Although 0.3mm of rain was forecast for yesterday the sky remained clear with no sign of rain even in the distant Spanish mountains. At teatime a few clouds appeared and water droplets fell for a minute. I was at the far end of our land and didn’t get wet. Was that all? Forecast wrong. But at least it was the harbinger of rain.

At 11pm as I was closing my laptop computer, with the living room windows still open, I thought I heard drops of rain on the “lawn” outside. I went onto the patio and there were certainly sounds of raindrops so I sat on the swing seat and listened as rain arrived, then remembered to put the rain gauge out. I listened happily for the next twenty minutes as the first rain since mid May pattered off the vine leaves and soaked into the bone-dry earth; 3.5mm fell and the air smelled sweet.

after the shower

This morning there was mist hanging on the village and the moisture allowed sounds to carry clearly. I sat and listened to the cockerels dotted around the landscape and the bells of a flock of sheep in a field to the east of the village. It was cool, lovely!

Three days ago I checked the sweetness of the grapes with the saccharometer and found that they are ready for winemaking. However they are not big and plump. After late frost froze off the first crop of baby grapes, then two weeks later in May the same again followed by three months without rain, we are lucky to even have an estimated twelve crates of fruit, under half the usual yield. I decided to hold out for some rain, to wash off traces of ash from the forest fires from the grapes and to get juicier fruit. The first rain for fifteen weeks – at last! Now, at 9am, the sun is hot as usual, but the air feels fresher and smells good.

When the wine has fermented on the fruit for a week or so it is “racked off” from the fruit into a different barrel to ferment. Janet “scraped the barrel” to remove the pulp (bagaço, pronounced bag-a-soo) and press it in a wide-mesh cloth filter to ensure that every last drop of wine was extracted. We put the pulp, which was still fermenting, into two barrels and in the evening we took them to the quinta of Zé’s father-in-law, Senhor Zé.

The distillery

Early the next day we returned to his quinta. There were several plumes of wood smoke scattered in our view and a smoky haze in the air that morning – we were not the only folks to be making aguardente. We followed our noses to his garage where we had been told Sr Zé would be getting on with distilling our bagaço. There was the smell of burning olive wood and perhaps mimosa, and a faintly yeasty aroma.





Sr Zé had already filled the 150-litre copper vat of his still with our grape must, added a few litres of water and lit the wood fire beneath it. The grapey fermenting mass was heated and stirred. When it started to boil, he fitted the beaten copper cabeça (still-head) to the alambique and sealed it with a paste of wet ash.

Now we had to wait. This is a good time to simply sit and talk, because the process takes as long as it takes, it can’t be hurried.

Making aguardente is widely practised in rural areas. We encountered it in France where a small lorry will arrive (by appointment) at the back of your house. The lorry is in fact a mobile distillery and the owner distils your cider to make calvados, applejack brandy.

In Ireland and Poland, many smallholdings have a distillery in the garage. The Irish make undrinkable potato wine which is distilled to make “poteen”, and the Poles do the same with potatoes and malted grain to make vodka.  Here in Portugal most folks make good drinkable wine which can be distilled to make vinicula aguardente, but is usually kept as wine. The waste material from the fermentation, bagaço, is what is distilled. The large mass of grapes pass on their flavour to the distillate, giving the superior type of aguardente called bagaceira.

The alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it is the first vapour to pass through the still-head into the copper spiral immersed in running cold water.

The neat alcohol is not safe to drink – Zé offered me a small glass of our tepid liquor and I drank a mouthful. It really was like drinking fire – aguardente literally translated is fire water!  It took my breath away and burned my throat; my eyes watered, I coughed a lot and sweated. Not recommended. Far too strong!

Now I could understand why it has to be diluted with the weaker distillate which trickles over later in the process to make a drink with around 40% alcohol. The subtle flavours and a little sweetness are in the later fraction, which makes the difference between mediocre commercial aguardente and top-quality liquor.

We had brought so much bagaço that Sr.Zé could make a second batch, with a top-up brought over by farmer Zé. We were invited to lunch by his wife, but as the distillation was running we had to wait for it to finish, arriving for lunch well after 2pm when the farm workers had eaten and returned to their bean-picking.

We returned to transfer the bagaçeira into five-litre garrafões and to enjoy Sr. Zé’s company whilst sampling the delicious contents of his cellar!

