Historic Terraces in the Douro

This month’s Question for the Port Trade was one that is close to my heart and one of my personal favorite topics having to do with the lore and history of the Douro. I was very grateful that the members of the Port trade were so helpful in supplying brilliant insights on this small but fascinating facet of the diamond that is Port wine.

I’ve always had a fascination with the topic of the building of terraces, and the hand-built schist walls that keep them in place. There are so many different looks to these great walls of contour and stairways connecting terraces throughout the Douro region. Some were built high, some low and it’s unimaginable how much labor went into the building of these structures in the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. Nowadays, these schistous walls are protected and must be maintained due to UNESCO Heritage Site regulations.

Q: What story can you share from lore or your company's historical records about the building of the original terraces on your quinta's property that would fascinate readers? If your property's records were lost, please include instead, a story about the rebuilding of terraces on your property that may have been damaged by water or other forces of nature.

From Miguel Roquette, Export / Marketing Director, Quinta do Crasto:

Nowadays everywhere you go in the Douro valley you will see many vineyards planted in three different ways: VINHA AO ALTO (vertical planting), PATAMARES (new terraces with one or two rows per terrace) and VINHAS VELHAS (old vines planted in a horizontal way usually with 20 or more mixed varieties). Everywhere else you look you will see wild vegetation and bushes, olive trees, cork trees, fruit trees and many other varieties of plants. But if you pay close attention you will notice that most of these plants, bushes and trees are planted in very old, uneven terraces that are called MURTÓRIOS.

The MURTÓRIOS are simply very old walls (or can also be considered the old vineyards) built by hand 100 to 250 years ago. It is truly impressive to notice that they are pretty much everywhere in the Douro landscape and one can imagine the tremendous work done in the olden days to achieve such great construction. All of this took place without the use of machinery or dynamite to blast the hard schist formations on the ground and underground.

These walls were all abandoned with the beginning of phylloxera around the 1880s. They were never reused due to the fact that no mechanization or modern techniques are allowed in these types of formations. Some of these schist walls are indeed protected (UNESCO) and must be maintained in proper shape and are a unique heritage for the Douro region.

The oldest of these walls are called PILHEIROS and they can still be clearly seen in some parts of Quinta do Crasto. They are estimated to have been built some 400 years ago. PILHIERO comes from the Portuguese word (verb) PILHAR which means: to steal/to take way from/to rob. On each PILHEIRO one can clearly see on the sidewall, a small hole (20 cm by 20 cm) every two meters. The main crop in those days was grains and corn planted on each terrace of the PILHEIROS; it is said that out of each hole there would be a vine planted with the intention to make wine. Thus the name. The vine would be planted there and it would “steal” some land to grow by itself.

Dona Antonia Ferreira hired workers to build terraces on her many properties, from Galicia, Spain and in those days Portugal was more powerful and rich than Spain. Francisco “Vito” Olazabal is a direct descendent of Dona Antonia Ferreira and his Quinta do Vale do Meão was likely built by Galician’s, as his property belonged to Ms. Ferreira too.

Miguel Braga, Proprietor/winemaker, Quinta do Mourão (S. Leonardo):

I looked through my father’s things, but I didn´t discover anything about the terrace walls. My experience has been difficult because we have had two or three very harsh winters in the past decade, and on our five properties, only in Quinta do Mourão we have had to rebuild more than 1,000 meters of walls that were destroyed in 2001/2002. The walls are very expensive to rebuild and preserve and it is more and more difficult to find people to do this type of skilled repair job.

Most of the old walls were built by hand. At the same time that they constructed the terraces to plant vines, the workers removed the stones that were then used to make the walls. They did not have any modern machines or tools back then, only an iron steak.

From Adrian Bridge, CEO, The Fladgate Partnership:

The terraces of the Douro are an extraordinary site so it is sad to see so many being lost despite the UNESCO status. This is because it is hard to find the labour to maintain them but even harder to work the terraces during the normal viticultural cycle. A proposal was put forward some years ago to give those farms with the old terraces some additional beneficio to help compensate maintaining them. This has not yet happened but is urgently required if we are not to see more old terraces abandoned or bulldozed and lost.

