefore ran off quickly.
Parts of the Alto Douro had an excellent vintage, other areas less so, and unfortunately parts of the Baixo Corgo had a difficult time. Charles Symington commented: ‘It has been an extraordinary vintage, the difference in rainfall between Pinhão and Tua being almost hard to believe’.
Touriga Nacional was consistently good this year, showing its undoubted class. But what was surprising was how very well Touriga Franca performed. This variety ripens late and its tight bunches and thin skins are a recipe for danger in a year like this. Nevertheless some wonderful wines are emerging from this variety. Souzão was also a star of this vintage.
Inevitably our wine makers had to make difficult choices, so the less blue-eyed varieties had to take second place and some suffered. Various vineyards located near water courses and in the tighter and lower valleys were damaged, as was predictable. The hand-picking that predominates in the Douro, with increasingly heavy cost implications on producers, delivered a huge advantage to us in our winemaking in 2014 as a crucially important selection is made by the pickers, something that is impossible in a machine-picked vineyard.
In a region that is over 90 km long and with an average annual rainfall that varies from nearly 1,000 mm in the west to under 400mm in the east, it is simply not possible to give a blanket assessment of any year and in particular this year. What is certain is that it was not a glorious harvest right across the region as it might have been if the weather had held during September and overall yields will be down, possibly by a significant amount. But equally certain is that in such a diverse region some real gems will have been made as the grapes were in such lovely condition at the outset. The vineyards that were lucky enough to escape the rain, and many did, will have made some really lovely Ports and Douro wines.
Furthermore those winemakers lucky enough to be able to get grapes from various locations across the Douro will certainly have made some brilliant Ports and wines. It was a year to take full advantage of judicious vineyard investment in the best sub-regions.
As if to force home the point about the weather and just as the harvest was being wound up, another astonishing rain storm hit at about 7.00 AM last Wednesday 8th October. In just two hours over 80mm of rain fell in parts of the Douro, again causing extensive damage to farm tracks (some just recently rebuilt after the July storm) and causing great difficulties to those still harvesting and making the river run golden yet again.
Why ‘The Year of the Fox’? The fox is a wily creature and this year it was necessary to be wily (and lucky) and also because our wine maker at Malvedos, Henry Shotton, was fast asleep and alone one night on a mattress in the darkened winery, waiting for a lagar of must to be ready to run off sometime in the night. He awoke to feel something tugging at his boot laces. His fear can only be imagined, and when he sat up he saw that a small fox was trying to steal his boot. Very early the next morning the fox returned, this time to try and eat the fresh bread just delivered by the Tua baker that was hanging on the vineyard trailer…
Henry’s Malvedos winery team was recently reinforced with the arrival of Oscar Symington one of the 5th generation youngsters of the family which owns and runs Graham’s. Oscar’s father, Rupert, is one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors. The 18 year old lost no time mucking in, carrying out the multitude of tasks required of him, from helping to unload the trailers of grape laden boxes, taking his turn on the sorting table as well as helping out with the envasilhamentos (running off the must from the lagares for fortification). Oscar soon discovered that this particular task is a bit like doing your watch on a ship, involving as it does taking turns with your colleagues in this round-the-clock activity which can happen anytime — day or night. The eight-strong winery team are glad to have this extra pair of hands to lighten their burden; they have all been working continuously for three weeks since the vintage began at Malvedos on September 11th.
Oscar himself has barely had a chance to catch his breath since beginning his gap year; before coming to help out at Malvedos he had already worked for 10 days at the family’s Quinta do Sol winery followed by another 10 days at Quinta de Roriz jointly owned by the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux and where they produce one of the Douro’s iconic table wines — Chryseia. The majority of the grapes for Chryseia are sourced from the Roriz vineyard but an important element has always been drawn from the neighbouring property of Vila Velha, owned by Oscar’s grandfather, James Symington. Besides the contribution Vila Velha provides for the landmark Chryseia Douro red, the finest production is also supplied to Graham’s, making important contributions to the premium Ports it produces. The highly acclaimed Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port was comprised of components from all five Graham’s Quintas; Vila Velha making up 18% of the final lot.
Like his siblings and cousins, Oscar is following in the tradition of young members of the family working a vintage at the family Quintas, during school or university holidays. Graham’s is a family wine business through and through and it is very much part of the philosophy to let the youngsters gain practical experience in what is after all the family’s lifeblood: producing the great wines of the Douro Valley. Oscar’s great-grandfather, Ron Symington who like his twin brother John and first cousin Maurice was passionate about the Douro is known to have often said, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” by which he meant that the older generation had to give the younger members of the family a chance to get involved. We’re not sure whether Oscar is comfortable with the metaphor but we are sure that he understands what his ancestor meant. Following his gap year Oscar will continue his higher education at Durham University in northern England.