The finished product, 36 litres of top-quality aguardente – ready for drinking, for making next year’s xiropiga and for preserving fruit.

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 !

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 !

We sleep on top of the bedclothes because it’s too hot. In the coolest part of the night, pre-dawn, it’s 25°C. The day quickly heats up. By 2pm it is often over 40° (104°F) in the shade; add 5° to this in the sun.  It is unwise to work in the afternoon, even in the shade. The temperature doesn’t drop below 35° until an hour before sunset, so our working day in August is fairly short.

All our fruit is exposed to the full sun, so it’s hotter than we are when we pick it – tomatoes, melons, sweet peppers, pears, cucumber, all hot.

With our steady supply of tomatoes, peppers and cucumber Janet makes gazpacho (a Spanish soup) and has to add ice cubes in the blender – a bit different from simmering a soup!

We love melon, and have the wonderful privilege of eating it chilled and very fresh, floral aromatic and sooo refreshing in hot dry evenings. They are just coming into their own and we will soon be eating half a melon a day! We have four varieties so we hope to avoid getting bored of them. Janet makes great fruit smoothies so melon juice will probably appear in those for a while.

The first larger-scale crop came from our pear trees. After finding a promising recipe for preserving pears on the internet, I picked twenty “Seckel” and carefully peeled them. Some had a worm in, so I saved what was good and picked a dozen more, peeled and recovered what I could then weighed them – only three pounds and the recipe specified four, no less. So I did twenty more, keeping the peeled pears in brine so they wouldn’t oxidise. It was now lunchtime, and it had taken two hours just to prepare the pears! Cut a long story short, at 9pm (!) I had three 1lb jars of Belgian pears – delicious, but taking a whole day . . . ? !

The next day I started much earlier, with thirty Bartlett pears. They were tastier but less intact, and I needed thirty more. Again, it was after lunch before I could start cooking them. This time I produced four jars of delicious conserve, and under half of our pears used.

Butternut squashes are supposed to be harvested in September but ours looked ready. I tried one, roasted; it was delicious! Janet gathered the ripe ones – thirty of them weighing 22Kg, which are now in the adega (wine cellar), with more to come. If we eat one roasted every week we’ll eat the last ones next May!

A fair proportion of the figs were ready to pick and we spent most of a morning climbing up and down a ladder, gathering twelve kilos.

Janet arranged them to sun-dry on a trestle table made from one of the former metal doors of the house. There are several pleasures in this job, apart from the satisfaction of having lots of “stored sunshine” for the winter. One is munching the live green figs straight from the tree – yummy! The second is known only to fig-pickers.

A few figs, when absolutely ripe, exude a drop of honey-like sap from their base. This evaporates to a glassy droplet of natural mildly fig-like caramel which tastes gorgeous. This droplet dries off in under one day, so it can’t be saved – it has to be savoured when it is found. This slows my harvesting down but I work in a blissed-out leisurely manner in the hot sun. Three days later many more figs were ripe so we harvested another thirteen kilos. There are probably twenty kilos more to ripen and pick, so another day is set aside for them.

Many bunches of grapes look ripe to me, which may mean it’s a vindima (grape harvest) soon. This is one of the highlights of the year. Our tractor mechanic, Sr Antonio, asked us if we would help him with his harvest – he has over four acres of productive vines to do. There will be lots of other folk helping too, working all one weekend. It will be interesting to work in a gang and to learn how the locals do it.

Our son Samuel left a cold wet England and landed in hot sunny Lisbon on 1st February to work with us for a week. We drove to meet him, a round trip of 360 miles. His first act was to remove his jacket and shirt, walking around in a sleeveless t-shirt and sunglasses!

Ian, me and Samuel

The next day I showed him how to lightly prune olive trees and he helped Ian and me giving the west olival a light maintenance pruning, two years after their initial deep pruning. The work went quickly because of mutual encouragement and camaraderie, and we completed all ninety in only three days – now 170 olive trees were done this spring.

We went out for dinner that evening, a 30-mile drive to a small town on the Spanish border, where Maria-Alice runs her restaurant. It is open every lunchtime and every evening; she hasn’t had a day off for years. She is a good hostess and an excellent cook. We started with bread, olives and a litre of local red wine. She brought us a large tureen of herby vegetable soup, then a few minutes later a tureen of Sopa de Pedra (veg and beans with chunks of pork) – we each had at least three bowlfuls! Although by now we had eaten well, she brought another litre of wine and the main course, a large platter of roast beef in gravy and chips with a light salad. We ate it all so she brought half as much again for Samuel and Janet, who were able to eat more. Then came dessert (home-made egg pudding), two glasses of aguardente and coffee for all. The bill for all this was €32, about £28. We drove home full and happy.

