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.

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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 !