Vine survival at Quinta do Tedo

The definition of weather in the Douro valley is “3 months of winter and 9 months of hell” (!), to describe the short winters and the intense heat and drought the rest of the year. At Quinta do Tedo we dry farm* and, with annual rainfall being 50cm or 19.5in, the maximum amount of rain needs to be saved for the vine’s survival.  At Quinta do Tedo we achieve this, thanks largely to our schist soil and terraced vineyards supported by our beautiful stone walls. Our vineyards are classified “A”, Douro D.O.C. appellation’s most prestigious rating on a scale of A to F, equivalent to Grand Cru in Burgundy (my husband keeps me abreast of the similarities between Burgundy and the Douro!).  Schist soil is de rigueur for the best Port, and simply put is flaky decomposed slate.  Our vineyard’s 20-30cm/8-12” schist topsoil, with a smattering of rocks, blankets the deeper slate layers growing obliquely down to the earth’s center.  This powdery topsoil acts like a sponge during the short and intense winter rains, allowing the rain to slowly descend between the schist and slate layers to the water table.  The ancestors of Quinta do Tedo, to prevent erosion during the rainy season, used extracted schist rocks to build strong wide and high “dry” walls (no cement to reinforce).  These walls allow for the rainwater to gently seep down from one terrace to the next, replenishing a water table that plays such a vital role in the vine’s survival.

Vine at work

The vine’s roots grow deep down between the cracked slate to access the water table’s humidity.  Some of our older vines go down as far as 25m/80ft!  It is during the intense and long hot summer months that the water table comes to the vine’s rescue, and the humidity pushes upwards through the slate’s crevices, a respite to the vine’s thirst, explaining how our vineyards can possibly survive and even remain green in the Douro, without rain for months at a time and when sweltering temperatures over 40C/105F can be routine in the summer.

In the past 15 years many traditional stone walls have been torn down and replaced by “patamares”, the wall-less wide terraces put in by enormous earth- moving caterpillars, that were largely funded by the World Bank after Portugal’s entrance in 1986 to the EEC, in hopes to find a mechanized and cost-effective way to “tame” the challenging steepness of the Douro. No thought was given to the resulting erosion that is found today in many of these patamares vineyards.  At Quinta do Tedo we continue to rely on our 4 km/2.4 miles in total length of traditional stone walls, that need an upkeep of 300m/930ft in manual labor every year.  Oftentimes traditional ways survive for a reason and cannot be replaced by modern practices introduced by man’s hunger for fast return on investment.   Our vines know how to survive in the infernal conditions that Mother Nature can stow upon us, and thanks to her we have the ingredients to make world-class port and wine.

*Dry farm means no irrigation.  Vineyard irrigation is illegal in the Douro, as in other prestigious European appellations, except to establish new vines for the first 3 years.  At Quinta do Tedo we practice “emergency on-demand” manual watering, only during the hottest summer days for our young vines until  they are established.

PS Thanks Gretchen for the photo!

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Replanting the vines, one at a time

Visitors at Quinta do Tedo usually start a tour under the welcome shade of the beech trees, with an exquisite view of our vineyards by the Tedo river.  Some have asked why portions of the terraced vineyard in the distance look “spotty”, when compared to other portions that are “thriving”…..are these vines unhealthy?  Not at all the case and I would like to explain why.Tedo and vineyards Our established terraced vineyards are planted very closely together – 1.6 meters between rows, 1.6 meters trellised in height and 1.1 to 1.2 meters between each vine.  We do not want the vine’s vegetation to be vigorous and to overlap from one vine to the next.  We maximize the number of vines per hectare to create competition between the vines, to actually stress the vines to produce less but more concentrated juice (less is better!).  This high density plantation is more expensive to plant and to maintain because there are more vines, more rows of wire support, more labor for pruning, etc.  Since we do not use heavy machinery in our vineyards that would destroy the beautiful stone wall terraces (we have our faithful horse Tedo to do the plowing), we replant by hand, and even more, only the missing plant and not the whole row.

These “spotty” areas in this terraced vineyard in question are of vines that range from 40 to 60 years in age, with recently planted vines starting to establish, thus the “spottiness”.  We even have some 85-year old vines in our highly-acclaimed Savedra parcel, that produce grapes of intense and very concentrated flavor, only in very small quantities.  Our vineyards are a remarkable mix of 18 different varieties, that is the tradition in this part of the world.

No instant gratification here in our replanting process!  When the old vine is no longer bearing fruit and shows a lack of vigor, we pull out the vine and inspect the root (that are sometimes as much as 5 meters deep but we pull out only 1 meter), to understand the reason it stopped bearing fruit ---mold, virus or just age.  If there is mold or infection we add a calculated amount of organic-based disinfectant to the hole where the vine was.  We let the hole lay fallow for one winter, to let nature’s rain cleanse the hole, and then we replant with American root stock.  After 2 to 3 years, when the rootstock is established and vigorous we graft 1 of our quinta’s 18 varieties, selected by enologue Jorge Alves, onto the rootstock.   This way we control our traditional grape blend that is what makes our port and wines flavor constant from year to year.  We start to pick the grapes after 3 to 4 years.  Total turn around is 6 to 7 years, and that is patience for you!

By opting  for the “slow road” to replanting, we preserve the historic terraces and walls, and use minimal disinfectant only when needed to keep the resulting run off into our water table and into the Tedo as pure as possible, keeping in tune with biological viticulture.   We are looking for quality here not quantity, and actually we are legally limited by the Douro appellation to produce only 5500 liters/hectare or about 3 tons/acre.  So we can have these old vines, up to 85 years, to balance with the more vigorous young vines.  So, these “spotty-looking” vineyards are keeping with our philosophy here at Quinta do Tedo – less is better, take care of the land and respect tradition, to create beautifully crafted ports and wines.  As my husband Vincent has reminded me time and time again “Rome was not built in a day”…….

2 comments need to be added here referring to past blogs.  I thank once again Peggy, entrepreneurial owner of St. Helena Olive Oil Company, for nudging me to start a blog (and actually unbeknowngst to me setting it up for me).  Also, thanks to winemaker and buddy Francoise, for enlightening me that “biological viticulture” is synonomous with “organic”.

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