It rained all the next day, which gave us  a break before Ian and I pruned the apple and pear trees whilst Samuel and Janet spent two days pruning vines – Samuel working topless in the lovely spring sunshine.  A neighbour drove by in his little car and couldn’t resist stopping to check their work – he approved, although it is difficult to understand what he is saying, and the consensus in our village is that he speaks some kind of dialect. Also he has too few teeth to pronounce words properly, so most people rely on sounds and his gestures. His utterances are brief and sporadic, usually followed with a broad smile or a quick “não é ?” (isn’t it?). A nodded agreement “é, é ” usually moves the “conversation” on. If it was the wrong reply his swift turn of the head and bewildered look indicate a “certainly not!” must follow, then he’s off again. Afterwards, an analysis of the interaction sometimes reveals the subject that was discussed, but usually you are left with no idea of what he said.  The fact that neither Ian nor João the shepherd speak anything other than their mother tongue did not impede their exchange of pleasantries when they met on several days in the top olival. 

Joao and his flock in our main vineyard

On the morning of his return to England, Samuel met João with his flock in the west olival; the sheep love fresh olive leaves and can smell them from quite a distance! Much to João’s amazement Samuel talked to him in Portuguese! Then the flock of over a hundred sheep caught a whiff of pruned olives in the top olival. It was too tempting, and they scuttled off up the hill with João in pursuit.

Shopping in Fundao market

The next day, Monday, we went to Fundão market and bought a bunch of 25 vines (variety Trincadeira) and four plum trees. These were all re-homed into the main vineyard which we are gradually replanting. Now that we were in planting mode, we spent a day transplanting twenty pine seedlings from the wooded parts of the farm to the eastern perimeter where they will eventually populate our east boundary.  The stakes for marking each spindly treelet were trimmed spear-like vertical branches from the prunings of the previously untended olive trees.

Ian was due to return to the UK in mid-February, so the last few days were spent in cutting the thickest pruned wood into logs for the fire, transporting and stacking it in the woodshed, as well as finding and dealing with the last olive trees which had escaped getting pruned since we bought the farm. By now our pruning saws, new a month ago, were worn out; we had to use a third saw.

On Sunday afternoon we awaited a tree seller from Fundão market who had promised to come to our farm to see the land and offer advice. He was due at 4pm so we had decided to leave for the villa at 5.30 after his visit. The car was packed and everything put away. However, life at the quinta doesn’t always run to plan. Firstly, our good friend and neighbour “D” drove round to us and insisted we come for dinner at seven, asserting we should not cross the mountains at night but travel fresh in the morning. We could not refuse such a forceful offer. Secondly, the tree-man arrived late at 5.30 and stayed for an hour. He advised us, much to our consternation, to have a bulldozer to clear the rough land we have designated as a new vineyard and for trees. Ian was definitely unenthusiastic about this – he prefers to work with nature rather than bulldozing, and I agree. Nevertheless, he offered other encouraging advice about decorative broadleaf trees and conifers, so his visit was worthwhile.

D’s party began with a meal (for his extended family and the three of us, about twenty in total) of home-produced olives, bread and wine, then Arroz de miúdos de borrego. This is made from fried minced lamb’s lungs with bits of its liver and other internals, with cooked rice and a hint of herbs added. This brown and white soggy porridge is actually quite tasty. It is a variant on the more common cabidela, made from rice and chicken innards using its blood as a stock. The main course was brought to table in a cooking pan well over two feet in diameter; a stew made from the same lamb which, until yesterday, was enjoying the springtime at J-J’s mum’s farm. For sobremesa were both chocolate and coffee mousse, very scrummy, and three tasty sheep’s cheeses of differing maturity. We adjourned to the huge double-height stone walled living room, where chunks of tree-trunk burned in its two-metre wide fireplace. Baronial or what?