Ron Symington, Oscar’s great-grandfather would often say, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” — and he wasn’t referring to his gun dog!
We thought that we were almost home and dry (literally) but following a welcome spell of three days in a row with no rain and quite a lot of sunshine, the rain put in an appearance again yesterday (Saturday). Thursday and Friday started off with crisp, sunny conditions, the maximum temperature reaching a balmy 28ºC on Friday and although yesterday was still quite warm (26ºC) the rain returned, dashing our hopes of a final stretch of harvesting under completely dry conditions. We were counting on no more rain in order to give the late ripening Touriga Franca a chance to dry off and ripen completely. Alas it was not to be.
On Thursday, as planned we started bringing in the Touriga Franca (TF), initially from Quinta do Tua and then from Malvedos as well. The first lagar of TF from Tua gave 12.5º Baumé, evidently reflecting some dilution resulting from the wet as well as humid conditions of the last week or so. Subsequent loads began to show improved Baumés of around 13 and 13.5º. In the vineyards our pickers have been quite selective and this has meant we have been receiving good fruit in the winery. Objectively however, we have to accept that the rain that arrived about halfway through our vintage here at Malvedos did have some adverse effects on the Touriga Franca. But we count ourselves lucky because we have faired much better than many other Quintas, particularly downriver from us.
Charles pointed out that Malvedos has had by far the least amount of rain of any of the vineyards owned by the Symington family and he can categorically say that the wines made so far (in particular before the Franca was harvested) here at Malvedos have been exceptionally good. The weather really has been totally unpredictable and the fact that Malvedos has had comparatively less rain is indicative of just how localized some storms have been. And then there’s rain and there’s rain…Charles explained that whereas at Malvedos and further upriver into the Douro Superior the rain has come mainly in the form of sudden concentrated downpours which run off quite easily down the vineyard slopes, the persistent rain in the lower Douro that has fallen on and off has created a situation of continuous humidity with inevitable results. In Charles’s opinion, this difference in the way the rain has come down in certain areas will almost certainly prove decisive in the outcome of this vintage.
Johnny Symington, one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors came by Malvedos on Wednesday on his whistle-stop tour of some of the family’s Douro wineries. Johnny tasted the newly made wines at each Quinta visited. He started at Vesuvio and wound his way down the valley to Senhora da Ribeira, Canais, Malvedos, Bomfim and ended up at Sol. He was accompanied by Paula Pontes, who was reviewing the telecommunication systems at the various adegas (wineries),ensuring the systems were functioning well and seeing what improvements can be made for the future.
Johnny was especially impressed with the excellence of the wines from Malvedos and from the Douro superior Quintas. Of exceptional note, were the Touriga Nacional wines, some of them fermented together with Sousão grapes (including some of the lots vinified at Malvedos). They were very impressive. “It is certainly a great Touriga Nacional year from what I have seen”, said Johnny.
Paula and Johnny joined Charles Symington, Henry Shotton and the winery teams from Malvedos and Tua for lunch in the Tua canteen. They seemed equally impressed with the excellence of the lunch. A healthy black bean stew with grilled pork, rice and plenty of vindima banter round the table. It was a welcome break during their whistle-stop tour. Johnny said it was magnificent to see the Bomfim lagar winery up and running and making some excellent wines. Again, it was two Touriga Nacional wines that won the day from this impressive new facility.
Finishing off at Sol, presented an opportunity to taste the Douro DOC wines the Symington family also produces. Pedro Correia tasted with Johnny three beautiful Vesuvio lots that show real potential. A quick visit to the Sol canteen (not to eat this time!) to see how the cooks, Filomena and Adelina, were coping with the 120 meals served at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day to the winery and administration teams. As usual, they were full of beans as were the extra-large cooking pots. The excellent aroma of the evening barbeque was proof enough that the old military adage “An army marches on its stomach” is equally applicable to the good functioning of a winery team.
