Could mechanical harvesters shape future of the Douro?

Faced with on-going labour shortages and a changing climate, Symington Family Estates has said it believes mechanical harvesting is a “viable solution” for the challenges facing the Douro Valley.

In a report written by chief winemaker Charles Symington, the recently finished 2019 vintage is hailed as a “milestone” in a region, “experiencing accelerating rates of change across all dimensions – social, economic, viticultural and environmental”.

For the past 15 years the region has been experiencing a decline in its population, with younger people in particular heading to Porto, Lisbon and other urban areas in search of new career paths – helped by the recent tourism boom.

The flipside to this is the difficulty for growers in the Douro to find enough seasonal workers to bring in the harvest in time scales and conditions that are increasingly unpredictable due to shifting weather patterns.

This year for example was relatively normal but, as a result, the harvest was much bigger than in 2017 and 2018 where the crop was reduced due to more topsy-turvy conditions and it was one of the longest harvests of recent years lasting from the beginning of September to mid-October.

The problems of a reduced labour force are in turn exacerbated by the terrain. The Douro’s 42,000 hectares represent just over half of all the mountain vineyards in the world.

Access to and even getting from one plot to another is slow and time-consuming, not ideal if changing weather forces faster picking.

It was reported in September 2017 that Symington Family Estates was trialling robots to patrol its vineyards but for the past seven years it has also been developing and fine-tuning a mechanical harvester specially designed to work on terraces (pictured above).

This year represented the fourth year of field tests and Charles Symington reported that it, “performed well on terraces at several of our quintas and largely exceeded expectations. There are still challenges to overcome, including adapting some of our vineyards to accommodate the harvester. Nevertheless, I believe we have a viable solution for one of the big issues confronting the future of our region.

“Importantly, comparative blind tastings of wines made from hand-picked and harvester-picked grapes continue to show they are of equal quality. I am particularly excited that the harvester gives us an edge in being able to pick at exactly the right moment, rather than being dependent on increasingly complex logistics with dwindling picking teams. The ability to respond rapidly to conditions in the vineyard allows us to take more risks in the search for even higher quality.”

Symington also added that the company is also looking at the “sparing use of irrigation” to tackle low rainfall.

The Research & Development team have apparently come up with a system that relies on “deficit irrigation” to support vines in places that are most vulnerable to hydric stress. Compared to irrigation in other forms of agriculture the water usage required to stave off lower yields in vines is, “miniscule”.

“Nevertheless,” continued Symington, “it is clear that the sustainability of winemaking in the Douro must be balanced with the availability of water in the valley, and we will continue to engage with the local authorities to share our research and support the development of viable solutions for the region.”

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