We have some photographic record of the construction of the great terraces at Vargellas which was work undertaken at the end of the 19th century. These are constantly repaired and we have two full time stone masons on the payroll. The repair of such walls is not just about rebuilding as doing so with the old stones does not make a strong wall. New schistous must be brought in to provide additional strength. To aid this we have now built a road on one of the middle terraces which allows a tractor to get closer, but still, much is done by hand.

Our company view is that these walls are an extra ordinary heritage to be preserved. The vineyard we call 'vinha grande' at Vargellas should shortly be completely repaired - that is as long as we do not have excessive rain this Spring.

From Miguel Côrte-Real, Managing Director & Master Blender, Cockburn’s:

The oldest vineyard’s dry-stone walls Cockburn’s possessed were the beautiful ones at Quinta do Tua, (now a property belonging to the Symington Family). They are still there, in a vineyard section named, “Vinha Velha do Tua” with an area of around 12 acres. The vineyard walls were built in the first half of the 19th century and were totally made with schist stones. Each wall had an average of 2 meters high, 0.7meters wide and 400 meters long!

For every 100m in length they have small stone steps to provide people access to the next terrace. On each extremity there is a small track (ramp), also made of schist, to give access to people and mainly for the mule that was used to help with the soil cultivation. All of them were extremely well made and even today they are still beautiful, well preserved and in very good shape.

As almost all of the dry-stone wall vineyards built in the Douro in the first half of the 19th century, (prior to phylloxera) the hard work was totally made by hand; not only by the local Portuguese people but also by lots of people coming from Galicia (North of Spain) that came to work in the Douro to make some money. There is still today in Portugal an idiomatic expression that we use every time we want to describe someone that works really hard, which is, “Trabalhar como um Galego” (work hard as only a Galego can do).

The dry-stone walls made in very steep soils were built not only to make vertical walls to support small horizontal platforms of soil to be planted with vines, but also to make available tons and tons of schistous stones as a way to clean the soil from them and make it viable for the vineyard plantation and for the development of the roots of the young vines. This is one of the reasons I used to say that in the Douro, the good soil normally has lots of stones and that in normal circumstances could not be considered good enough or fertile enough for farming. It’s mainly made by people’s hard work and tenacity. From the size, type and colours of the stones forming the walls we can have a lot of technical information about the type of soil we have in a particular property.

The workers used to come for consecutive periods of 15 days at a time. They stayed at the Quinta; this is the main reason why the large properties (Quintas) in the Douro, normally in isolated beautiful areas, look like small villages. They have the main house, sometimes even a small chapel, the winery and many other buildings around that were made precisely to receive, install and provide the food for sometimes more than 200 workers.

Today, the work is mainly done by big machines and the terraces made without the dry-stone walls. It’s still a difficult and sometimes dangerous work with the very steep slopes that requires a lot of know-how, and some of the best bulldozer drivers in the world, the ones from the Douro. During my entire life in the Port trade, I have been responsible for the plantation of more than 700 acres of vineyards in the Douro mountains, many of them terraced, like the beautiful Quinta dos Canais, where in some places I had to face slopes with a steepness of more than 50%.

Being technically responsible for it, and before starting with the big bulldozers, now with laser technology, dynamite, etc., I always followed a few very simple rules: to respect Mother Nature. Do not change drastically what Nature took thousands of years to make. In other words, to respect scrupulously, the natural contour lines and do not change or cut with the new terraces the natural water lines. Following these simple rules I’m very proud to say that after more than 30 years in this job, sometimes working in situations very close to the limit, I have never had a serious accident with people working for me, nor having losing part of the investment done with several terraces falling down to the river, normally after one of the famous Douro thunderstorms.