Given the continuing atmospheric instability it was almost inevitable that the rain finally caught up with us at Quinta dos Malvedos, namely over the last two days with 12.4 mm recorded on Monday and 4.4 mm recorded yesterday. However, picking up from where we left off since the last post (on Saturday), the decision to halt harvesting on Sunday proved correct because just a light shower was felt (insufficient to record anything in our weather station) besides which it was one of the hottest days of the month thus far — the maximum temperature reaching 30.1ºC (86.18º Fahrenheit). This is precisely what was required to help dry the Touriga Nacional grapes still remaining on the vines at Malvedos and Tua. In the evening a Touriga Nacional lagar was run off (above right) and Henry was extremely pleased with the amazing colour of the must: “fantastic colour!!!”
As planned, picking was resumed first thing Monday morning (Touriga Nacional from Malvedos) and although it did rain, most of it came down during the night thus making life easier for our roga (grape pickers) in the vineyards. We had some visitors on Monday; the first was the “Spirit of Chartwell” (see above), the Royal barge in which the Queen and other members of the Royal Family sailed down the Thames for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in June 2012 — the highlight of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The vessel, which cruised by at half past seven in the morning, is now owned by a Portuguese company operating cruises along the Douro River carrying visitors from all around the world, attracted by the Douro’s magnificent scenery and wines.
The second visitor was Paul Symington, Graham’s Joint Managing Director, cousin of Charles, our head winemaker. Like Charles, Paul farms his own vineyard privately and he was interested to compare the grapes from his own Quinta with those being harvested at Malvedos. Henry showed Paul a selection of the recently made Ports and Paul was especially impressed with the wine made from a co-fermentation of Touriga Nacional (80%) and Sousão (20%). Henry agreed with him that this is a fine example of good balance in a wine; combining the vibrant aromas and compact fruit of the Touriga Nacional with the freshness provided by the characteristic acidity of the Sousão.
On Tuesday we started off again with overcast conditions with most of the day’s 4.4 mm falling between 11am and noon. During the afternoon the weather improved and scattered clouds allowed the sun to show itself again. Better to have the rain in more concentrated showers like this than spread out and falling persistently all through the day. This was in fact demonstrated — rain notwithstanding — by the very good quality of the (Touriga Nacional) grapes coming into the winery. The first trailer load of the day gave a reading of 14.2º Baumé and the last 14.65º. No dilution of the grapes here! Henry is well pleased by the excellent, deep purple colour displayed by the latest TN fermentations. Our research and development viticulturist, Fernando Alves, paid a visit during the afternoon just as this last load was coming into the winery and he was pleasantly surprised to see the grapes with such quality, despite the rain we’ve been having (see picture above left). Fernando commented that the fruit is still largely in fine condition. We shall see if we’re as lucky with the Touriga Franca which we hope to start picking from Thursday.
Wednesday, September 24th: Quite a chilly and overcast morning with mist hovering low over the Douro. Today we aim to conclude picking the remaining parcels of Touriga Nacional from Malvedos: block 70 (planted 2005); block 88 and block 97 (both planted in 2000). Later in the morning Rupert Symington, one of Graham’s Joint Managing Directors came round to the winery with a group of visitors from the United States, including a team from our US importer and distributor, Premium Port Wines.
Whilst some other areas of the Douro Valley have been visited by frequent showers over the last few days, at Malvedos we are into our third consecutive day with no rain at all. It is not infrequent for vineyards just 5 or 6 kilometres downriver or upriver from us to record downpours while this stretch of the valley remains largely dry. Still, we aren’t letting our guard down as the continuing unsettled conditions mean the winemaking team at the Quinta have to be prepared to change tack at a moment’s notice; nothing we aren’t used to.
Thursday September 18th: An uneventful day during which we continued picking the Tinta Roriz, biding our time and allowing the welcome sunshine to dry the valuable parcels of our Touriga Nacional grapes. We heard that in Porto, about 100 km to the west where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, the city had been deluged with showers all day long. It is fascinating to many of our overseas visitors how a country as small as Portugal can have such climatic variations, not just in terms of rainfall but air temperature as well. In our case this is easy to explain; between the humid Atlantic coastal plain to the west and the Douro wine country there is a mountain barrier running roughly north to south (1,415 metres/4,642 feet high), which effectively acts as a weather divide. Most of the rain transported by the prevailing westerlies tends to fall on these mountains (the Alvão/Marão/Montemuro ranges) resulting in gradually drier conditions on the lee side where the Douro wine region begins. At Vila Real, the regional capital on the sheltered side of the Marão range, average annual rainfall is 1,074 mm whilst at Malvedos it is virtually half that figure (624 mm). The distance between the two in a straight line is a mere 25 km (15.5 miles).
