It is said that the Douro belongs to lovers of life and poets. Perhaps its greatest poet was Nature when, millions of years ago, it tore open the landscape with the river that has gradually woven an immense pattern where people have since built vine terraces, scattered housing, orchards and paths. And it was cultivating the vine that took resourcefulness and art, since it is on these rugged slopes, as generous as they are challenging, that some of the most famous wines in the world are produced.

The Ancient Dream

Over two thousand years have passed since the first farmers of the Trás-os-Montes mountains ventured to plant vines in these ancient valleys, putting the climate and vicissitudes of the poor, stony soil to the test. The knowledge they acquired from countless attempts, errors and successes was handed down through the centuries until we reached the age of electricity. From the mid-18th century, wine growing entered its first era of maturity and gained recognition and international prestige when the Douro became the first Demarcated Region in the world, with the unparalleled port leading the way. Such was the international impact of this unique product that it served to fuel the debate of revolution in economic thinking during the 19th century, with names such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo using the production of port as an example of economic efficiency that reflected the importance of export strategies as the basis of competitive and comparative advantage.

In the hands of English merchants, the valley’s royal blood became one of the most popular nectars among the emerging middle class and bourgeoisie, who exercised their economic influence in a world undergoing rapid change, thanks to the use of coal and steam. Somehow, Douro wine, and particularly port, comforted the palates of the great industrialists, bankers and entrepreneurs who created the bases for a 20th century in which the industrialisation of the economy would be a determining factor in rapidly accelerating the development of western societies.

However, while the fathers of the modern economy were still discussing the wine, wheat and cotton cloth trade, a black cloud began to appear the Douro’s horizon. In order to boost productivity and the variety of its wines, American strains were imported. In their roots, they brought tiny, sap-sucking insects, pale yellow in colour, which caused the greatest disaster in the valley’s history. The onset of phylloxera, between 1868 and 1872, devastated wine production, starting by wiping out the most easterly stretches of the valley, the source of some of the most prestigious wines in the world. Many producers collapsed and some never picked themselves up again, leaving behind the cursed ‘mortórios’, terraces that are still abandoned today. Others, however, picked up what was left and used ancient and modern knowledge to find solutions that would give rise to a new era of wine-growing, both in the Douro and in the rest of the country.
“we knew it would be an exciting challenge, but one that would require long-term thought.”
Art and Technology – The Douro of the 21st Century
More than a hundred years after phylloxera, the Douro countryside is today a somewhat dystopian vision, caused by a series of economic failures reflected in the way the vines were planted and the farms run. The marks of soil erosion, unstable terracing and lack of natural vegetation, both at the level of the soil and the traditional thickets, fundamental for the biodiversity of vine training, became widespread, with some – fortunately increasing – exceptions.

The technical and management philosophy advances brought by ‘classics’ of the Douro, such as Symington, Fladgate and Taylors, inspired many of us to explore in depth what would be a sustainable vision of this World Heritage Site. The integrated protection production method became a ‘rule’ and organic farming ceased to be taboo. In fact, it is increasingly seen as a way of managing the land, which goes far beyond protecting the soils, nature and people.

When we went ahead with the purchase of Quinta dos Murças in 2008, in the Cima Corgo zone, between the iconic region of Pinhão/Peso da Régua, we knew it would be an exciting challenge, but one that would require long-term thought. First, by taking a good look at the heritage of decades that stretched before us, which extended from the hillside down to the river. We chose which old vines we should keep and the best way to safeguard them. In operational terms, we started by carefully defining the layout, cleaning and land regulating procedures. The arrangement of the land into different levels and for vertical vines was carefully mapped out and methods of soil intervention were established that would fully respect the soil’s intrinsic characteristics, protect it from erosion and sustain optimal levels of humidity and adequate flora for vine management.

© Alexandre Delmar
Vertical Vines or Narrow Terraces? Whichever is more Sustainable
The decision as to the way the land would be organised in Murças generally followed a simple rule:  when the initial incline of the slope reached between 35 and 40%, the most suitable solution would be for vertical vines, with uneven plots on slopes of land and 7m wide work rows. In the case of steeper slopes, the option would be for narrow terraces, between 2.10 and 2.30m wide, with a plantation row located 0.30 to 0.50m from the top of the slope.

The two solutions do not contradict each another; they are highly complementary and offer different benefits. In the case of vertical vines, there can be greater plant density for the same distance between vines, avoiding the need for continuous cleaning and maintenance of the slopes of vines on terraces. Apart from that, it is easier and better to distribute varieties and the variant gradient of the depth and natural fertility of the soils along the same row is smaller, or at least more predictable.  In this way, alignment is rectilinear, while on the terraces is it curved, hindering hedge-building and requiring a greater number of supports at irregular intervals. The disease rate is also lower, both because natural ventilation of the vines is better, and because spraying is more efficient. To reinforce this option, protection from rain erosion is also achieved by building a plot on uneven land between supports (with the advantage of reducing the initial incline of the slope) and grass can be planted with controlled growth between the rows. The ‘cherry on the cake’ is the added landscape value of the vertical vines.

However, in order to balance the estate’s production needs, where there are steep inclines, we use narrow terraces with only one plantation row and a width of 2.30 metres, thus allowing the use of mechanical cleaning equipment for the supports and ensuring natural grass planting every autumn. One of the least sustainable practices we have observed in the Douro is that keeping the supports clear of grass promotes erosion and that the chemical cleaning of supports is, just for the toxicological and environmental dangers it poses, the wrong choice. When constructing the narrow terraces, we use their longitudinal incline of around 3% to allow excess rainwater to drain off along each terrace. In this way, the terraces must slope inwards.

We continue to learn every day from international specialists and simple folk who’ve lived on the land for generations. We are ending this first difficult and hectic phase of reforming the Quinta dos Murças and the entire team is extremely proud, mixed with a suitable level of humility, of the work we have been doing and of the wines being produced in our cellars.

A new phase is dawning in which we aim to look more closely at the local community, discover more about this place, these lands and those who live here and visit us. Because the Douro is not only a region of great wine, it’s the home of poets and lovers of life and, in the words of one of its most famous poets:

“The sublime Douro. The prodigiousness of a landscape that ceases to be so as it unfurls. It is not a panorama the eyes gaze upon: it is an excess of nature. Terraces that are steps of titan men climbing the slopes, volumes, colours and modulations that no sculptor, painter or musician can convey, dilated horizons beyond the plausible limit of vision. A virginal universe, as if it were newly born, yet already eternal through the harmony, serenity and silence not even the river dares to break, hiding furtively behind the mountains or lying far below, the reflection of its own awe.  A geological poem. Absolute beauty.”

Miguel Torga, Diário XII

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