Finally, and for me as important as the technical side of working the vineyards, I always spent some time and some money on the landscaping of every new plantation. For example the plantation of olives trees and other trees and flowers (oleanders or roses) situated around the vineyard plots and along the small vineyard roads. This must be an essential part of this job. Not only to create some bio-diversity, and to reinforce “brand image” but also, and mainly, to fully respect and preserve one of the most beautiful vineyard terroirs of the world.

From Sophia Bergqvist, Proprietor, Quinta de la Rosa:

Vale do Inferno has some of the highest dry stone walls in the Douro. Towering above the Douro River at the end of our property, they were built by my great grandfather just before the First World War when labour was still cheap and things in the port trade were blossoming. We have letters from him describing the work in excited tones especially as it was going to double our production. He was quite crazy to build this vineyard as even with the stone walls the slopes are quite steep and so hard to work. The land is very rocky and many of the vines still struggle to survive. It is called Inferno as the walls reflect the sun’s rays making the vineyard very hot. It often has produced our top cuvées and vintage ports. Instead of stone steps connecting the vineyards, Albert put in ramps so the mules (the mechanisation of those days) could access each terrace.

When a stone wall falls down it is a mammoth task to rebuild. We have had to rebuild one which fell down in the same place three times eventually using cement as a backing and facing it with stone. Each time one falls it costs 10,000 Euros to rebuild. An expensive task but we believe that Vale do Inferno, a vineyard seen from the road from Régua to Pinhão, is a museum piece and should be kept going at all costs.

From Jorge Dias, General Manager, C. da Silva

We have studied the subject when we presented the dossier at UNESCO for Alto Douro Wine Region as World Heritage in the class "Cultural Landscape". The terraces are the proud emblem of the Alto Douro Wine Region, but also its torments, so well described by Chantal Lecouty, “It is they who, by blending into infinity with the curves of the countryside, endow this property with its unique character. Seen from above, the vineyards look like a series of Aztec pyramids”.

In fact, the terraces are the most important feature of the landscape as it makes us reflect upon the meaning of the hard labour that went into their construction. Stone upon stone was placed to fabricate the soil and plant the vines. Throughout the centuries, man has created and perfected specific techniques of land-use that have made it possible for him to cultivate vines on the steepest slopes.

This is an outstanding example of man’s unique relationship with the natural environment. Its nature is determined by his wise management of limited land and water resources on extremely steep slopes. Only the creation of a unique, lucrative natural product of exceptional quality such as Port Wine could ever justify the superhuman effort illustrated by this collective Work of Art that we must respect. It is our memory and our heritage.

The economic dynamic in the last years has increased, and the pressure in the landscape also, that suggests the need for conservation and management actions that would better preserve and safeguard this asset. In fact, the aforementioned economic incentives that accelerated the tendency to replant vineyards and reconstruct the heritage, justifies and calls for the adoption of a more vigilant and active regime in protecting the landscape.

I think that the Port Wine companies and the new generations of wine growers are more attentive to this issue and we have conditions that, in an innovative manner, the preservation of the terraces contribute to the sustainability of production itself, thereby favouring the manifestation of its reputation for quality and excellence at more attractive and interesting markets."

From Pedro Poças Pintão, Commercial Director, Manoel D. Poças Junior – Vinhos S.A.:

The only reconstruction that we have records of refers to the damage caused by a severe winter (1999/2000?). There is not however a “story” around the reconstruction work. I’ve asked my father who is writing a dictionary on Port if he had anything about this. He found something that you might find interesting.

After the phylloxera outbreak there was the need for manpower in order to replant the vines, which in some cases involved constructing new terraces. There was a big number of Galegos (inhabitants from Galicia in Northern Spain) arriving to help in this very demanding task. From this period remained an expression that is still used today: “Strong as a Galego”.

From Dirk Niepoort, Proprietor, Niepoort Vinhos S.A.

There isn’t really much I can tell apart from details I read in a book about Quinta de Nápoles. Apparently the first modern vineyards (according to the book new way of planting in either the ‘20´s or ‘40´s) were planted at Quinta de Nápoles. Until then the way to do it was to have one row of vines (eventually more if less steep) on each terrace with stone walls.

