The Douro-based port and wine producer said the region, which is known for its steep, terraced vineyards, has been experiencing a declining population for over 15 years. In a 2019 harvest report, head winemaker Charles Symington said young people are ‘understandably looking beyond the extremely demanding job of a grape farmer to alternative career paths’.
As part of a long-term solution, the company has been trialing a mechanical harvester, designed for mountain vineyards.
‘The 2019 harvest was the fourth year of trials with the Symington-Hoffmann harvester, which performed well on terraces at several of our Quintas and largely exceeded expectations,’ Symington said.
The winemaker admitted that there are still challenges to overcome, such as adapting some 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,’ he said. ‘Clearly the labour challenge needs addressing for all Douro farmers, as such an investment could be prohibitive for many. We will be sharing the results of our trials and supporting the relevant institutions to explore solutions for the region.’
In comparative blind tastings of wines made from hand-picked and harvester-picked grapes, Symington said they were found to be 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,’ he added. ‘The ability to respond rapidly to conditions in the vineyard allows us to take more risks in the search for even higher quality.’
The 2019 vintage saw a return to average-sized yields, the company said, following the ‘exceptionally small’ years of 2017 and 2018.