Walled, worked, steep, the terraces make the Douro landscape one of the most stunning and dazzling in the world.
If you’ve ever had the chance to visit the Douro Valley (definitely a destination not to be missed) or if you’ve seen photos, you may have noticed how all the very steep slopes have been worked and structured to allow the planting and cultivation of vines. These beautifully uniform rows are called terraces. It is the nightmare of all winemakers, but also the most esteemed part of their vineyards. The truth is that they are terribly difficult to build and maintain, but without them, growing vines would be absolutely impossible. In recent decades, research has been carried out on alternatives, which could perhaps allow mechanization and give simplified access to the vines. Now the beautiful hills of the valley are dotted with different styles of terraces that can easily be recognized if you have a keen eye. It is a fascinating facet of this region. These historic schist walls, hand built for the most part, which keep everything in place are built without any mortar. Some were built at heights, others at low altitudes and the volume of work devoted to the construction of these structures, sometimes even centuries old, in the Baixo Corgo, the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior is unimaginable. Nowadays, these amalgams of schist are protected and must be maintained because of the regulation of UNESCO heritage sites.
The Douro River and its main tributaries, Varosa, Corgo, Távora, Torto and Pinhão, form the backbone of the mountainous landscape, protected from the strong Atlantic winds by the mountains of Marão and Montemuro. Wine has been produced in the region for around 2,000 years. Porto was one of the first wine productions to be regulated and demarcated, in 1756. Over the centuries, many terraces have been built using different techniques. This long tradition has created a cultural landscape, shaped by human activities of exceptional beauty reflecting its technological, social and economic evolution.
The oldest, used before the phylloxera era (before 1860), was the socalcos, narrow and irregular terraces supported by schist stone walls, which required continuous maintenance on which only one or two rows of vines could be planted. The long, continuous lines of terraces with regular shapes date from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when the vineyards of the Douro were rebuilt following the attack of phylloxera. The new terraces changed the landscape, not only because of the monumental walls built, but also because they were wider and slightly tilted so that the vines were better exposed to the sun.
Socalcos (uphill) & Murtórios (lower hill)
In the Douro there are a limited number of vineyards that can be planted at the same time. This means that if you want to plant a new vineyard, you must either take an existing one or abandoned one. Overall, everything you do in the Douro is very laborious and expensive. The result over the years, decades, is a multitude of abandoned terraces. Wherever you look, you will see wild vegetation and shrubs, olive trees, cork oaks, fruit trees and many other varieties of plants. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that most of these plants, shrubs and trees are planted on very old uneven terraces, called Murtórios. They are cultural and historical gems of the region, as they were all handcrafted 100 to 250 years ago. Remember that these are made from extremely hard schist from the country, without machinery or anything, and they still exist, at least most of them. These Murtórios were all abandoned because of the phylloxera strike in the 1880s. Very few winegrowers want to take up the challenge of repairing and replanting these vineyards. The only thing that protects them is their UNESCO status, which states that they need to be preserved as the unique heritage of the Douro region. Despite everything, many are still deteriorating as we speak.
The oldest of these walls is called Pilheiros. They would have been built about 400 years ago. On each Pilheiro, one can clearly see on the side a small hole (20 cm by 20 cm) every two meters. The main crop at that time consisted of cereals and corn planted on each terrace; it is said that there was a vine planted in each hole with the intention of making wine. The vines would be planted there and would “steal” a piece of land for its growth.
Modern handmade Socalcos – Quinta de Bom Retiro ( Ramos Pinto)
Ancient, irregular Socalcos – Quinta de Bom Retiro ( RAmos Pinto)
High stone walls, the Socalcos were mostly used before the phylloxera era (before 1860), and often include integrated stairs. The first Socalcos, the oldest have a low wall and a narrow and irregular surface allowing only 1 or 2 rows of vines. Other younger Socalcos will have taller walls and more areas, sometimes allowing up to 5 rows of vines. In all cases, they require continuous maintenance and very rigorous manual harvesting.
Patamares – Quinta de Nápoles (Niepoort)
Patamares are a new type of terrace. The long, continuous lines of terraces with regular shapes date from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when the vineyards of the Douro were rebuilt following the attack of phylloxera. The new terraces changed the landscape because they were wider and slightly tilted so that the vines were better exposed to the sun. The Patamares are carved out of the mountains with bulldozers and are not supported by stone walls. They look like linear mounds of earth. The landscaping of the vineyard became widespread in the 1980s, when a large part of the Douro vineyard was redeveloped. Compared to Socalcos, they are relatively inexpensive and quick to build. However, these terraces can cause an erosion problem. One can hardly imagine that they will remain in place for hundreds of years like their predecessors.
Vinha-ao-Alto – Vertical planting
VINHA AO ALTO (vertical planting)
In places with slightly less steep slopes, the terraces can be replaced by vertical rows of vines perpendicular to the hill. This technique has an advantage in terms of drainage and better exposure to plant cover. It is the most modern way of planting and it is becoming very popular. It was invented in order to make mechanization possible. However, the slope still makes it impossible in most cases. You will find this type of plantation mainly at the top or at the bottom of the hills where the slope is often gentler. The biggest advantage is the quantity of vines planted per hectare which is much higher for the happiness and profitability of the winegrowers.
Vinhas Velhas – Quinta do Seixo (Sandeman)
Vinhas Velhas means “old vines”. This term is sometimes used when it comes to very old vineyards, often centuries-old, with very old planted vines. This type of mixed planting was previously the norm. They are rare these days, but the only remaining Vinha Velhas have an enviable reputation. Preserving these vineyards is costly and labor intensive, while production is very limited and irregular with each vintage. Some examples include Quinta de Vargellas owned by Taylor’s Fladgate or the iconic Quinta das Carvalhas of Real Companhia Velha and many others. These vineyards are very similar to Socalcos, and the two terms are often inseparable. This is a literal explanation that is more for the age of the vines than for the terraces themselves.