September 2010


The vindima spreads over the country like a benign infection.

The symptoms are the appearance of white steel tanks and huge maroon plastic vats in all agricultural shops, and the sound of parties on Saturday after the harvest.

steel cuba in our favourite shop, Ecocampo

It began here in Estremadura and the Alentejo in early September, slowly spreading into cooler or higher zones. By mid-October the whole country is cleared of its vast cargo of grapes. In the north of the country they make deliciously fresh and lightly sparkling vinho verde (young wine) mostly white but red is made too.

However, most grapes will make full-bodied wine that will go directly into five-litre garrafões, and is so delicious that 95% of it will have been consumed before its first birthday, none will reach its second, whereas Port may reach a hundred years of age.

The last of our white grapes

Almost all rural dwellers make their own wine. Having made our red (see the  previous blog) we harvested and made a second brew of white, about 25 litres.

When our carpenter Zé (short for José) was measuring up for our front door, he asked us if we needed more grapes and at the time we said our dornas (fermenting vats) were full. Once our first hundred litres were out of the dorna we reconsidered and decided to keep the equipment in use whilst grapes are being harvested, so we visited Zé and he arranged for us to buy 350kg from his uncle (another Zé, the father of the young woman who first showed us this quinta). We were concerned that our car wouldn’t carry that many, and he said not to worry, they would deliver it for us, would next Wednesday be OK?

At 3pm on Wednesday a truck arrived and out jumped two Zé’s and a farm worker.  Zé the carpenter, who had previously inspected our adega, set to and within five minutes the esmegador was in action and they were unloading and processing the crates of grapes.

Farmer Zé pushed the fruit through the machine then showed me how to calculate the amount of water (60 litres!) needed to bring the sweetness down to the correct level as it was far too high to ferment out. An hour later we were washing down the esmegador, having 2/3 filled two dornas with 420kg of crushed grapes. The stalks, which make the wine bitter, are thrown out by the esmegador and we put them into our compost heaps.

.                  .                   .                   .                   .                   .                   .                   .        .        On Friday the surface of both dornas was a dense bubbling mass of grapes; the Portuguese use the same word for fermenting and boiling, a ferver, because when it is stirred the must looks and sounds like it is boiling. Janet assumed the rôle of winemaker, pushing down the five-inch thick crust of grapes into the must three times daily, stirring it to get more colour and flavour from the grape skins and raisins, release the carbon dioxide to encourage faster fermenting.  The process is vigorous at the temperatures we have here – over 30°C in the day and around twenty at night. The dorna is warm to touch because the process generates heat too. The adega smells of sweet grape juice, yeast and wine, despite having the air flowing through the shutters and an open door.

Taking the wine off its yeast

I decided it was time to second-rack the first wine (take the wine off the yeast) from one 100 litre plastic barrel to another, which we quickly filled to the brim.

We moved on to first-rack the large-scale brew, which was now eight days into fermentation. On our first batch ten days earlier we were lucky enough to open the tap at the base of the dorna and out came half-done wine with no solids, so we did the same again.  A little dribbled out then it stopped. I poked a stick up the clogged tap-hole and encountered no filter-basket beyond.

first rack

After washing my arms I rummaged in the must, shoulder-deep, and discovered that we/they had forgotten to put the filter on the back of the tap. Twenty minutes later it had proved impossible to do it now. However, during last week I’d made for us a filter-tube similar to that which farmer Zé had used to withdraw a clear sample from the must, and had obtained a pump and tubing, so we could get on with the racking anyway, albeit more slowly.

It took all afternoon until 7pm to do the job, but we filled our 250-litre stainless steel cuba full of wine, belatedly fitted the filters to the taps, and covered the leftover solids to drain overnight.

Janet appreciates the value of wine so the next day she drained every last drop from the solids, extracting another twenty litres plus a bottle for us to drink straight away! Putting an ear to the cuba you can hear all the bubbly fermentation continuing steadily.

Next blog – what we did with the remaining solids – magic !

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It’s the most important day of the year on the quinta. The grapes are ripe and it’s time to make wine. It’s a lovely job, handling those luscious heavy bunches of grapes that took three pruning sessions and lots of sunshine and hand-watering to produce.

I wanted to start on the first of September but there was a thunderstorm the night before and the grapes needed to thoroughly dry before we picked them. Also, according to biodynamic methods or phases of the moon (last quarter, when the sap is falling) now is the best time to harvest. Our land is hotter than most of Central Portugal, so we’re the first to have our vindima. In Coimbra they pick in mid-October! We made a good start and by lunchtime had picked two hundred litres of grapes. It was 34°C in the shade but we worked in full sun – hot!

We looked at the chunky bunches of grapes then walked around the un-picked vines to estimate our crop. The 280ℓ dorna looked far too small for it all, and we decided to go and buy another, slightly larger. We drove to Fundão and bought some more crates to place the picked bunches of grapes into, and our friends at Remagril supplied us with a 350ℓ dorna.

Janet with esmegador

Two years ago Janet trod our grapes, and spent many hours removing the stalks and squidging by hand all the grapes that had escaped her toes. This took over ten hours, helped by her mum who was staying with us at the time. When she saw an esmegador she wanted one! It is like an electric mangle for crushing grapes, with a system for separating the stalks out.  Our helpful assistant was rather surprised that both of these very large items would fit into the car.

Back at the quinta we managed to lift the esmegador onto the new dorna and to transfer the grapes through it.  This brilliant piece of kit squidged every grape, letting no stalks through and all 200ℓ were done in an hour including clean-up time.

Why is it that it takes hours to peel and core pears? On 1st September we spent a whole day picking the rest of the pears, preparing them, preserving some in sugar(five hours cooking) and making pear chutney with the remaining three pounds (three hours cooking).

Nearly two years ago in January a two-week-long freeze almost killed our fig trees. Last summer I cut away a large amount of remaining dead wood, which was over half of every tree. In April I pruned each tree a little more, and cleared the ground around eight previously-hidden trees. Now we have a bumper crop of figs – as of 7th Sept it was 58Kg, with well under half harvested.

Unfortunately they coincide with the vindima, and we have decided the wine is more important than fig chutney. Having said that, after several days work related to wine we had two days of making fig, pear and Port wine chutney. In this way we are able to handle some of our surplus, and next year we’ll be better at it.  The problem is, what to do with hundreds of kilos of delicious fresh figs. I did my best, eating them steadily whilst harvesting. We’re now sun-drying our second 25Kg load. Over the weekend I developed toothache and on Wednesday had to go to the dentist. After discussing what could have caused this sudden onset of pain she was certain it was caused by eating too many figs! The sweet juice gets into any slight crack in fillings and causes pain, she said, after showing me the X-ray of where the problem was.

She said the problem is unusual but not unknown, especially if one’s diet is not sweet normally. Then she drilled and filled to cure it. So now it’s less fresh figs for me – I confess, I was on at least forty an hour for two whole mornings! They are not a laxative, either, take it from a reformed fig addict. For that, eat ripe elderberries – intense delicious flavour fresh or cooked, gorgeous as a sauce with ice cream, but more than one bowlful is purgative. We know, we used to take the kids foraging for them in autumn, to make wine. Janet once over-indulged when she couldn’t resist them whilst picking!

I found my limit for grapes too –  only one 1½lb bunch !