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Exciting 2020 crop in the Douro but pressures mounting

The combined pressures of high temperatures, an early harvest, reduced yields and Covid-19 have nonetheless resulted in a yield of great promise report Symington Family Estates.

In a report published today (12 October), winemaker Charles Symington laid out the numerous challenges the company (and by extension the valley’s other producers) had had to face in 2020.

The first was the early growing cycle. Taking temperatures recorded at the Quinta do Bomfim property at Pinhão, every month apart from April was warmer than the 30 year trend. July was the hottest on record and there were heat waves from June to September – part of an over-riding theme of climate change which has become more noticeable in the valley over the past few years.

Rainfall overall during the growing season was adequate but there was no rain at all in June or July and what relief there was in form of rain in the summer, such as the 12mm which fell at Bomfim on 20 August, was often counteracted by subsequent high temperatures which threatened berry dehydration.

Harvesting began early, therefore, 25 August for the white varieties and 1 September for the reds. Although Charles Symington remarked on how the indigenous varieties of the Douro withstood the heat well, the harvest period was further complicated by many varieties all needing to be picked at the same time.

He said: “This year’s conditions saw varieties that usually ripen sequentially, needing picking at the same time. This was particularly so with the typically late-ripening Touriga Franca, which we decided to pick at the same time as the Touriga Nacional. This is not a common occurrence.”

As this was the situation up and down the valley the demand for labour – as the vast majority of Douro vineyards are harvested manually – was high.

This was somewhat counter-balanced by the yield being much smaller than normal – down as much as 40% in some places – as Symington continued: “The Douro is a low-yielding region even in the bumper years, but 2020 has brought us an especially small crop. In some locations in the Douro Superior we were harvesting only 400g per vine. Quinta dos Malvedos, the primary Graham’s Port estate, averaged just 600g per vine.”

All of this was of course being played out against the background of further restrictions imposed by Covid-19, which included frequent testing of workers and additional health and safety measures across all facilities.

As with other producers, Symington Family Estates decided to forego foot-treading this year, and 2020 was the first year that no grapes were trodden at Quinta do Vesuvio since the family acquired it in 1989 (and very likely the first year no grapes were trodden there since it was founded in 1827).

On the other hand, as Symington explained, the company has long been using automatic treaders in its lagares which made this less of an issue than it might have been otherwise.

The upside to all these challenges has been, “some incredibly concentrated and dark wines. My first impressions – confirmed by subsequent tastings – were of particularly promising lagares with balanced Baumés. A comparable harvest is 2009, which was also a very dry and hot year, with low yields that nonetheless delivered small quantities of intense, well-structured wines and Ports.”

The Touriga Nacional in particular was picked out for praise by Symington for its structure and acidity, “remarkable given the conditions”, though he noted some of the Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Franca had been “slightly more impacted by the conditions” though those from plots at higher elevations and more protected from the sun were better off.

In summary he said: “The first people to carve vineyards into the mountainsides of the Douro Valley did so with incredible determination, effort, and grit. And so, it is no surprise that today’s generation of Douro grape farmers and harvest workers, viticulturists and winemakers responded to the challenge of adapting to the Covid-19 restrictions with quiet competence and equanimity. At the same time, they successfully navigated yet another vintage defined by the ever-more-present tests that the climate crisis is throwing at us.”

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