Restructuring of Viticulture in the north of Portugal

Nuno Magalhães (Universidade de Trás‑os‑Montes e Alto Douro
[University of Trás‑os‑Montes and Alto Douro])


Viticulture in the north has its origins in and, from the point of view of this article, is part of a traditional form agriculture, consisting of a series of plots with mixed crops with little or no mechanisation, and generally using natural products for disease control and fertilization, with similarly traditional trellising systems and methods of cultivation.

From the mid‑20th century onwards, initially with the exodus of owners from their large farms (in the Dão region, and especially in the Minho region) to urban centres, then with the migration of tenant farmers, wine makers, owners and rural labourers and the effect of the Colonial war, the rural world gradually changed in a way that was not only profound, but irreversible. The shortage of labour, especially skilled or better quality labour associated with the natural increases in wages (which were disproportionately high compared to increases in other sectors) sometimes led to the abandonment of land or a change in crops and cultivation techniques, with the common thread being the introduction of mechanisation to a wide range of operations which, in turn, has changed aspects of product and cultivation techniques, etc.

In broad terms, it is this combination of factors which is primarily responsible for these changes in northern agriculture in general, and in viticulture in particular, with indirect consequences of greater importance than the introduction of machines and new implements itself.

On the other hand, if deprivation and difficulty “hone the wits”, they also stimulate the development and testing of new techniques, research into cause and effect, and the introduction of new cultivars and crop solutions. By extension, and as a result, private and public institutions devoted to providing agricultural services are being created or reorganised, technical teams are developing their expertise and specialising, and previously unjustifiable service companies abound. In the case of viticulture, the first major transformation at the level of sectoral organisation was without a doubt the creation in the 1950s of the network of Cooperative Wineries (Adegas Cooperativas) in almost all viticultural regions which took over the private production and sale of wines, introducing vinification in large volumes and marketing to new markets. Apart from some negative aspects, and the inevitable disputes arising from this new system of production and marketing, it resulted in positive returns for the sector, forming an organisational basis for change and development which will certainly play a role in the future development of the vitivinicultural sector.

Other major changes have also occurred since that time which have had significant implications for vitivinicultural techniques and policies.

This article will only discuss the four northern regions which have been designated DOC, since they are the largest and of greatest economic importance.

The oldest and certainly the most profitable is the Douro region, which was designated for the first time in 1756 as being exclusively for the production of wines of Porto and, much later, in the 1980s, as DOC Douro for non fortified wines.

This region, just like almost all other viticultural regions in Europe (with some exceptions, such as the Algarve) was viticulturally destroyed by phylloxera during the last two decades of the 19th century. (Phylloxera is also associated with other diseases originating from North America, particularly powdery mildew [Oidium tuckeri] and downy mildew [Plasmopara viticola].)

Although the overwhelming majority of Douro vineyards had perished as a result of the phylloxera attacks, the Douro region made a come‑back, not only because of the use of the radical system of using Phylloxera‑resistant rootstock, but also because of the tenacity of the Douro viticulturalists, who confronted the forces of nature by reconstructing their vineyards, now better suited to training systems somewhat different from the small, irregularly‑shaped terraces used before, but basically maintained the same system of cultivation (as regards plant density, average yields and number and combination of grapevine varieties), and consequently managed to maintain a similar qualitative potential.

Much later, in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to the rural exodus referred to above, it became imperative to mechanise most farming operations. Labour was scarce, wages increases, and quicker, more efficient cultivation solutions had to be found, and ones which preferably cost less.

In the early 1970s, the Ministry of Agriculture created the Brigada de Mecanização, or mechanisation task force, which operated from its base in Régua and whose efforts resulted in the establishment of terraces measuring 3.5 x 4 metres, according to the contours of each level, with each one containing two low horizontal trellises (bardos) thus permitting tractors and other machinery and equipment to move between the two rows of vines. Due to the generally steep gradient of these slopes, the soil on the embankments normally reaches considerable heights, and although unproductive, does require weed control by means of either manual labour or herbicides.

An important change occurred with this new way of planting vineyards: The previously high plant density (in the region of 6,500 to 7,000 vines/hectare) was drastically reduced to less than half that number. This aspect, combined with the use of more productive rootstock (2 to 3 times more productive that the Montícola or Aramon rootstock previously used), as well as a more generous application of either organic or chemical fertiliser, has resulted in a doubling or tripling of the yield of each vine, which in turn guarantees a yield per hectare similar to that achieved prior to mechanisation.

