There are places on Earth where we can still travel in time. At least in the wine planet. Places where technology, chemistry and machines are totally relegate to a lower level of importance. Places where mass wine production processes are barely known. Places where every single grape berry counts, as there are very little. That place is Priorat.
Located in the south of Catalunya, Spain, few dozen kilometres from the Mediterranean sea, Priorat reminds me what was probably the Douro of the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries. I could see it in every corner, the passion of the people for the vines, the respect for the traditions, the soils made out of schist, the olive trees on the edges of the steep vineyards.
Many of the steep hills of the Priorat look like those of the Douro. But in the Priorat, the old vines are still grown on the hillside with no terrace, making it impossible for tractors to get there and very hard for working animals or human beings to climb over. The reason for not having a terrace is because the vines are so old that growers do not want to pull up their vines and replace by new ones. The quality of the grapes from old vines, they believe -and so do I – is so much better than the new vines, that it is well worth the higher production costs. The wines turn out being elegant, rich and tremendously complex. Age worth for sure, but also great when young. Ryan Opaz from Catavino mentions in this article the similarities between Douro and Priorat wines, which is interesting due to proximity of terroir.
There is one thing missing in Priorat that would certainly enrich its landscape: a river. A wide river, and then its similarities with the Douro would be enormous. I recommend you go there and see the vines, get to know the people and enjoy the landscape with no moderation!
We are now getting to the most critical phase in our works at Quinta da Alegria. After opening the terraces and removing the stones, it finally came the moment to plant the grafted vines in the soil. In the area we are working now, on the top of the property, we are planting Tinta Amarela vines. I guess the first question is why did we decide to plant Tinta Amarela on the top? The reason for that is because this variety is very sensitive to humidity and hot temperatures. After flowering it can quickly be affected by mildew and powder mildew if there is a little bit of humidity and temperatures are in the 22º – 25º C range. The best location for Tinta Amarela is in areas with lower humidity, windy and where temperatures are not too high during the Summer.
To plant the vines the first step is to draw a line along the terrace, with 50cm to the external edge. Then, we use an iron stick to open a 80cm-deep hole. After this we place the young vine in the hole and use water to immediately irrigate and close the hole. The distance between vines is of 80cm.
My sister Cláudia made a video with all these steps. Who knows if one day it won’t help you to become a vine grower in the Douro. If you have any questions, please let us know.
Works continue in Quinta da Alegria as more land is ready to receive the new vines. In the last weeks we have been delineating terraces and revolving the soil to eliminate any compaction it may exist. Also important when working the soil is to clear it of big stones to make it easy for the vines’ roots to penetrate in the soil and for the tractors to circulate. After removing the stones from the terraces we need to find a way to put it back in a place where they do not interfere with the daily works. The location that we choose to hide the stones is on the location of the roads, creating a trench with 5-6 meters depth. After placing the stones under we cover and smooth the surface. This way we are also increasing the stability of the road reducing the risk of landslides, which often happen on rainy Winters.
In this photo we can see the trench created to incorporate the stones, within the red line. The new terraces just finished are located to the left of the blue line, and the land where we still have to delineate the terraces are to the right of the yellow line.
With temperatures warming up and with the risk of frost dropping, we are now planting the young vines. So soon we will have a video for you to see the vines planting at Quinta da Alegria.
Do you have any comments?
Spring is finally coming after a very wet Winter in Portugal. This was probably the wettest Winter of the last 80 years, which gives us quite good expectations for the harvest to come. As you all know, the Douro is one of the driest wine regions of the world and a wet Winter is key to make top quality Ports and wines. The weather is now getting warmer and clear, but we may have more rain during the next months.
The other side of the coin is that we couldn’t work as many days as necessary in the vineyards because of the rain. So the works are running a little bit late, as pruning is just now about to finish. After that we still have to crush the old vine shooting, left from pruning, which is what Paulo is doing on the green tractor.
Let us know your questions and comments.
At Quinta da Alegria we have moved to the second step of vine planting. After flattening the soil and eliminating the old terraces we are now using a bulldozer to build 2.30 meter width terraces. Due to the steepness of the land, we will only plant one line of vines per terrace. If we planted two, which is what we see most of the time, the bigger height of the terrace would increase the risk of landslide. In order to better retain the rain, we are preparing the soil with 3% inclination inward and 3% along the terrace. This inclination allows more retention of the rain, at the same time that also avoids landslides. Once the soil is saturated with water, the 3% inclination along the terrace allows the water to flow towards the road where it is then directed to the river. To precisely calculate the slope, an infrared laser is used (you can see it tied to a pole on the front of the bulldozer). The length of the terrace depends on the roads we have opened. After opening the terrace, an excavator will move the soil and remove the bigger stones at the same time that it adjusts the final leveling.
So far we have around 2 hectares of soil prepared for planting, which will start at the beginning of March. That is the next step and we will share it here with you.