This party took place two days before Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival in Portugal, a public holiday that is more important than Christmas. In the shops are more fancy dress costumes than can be imagined. [We had a McDonalds in Castelo Branco on the previous Friday and saw two crusaders, three jesters, Batman, Zorro . . . – thank goodness they haven’t heard of Lady Godiva!] Anyway, you can easily buy all the props you could ever want for home-made plays, which is what D had done. He immensely enjoys drama and had written three short plays to involved three of his grandchildren who were staying with them at his house. One granddaughter, like him, adores play-acting. These plays were made all the more hilarious as we had imbibed plenty of wine. Then he chose a CD of Portuguese dancing music, rolled up the carpet and we had an impromptu dance. Out came the fancy-dress wigs and hats – more hilarity – and the family dance continued until we were all exhausted. For Ian this was the first time he had been in such a wonderful environment, a brilliant way to say farewell to another life he’d shared with us for a month – a life of hard work, good food and wine, sunshine, tranquillity and close friendships.


The sun is beating down and the grape vines are loaded full with ripe fruit. The adega is where they are taken to be fermented into wine; the alcohol preserves the fruit flavours, vitamins and minerals for medicinal consumption during the long hard winter (yeah, yeah . . .). However, the builders are still on holiday and we have neither an adega nor equipment. We decide that we will have to forego this year’s harvest. But half the point of owning a Quinta is to make single-estate wine, and the thought of wasting this opportunity is unbearable, so although we are late in starting, we have to go out and buy a 280 litre dorna (60 gallon fermenting tank) – it is the biggest that we can fit in the car with the back seats removed. Friday is hot and sunny (like the previous hundred days) so we get out there with a couple of borrowed builders buckets and polythene bags, harvesting and enthusiastically showing each other what massive fruits / long bunches / lovely colour grapes we have, happily munching samples from our vines as we go.

We  reverse the car onto the land so we can put the full bags in ready for sorting back at home – yes, we did take the whole lot over the mountains and back to the villa, where we have clean dry space and indoor taps.  In the hallway at our villa, Janet trod the grapes in the traditional way. With slightly-warm grapes and fruit-mush squidging between her toes, she trampled them for over an hour before we could simply cover the tank with a table-cloth to keep out the fruit flies and leave it to ferment on natural yeast (one of our local ones rejoices in the Latin name for bee-anus mould, nice!). The sugar content, as it tasted very sweet, was high – 15%!!  That will give a medium wine, full-bodied, with maximum alcohol!

The next day, we visited the Agricultural Co-op in Lousã and bought a 120 litre barrel with a tap, and asked about buying wine yeast – nobody uses it, but the man said we should visit the chemist’s shop for tartaric acid and bisulphite. We did, and I asked the helpful girl at the counter for a hundred grams of tartaric acid. She went off to the back of the shop and then I realised that although I am used to cheap lab reagents, she may charge us a small fortune! She came back with a neat hand-cream container and the acid (powder) weighed out into it, sorry about the cost of the container – it is half of the £1.50 total – relief!

A few days later back we went over the mountains, on the way buying a 250 litre stainless steel tank for storing the wine in, and a couple of cestas (40 litre tubs) to harvest grapes into. A week later, after another treading we needed more fermenting vessels, so we bought a 65 litre and a 30 litre barrel, and transferred the first brew into the 120-litre barrel. Well, I thought, that should be easy, just siphon it off to rack it, but no, too many pips in the mash. OK, open the tap – no, it blocks up with the solids. Ah, blow them back up the pipe away from the tap – no, in come more solids when the tap is re-opened. So I eventually use a litre jug, carefully filling it to avoid collecting grape stalks and flesh, then pouring the liquid into the barrel through a filter in a funnel. Next year we will consider investing in an electric esmegadora, which squeezes the grapes and separates out most of the stalks and pips.

Whilst I went to see Samuel in Athens for six days, Janet and her mum went over for a third harvest, armed with new little secateurs just for harvesting bunches of grapes. When I returned there was wine fermenting in the two big barrels, in a swing-top bin and even in the mop bucket, a fridge full of concentrated grape juice, and Janet telling me that we have only gathered in one third of the crop! Goodness, whatever shall we do next year?!

Pic: nightfall, bunches of grapes hang over the patio.

Another week passes by and it is now October, back we go to the quinta – just look at all those grapes!! So we harvest more, bring them back over the mountains, buy another 65 barrel, tread them, and move all the brews into new vessels. The hall smells like a brewery. The remaining grapes on the vines are starting to turn into delicious sultanas and raisins now; it’s the end of the vendima. At last.