Likewise, in response to the shortage of manual labour and to mechanisation, the traditional conduction systems changed in favour of the bilateral cordon with a longer trunk and longer arms which have more spurs and therefore more buds after pruning. In order to guarantee sufficient maturation given the greater yield per vine, the height and surface area of the foliar wall were increased which also increased the transpirational demand and requirement for water, already in short supply or barely available.

The naturally‑created equilibrium over the course of centuries between the environment, the vine and Man was disturbed, which means that the viticulturalist has lost the ability to “talk” with the vineyard with the simplicity and wisdom to which he was accustomed in the old days. New solutions had to be found to establish new equilibria.

In the meantime, the soil in traditional vineyards which have still not been mechanised because of lack of labour has become sterile after more than 30 years of herbicides destroying microbial life and organic material; the soil is also suffering from the proven effects of toxic residues.

There have, however, also been some incredibly positive developments occurring during this period, initially in a more or less passive way, but gradually gaining momentum, the likes of which has seldom been seen in the history of the Douro.

The first development was a more judicious choice of grapevine varieties for the new vineyard plantations. The traditional varieties, including more than a hundred cultivars of both good and bad quality randomly arranged in each plot gave way to a little more than a dozen individual cultivars (covering both white and red varieties) grown on homogeneous plots.

Concurrent with the mechanisation programme, initial work on clonal selection began in the 1978‑79 season, which rapidly expanded not only the other grapevine varieties of the Douro, but those of all viticultural regions of mainland Portugal as well. This made it a national grapevine selection programme.

A new method of clonal (polyclonal) selection of grapevine varieties was designed and implemented, and had proven positive results. It was initiated in and with the collaboration of the Douro region, which is remarkable not only for having preserved its ample genetic heritage in terms of grapevine varieties, but also because of the genetic gain – whether for their fertility or other specific qualitative characteristics – of groups of clones, as well as the recovery of noble varieties in danger of extinction, one of the most strident examples of which is the Touriga Nacional, which certainly would not exist now were it not for the implementation of the clonal selection programme.

There were many other transformations, innovations, and human progress in terms of applied technology achieved during this period:

– Improvements to or creation of land preparation systems and vineyard planting systems which are more functional and capable of being mechanised; land preparation which causes less erosion, such as narrow terraces of just one trellis running longitudinally, with high‑trained vines – which achieve the same effect as did the high vine density in traditional plantations – thus delivering positive results in terms of both grape and wine quality;

– Where possible, adaptation of old terrace formations with stone walls to mechanization, while still respecting traditional structures and plant densities;

– Creation of new mechanisation solutions by using machines and other implements best suited to the demands of hillside viticulture.

– After a period of almost indiscriminate recourse to an extremely wide range of pesticides, viticulture saw itself becoming progressively more organically‑orientated and therefore more environmentally‑friendly.

– In recognition of the Douro’s acknowledgement in practice of the imperative to preserve viticultural heritage and ensure sustainable land use, UNESCO bestowed the “World Heritage” award upon the demarcated Douro Region.

– Development in tourism, particularly enotourism with its wine routes, the creation of rural tourism areas and related hospitality, as well as the promotion of the Douro River itself have already experienced a significant boost in terms of visibility.

Finally, the sector has reorganised itself at institutional level by creating new associations and institutions. General conditions for rural labour are improving. Vitivinicultural research is taking place – notably by UTAD, ADVID and CEVD, but also through private initiatives – and, as never seen before in the region, viticultural and oenological technologies, and management and marketing strategies are gaining ground within the Douro in private and cooperative wineries, in companies, institutions and research organisations, with much discussion of problems and innovation taking place, thus creating a wealth of human resources essential to the technical and economic development of the Douro Region.

In Minho, where the Vinho Verde region was demarcated in 1908, agricultural practices which characterise the province – practically unaltered until the last couple of decades of the 20th century – date back to the so‑called “Maize Revolution” of the 16th century when maize was introduced to the region. Although much more productive than the traditional cereal crops, maize is also more demanding on water resources, fertilizer, more labour‑intensive and requires more space for drying and storage. Although predominantly made up of smallholdings, Minho agriculture is self‑sufficient. It produces bread, potatoes, beans, vegetables and fruits, pasture for its livestock from which it produces milk, cheese, meat and wool. Wine, too, has to be produced to accompany meals and to quench the thirst on summer afternoons. If space is a constraint, one has to make use of a third dimension – height, in this case – arranging the vines on the perimeters of cultivated fields, so that they benefit from the fertiliser and water used on the other crops, and are able to climb the nearby trees to heights of 5‑6 metres, thus becoming what are known as uveiras (literally, “grape trees”) or hanging vineyards. One often also finds ramadas (staked high horizontal trellises) or latadas (latticed horizontal trellises) covering pathways and roads or on the edges of small parcels of cultivated land.

