An MW student trip to the Douro in April filled my notes with content, my senses with orange blossom and fantastic fortifieds and unfortunately for you the reader an awful lot of content for this blog! Please feel free to skip the parts that might make you yawn (I’ve added headings to help guide you through).
It’s save to say that Porto is steeped in history. Though not naturally an historian, I couldn’t avoid being fascinated by the traditions and principals behind the Factory House. An 18th Century Neo-Palladian building in the centre of Porto owned by the British Association; the building was built to provide a meeting place for foreign merchants (factors) to conduct their business. Conceived as a meeting place for British merchants the Factory House effectively became a sealed establishment where the English merchants worked hard to maintain their monopoly over the Port wine trade, hiding their plans from the Portuguese. Nowadays the role of the Factory includes promotion of Port as well as keeping the traditions of old alive for future generations. A tradition that they still adhere to is the weekly Wednesday lunch which involves lively discussion and a blind tasting of a number of older vintages. I’m sure that Tindal Wine Merchants needs to look at developing a tradition such as this! Wines for the lunch are drawn from the cellars of Factory House, these cellars are stocked annually by members of the Association. Upon joining a house must donate 1200 bottles of vintage port. Following this a top up of twelve dozen more each declared vintage ensures that their cellars don’t run dry.
On our trip we effectively worked the port production process backwards; starting in Oporto within the warehouses where these great wines are stored and later heading deep into the Douro valley to the gravity defying vineyards, bathed in breathtaking scenery. At Taylor’s lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia Technical Director and head winemaker David Guimaraens showed us round. His family have been making port here for five generations. Defining the viticulture of the Douro as a ‘region of mountain viticulture in a hot climate’, he effectively set the scene for the following day’s discussions on erosion, climate change and altitude. Though this was a tour of the cellars it was obvious that David’s heart lies in the vineyard. With all the talk of lagares, extraction and fortification we fail to realise that great Port, like light wines globally; is born in the vineyards.
The Port styles are separated into wood aged and bottle aged styles. Both commence their lives in the same way with decisions made in the January following the harvest as to what style the wine will become. Wines that have just missed the Vintage blend tend to go into 40 year old Tawny styles. LBV quality wines are destined for the 20 year olds. Wines that are of deemed good enough to be Vintage examples sit for another winter in large casks before being blended and then bottled. Blending is an integral part of most styles, exceptions include Vintage ports that are all from one year and Colheita styles that are tawnies from a single year. Single Quinta Vintage wines are from just one estate and year.
Then we headed inland to the vineyards…After a short visit to Grahams 1890 Lodge we boarded the bus and headed inland towards Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos where we were staying the night. The next morning Charles Symington head winemaker for the Symington Family Estates took us on a tour of the surrounding vineyards. The Symington family have 1000ha spread over 20 properties. Much of our tour focussed on the difficulties associated with climate change and erosion. We stopped at the top of a new vineyard, recently re-terraced and planted having been abandoned since Phylloxera times. This three hectare plot took two years to prepare and involved an investment of €160,000. Extreme mountain viticulture is a high cost practice with little reward from low yields and constant restoration works of the vines, terraces and surrounding tracks and land.
Altitude plays a big part in planting decisions. In their new vineyard Charles planted Touriga Franca at the bottom of the slope; the hottest spot as it has a greater capacity for heat than say Sousao that needs to be planted up the slope with some relief from the worst of the summer heat. As a more sensitive variety Touriga Nacional is planted on east and north facing slopes due to a lesser capacity to take heat than the other varieties.
Traditional terraces or vertical vines? We looked across at an expanse of vineyards planted in the down the slopes. This belongs to another company and involved ten years of soil moving and regeneration. This practise has a greater density of 4,500 vines compared to the 3,200 vines/ha normal on terraces. The Symington family find that traditional terraces work better for them, they have evolved existing ones to be slightly wider and allow for tractors to pass along the vines. Later on in our trip on a visit to Quinta da Roeda we saw how the Fladgate Partnership are replanting using the vertical planting system with a 3% run-off gradient within each row and track; designed to help curtail erosion issues.
