Our InterNations Ambassador in Porto, Russian expat Olesya, recently seized the chance to fulfill one of her dreams and participate in Vindimas, the Portuguese grape harvest. Read all about her trip to the picturesque Douro Valley here!
I’ve been longing to take part in the wine production process since I first heard about it, but never had the opportunity to do so. This year I received an invitation from one of my friends who is working as an oenologist for one of the quintas (wine estates) in the Douro Valley. Obviously, it took me no time at all to say YES.
First of all, what is Vindimas? Basically, it’s the grape harvest in Portugal, which happens once a year in September/October (depending on the weather conditions during the year). During this time, most people in the Douro Valley are very busy hand-picking the grapes, bringing them to the quintas, crushing them in the lagares (traditional fermentation tanks, usually made from stone), letting the must (grape juice) ferment, later mixing it with aguardente (grape spirit) and then storing the resulting, cleared liquid in the barrels for aging. This process takes many workers, much effort, and lots of time during the day — even during the night.
I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for such a long time, and now, I am in the train heading towards the Douro Valley – the birthplace of port, as well as delicious table whites and reds. Half of the time, I feel like I am actually on a boat instead of a train. The railroad is so close to the River Douro that you seem to be gliding over the water.
Just a couple of hours after leaving Porto, which I spend looking out of the window and making plans for my stay, I arrive in Pinhão, a small town hidden in the midddle of the Douro Valley, which sits right near the river and enjoys the most beautiful sunsets every evening.
My friend is picking me up, 20 minutes later than we agreed – normal for him, and for most Portuguese people actually. They are never in a rush, at all. It took me a while to get used to this. Anyway, now I’m here, and my wine adventure officially begins!
We arrive at Quinta do Tedo, a beautiful place near the confluence of one of the Douro’s tributaries, the River Tedo. This quinta is surrounded by the waters of these two rivers, and the view is just staggering: rivers, mountains, vineyards – everything I adore about Portugal – and I will be spending three more days here. If I could, I’d stay forever!
On the first day, I settle in, see how the vintage 2011 is being bottled and have a nice dinner, followed by a small trip to the top of São Leonardo hill, one of the highest landmarks in the area. The day has passed so fast, and now I am literally on the top of the Douro Valley, at 11:00 pm. I am alone here, and it feels like I am somewhere on another planet.
It’s Vindimas time everywhere in the valley, so many estates down there are brightly illuminated. The moon is so bright that those billions of stars I usually see here are hidden from my eye. It’s a calm, fresh evening. I am preparing for tomorrow’s excitement, together with the rest of the valley.
Morning starts a bit late for me since I am not supposed to work, as my friend Hugo tells me. It’s quite a surprise to me because I came here exactly to work. After a breakfast consisting of bread fresh from oven and fruit fresh from the tree, I am trying to persuade my friend to put me on the field so I can actually do something. He gives up – as he usually does with me. 🙂
We are going to the vineyard for grape-picking, where I am given a bucket and a pair of scissors to cut the grape bunches. Today it’s Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Those grapes are different from each other. For instance, Touriga Nacional – the main grape variety in the Douro region – has a big cluster, heavy and very dark, almost black. Tinta Roriz, on the other hand, is a bit smaller with a different type of leaves.
After two hours of grape-picking in the sun, my back starts hurting. Well, nothing surprising actually – I am not used to move in such a strange position for such a long time. The next day I will figure out that I even got sunburn on my back because my T-shirt would lift up every time I bent to cut another bunch of grapes. Still, I am really happy and satisfied because the local people like my work and accept me into their small circle.
We are having a break for lunch and, oh my, this lunch is everything one could dream of. It’s homemade, so delicious, so tasteful, so embarrassingly good! The owner of the quinta tells me later that plenty of people working during Vindimas are actually very cheap labour and that they work mostly for the good food.
Actually, I have to say more about the people I work with. They are very friendly and open. They sing while working and talk very loudly, discussing football and local gossip. When they realize that I can understand Portuguese, they start talking to me, making jokes and laughing a lot. However, they don’t forget their work, and they are doing it very well. They really show me how important it is to love what you are doing. They are happy, and this is a type of personality you could hardly find in a big city.
After lunch, there are two more hours of work in the sun (already very hot). Coming back to the quinta, I am wet and dirty, with sticky hands, but very excited. I have already planned a horse ride in the evening, but now I am debating whether it’s a good idea because my back hurts rather a lot. Well, the swimming pool saves the day, and after a swim and a shower, I am determined to go riding. So I take my friend’s car and head to Sabrosa.