The wine produced from these grapes is usually red, of poor quality, acid and astringent. It is a drink very much appreciated by Minho farmers, since it commonly accompanies certain traditional dishes in the region and complements the fatty ingredients well. Because of its characteristics, however, vinho verde remains confined to local consumption, having gained neither acceptance nor much exposure beyond the region, apart from the traditional reds of Moncão once exported to England even before the emergence of the wines from Porto, and certain individuals cases of white vinho verde being produced and exported by large companies, whether to other parts of the country or to selected international markets.

As already mentioned, it was the important transformations initiated in the second half of the 20th century which have led to viticulture and viniculture being in the position they are today. First of all, there were the cooperative wineries and their connection to Vercoop for the collection of small quantities produced by individuals, and common marketing in demijohns or bottles.

A little later, the exercises carried out by the Viticultural Commission of the Vinho Verde Region under the hand of the visionary and entrepreneurial Eng. Amândio Galhano had a definitive role in the transformation and modernisation of vitiviniculture. He began by acknowledging that in order to gain acceptance on the market, vinho verde had to be white, given its unique personality of being a low alcohol, fresh, acidic wine with classic varietal aromas. This wine is not produced in any other part of the world, because its typicity is intimately tied to the ecosystem and to cultivation techniques.

It was therefore essential to select those regional grapevine varieties which had superior qualitative potential. For basic vinification purposes, no more than a half dozen white grapevine varieties which satisfied the prerequisite were selected. The condition was that there had to be a defined variety belonging to each sub‑region: Monção and Melgaço, with the Alvarinho; Ribeira Lima, where the Loureiro is predominant; Amarante and Basto, where the Azal is indispensable; Marco and Baião, where the Avesso best exhibits its particular characteristics.

Simultaneously, in the Commission’s laboratories, research work was developing in the area of fermentation and vinification procedures which, with the initial support of the Commission, gave rise to the first vinho verde white wines such as the S. Cláudio (close to Esaposende) or the Palácio da Brejoeira in Monção, from the Loureiro and Alvarinho grapevine varieties respectively.

In viticulture, the man who took the helm in the initial stages of modernisation was Eng. Artur Pinho, of the then Porto Agricultural Research Station (Estação Agrária do Porto) who embarked upon the varietal selection and mass cloning of regional grapevine varieties, work which was indispensable in the establishment of a new viticulture, and also conceived a “cross‑shaped” vine conduction system which was nothing more than an intelligent adaptation to suit the extreme vigour of the vines in response to environmental conditions (soil and climate).

The vines gradually moved from the perimeters of the cultivated fields, and were planted on more extreme parcels of land, on sunnier slopes with less fertile soil, thus giving rise to a more balanced maturation process without losing the general characteristics typical of vinho verde. Mechanisation then became possible because the machines could move between the rows, and work which has to be done manually (such as pruning and harvesting) can now be done without the use of ladders because the fruit is easily accessible at 1.7–1.8 metres from the ground.

A little later, in the 1980s, the Viticultural Commission was created at the Amândio Galhano Viticultural Research Station, whose property borders on the town of Ponte da Barca, where important research projects focusing on new conduction systems, clonal selection and basic vinification of individual grapevine varieties were conducted. At the same time, the Research Station planted the first vines from which grafted vines of regional grapevine varieties would be produced and offered for sale to viticulturalists. From time to time there are still various training events taking place, and presentations given of developments in research.

Thus, in more recent decades, alongside traditional agriculture which still makes a significant contribution, much has changed in the viticultural sector: Everywhere, whether on the smallest smallholdings, on the estates of producers and bottlers, or in field trials conducted by the bigger companies, vineyards are using modern conduction systems which aid mechanisation; grapevine varieties are being selected and organised in separate plots; and the mainly white wine produced is improving in quality and competing better on the market. Finally, technical staff in the service sector, coming from various universities and agricultural colleges, has grown, both in number and in professional competence.

