Fladgate: Changes inspired by labour shortage ‘as significant as phylloxera’

Fladgate’s head winemaker, David Guimaraens, believes that the changes implemented since the 1970s in the Douro to mitigate the effects of the labour shortage contributed to “as big a revolution” in the production and styles of Port as phylloxera.

David Guimaraens

Speaking to media in the Douro last month Guimaraens said that both “compulsory and voluntary” changes implemented since the 1970s had led to a revolution in the production and styles of Port made that was the equivalent to those which took place after the devastation caused by phylloxera in the 19th century.

“The first phase of change – growing use of mechanisation – was almost compulsory as labour was scare,” he said. “This was combined with voluntary changes, which resulted in a different approach to how we dealt with our grape varieties.

“I’d say this is just as big a revolution as phylloxera was, and though while not as dramatic, it has influenced the style of Port we now produce.

“The 1970s and 80s saw a revolution in winemaking. Whereas before all Port was made by foot treading, the technology used changed with the introduction of autovinifers and pump overs, the latter coming from table wine production.”

“We first began trialling mechanical treaders in 1995 and we learnt a lot. We were using open top stainless steel fermenters whereas in the 1980s oxygen was almost a swear word.”

He added that the use of stainless steel, rather than granite from which lagares were traditionally made, had an impact.

“The style changes when you use stainless steel, not for better or worse, but it does change,” he said. He is currently working to understand the role of thermal dynamics, having also installed mechanical foot treaders in his traditional granite lagares, using this method during the day to reduce labour costs.

Moving to the viticultural changes, Guimaraens said mechanisation had meant a move away from field blends and which consequently, by planting each variety in separate blocks and picking them separately, tested winemakers’ skills as blenders. New plantings also focused on just four or five varieties, rather than planting a selection of the over 100 varieties allowed in the production of Port.

“The consequence was we pulled the bottom quality level up,” he said. “If some varieties didn’t perform well in field blends it led to a drop in overall quality. However, it also pulled the top quality level down. If you focus only on four or five grape varieties, you lose complexity and individuality.

“We’ve become more New World in style – more fruit-driven and intense but more homogenous. This is the biggest challenge that I have: how do we pull the bottom up and don’t pull the top down.”

“For me, using more varieties is important. Tinta Franca has a lot of colour but it can be very one dimensional. If you use too much Touriga Nacional, it completely dominates with its strong flavours. While using New World practices contributed to better quality wine, the changes introduced mean that we’ve lost many of the Old World impractical and individualistic practices.

“The first phase of viticultural transformation solved the man hour problem, reducing it from around 1,000 man hours per hectare per year to 400 hours. However, it created the problem of erosion and also a dependency on herbicides, whereas before this was naturally controlled by the dry stone walls of the socalcos.”

Speaking about the changes that he has put in place, Guimaraens said he feels he now has “the best of Old and New World practices”.

“I have reintroduced varieties that got left out, using better site selection and properly learning the behaviour of each variety.

“I don’t want to go back to the field blend. I don’t feel the necessity, I like to take care of grapes individually.

“We’ve changed the way we plant. We now use up to 30% vertical planting with higher vine density.

“When we have used terraces these are formed by laser-guided bulldozers, with each terrace having a 3% longitudinal slope to a drainage channel at the end.

“A big part of the process has been learning to live with weeds. Herbicides kill more fragile weeds then the more vicious ones take over. We led our banks grow naturally and cut it in spring.”

Adrian Bridge

Sustainability 

Unlike other Port shippers, Fladgate has not moved into the realms of table wine production, instead concentrating on Port production and wine tourism.

Comparing the Douro Valley to Champagne in terms of their adaption to the style of wines they make, Guimaraens called the production of table wine “the biggest move away from sustainability in a region that has been producing Port grapes for 300 years without need for irrigation”.

“Port is a style of wine that is well suited to the Douro Valley,” he said. “A direct comparison with another style of wine that is also suited to its region of production would be Champagne.

“Champagne’s cool climate results in wine with high natural acidity and low sugar. In the Douro’s hot climate, grapes naturally ripen to high sugar levels.

“For me the best example of sustainability is when a product suits a region. The drive towards table wine is a move away from this as it forces people to irrigate vines.

Speaking to the drinks business on the topic, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, Adrian Bridge, echoed Guimaraens’ concerns.

“We’ve got to be very careful with this planet. It’s difficult when the decision has been made to irrigate out of the Douro River,” he said.

“Permission was granted last year and was championed by several companies which lobbied the government. These companies own cheap land by the Spanish border and claim it will need less treatment, in terms of pesticides, as it’s drier, but they need water to be able to plant.

“It’s a political decision done at the behest of companies wanting to make money. It is my belief that every litre taken from the river should be paid for like it is coming out of the tap. If this was in place, they simply wouldn’t irrigate.

“Spain and Portugal has an agreement that we don’t take water from the river, but if we start to do that here, then what will happen? We will start to slow down the river, and then the temperature goes up, there’s a algae bloom and you sterilise the river.

“We have to be very careful of the consequences and cause and effect for those left to deal with the results of our actions. I feel they should have done a careful and considered environmental impact study to detail how the river would be effected, but they didn’t do this.

“They’re taking one million litres of water from the Douro each day, and this might be what you start with, but that could well be increased.

“There’s money to be made from growing grapes in a dry environment, you only need to look at Mendoza which is an irrigated desert. But the water they have is coming off the Andes, ours is coming from a river.”

Bridge was also concerned about the impact increased table wine production has had on labour supply at harvest.

“Last year there was a big labour shortage and this is being worsened by the production of table wine. With the historic focus on Port, you would harvest and pick the Douro in a logical way.

“Now with the table wine, we’re picking earlier and in different areas. Before the Port harvest would start on the Spanish border but before you’ve done that, they’re now already making whites in Pinhão as they want to pick early to keep the acidity.”

In order to guarantee labour supply, Fladgate works with local communities to fund projects and support them throughout the year.

“This generates a greater sense of loyalty so that when a member of that village gets approached to work for another company, they have a commitment to Taylor’s as we’ve helped them all year,” said Bridge.

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