This month’s Question for the Port Trade drew eight responses from the trade, offering a variety of viewpoints as diverse as the grapes of the Douro.

Q: We’ve seen better crushing and gentler filtration equipment, as well as robotics employed throughout some of the properties in the Douro region over the past decade. What do you foresee will be the next technological breakthrough … and will it be utilized to improve viticulture or viniculture?

Miguel Sousa, Vineyard Manager, Quinta do Portal

I don’t know what the next “revolution” in viticulture will be. I believe the revolution may be a step backwards (in the good sense), i.e., go back to some of the ancient and traditional procedures. In addition, the recovery and plantation of varieties that are barely used today may become important once again.

I know these are not exactly technological factors. In this field the revolution may come from the genetic improvement of the plants and from the development of precision agricultural techniques. However, this will be a global revolution and not only in the Douro.

Adrian Bridge, CEO, The Fladgate Partnership

This is not an easy question. I do not see any major step changes as the technology to make our ports is now implemented in the wineries and the planting technologies are still being implemented. With the life of a vine 35 years it will take time to roll out across all vineyards.

The trade is fixated with volume at the moment with a disproportionate amount of effort focussed at the BOB level which has no margin. This is the structural shift that has been clearly coming for the last 15 years and has been ignored from a policy making point of view. This is why we have had 25% increase in the planted area and the every reducing Beneficio. The step change is that the table wine industry will have to pay for their grapes and this will have a profound impact on the Douro. Until now the Douro farmers have sought to sell the grapes with Beneficio at a price of 1,000 and the same grapes without the paper at 200. The cost of production is 600. This is the cross subsidy that I have been talking about for years.

It is very unlikely that the total volume of Port will grow unless innovation is allowed (which I do not see) although I expect the value of Port to increase as special category Ports grow (our group had 36 of our 67 markets in growth last year). Therefore farmers are now finally realising that if they wish to survive then they need to stop selling their grapes destined for DOC at a price that is below cost. As DOC and Port sell at the same average price it seems to me to not be sustainable that the DOC grapes sell for 20% of the price of the same grapes for Port.

Of course the reduction in the perceived impact of Beneficio will have a major impact on the politics – and that could be revolutionary.

Pedro Sá, Director of Viticulture and Oenology of Ports, Sogevinus Fine Wines S.A.

Viticulture: The next technological breakthrough will be the use of a robotic engine, I mean PC or other software to improve viticulture or viniculture. Thus it will allow for the price reduction and increased capacity for high quality data processing.

  • The use of SIG in real-time information, which allows the optimization and customization of viticulture practices for each plot and terroir.
  • To obtain information on-line about physiological data of the plant.
  • In the creation of image files, which permit the processing of images in real time and understanding the deviations and the nuances, which identifies a specific year.

Oenology: In Port wine and her future, I think the most relevant issue concerns the analysis and increasingly careful and rigorous selection of aguardente that will be used for fortification.

Other relevant issues are the energy and environmental sustainability and how both will emerge as increasingly important in managing the whole process of winemaking and aging of Port wine.

Manuel Lobo, Pedro Almeida and Tomas Roquette; Quinta do Crasto

Technology is something that will always help to improve viticulture and winemaking. At Quinta do Crasto, our philosophy of viticulture and winemaking is focused on respecting the right balance of a unique terroir. Therefore, viticulturally we try to produce grapes of super-premium quality, which grow in perfect harmony with our specific terroir. At the winery we pay attention to extracting the highest quality that our grapes can possibly provide in order to achieve super-premium quality wines that can express the terroir of our vineyards. It is very important that we work with extreme concentration and caution, to prevent any loss of quality.

Without losing the concept of terroir and the unique identity of our wines, technology is very useful, and we believe that it’s important in helping us to achieve our objectives. In Quinta do Crasto’s viticulture; our future will be centred on eco-friendly management, which means that all the technology used will be developed to respond to our strategy. A good example of this is the use of a laser equipped bulldozer, which helps us design and build new terraces in the vineyards, in order to prevent erosion on the slopes of the Douro Valley.

The preservation of our old vineyards and the identification of the enormous diversity of grape varieties planted within is a very important dynamic for Quinta do Crasto. Here technology plays a vital role in a way that is helping us to achieve the genetic map of each old vineyard. For example, the work we’re doing in the Maria Teresa vineyard, where we have already identified 36 unique grape types. We know exactly where the location is of each vine, so if a single vine dies, the plan is to replant it with a vine of the same genotype, in the identical spot. It’s the only way we can guarantee the same terroir in our vineyards, for generations to come.

At the winery, we use a mix of both traditional methods and new technologies that enable us to maximize the extraction of the super-premium grapes that we crush. At the reception area’s grape selection (“triage”) table, we have six to eight people sorting the grapes by hand, to ensure that only the highest quality makes it into the crusher. It is at this critical moment, that we reject fruit that doesn’t meet quality specifications defined by Quinta do Crasto’s oenologists.

An example of more modern technology: “if needed” we can automate the selection of berries using an optical reading device to substitute for traditional grape selection, which can speed up the process for specific wines. Our use of robotics (lagares) in addition to foot treading, more advanced pumps and moving from basket presses to gentler pneumatic Bucher presses has helped to significantly improve our results in recent years. Yet we are never 100% satisfied and will study new technologies as they develop, to help us to continue to improve in the future.

Quinta do Crasto remains focused on the production of Port and dry wines, with Douro character and the identity of our old vines. They must be elegant, fresh and with good structure, but above all, they must transmit the terroir of our vineyards. Modern technology, used in a proper way, plays an important role in helping us deliver excellence.