In the Dão Region, the first major structural change began to occur in the 1950s and 1960s, with the emergence of the cooperative wineries and their union (UDACA – União Demarcada das Adegas Cooperativas do Dão) The cooperative wineries meant that individual production of wine all but disappeared, but they did make the marketing of wine easier. Nevertheless, the region experienced a period of some stagnation until the 1990s. Viticulturalists were selling their grapes to the cooperatives at low prices. After making wine of generally good quality, the cooperatives marketed it directly and, in may cases, sold it to large companies, sometimes outside of the region, who made up their own batches and sold it in bottles under their own brands.

In 1990, the Vale do Dão winery (Sogrape) acquired the Quinta do Carvalhais estate with the objective of producing and greater volumes of wine of better quality.

On 50 hectares of land available for vineyards, they planted regional grapevine varieties with the greatest qualitative potential using modern viticultural practices and management methods. The purpose‑built winery, with a processing capacity of roughly 8 million kilograms of grapes, was designed using the most advanced technologies and most sophisticated equipment under the guidance of experienced oenologists. The winery has two production lines: One for the grapes grown on the estate or those purchased from vintners who also grow the best grapevine varieties to develop better quality wines; and the other, for the high volume production of cheaper wines, which nevertheless are subjected to rigorous oenological techniques. The Vale do Dão winery thus became a pioneer company in that it brought wines to the market which it had made itself, as opposed to merely bottling wine purchased from other wineries. Having implemented this initiative, other companies followed suit, which encouraged viticulturalists with whom they had established purchasing contracts to choose which varieties they grew and the best way to take care of their vineyards, which, in turn, has been reflected in improved quality of even the most common wines.

At the same time, the first producers/bottlers sprung up – and today there are a considerable number of them – who were producing wines which have a good reputation within Portugal and have received recognition at international competitions.

At cooperative level, if some wineries still have not managed to keep up with progress, there are others which are modernising in terms of equipment and technology, and more especially, acquiring highly qualified technical staff.

Finally, at the level of viticultural and oenological trials and research, mention should be made of the work being developed by professionals in the employ of private companies or cooperatives, as well as the long‑term studies being conducted by the Centro de Estudos Vitivinícolas do Dão (Dão Centre for Viticultural Studies).

Despite its viticultural tradition and reputation, the Bairrada only became recognised as a demarcated wine region in 1979. Long before then, however, the region assumed an important leadership role, which would account for it being one of the most significant regions in the country. Of particular note was the creation of the Escola Prática de Viticultura e Pomologia (Practical School of Viticulture and Pomology) in response to the phylloxera crisis over a century ago. This establishment gave rise to the current Estação Vitivinícola da Bairrada (Bairrada Vitivinicultural Research Station). Also worthy of mention are the oenological training courses which it has been offering since the 1930s, and which certainly pioneered the teaching of both basic and advanced courses in these specialised fields in Portugal.

Despite its tradition of producing sparkling wines and some red wines of great personality, mostly produced from the Baga grapevine variety, the Bairrada region still suffers some constraints arising, in the main, from the small size of the individual vineyards properties (according to data from the 1980s, about 98% of vineyards measured less than 1 hectare), its vine conduction systems which make mechanisation impossible, the age of its vines, low yield per vine, and its mix of inferior grapevines varieties with those of better quality.

The restructuring which occurred at the beginning of the 1990s gave rise to the adoption of vine conduction systems suitable for mechanisation; new plantings exclusively of grapevine varieties either recommended or authorised by the region; and plantings in uniform rows, keeping different varieties separate from each other. These measures have already borne fruit, although to a relatively modest extent, with converted plots making up about about 10% of the total area under cultivation.

Recently promulgated legislation on the quality of grapes and the classification of wines (Bairrada DOC, Bairrada Clássico and Bairrada Clássico DOC) has contributed to a significant improvement in production.

As with the regions discussed above, new vineyards began to spring up in Bairrada, including some large ones which employed modern techniques both in the vineyard and in the cellar, assisted by competent professionals, all of which creates well‑founded hope that the region will play a much more pivotal role in the near future.

Despite the fact that the Portuguese wine sector – and in this case, the north of the country – went through a difficult economic, social and commercial phase, which definitely provoked the radical changes within the productive sector, and implying that many growers fell by the wayside, progress in new technology, legislation and the manner in which problems arising in the last two or three decades have been addressed has itself already introduced fundamental and definitive changes which allow one to believe in the consolidation and reaffirmation of the sector as a whole.