Friday September 19th: Another mainly sunny day and during the afternoon some more welcome wind, very useful in helping to dry things out. We moved on to picking the Tinta Barroca and after lunch, Charles, Alexandre and Henry walked around several vineyard parcels and were relieved to find the grapes remaining on the vines still in fine condition (thus far we have harvested 45% of the grapes from the Malvedos vineyard and 58% from neighbouring Tua). The decision to restart picking the Touriga Nacional was confirmed and harvesting should continue during Saturday. Back in the winery Charles decided to co-ferment in one lagar some Tinta Barroca (showing high Baumé readings) with Touriga Franca. Charles and Henry then tasted the recently made Port from the Stone Terraces parcels of ‘Port Arthur’ and ‘Cardenhos’ (harvested Monday morning). Their smiles of satisfaction mirrored the evident quality of the wine in the glass; very floral nose and intense concentration in the mouth.
Saturday September 20th: we awoke to a cool, fresh morning with clear blue skies and have therefore continued to bring the Touriga Nacional grapes into the winery. The first load of TN that came in this morning revealed a very satisfactory 14º Baumé. However to take maximum benefit from this spell of improved weather it has been decided to halt picking tomorrow to allow the remaining parcels of Touriga Nacional to fully ripen — the “compasso de espera”, as Alexandre put it, i.e., marking time. We’re in no hurry, what we want is to realize the grapes’ full potential to continue making the finest possible wines at Malvedos. The plan is to resume harvesting the Malvedos Touriga Nacional from Monday and on Tuesday to continue with this same variety but from Tua as well. Then on Wednesday the first Touriga Franca grapes (which show great promise) will be harvested at Tua.
Later in the morning we were visited by João Vasconcelos, Graham’s market manager for the UK, who brought along a party of visitors from the UK, including Nigel Barden, the Food and Wine BBC Radio 2 Presenter. Henry treated them to a tasting of the magnificent Stone Terraces Port and this had everybody asking questions as to what the future prospects for this wine might be. The quality really is very good but it’s early days yet.
Over the last couple of days it’s been a little like playing cat and mouse with the weather on account of the erratic atmospheric conditions which leave Charles, Henry and the rest of the team here at Malvedos constantly guessing as to how best to proceed. Each evening Charles and Henry consult the weather forecast and then pour over the picking schedules which have to be constantly updated with additional input from our viticulture team. This constant vigilance and preparedness to alter the picking sequence at short notice is very much part of the philosophy which ensures that we are able to circumvent most of the unpredictable situations the weather sends our way.
On Monday evening Charles did indeed determine a new picking schedule which meant switching from the Touriga Nacional, due to have been picked from early Tuesday morning, to the remainder of the old mixed vines from the Síbio sections of Malvedos. This will allow the Touriga Nacional to dry off thoroughly (we hope) and to be picked in ideal conditions two or three days from now. To help keep Henry and his team on their toes the winery reception area scales decided to malfunction (probably due to the rain) but luckily we can use the scales at nearby Tua; an inconvenience but little more than that.
Today, Wednesday the 17th started off overcast but the rain (another fifteen minute shower) only arrived in the afternoon at about 3pm. Charles popped by the winery in the morning to take a first look at some of the recently made Ports and then confirmed the picking order for the day: old mixed vineyards from Síbio and the first Tinta Roriz grapes from block 17. By the end of the day we will have concluded harvesting the old mixed vines and henceforward, besides the Tinta Roriz we will be starting on the Tinta Barroca.
Later in the afternoon Henry, who is an aspiring Master of Wine, was visited at the winery by a recently qualified Master of Wine, Cees van Casteren (see photo on the left) — just the second person from the Netherlands to achieve the world’s most prestigious wine title (bringing the total number of MWs in the world to 301, from 24 countries). Cees is a well known author writing on wine and food and is also a noted wine educator in his home country. Cees was fascinated with the recently vinified lagares of Sousão and Touriga Nacional (both from the neighbouring Tua vineyard).
During the first half of September, 15 mm of rain has fallen at Malvedos, less than half of the monthly mean for the Quinta (33.4 mm). Most of this precipitation has taken the form of brief ten to fifteen minute showers, usually followed by some welcome wind which helps to quickly dry the grape bunches on the vines. Thus far then nothing to worry too much about especially as the forecast for the next few days indicates mainly dry conditions with the odd light shower and pleasant mild conditions with temperatures in the 20ºC to 25ºC range which is what is needed to help keep the grapes dry and to conclude the final stretch of ripening (particularly important for the late ripening Touriga Franca).