Sabrosa is a small village on top of another hill in the Douro Valley, but it is most famous for being among the possible birthplaces of Ferdinand Magellan. I pass through this town in no more than two minutes and turn into the forest before I arrive at my destination. It’s not a fancy stable, but the horses are treated very well, and the owner has such a warm smile on his face. This is a person I’d trust my own horse to. I am given a nice, very calm, but strong horse, Thor, and we go for a ride in the virgin eucalyptus forest. It’s evening, so it’s not only the scent of the eucalyptus that takes my breath away, but there’s also a breath-taking red sunset over the hill. Fortunately, I still remember something about riding so Francisco (the stable owner) and I can both enjoy our time outside and the scenery.
I was invited for dinner with the family Bouchard – the owners of Quinta do Tedo. So I’d better not be late, right? I drive like crazy on that serpentine road from Sabrosa to the quinta, and I arrive just in time. Sometime it’s really useful that Portuguese people are nearly always late for everything! We are having leitão (piglet) and a sparkling red Verde wine for dinner – very nice. This kind of wine from the Minho region of Portugal is very young, and it has to be consumed within one or two years after production.
After dinner, it’s grape-stomping time! I have been waiting for that moment with a mixture of horror and excitement; I don’t know which feeling is actually winning here. I was told that one could develop an allergy from stomping grapes with your bare feet. But it looks like such fun: people are playing games in the lagares, so, forgetting about all my fears, I jump in.
First, I need to step into a bucket full of aguardente for disinfection, and only after that am I allowed into the lagares. In the beginning, it’s a very strange feeling, but then, within a couple of minutes, I am ready to work. Hmm… I can’t say this is really work, as we are actually playing games in there and it’s indeed a lot of fun! We are all together here – owners, workers, and their friends. This is a tradition at Quinta do Tedo: all their best labourers, friends, and family members stomp the grapes together. I am honoured to be one of them today.
The next day I am woken at 5:30am because the must for the port wine is ready to be mixed with aguardente to stop the fermentation and the process of bringing to life a nice port. Fermentation is kind of a magical process. Table wines are simpler, so the oenologists can add some special mixture to feed the yeasts and thus speed up the fermentation process. Port wine production, however, is absolutely natural. The oenologists just follow what happens, controlling and checking up on it.
Port wine is a fortified wine, though. This means that at a particular stage of the fermentation process, a spirit — aguardente in the case of port — is added to stop the wine from fermenting any further. When this happens, the unfermented sugars and colour of the must are preserved in the wine. There is no added sugar in port wine; its sweetness comes exclusively from unfermented grapes. The moment when aguardente is added is not rushed, and it can therefore happen at any hour of the day or night.
This particular time, it happened at 6:00 am – and everyone had started working at 4:00am to prepare everything for The Big Moment. The grape must is mixed with aguardente inside a concrete tank fed by two pipes, one carrying the must, the other carrying the grape spirit. The mixture will stay there for a couple of months before being transferred to wooden barrels and vats, where it will age for a number of years, now being port wine. Depending on the type of port that the wine maker wants to produce, this wine will be aging inside the barrels from two years to whatever time is needed.
After a big and tasty breakfast, I am sitting in the lab with my friend Hugo, the oenologist, and trying different musts from different stone tanks. I have never had such experience before. Those samples are just the beginning of the wine we will drink in a few years, with 1-2% of alcohol only. Some have rather complex flavours, others very simple ones. I am trying the wine from tank 6, which contains some grapes that I cut myself. This tank will be precious to me, and I am sure I will buy a bottle of, hopefully, Reserva 2013, to be produced from Tinta Roriz.
After the lab tasting, it is time to paint a bottle that my friend bought before. It now contains some Vintage 2011 that has not even been bottled before, so I feel honoured to paint the bottle and prepare it for sending to my friend in the US. I hope she’ll like this little gift from “my” quinta.
Everything that happened to me at the Quinta do Tedo was really magical. I will definitely remember these days forever, and I will make sure to come back next year for Vindimas.
If you are somewhere near Porto, just let me know, and I can give you tips on where to go and what to see and do in the Douro Valley. I will be more than happy to share the magical secrets of wine production!
(Photo credits: pictures 1), 3) – 8) Olesya L; 2) Pinhão Railway Station by Wikimedia Commons user Antero Pires)