Symington Estates to uncover Douro’s best grapes

Symington Family Estates has planted an experimental vineyard in the hottest part of the Douro to uncover which native grapes are best-suited to the extreme conditions of the Portuguese region.

Charlotte-Paul-Symington

Charlotte and Paul Symington at the experimental vineyard in the Douro Superior

The new plot covers 2.25 hectares in the Douro Superior and contains 53 different vitis vinifera varieties – 29 red and 24 white – which were planted just over one year ago. The majority are indigenous grapes, but also included are a range of international varieties.

The project was the brainchild of Charles Symington, head of viticulture at Symington Family Estates, the largest Port producer in the Douro, and also the biggest landholder with a little over 1,000ha in the region.

Speaking last month to the drinks business, which was the first publication to be introduced to the project, Charles said that he has wanted to create an experimental vineyard in the Douro ever since completing his MSc in oenology and viticulture at the University of La Rioja Logroño back in 1992. While he began a vineyard research project in the Pinhão Valley’s Quinta da Cavadinha in 1995, this was focused on the five main red grapes in the region (mentioned below).

However, the new experiment is a significant development of this initial study, fueled by his – and others’ – limited understanding of which varieties were best suited to the region, and why.

Notably, the research plot is designed to potentially rediscover “lost” grapes, as well as test the suitability of current recommended Port grapes: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão – which are dubbed “the big five” among Douro viticulturists.

But where should the Symingtons plant such an experimental vineyard? For that, the family-owned company needed a place that was relatively homogenous, as well as climatically extreme, to ensure that all the varieties were subject to the same, intensely hot Douro conditions. Such a site had in fact come with the acquisition of Cockburn’s assets, which the Symingtons bought in 2006, before taking over the brand too in late 2010.

Called Quinta do Ataíde, the experimental plot is within an 81ha planting in the Douro Superior, where Cockburn’s pioneering viticulturist, Miguel Corte Real had undertaken the first clonal selection of Touriga Nacional as many as 35 years ago (and was using the site for growing grapes for Port, whereas today the area is mostly used for table wine production). Importantly, the estate is gently undulating – quite unlike the Douro valleys with their steep gradients and terraced slopes – eliminating the distorting influence of altitude on the vines. It is also warmer than in the valley, on average around 2°C hotter, while it is drier too, with annual rainfall averaging under 400mm. Nevertheless, the soils are the same schistous rock as the main Douro Valley, with an almost equally low content of organic matter: less than 2%.

The management of the entire site is slightly different: not only is it 100% organic, but it is also fully irrigated – with the Symingtons applying the equivalent of an extra 200-250mm of rainfall per year (still less than the wettest and lowest part of the Douro, the Baixa – or lower – Corgo, where around 1,000mm of precipitation falls annually). What is interesting is how dry the area is. The Symington’s new head of viticulture R&D, Fernando Alves, uses a measure called Vapour Pressure Deficit – essentially the air’s ability to draw water from a plant – to highlight the hot and dry nature of the environment. “If it is 5 Kilopascals (kPa) in the Médoc, and the Douro Valley is around 6-7kPa, in Ataíde it is 9kPa, so the vapour pressure deficit, or the dryness of the air, is nearly double that in the Médoc,” he says.

One Response to “Symington Estates to uncover Douro’s best grapes”

  1. Very interesting. In Italy, top viticulturalist Maurizio Gentile argues southern Italian (indigenous) varieties are so well adapted to the warm climatic conditions in Puglia, Calabria, Compania and Basilicata that contrary to expectations, they do not produce heavy, alcoholic wines.

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