A Change in the Douro

I have never met Emma Dalton in person. She is the friend of a very close friend of mine in the UK and I’ve exchanged emails with her for several years. Emma volunteered this article, granting permission for it to be published by: For The Love Of Port, for which I am eternally grateful.

Emma enjoyed an apprenticeship with Christie’s in London and learned a ton about Port as well as the auction market process. The article here was submitted as her paper to complete the WSET test process, (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) and achieve her goal of obtaining the diploma of this prestigious wine entity. Not only did she pass the exam and obtain her diploma, but Emma did so well that she received the WSET Award of Excellence and a study visit to the Port region as a guest of AA Cálem & Filho SA. Not to be overlooked, Ms. Dalton has a fabulous palate and is a respected judge at London’s International Wine Challenge.

Emma is the founder of Emma Dalton Fine Wines, in the UK, where she is a wine consultant offering a host of wine related services. Please do have a look at her website: Emma Dalton Fine Wines  Remember her name, as I believe we’ll be hearing great things about Emma’s wine career in the years to come!

A Change in the Douro
© By Emma Dalton - 2006
WSET Diploma / Cálem Port Scholar

The past few years have seen considerable change in the Douro. The still wines, and not merely those based on Touriga Nacional, have begun to find their place in the international markets. Many vineyards, formerly cultivated by smallholders, have changed hands as one generation has passed control to a younger one whose interests are more likely to lie in the cities than in the cultivation of small parcels of vines. When driving through the Douro it is clear that many more are available for sale, if only a buyer can be found.

The biggest change of all, however, has been the increasing consolidation of the port industry.

Consolidation and change of ownership

Earlier this year the Symington Family Estates acquired all of Cockburn’s holdings, save for the brand itself which is to remain with Beam Global. Even in the context of the Symington Family Estates’ already considerable vineyard holdings, this nonetheless represents a huge vineyard area acquisition. The considerable production ramifications of this acquisition are still being deliberated in Vila Nova da Gaia at the time of writing (September 2006).

Another recent acquisition has been that of Barros and Kopke by Group Sogevinus. This purchase, completed in June 2006, came only a year after the same group acquired J.W. Burmester. Thus in the space of two short years a niche player best known for its ownership of Cálem has been able to claim an 11% share of the total market, divided between its five port wine companies - Kopke, Burmester, Cálem, Barros and Gilberts

Those acquisitions have also enabled Group Sogevinus to assert its presence as a player in almost every sector of the port market, from entry level whites and rubies, through the mid-market LBV and aged-indicated tawnies to vintage ports and colheitas. In particular, Barros and Kopke will strengthen Group Sogevinus’ offerings at the premium end of the market. Indeed, whilst many in the United Kingdom remain indifferent to the charms of colheitas and continue to regard them as rather esoteric novelties, this sector is receiving increasing attention in the United States. Thus Kopke’s extensive colheita stocks, which include wines dating back as far as the 1930s in sufficient volumes to be commercially viable, may well prove as useful to Group Sogevinus’ in its attempts to increase its profile in the United States as the various medals its wines have won.

In the wake of the Burmester acquisition, Sogevinus acted quickly to capitalise upon its new economies of scale and to invest in and divest itself of resources accordingly. Thus a Burmester lodge, no longer needed, was sold. It is now used by the Symington Family Estates to store wines destined for their Warre label. A new Italian-designed bottling line, with a capacity of 5,000-6,000 bottles per hour has recently been installed at Cálem. A single oenologist now has responsibility for both the Cálem and the Burmester ports. Similarly, the rationalisation of those duplicated posts which resulted from the acquisition of Burmester has led to a small number of redundancies and retirements, as might be expected.

Whilst it remains too early to say what the consequences of the Barros and Kopke acquisitions will be for staffing and production in Vila Nova da Gaia, Sogevinus has already made several sweeping changes to its operations in the Douro. The most marked of these has resulted from its acquisition of a second winery, the former Barros and Kopke facility at Quinta de Sa? Luis. Hence as of the 2005 harvest, all of the grapes destined for Sogevinus’ various still wines (often referred to locally as “DOC wines”) will be processed at Quinta de Sa? Luis, whilst those grapes intended for port wine production will be taken to the former Cálem vinification centre at Sa? Martinho da Anta.

Viticultural changes

Turning to the viticultural practices in the Douro, the trend away from polyculture is continuing. Slowly the rows of olive, orange and almond trees which have studded many of the vineyards are being grubbed up in favour of vines. However, such decisions are not being made purely on the basis of the value of the product of the land being grubbed up. For example, the impetus for replanting such areas with vines at Quinta do Arnozelo has been that the existing plants consume a disproportionate share of the available water in the soil, thus leaving the nearby vines more prone to water stress.

Due to the extremely cold winters, with temperatures often falling below freezing, and the very hot, dry summers, there are few insect pests of any significance in the Douro. The principal exception to this is phylloxera, the traditional answers to which have been to avoid planting vines in the worst affected areas or to plant on resistant rootstocks. Yet whilst the extreme nature of the climate ensures that insect pests are rarely a problem, fungal diseases such as powdery mildew are relatively commonplace and are usually controlled by chemical spraying. Moreover, the notoriously poor soils, some of which have less than 10cm depth of biomaterial, present considerable problems. Not only are such soils commonly deficient in minerals such as boron, but the soil on the steeply sloping terrain is also prone to erosion, a risk which can only be reduced, not eliminated, by appropriate terracing and which is inevitably exacerbated by periods of heavy rain.

Despite these viticultural challenges, organic viticulture is slowly beginning to gain a foothold in the Douro. At Quinta de San Luiz and Quinta Dona Matilde there is already a small area under organic viticulture, the results of which have been sufficiently promising that there are plans to continue to expand the area by a hectare or so each year for the next few years. Similarly at the Taylor’s lodge in Vila Nova da Gaia there was one large cask (toneis) full of wine which had been made from an area of organically farmed grapes and which was being vinified separately. Nonetheless, all of these plantings are regarded as trials and it is evident that the Douro is not yet ready to attempt a wholesale conversion to organic viticulture.

By | 2016-11-18T10:24:31+00:00 February 19th, 2007|Categories: Guest Corner Articles|0 Comments

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