Quinta da Alegria is one of the properties (the other one is Mós) that belongs to my mother’s family. It was first planted by my great grandfather in the beginning of the last century. At that time, as it was forbidden to export Port Wine directly from the Douro, grapes were used to make Port at the property that would then be shipped in rabelo boats to Vila Nova de Gaia. Later, in the 80s, my grandfather Joaquim Morais Fernandes together with my grandmother Judite, replanted this quinta with new vines. My grandparents passed away last decade and the property was inherited by my uncles and mother. Now, in 2014, we put all efforts together, and the family decided to replant around 13 hectares of vines in the middle of the property – the upper is planted with older vines and the lower part, underneath the rail road, has orange and tangerine trees. We have been so busy and excited with all this new challenge. Quinta da Alegria is located in a beautiful place, facing southwest, just few kilometers west of Valeira dam.
Works are now starting and I thought you would like to know, step by step, how to plant grape vines in the Douro. The first thing to do was to remove the wires and posts that sustain the wires. After that, a bulldozer came to flatten the soil, eliminating the previous terraces. This video shows pretty well this first step.
The next step includes leveling the soil and opening new terraces. Will be posted soon.
Cork plays a critical role in the wine business. It has historically been the most used closure and nowadays it closes around 70% of all the wine bottles in the world. However, in the last decades both screw caps (made out of aluminum, with around 19% market share) and synthetic corks (made out of plastic, with around 11% market share) became more and more popular. Why? I would point two main reasons:
- screw cap is easier to use than cork, avoiding the need of a cork screw to pull the cork out of the bottle;
- both screw cap and synthetic cork are trichloroanisole (TCA) free, while few decades ago cork had problems of TCA contamination (which above a certain level may spoil the wine)
Despite that, cork is still the most used closure. Why are wine producers so keen in using cork? I’ve recently visited Corticeira Amorim factory and tried to understand a bit more about the motivation for using cork. I’ve also read few article about which closures to use for wine and found some stunning research (check bibliography at the bottom of this article). Putting the environmental question apart (cork comes directly from the bark of the cork tree grown naturally), there are two factors that help cork to be the closure that ensures the best quality for a bottle of wine:
- all the oxygen that passes to the wine comes from within the cells of the cork, and not from the outside; thus cork stoppers are effective barriers to the transmission of exogenous aerial volatile compounds, while synthetic closures allow contamination and oxidation from outside.
- given their relatively high oxygen permeability, synthetic closures promote the wine’s development towards oxidation faster than the other closures. In contrast, reductive off-flavours have been reported to happen more frequently in wines sealed under screw cap, which is argued to be related to their low oxygen permeability compared with other closures.
Regarding to Port Wine, back in 2008 I knew of one Port producer, Castelinho, using not only natural cork. They were using synthetic corks is some of their references. Currently, don’t know any. However, legislation does not allow the use of screw cap but only natural and synthetic corks (the only exception is the very small size bottle which can be sealed with screw cap). Though I’m sold to natural cork for Port, I disagree with the prohibition of using other closures. Producers should use what they think is better for their wines and Ports. Through experiments of different closures, we could see and taste how different closures perform in a bottle of Port. And eventually we might come to the conclusion of what closure is the most indicated for Port. But through our own experiencing, not by law.
Bibliography – If you want to know more about these three closures I suggest you to read:
- Impact of different closures on intrinsic sensory wine quality and consumer preferences
- The impact of closure type and storage conditions on the composition, colour and flavour properties of a Riesling and a wooded Chardonnay wine during five years’ storage;
- Sealing effectiviness;
As the year is about to finish, we thought that could be fun to share with you what has been said recently on the press about our Ports and wines. We tried to combine in this press clipping one quote from each Port and each wine, combining a diversity of publications.
2013 was a great year for us, so we just hope that 2014 is as good.
Happy New 2014!
Wine geeks like rituals. We care about which glasses to use, which way to pass the bottle, decanting time or serving temperatures. We take these “necessary” steps to fully enjoy a bottle of wine on any occasion. Another ritual that you may also care about is how to open the bottle and which cork screw to use. For very old bottles which might have a wet cork that may not come out in a single piece, port tongs can make the whole difference.
How to use Port tongs? Instead of pulling out the cork, we directly remove the top of the neck. The video above will show you how to do it but basically, the tongs are heated (I prefer to use ember rather than the stove), then clamp the tongs around the neck of the bottle right above the line of the bottom of cork for 30 seconds and then put a cold wet towel (I sunk the towel in an ice bucket) around the neck in the same place. If the tongs were really hot this temperature change will cause the glass to break. Voilà, you made it. Time to decant the wine and enjoy it with your company. If you didn’t make it, try again and make sure the port tongs are red-hot before clamping them to the bottle!
Winter is approaching quickly at the same pace that days get shorter. Temperatures in the Douro have been barely positive, which is quite normal for the season. Usually, at this time of the year rains often. Once or twice a week I would say. However, after the long days of rain in October which helped to spoil the grapes and part of the harvest in the Douro, very little rain came afterwards. These last days the moisture is coming only from the compact fog that has been covering the valley. Although this makes it harder to handle winter as the humidity is very high, the fog actually creates stunning landscapes. And this photo is a good example of those landscapes. The photo was taken in the way to Tua village, on the north bank of the river.
Next time you plan to come to the Douro, you may want to consider a visit on winter. It is a quite different scenario, but If you do so, just make sure you bring a good coat.