The Douro wine region has a long and illustrious history of wine production, in a region where your breath is quite literally taken away by the steep, terraced slopes as well as the beauty of the landscape. The region is used to heat and water stress but this year the warm dry conditions have been extreme, and it doesn’t take much to push the thresholds in which grapes struggle to cope and sustainable farming practices are thoroughly challenged. So it was with great interest that SquareMeal caught up with head wine maker for The Fladgate Partnership David Guimaraens direct from this year’s harvest.
“It’s been a year of challenges” confirmed Guimaraens with a wry smile, telling us that the start of the harvest, which had begun on 24th August, was one of the earliest on record.
“The growing season in the Douro region got started pretty early in February which was an extremely hot month, 3 degrees hotter than the norm” said Guimaraens. “And this meant that March saw the earliest bud burst that I can remember.”
Budburst came on 3rd March about three weeks ahead of schedule. And from that moment on, the team knew it would be a season of low yields. Wet weather followed which meant the added challenge of controlling mildew. On top of this, Guimaraens had to make the vineyards Covid safe for the frontline team that was working in them. “Besides social distancing and the masks, a fleet of cars had to be rented,” he recalls, and an early decision was made that there would be no traditional lagar foot treading in 2020. With no Covid incidents so far, David was praying their luck would stick for the rest of harvest.
Following a relatively damp June, which meant further efforts to control mildew, the weather turned from mild to extremely hot (42°C) in late June when leaf sun burn can cause irreversible loss. “July was then the hottest on record” said Guimaraens. “3.3 degrees higher than normal.” The tropical nights gave little respite to the grapes. “After 4th July no day was less than 36 degrees until we got to August” which was milder. And, as a result of these extreme temperatures, "yields will be about 22-25 hl per ha, 30% less than last year”.
Despite these extreme conditions, Guimaraens went on to explain how adept the vineyard is at making its own compensations in a hot year like 2020. “While the south-facing vineyards suffer, the more protected north-facing vineyards have enjoyed relative relief from the heat.” Meanwhile distinct varieties have fared differently. Touriga Barocca and Touriga Francesa had a hard time and needed to be picked quickly to prevent them from collapsing on the vine, but Tinta Cao which is one of the oldest grapes in the region, with records going back to 1771, showed itself to be extremely well-adapted to the hot climate. It thrived and will be used more in this year’s blends, David told us.
The importance of handpicking, grape selection and the precise timing of when to pick each plot became even more critical this year. But it was the fact that port has so many different styles that means, according to Guimaraens, the winemaker can make adjustments for whatever the elements may throw at any particular vintage.
In a perfect vintage, there are lots of ruby and LBV ports with their sweet cherry flavours — vintage port too. However, the imperfect grapes of less perfect years are ideal for tawny ports, where the wood-aging masks over the imperfections, Guimaerens explains.
This year’s port will be more like those made in 1970 which showed hotter and riper characterisitcs as opposed to the cooler and fresher characteristics of the ports in a year like 1977.
“Port wine finds a solution to whatever the circumstances” says Guimaerens with the authority of a man who has grown up in the vineyards of the Douro and the cellars of Porto. “Yes. there’s a port solution for every year and every vineyard” he concludes.
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