Douro, the 2018 harvest report: another atypical year. Alexandre Antas Botelho’s note

2018 was another atypical year in the Douro. We could even define irregular and uncharacteristic as the rule in recent years. 2018 had many difficulties and as main characteristics that define it: frequent and estended rainfall periods, hail storms, the great mildew pressure and the summer heat wave. But it seems that the grape quality was good and even, in some cases, as reported by some Douro producers, extraordinary. So, let us follow the wine year in the Douro. After a long cycle of extreme and severe drought, shortly after the 2017 harvest, which was very anticipated, as we have published here in Douro, the 2017 harvest report, the hot and rainless weather continued throughout the month of October. In November, finally, there was some rain that brought some relief to the soil and vineyards lack of water and to other agricultural crops in general. It was, however, in small quantity and insufficient. The average precipitation remained below average for the Douro region ultil March 2018. The specific case of the vines, these are plants with a deep root system and a relatively small size that usually can withstand water stress quite well.

The Winter

The winter was cold and dry, with little and insufficient precipitation.

The Spring

With the beginning of spring, there was finally intense and abundant rain that allowed the soil water reserves replenishment and was essential to overcome the previous drought periods. In the months of March, April and May 2018, precipitation levels were approximately twice the average for this time of year in the region. In addition to being extremely rainy, it was also in spring that the first serious difficulties of the year arose, on 28th May, in a cold period with heavy and intense rain, hail and thunderstorm. The soil was unable to absorb such a large amount of water in such a short period, which caused landslides and slopes to fall (the roads between Alijó, Sabrosa and Pinhão were closed). This storm caused significant damages and losses in some vineyards, especially in the Cima Corgo sub-region, in Alijó and Sabrosa, in Pinhão and surrounding area, Provesende and Vale de Mendiz.
Some producers recorded partial and total crop losses. Among those affected, Quinta do Junco (The Fladgate Partnership), Quinta do Noval (which will have been substantially affected), Quinta do Bonfim (Dow’s), Quinta da Cavadinha (Warre’s) and Quinta de la Rosa. It should be noted that these hail storms phenomena have been occurring with increasing frequency.

The unstable weather, the heavy rain at the end of May, and the below-normal temperatures for this season, which coincided with the vine bud break and the late flowering, also had as a consequence some severe crop loses and a 2 to 3 week delay in the vine vegetative cycle.
There was still rain in the first weeks of June, and weather instability, constant and late rainfall and high humidity, provided the ideal conditions for the exceptionally agressive mildew this year, which struck the vineyards and in many cases caused great procuction losses. The mildew also meant an increase in production costs for producers, both in treatments to fight the disease and to heal the hailstorm hit marks in the grapevines.

The Summer

The months of June and July were also characterized by some climatic instability and a lot of rain still in June. Summer arrived, initially with mild temperaturres, lower than usual, which kept the grapevine vegetative cycle delay. But with August arrival the weather changes, with periods of strong heat and temperatures higher than usual. At the beginning of August there were temperatures above 40ºC in Cima Corgo and Douro Superior sub-regions (in some cases above 45ºC), and a heat wave that caused sunburn scald in many vineyards and grapes, the most sensitive and less resistant to intense heat vine varieties were those to suffer the most. The 4th of August was the hottest day of the XXI century in the region and, according to the IPMA(3) data, August was the second hottest month of the last 88 years. Nevertheless, the July, August and September hot and dry weather allowed the grape maturation to regularize and the hot September month contributed to an acceleration of the grape ripening.

The Harvest

It was a late harvest, still determined by the vineyard vegetative cycle delay, which in turn determine that the harvest would begin later than usual. There was a generalized harvest delay throughout the Douro demarcated region of about 2 weeks in the different stages of the vine and grape development, sprouting, flowering and veraison. As mentioned, the higher temperatures that occurred in the grapes maturation phase allowed some recovery of the phenological cycle. There was good and quite hot weather throughout the 2018 harvest, with high temperatures above 30ºC (according to the IPMA data, September was the hottest since there are records) with hot days, but cooler nights that also influenced the final quality of grapes and wines. The harvest ended, in most cases, in the second and third week of October, which coincided with the first autumn rains.

All the difficulties of the wine year mentioned above – the unstable climatic conditions, hail storms, mildew pressure and the heat wave – have led to a production drop, generally about 30% less (or between 20% to 50%), however, when considering the grape quality, procucers consider that quality was very good this year. According to the Quinta do Vallado report, considering Quinta do Vallado as a whole and the Upper Douro vineyards, the production drop reached around 15%, highlighting that there were vineyards that produced well and with optimal quality, along with the sousão grape variety that suffered greatly from the heat, other grape varieties like touriga francesa had an optimal quality. Despite everything expectatios are high, not only for Port wines but also for the house D.O.C. Douro wines.

The Symington Family Estates group (which holds the Port wine brands Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Vesúvio and Warre’s), reports that the 2018 production was very low, many of the vines producing less 40% than usual average and few vineyards with a yield of minus 25%. In spite of this, but also as a consequence of the low production, some excellent Port wines as well as D.O.C. Douro wines. As in Quinta do Vallado, Symington points out the good performance and good quality of the touriga francesa grapes with good color and good aromas which will be the main characteristics of this grape variety this year.

Alexandre Antas Botelho, responsible for the Nobel & Murat Port wines, states that 2018 «was overall downright good (in quality). In our experience, the grapes arrived in good condition to the winery, we only had to be careful about the fruit temperature and the maturation state, in order to preserve the natural acidity essential for the balance of the wines. In the lagares, the critical issue was keeping temperatures low and under control which moreover has been a trend occuring in the last three years. The musts resulting from the vinifications had good color and body, also preserving very interesting aromas». 

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