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Douro reflects on ‘The Year of the Fox’

Dramatic landslides and heavy rainstorms have brought mixed results from the Douro in a year that Symington Family Estates’ managing director Paul Symington has dubbed “The Year of the Fox”.

Touriga Nacional grapes from the Malvedos Stone Terraces
Touriga Nacional grapes from the Malvedos Stone Terraces

Conceding that 2014 was “a challenging year in the Douro”, Symington pointed to a very wet winter that brought 44% more rain than the region’s average – welcome news for the vines, but less helpful for those replanting vineyards on the Douro Valley’s steep slopes.

Coupled with mild spring conditions, the wet winter encouraged early budbreak, but this was followed by what Symington described as “unsettled” weather during early summer, culminating in a “huge rainstorm”, which hit parts of the Douro on 3 July.

With more than 80mm falling on the area around Pinhão within a few hours, he reported: “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 winemaker in the village.”

After the damage from this storm had been cleared up, the region enjoyed cool conditions throughout August. “In fact,” admitted Symington, “we all began to think of 2007, when an equally cool August delivered some stupendous quality grapes to our wineries.”

The Graham's harvest in full swing as rain clouds threaten overhead
The Graham’s harvest in full swing as rain clouds threaten overhead

As the harvest began in early September, two weeks ahead of 2013, he pointed to grapes “in really lovely condition; soft skins, full berries and balanced sugars and acidity, perfect for making great Port and very good Douro wines.”

Despite these promising results, the return of unsettled weather led to problems in certain parts of the Valley, especially Baixo Corgo. Producers were hit by another downpour of more than 80mm just last week as the harvest came to a close.

Nevertheless, Symington remarked: “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.”

In a year that saw so much variation of quality across the 90km wine region, he stressed the “huge advantage” for producers who went to the extra expense of harvesting by hand.

Summing up the likely results from 2014, Symington predicted: “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 for the decision to nickname 2014 “The Year of the Fox”, he pointed to the “wily” skills required to manage such a challenging growing season. However, Symington also revealed that the group’s winemaker at Quinta dos Malvedos, Henry Shotton, had a close encounter with a small fox (pictured below) while sleeping in the winery one night during harvest.

A small fox appears at Malvedos to welcome the morning bread delivery

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