Water, water, everywhere...or is it?

Our Director of Sustainability and Social Impact, Dom de Ville, on how traditional rainfall patterns are changing in many wine-growing regions – and how Symington are pioneering new research and approaches to adapt to this new normal.

Symington vineyard lab equipment
Symington vineyard lab equipment

I have never met anyone so enthusiastic about the study of water and vines as Fernando Alves, the Head of Research and Development in Viticulture at Symington Family Estates in Portugal. We are walking through Fernando’s outdoor ‘laboratory’ in one of their vineyards in the Douro Valley discussing the future of rain. It’s December 2023 and, funnily enough, it’s raining. 

The new ‘boom and bust’ of rainfall patterns 

‘With climate change, growers are increasingly facing the challenge of either not having enough water or having too much of it all in one go’ says Fernando, a view shared by more and more growers. Valenti Llagostera, from Mas Doix vineyard in Priorat, Spain, says they now either get no rain or a month’s worth in one day. And this water boom and bust, like the economic boom and busts of the 80’s and 90’s, can bring a host of trouble, particularly for the delicate world of wine production – soil erosion, new or more extensive diseases and pests, impacts on grape quality, the need for expensive irrigation, to name but a few. But you already know this. We see it all the time in the UK now as we slop about in our wellies in the winter and wonder how far the reservoir will retreat in the summer. The important question is what can growers do about it? How can they adapt and still grow quality grapes for our wines in the face of the boom and bust of rain?

Ataide cover crop
Ataide cover crop

Smart irrigation 

Back to Fernando and his team at Symington who are doing some mindboggling stuff. The Douro has always been hot and dry, but now more so than ever – and it’s getting worse. So since 2013, Fernando’s team have been using high-tech wizardry, such as infrared satellite and drone imagery, weather stations around the estate, plus all sorts of probes and gadgets in the soil, vine roots and vine leaves to continually assess the state of water stress across their estates. All this data is then used to decide exactly how much water to give the vines in different parts of the vineyards, ensuring the perfect amount for normal growth, encouraging the right berry development and sugar accumulation, and significantly reducing water use. Impressive stuff! 

Sharing the knowledge wealth 

But they go further. Over a decade ago, the Symington Viticulture and R&D team planted 53 grape varieties, comprising many rare indigenous examples, to test how they perform under different climate conditions, such as water stress. The learnings from these years of experimentation are now being spread around the wine world to help others make decisions about which grape varieties to plant in their vineyards, ensuring more resilience to the extreme weather of the future. The world will face a future defined by climate change, says Fernando, so Symington are preparing their vineyards to face these challenges – and helping others do the same. 

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Dom de Ville

Director of sustainability and social impact

Dom de Ville

Dom, our director of sustainability and social impact, has overall responsibility and accountability for our sustainability plan, and has been involved in sustainability for most of his 20-year career, including ten years in international development.

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