The new system was to make bigger walls and plant several rows but not on a flat soil but on a kind slope. That way the cost of planting a vineyard was reduced (less walls). This is the system we have at Quinta do Carril, (next to Nápoles that we bought in 1988) and part of the old vines at Nápoles. We have been trying to recover the old walls as much as possible principally on the vineyard in Vale de Mendiz (around the lagares). Of course every year some walls give up and fall apart, mostly in winter.

From Paulo Coutinho, Oenologist, Quinta do Portal:

The entire estate of Quinta dos Muros is built with terracing, which is the principal source of our best red grapes for both Port and for Douro wine.

It was in the ancient parcel sustained in schistous walls, where the first production of the estate took place. In close proximity to this parcel we have some schistous walls, the traditional terraces dating back to pre-Phylloxera times, and we can see the holes where there had been vines planted. It is for that reason we have named one of our red wines, “Muros de Vinha” in honor of that ancient planting system.

We hope that in the near future we are able to repair and reactivate those terraces. In around 1 ha, we can plant on the terraces and in the holes. The reason? It provides us with the opportunity to show our children, clients and friends, the magnificent talent and technical knowledge we have gained from our ancestors; from all the hard work that they invested in this property, using their bare hands and minimal tools.

From Rupert Symington, Joint Managing Director, Symington Family Estates:

There is very little in our archive about terrace building in general. It is said that due to the boom in the Port trade the shortage of labour in Portugal meant that stonemasons were brought in to the region from the relatively impoverished region of Galicia to the north.

However it might be interesting to your readers to learn about the terraces constructed at Quinta dos Malvedos immediately following the purchase of the Quinta by W & J Graham & Co in 1890. As with many Quintas purchased by shippers in the years following the ravages of phylloxera, Graham decided to extensively replant the property and constructed additional terraces in order to expand plantings at the Quinta. Access to the Upper Douro had been greatly improved in recent years by the extension of the railway line to Tua, and Malvedos now had a railway station virtually on the property, ‘Sao Mamede do Tua’.

In particular the Graham family were especially proud of the ‘Port Arthur’ terraces immediately East of the house which were built between 1890 and 1895. Their construction was extraordinarily fine, and given their regularity and the steepness of the slope they reminded the Graham’s of the legendary defences of the eponymous sea-port in mainland China now known as Lushunkou. A famous siege of this fortress had made world headlines in 1894 and then again in 1904. These terraces have been restored and replanted with Touriga Nacional and today are home to some of Malvedos’s very finest vines.

Other terraces notable for their unusual construction are those at Quinta do Tua just across the Tua River from Malvedos. Built around the same time as Port Arthur, they are remarkable for the thickness of their stone retaining walls which reaches almost four feet in places, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my extensive hikes around the Douro over the years. Certainly with this additional strength they were built to last, and are still in great shape today!

(I will ask Cynthia to send you some images of Port Arthur terraces and also a photo of the Tua terraces).

From Cynthia Jenson, Writer & Cronista, Graham’s Port Blog:

Further re: Tua's walls - I remember Charles Symington saying that he wondered they even terraced and planted that west to southwest facing side, it must have been solid rock to start, given the phenomenal quantities of rock they apparently had to dispose of: as Rupert says, the walls in the terraces are 4 feet thick, and the walls were built UP a good six to 10 inches higher than the terrace soil level in a sort of parapet - Charles took that as another sign they ended up with more rock than they knew what to do with.

Also, if you walk on the old roadway that starts just opposite the receiving area of the winery, that road is lined on either side with massive, though rather elegant walls - why on earth? Not all of it is retaining wall. It's the sort of thing you might expect leading to a stately home, not from a humble winery to a mountain vineyard - again, a sign they must have had an awful lot of rock to use up.

