Quinta dos Murças: where does spring arrive first?

Quinta dos Murças: where does spring arrive first?

Outside, the heavy clouds and sound of the wind brought by the rain are signs of short days and long nights – it is the middle of winter and everything seems a little greyer.

But, unavoidably, the earth maintains its elliptical course around the sun and the natural order will bring about regeneration. Like Fernando Pessoa wrote with Alberto Caeiro’s pen «[a] Spring isn’t even a thing / She’s a manner of speaking / Even the flowers don’t come back, or the green leaves / There are new flowers, new green leaves / There are other beautiful days / Nothing comes back, nothing repeats itself, because everything is real».
To the north, in the Douro region, Quinta dos Murças prepares for spring throughout all of winter. The vineyards go to sleep as the plants go into a vegetative torpor; there is much more activity underground than above. Nothing the naked eye can see, but the micro-organisms and tiny invertebrates in the soil rearrange the root networks and fungal hyphae, in a ‘maintenance’ operation of the Wood Wide Web, an intricate natural internet that connects plants and fungi in order to create ecosystems that are more resistant to risks and threats like frost, drought, loss of nutrients, plagues, disease and invasion by exotic species, among others.
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Some of the small seeds of native plants sown every year in the summer receive micro stimuli to prepare to sprout in the first mild days of February and March. This way, they will begin the process of restoring the grasslands that will help regulate water, nutrients and auxiliary organisms in the vineyards and olive grove. Pine trees, oleasters, terebinths, strawberry trees, rockroses, heathers and brooms in the woods that surround and protect the Estate hide treasures – wild mushrooms, which are the most visible side of this natural “internet” and provide us with valuable information on the biological aspect of the eight terroirs at Quinta dos Murças. Here and there, in each patch of vegetation and piece of soil and rock, the rain, frost and wind help prepare for the coming of spring.

But on an Estate with four different sun exposures and, consequently, four different microclimates where the conditions of sunlight, temperature, humidity and photoperiod are equally different, an extremely pertinent question arises: where does spring arrive first? This makes all the difference, because it will create a patchwork of vitality and development within the vineyards, which can make the same grape varieties have different metabolic behaviours and responses, according to this triple combination of soil, biodiversity and microclimate.

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A precise interpretation of bio-indicators like plants and the microbiological community in the soil, also known as the microbiome, can enable us to proactively manage the signature intended for each of the 50 plots of vineyards. These are vinified separately in order to achieve estate wines with a highly unique identity, which represent an effective response to the ultimate challenge posed by the terroir. And we started with the vineyards for Quinta dos Murças Margem, since this is where, closer to the river and facing south and west, spring arrives first.

Throughout 2017 we developed a Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management Plan for Quinta dos Murças (BEMP). The purpose was precisely to develop a constructive approach to manage the biodiversity, using bio-indicators such as the variety of plants and insect species (like bees & butterflies), as well as birds, both small species of insectivores (warblers & tits), and birds of prey (falcons & hawks), among many others, as sources of valuable information about the ecological state of the vineyards, olive groves and also the woods, slopes and watercourses.

Basically, a BEMP is a document stating agricultural and environmental best practises that foster a connection between the biodiversity, as a regulating factor, and the state of the production areas, through guidelines that enable an improvement, in an interconnected and evolutionary manner, of the Estate’s management as a whole, where the landscape and the territory’s characteristics will be the principal elements that define the diversity of the wines.

Particularly, in this first year, we got to know the 152 species of flora better, eight of which are Iberian endemics, namely the Wolley-Dod (Asphodelus serotinus), Buttercup (Ranunculus ollissiponensis), Snap dragon (Antirrhinum graniticum), Douro toadflax (Anarrhinum duriminium), White broom (Cytisus multiflorus), Wallflower (Erysimum linifolium), Centaurea aristata thistle and the Conopodium subcarneum, a species in the parsley and wild carrot family. We also discovered eight exotic species, ranging from mimosas to canes, which will be subject to specific plans for progressive elimination and whose areas will undergo ecological restoration using native plants. Knowledge of these species, as well as about the communities and habitats they create, will be crucial to plan and manage the grasslands, slopes and natural hedges, which sustain many of the natural enemies of the principal vine and olive grove plagues, as well as helping regulate the entry of beneficial organisms like pollinating insects.
It may seem strange that, in the middle of winter, we are dreaming of spring and even of the harvest, but it all fits together, like small pieces that combine to create a complex tapestry where the details produce patterns that will determine everything. The interpretation of the biodiversity enables us to glimpse between the fabric that sustains those patterns and see how these vary year after year and show us what we can expect each season.

Adapting the writings of the North-American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, if we adopt the pace of Nature, we discover that her secret is patience and, as the winter days pass, the vineyards rest and the wine sleeps in tanks and barrels, Nature, in her diligent and patient manner, does a crucial part of her job and anticipates spring. All we need is to learn from her how to help create the ideal conditions to bring about yet another good year for great wines.

[1] ‘Wood Wide Web’ is the theory that plants and fungi interact intimately with one another and form a network that shares nutrients, alarm signals and important information on the state of the ecosystem, creating a kind of below-ground internet. Suggested reading: Plants share information using nature’s fungal internet