As the grapes near ripeness it is not easy to decide when to harvest them. The best wine comes from the ripe grapes; too late and the grapes shrink to raisins and the rabbits, birds, wasps and ants would take more of the crop. Also there is always a risk of a surprise storm in September, which washes the natural yeasts off the grapes, so increasing the chance of spoilage when the wine is made. We can estimate the sweetness of the fruit but this year we have bought a saccharometer, a specialized refractometer.saccharometer
To use it I simply squeeze a drop of grape juice onto a glass window at the end of the device, flick over the cover slip to spread a film of grape juice over the window, then look through the eyepiece. I see a scale backlit with blue and white, the boundary shows the scale reading in percent sugar in the juice.

Janet and I went sampling lots of grapes with it for two evenings before deciding it was time to pick them.

The next morning at 8am we heard a diesel car pulling up between our farm buildings, then the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. I ran out and greeted “our” shepherdess Manuela and her son Bruno (who was ten years old when we bought the quinta and is now a strong young man of eighteen). “We are helping you with your vindima (grape harvest) !” she declared with a broad smile. “When is it?”

“Lovely ! That would be really great!” we said, “How about Friday?”

“Decided. Friday morning at seven. We’ll be there in the vineyard,” and after a short chat they left. Bruno came round again a couple of hours later to say he forgot he had another job on Friday so would tomorrow Thursday be good? “Yes, fine,” we agreed, “See you at seven.”

ManuelaP1040661 BrunoTo cut the story short, with all the vines on wires and crates already out, four of us on the job and a lovely morning, we had the entire crop stacked in the adega by 11:30.

Bruno and I hoisted the nasty esmegador (crusher) onto the big 320 litre fermenting vat and as a team we had all the grapes crushed into three vats before noon. P1040663 dornas 2015a tilt

They declined our offer of lunch, insisting their family eat together at home, so we had a quick meal before spending a couple of hours cleaning up. Once washed, everything dries quickly in the hot sunshine and we had the crusher and crates put away by afternoon tea on 3rd September, ten days earlier than our average date.

eating grapesWe racked the wine ten days later and it’s now fermenting out in three plastic barrels, 250ℓ of red and 60ℓ of white wine. Although this is less than last year after such a dry summer the new irrigation of the vines has served us well, and we still have eighty litres of red and fifty of white wine in the cubas (it tastes very good too). We’re really pleased about this because we never add sulphites to preserve the wine, it is totally organic, so it is food and medicine to us. The downside to this is that it doesn’t travel well – sorry, folks!

 

 

 

charca full

Charcas (storage pools) are on most farms in this country. They are spring-fed but they almost dry out during the arid summer. Willows tend to grow in the moist soil and can survive having their roots in water during the winter. Now is the easiest time to cut them. To get rid of this brushwood the trees have to be cut into pieces which Janet and I can drag out, then I recover the thickest pieces for firewood in winter.

empty charca

Inside the dry charca

Inside the dry charca

 

 

May and early June is the time of year when the olive trees are flowering. Their pollination is not done by insects but carried in the air because the flowers are tiny, so each tree makes thousands of them. The pollen is a common cause of an allergic reaction with symptoms like a bad common cold – sneezing, runny eyes, lack of energy and so on. Janet has developed this allergy so for about six weeks she tries to stay in and can’t do much; she is fine in the morning but deteriorates until in the evening she really suffers.

mowing 1

I have to mow the grass in our olive groves because it dries out to become a fire hazard. When I do it the pollen and grass dust fill the air – I can only cope with it for a couple of hours before I have to quit, come indoors, sneeze and have a shower to wash off the dust. I have mown only half our fields and groves up to now, because other jobs have become more urgent.

The weather here becomes seriously hot and dry, and I have to be out early to get in four hours work before lunchtime. It is very easy to become dehydrated so I come up to the house and drink half a litre of diluted fruit juice every hour.

P1040617 C hair abefore

P1040617 C hair afterNow I know how the vines feel – I spend a month at this time of the year watering them and giving them a haircut – removing excess shoots and tying the good growth to the wires installed over the past two years. The pictures here are of the vines beside our house, bordering the veg plot, before and after trimming.

