If you either read the previous post or saw the comment thread, you know that in my slightly sleep-deprived state I failed to discuss what many might consider to be the important bit – so, what’s it like to tread grapes?
Good fun. I’ve tread three times now. On one occasion I was at Quinta do Vesuvio early in the day and watched as the lagar was filled with grapes – Touriga Nacional in this case. From vineyard to winery the grapes are handled as carefully as possible – you want them to arrive intact, because if they have been crushed and juice escapes whilst in the vineyard or en route, it could start fermenting in the crates, and that is undesirable – you want to manage the fermentation yourself in the clean lagar. When the grapes arrive they are tipped onto a triage table for one last quality review and then the moving carpet drops them into a de-stemmer, which spits out stems at one end and drops the now slightly-crushed grapes and resulting juice into a pipe which leads to the lagar du jour.
As the lagar fills with grapes and the juice starts to run and gather a bit, the scent during the day becomes a bit heady – very fresh fruit, but powerful. The must may begin to ferment a bit, it depends on the temperature of the grapes coming in, and the ambient of the winery. I’ve never smelled any “yeasty” smell – it’s either fruit (think summer pud without the stodgy bits) or, after fermentation has been going a while, a bit of CO2 – ventilation is important!
By the time I, as a visitor, joined the treading, the gang had already put in almost two hours of work, so the mixture was more soupy – instead of a big pile of crushed grapes with pools of juice, what you climb into around the start of hour 3 is juice with a dense mass of pips and skins floating in it.
You do feel the pips underfoot, but they don’t hurt, and your marching and dancing action effectively kneads the skins against the stone and general mass underfoot, which is the best way in the world to extract colour and flavour compounds from the grape skins. Touriga Nacional has particularly thick skins, so this is important. Whereas makers of table wines can leave the pulpy mass in the wine for the duration of fermentation or even after – meaning, for days or weeks – Port makers have not more than two days to extract all the colour and flavour they can from the grapes – we have to arrest the fermentation after about 48 hours, when only about half the sugar has been fermented out, by adding the aguardente (grape spirit) – this is how we get a sweet wine (sugar remains) but a strong one (all that 77% grape spirit!).
During the corte we march rythmically and in silence, knees up, arms across one anothers’ shoulders, and rocking slightly with the movement to the rythm called by the capataz (foreman). He then broke the rythm with some verse or chant, calling liberdade – freedom. At this point the music begins and people break up into small groups to chat, couples begin to pair off and dance, or the whole lot of us end up in a conga line trotting and bouncing along to a song – about all of which I understood was the word comboio – train. Everyone (else) knows these traditional songs and sings, though some of the younger crowd broke out into a verse of Yellow Submarine at one point (I think that may have been a visitor).
I expected to be slipping and sliding, but it isn’t like that at all – no danger, unless you have a particularly energetic dance partner who is adept at twirling you round – thank you Julian! Luckily he was also strong enough to keep me upright and pretty well under control. The one odd and unexpected thing is that as you move about the lagar, there are definite warm and cool spots: warm where fermentation has begun. If you find yourself in a cool spot, a bit of energetic dancing in place mixes things up a bit and if the grapes don’t warm up, at least you do.
And yes, those pictures are a bit blurry, but it gives you a better idea probably of what it’s like to be partying in a pool full of what will shortly become some of the finest port wine imagineable.