To save your readers a bit of Googling, there's this article about Port Arthur on our blog:

Also, about recent repair work, and how it's done now, an article from Miles Edlman about A Master Stonemason and His Art.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(following are Cynthia's comments on the photos in the slideshow)

The walls at Tua, the vineyard which is above the house and wraps around from west to south facing – the shadow was deliberate to give a sense of the width of the walls, each of which has a stairway built in – roughly 4 to 5 foot thick walls, stairway about 20 to 24 inches across, (my shoulder span is about 20 inches across, not sure how distorted that gets in a shadow, but figure the wall is three times the width of my shoulders, clearly).

Tua again – you can see how the walls were built up with parapets higher than the level of the terrace behind it.

Tua – heartbreaking, isn’t it? I can’t even imagine the work required to re-construct it. I guessed that this happened only this last winter, it looked “fresher” than one or two other rock falls I saw.

Malvedos Port Arthur, the side that faces east, above this is the orange grove, the Graham’s sign and the house. Each terrace carries only one row of vines, and from memory the walls were about my height or a bit more - so 5 1/2 to 6 feet high.

Malvedos Port Arthur, the side that faces west – walls on this side are much higher, possibly 10 feet? Not sure, and a bit thicker, the terraces carry two or three rows of vines (next time I'll get someone to stand there, so we have a reference!!).

Back to Tua, this is part of one of the walls that line the road into the vineyard from opposite the winery – I included it because it’s a good example of how some rock outcrops too massive to be broken and shifted, were incorporated into the walls.

Roy’s note: Thanks to Cynthia for providing some illuminating examples from terraces at SFE properties, along with links to the blog entries, which are excellent, in explaining more on this topic!

From Cristiano van Zeller, Proprietor/winemaker, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria:

Not an easy topic, this one. First, I am no longer at Noval and all records there were lost during the fire in 1981. Second, at Vale D. Maria and although we have terraces, I have been blessed not to have to rebuild many of them, not yet.

What I can say by experience, though (and I have a lot on this field too, in spite of my previous words), is that the best and most efficient way of keeping high quality vineyards, for the highest quality wines, in the Douro is by making it possible to have a very high density of plantings. This is no different from any other part of the vineyard world.

In the Douro this (high density of vines) is only possible in three different ways: if you are lucky enough to be on “flat” grounds, (Douro flat, something like Meão), if you have slopes no steeper than 35%, then being able to plant vertically (some 4.500 vines per hectare) or the old way, in large terraces following the slope of the mountain, like the large terraces at Noval and so many other quintas, where you can have something like 6.000 + vines per hectare.

This said, rebuilding terraces is very hard work, it’s a highly skilled job, and very expensive too. Building them new was and still is a Herculean task. Rebuilding them is justified (and mandatory) because of the World Heritage rules, but also for maintaining quality standards, maintaining the older vineyards.

Every piece of the old walls that falls must be quickly restored, to avoid any “contamination” to the rest of the wall. This requires the managing and proper local storage of the stones that fell as well as the replacement of many. It also requires skilled work to “go down” to the foundations of the wall, digging as needed in depth on the ground, to stabilize the remaining part of the wall and the new part to be rebuilt as well. Because walls are normally in the middle of the vineyards, with difficult to no access for machinery, all this is done by hand.

Cost wise I cannot trace any now, but if you take nowadays some € 30 per cubic meter (m3) and if you realize we have walls that are some 10 feet high (some 3,3 meters, but some much higher than this, including its foundations) and some 2 to 3 meters wide, for each meter length of any wall you would have to pay some € 300,00. Reasonable?

Imagine if walls were possible to be sold as pieces of art ... at cost. Terraces are, nowadays, a must to keep and almost an impossibility to build new (as building a completely new vineyard from scratch). Terraces are works of art, for wines that are also works of art.

A Question for the Port Trade appears in every other FTLOP newsletter, sharing this space with Port Personalities: In Focus. I hope you will email me with pertinent questions that you would like to have answered by the Port Trade, as I prefer interactivity and would like to include YOUR questions too. You can also suggest topics in the FTLOP Forum.

By | 2016-11-18T10:24:06+00:00 December 3rd, 2010|Categories: Questions for the Trade, Travel Tales|0 Comments

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