João Roseira, Proprietor/Port & Winemaker, Quinta do Infantado

Sorry, I dare say, there’s a before and an after the inventing of the e-Versátil robot.

As you know, at Quinta do Infantado, we are firmly convinced that fermenting in lagares is the way to go. Because of that belief, most of our wines (in all the types we make: red Douro, white & red Porto) are fermented like this.

What makes a lagar the perfect vessel within which to ferment is the ratio of skin contact that you achieve. Even the shortest of all shorter tanks (cubas) cannot match it. And when you have great skin contact, extraction is easier, so we can use gentler processes (human feet) then other types of fermentation (tanks and pumps).

Recently, for the 2010 vintage, we started to use a new (and, so far, still one of a kind) robotics in the lagares, to do what men and women used to do at Quinta do Infantado. The robotics (our own idea which was developed in partnership with Xisto Azul, a wine-material company based in Alijó), called e-Versátil is, imho, a great advance and a technological breakthrough. Why?

First of all, it’s the only robot 100% electrical, that’s the “e”, for electrical. There’s no oil or air under pressure to make it work. This alone makes for two major advantages: enormous energy saving, maintenance between vintages is almost non-existent! So, a robot that makes financially possible to ferment in lagares as a way to produce wine (lagares for tourism is a different thing altogether).

Then, each “foot” is controlled individually and has sensors for speed, pressure, curse, etc. …, as opposed to a bar that goes-up-and-down. Result? Versatility, finesse, respect for the grapes.

A state-of-the-art computer and processing unit that allows for very complex programming (the same chips as used, for instance, at Volkswagen’s Auto Europa factory) is also a key component.

This enables winemakers to have different treading programs according to the vineyard, grape variety or vine’s age, vintage, sanitary conditions, etc. …, and the list goes on and on. Again, it’s a versatile way of working in order to respect the grape.

Add to the previously mentioned unique features: easy checking and even programming over the net. Ok, there’s not yet a plug for the iPod so we could have it work at the rhythm of the accordion songs … We have only made wine with e-Versátil in 2010 and 2011, so there’s still a lot to learn and explore. But we’re already certain of being at another level from all other robotics in the Douro (and, probably, in the world?) Check the e-Versátil in this little video

In viticulture, and if it is not a technological breakthrough, it is the single most important change we should take; the move from industrial (based on the use of synthetic chemicals) to sustainable (or even better, organic, or even better, biodynamic) is the future.

There is evidence all over the world that we cannot continue to poison all our soils and air. We have come to a point where the numbers for Europe are very clear: the value of agricultural crops is smaller than the costs to produce it! If we stopped all government subsidies, we would starve!

Among other things, the heavy use of pesticides (and it’s a spiral of reliance that forces farmers to use more and more chemicals, as each precedent has produced yet another problem that a new pesticide has been created to remedy) and oil as energy has brought agriculture to this point.

We have yet … (and this is the breakthrough we really need) … to understand our ecosystem so that we will be able to devise, master and implement a balanced viticulture, (in terms of grape cost and sustainability) for all 4 of our vineyard planting systems: old vines, 2 or more row terraces, one row terraces and vertical plantings.

Miguel Braga, Proprietor/Port & Winemaker, Quinta do Mourão (S. Leonardo)

This is a two-sided question. As a wine producer I´m tempted to say that is with the viniculture that the improvement will occur, but as a wine grower I say that going to happen with the viticulture. Over the last few years we saw a great improvement in technology of viniculture, but that was the consequence of the arrival to the market of the wine producers.

We try to improve the old methods and import some from other regions, mostly to the DOC Douro dry wines (I don´t like to say “table”). That is the visible part. The improvement in viticulture is almost at the same level, especially the mechanization of the vineyards and the change in the use of some chemicals and no longer using other chemicals on our land.

I think that the technological breakthrough with the greatest impact, at least for the short term, will be in viniculture because we need to improve our logistics inside the cellar. But the great breakthrough, long term, will be in viticulture.

The climate change over the next 20 years, (this year is a perfect example) will push us to “invent” new ways of plantation and treatment within the vineyards.

Maria Manuel Gomes Maia, Director of Viticulture, Manoel D. Poças Júnior, Vinhos S.A.

As viticulturist of Poças, I think that the next revolution will be in the vineyards. Due to global warming I strongly believe that the main changes will be in the following issues: grape varieties and clones, precision irrigation and other viticulture techniques. At the moment, researchers are working together in order to test varieties and clones that can be better adapted to the changes that we are already starting to feel, and that are expected to be more extreme in the future.

These studies are only possible thanks to the large number of regional grape varieties that exist in our Douro Valley and that give us advantages in terms of resisting against the problems that will come with the climate change.

In the next years we will have to deal with low precipitation, especially in some regions. So I think that irrigation will be much needed and used on a larger scale. But at the same time it will have to be very precise and effective, to make sure that there won’t be a waste of water.

The irrigation will be used together with other techniques that contribute to the decrease in the hydric stress of plants. As an example, I can refer that some of the traditional techniques of vineyard management are starting to be adopted once again.

Cristiano van Zeller, Proprietor/Port & Winemaker, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria

An easy question with a very difficult answer. In reality, I have no idea what could be the next technological breakthrough as I can only have wishes. In viticulture I am wishing we can find a way to plant new as in old times, with very high density (>6.000 vines per hectare) and find a way to minimize man labour costs in those vineyards. In oenological terms, I am so happy having gone back to the basics (lagares and foot treading followed by robotics) and the extraordinary results it brings out that I cannot imagine any major new breakthrough in the foreseeable time.

A Question for the Port Trade appears in every other FTLOP newsletter, sharing this space with Port Personalities: In Focus.