Harvest During harvest at Quinta dos Malvedos they employ 24 to 25 people. It’s like time has stood still in this rural area with the women seen as more skilled at picking the grapes and men lumping the 25kg baskets up to the trailer. On arrival at the winery the Symingtons tend to destem all their grapes as the vigorous extraction of the lagares gives adequate structure. All pressings are fermented by variety. They are pressed in the traditional lagares using people for the initial extraction phase over four hours and then the cap plungers to contain the cap following an overnight of fermentation.
Following our stay at Quinta dos Malvedos we headed to the home of the Douro’s famous pre-phylloxera vineyard Quinta do Noval. Corinne showed us round, leading us up large hills, over ungrafted vines (the famed Nacional vineyard) and through almond groves on an altogether highly enjoyable afternoon and evening.
Vertical planting: Following our stay at Quinta do Noval we headed down the river to Quinta da Roeda purchased in 1845 by the Fladgate Partnership and currently undergoing serious vineyard excavations. They are creating new vineyards using the vertical planting system. Using laser machinery they perfect row angles and slopes; minimising erosion through effective water run off patterns and maximising efficiency for work in the vineyards. The replanting and improvements going on at this estate were perhaps an illustration of just how ambitious and intent on quality the producers in this mountainous terrain are.
I learnt so much on the trip, enough to fill reams of pages. But in order to keep any readers that might still remain here are some key points from the winemaking process that were of particular interest included:
- The spirit for fortification was supplied by the government until 1991. That said there were comments on the integration of spirit in the older vintage examples and the suggestion that the lower quality of this spirit had an effect on the finished Port giving it a ‘turbulent, waxy, oily’ effect.
- David believes that the thermodynamics of granite are superior to stainless steel, as such the automatic treading system that they use is evolved to use in the original granite lagares. This is in direct contrast to the Symington estates where they use temperature controlled stainless steel troughs that are easier and more efficient to clean and manage.
- Standard barrel sizes for ageing Tawny Ports are 640 litres.
- On average there are 3 vintages a decade.
- Single Quinta ports tend to be more accessible earlier due to the fact that they are generally made in a year when shipper vintages are not declared and lack the structure acquired through blending of many top sites of the main Vintage styles. In the old days Single Quinta styles were released when ready to drink.
Vineyard points of interest included:
- Since the 1970s there has been a move to batch planting and away from the traditional masal plots that made the production of quality wine a more random and less quantified task. This greater varietal control allows the winemakers total control over ripeness of the different varieties.
- With the move to batch planting came a decision to concentrate on just four or five varieties rather than a range of up to 20. While both these moves have improved the consistency of styles and pulled up the quality of port there has been a recent move by the major houses to take the less mainstream varieties into account once more. Each has their favourite ‘outsider’: While Symingtons like Sousao for its structure and colour, the Fladgate Partnership value Mourisco for its sweet perfume and Tinta Francisca (a crossing between Touriga Nacional and Mourisco) for its ease to work with
- At midday the difference in temperature between a North and South facing slope at the same altitude can be as much as 2C.
- The difference between day and night temperatures can vary by as much as 20C.
- Within the Fladgate Partnership David concentrates on eight varieties planted in micro plots suited to the best soil and location.
The Port Trade: Like with any other fine wine area, there are a number of ways that the various styles are decided and the wines are brought to market. The January following vintage the companies set aside the best ports, letting them sit for another winter. That winter they try the wines and make a decision as to whether to ‘declare’ a vintage. Once a vintage is declared there is no going back! On average there are three declared vintages a decade. In the past the port houses used to release the vintage wines in batches. Nowadays it all tends to be sold ‘on declaration’ rather like ‘en primeur’ in Bordeaux. Dow’s sold out of stocks of their famed 2011 vintage almost immediately. In undeclared years Single Quinta Vintage ports are released. These are generally earlier maturing and lighter than the Vintage ports of ‘general declaration’.
Sentiments. It’s hard to portray just how breathtaking the Douro Valley is, or how steeped in history the Port Houses at the mouth of the Douro remain. Perhaps my less technical, more romantic post of last year will help build that picture for those of you yet to visit. The Douro should effectively be at least in the top 5 of your bucket list… The trip was informative, exceptionally spoiling and great fun. Praise and thanks must be given to the three supporters of this annual MW student visit; The Symington Family, The Fladgate Partnership and Quinta do Noval.