Last year half of my vines were on wires and the vindima took only three days compared to well over a week in previous years; it was much easier as the grapes were more accessible.

vines after cropLast summer I had two men put a hundred posts in the vines abefore croplarger of our vineyards to make twelve more lines of wiring. The large vineyard is now all wired so this year all the vines are tied to the wires, getting them off the ground, making pruning and watering easier. Watering used to take at least two hours a day under the hot sunshine, lugging around seventy metres of hosepipe, from May until September.

irrig 1 tubingDrip irrigation is the way forward, which is what I’ve been installing for the last couple of weeks. This is what a hundred metres of irrigation tube looks like, and I’ve used quite a few of these!

irrig 3It required digging a trench in the hard baked earth and laying a heavy supply tube into it. Then I had to drill holes into it, fit connectors and a fifty-metre drip tube for each line, clip each 16mm tube to the bottom wire, and finally put in a dripper above every vine.

For over a hundred vines it took many hours, and there are two blank lines ready for planting more vines in the autumn.. The system had to be tested once the pipework seemed finished – a third of a mile in total – before refilling the trench. All this would be only a few days’ work if I didn’t have my basic jobs to do first – making the irrigation is what I do when I’ve finished watering those same vines with a hose! Now it is all done, watering the vines is almost as easy as turning on a few taps, and the pump is solar-powered and silent. It is lovely to work slowly in the vineyards, carefully pruning each vine, tying the best growth to wires to train and support it, listening to the water dripping and knowing the vine will use it to give us lots of lovely wine!

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

We went out one afternoon in September and when we returned two of my tractor tools had been stolen – a big heavy chain mower and a scarifier – winched onto a trailer and taken from right beside our house.  After weeks of waiting the insurers said they wouldn’t pay my claim because the tools were five years old so worth half their cost, and they would put an excess of a thousand euros on my claim, which was €985. This was not in the policy, they made it up and put an annex onto the policy. Because they have in-house lawyers my legal bill and stress to contest it would not make it a worthwhile exercise.

When we discussed the theft everyone said the same, the thieves were waiting for an opportunity and watched us go out. It is someone local. We were upset at the theft but more upset that someone whom we know would betray our trust in them. Eventually their karma will rectify matters.

Janet cutting cucmbersWe have a broker trying (feebly) to get us a better policy with a lower excess but he is dragging his feet, having taken two months so far to provide one quote which was not acceptable.

In the meantime we are reluctant even to go shopping lest another window is smashed and more is stolen, especially with a €1000 excess on a claim. I won’t replace these essential tools until they can be insured, so much of my farm work has ground to a halt.

 

Clive boden, Dominic PlattIn October I had the vine-wiring team from Technicova over to complete the wiring of our vineyard with an additional fourteen forty-metre lines. This gives space for four hundred vines.

Laura and her family have been to stay with us during Dominic’s half-term break from school. He helped me to plant a few dozen vines in the newly-wired section of the vineyard, and Toby had a go too. We racked 350 litres of our wine whilst they were with us. We had a lovely time together.

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

 

 

Further demotivation came five weeks after the tools were stolen. I started to back up all my main computer files onto a USB stick, when the message “Unable to find files. Format the disc?” came up.  I tried the USB stick on all our computers with the same result, and internet searches said this fault sometimes occurs and there is no solution, either re-format it or bin it. Either way the files are lost. So I formatted it, and resolved to do the backup a day later.

The following day an isolated bolt of lightning struck the ground beside our house. Once the electric company had replaced two main cartridge fuses and Portugal Telecom had repaired the wires and replaced the modem, we found the bolt had burned out our telly, my computer, the new printer, and my lovely stereo amplifier. With no current backups to put onto my laptop I had to fall back on my three-month old secondary backup. All new blogging photos were lost. Disheartened, I lost the motivation to blog.

peppersThe veg garden has given us a large crop of cucumbers and we have nearly half a freezer-full of peppers, orange and brown in addition to the usual red yellow and green. The Bartlett bonnet chillies which Janet sowed in February grew tall (up to Janet’s shoulders) during the summer but only started to ripen in October and are now, in mid-December, still cropping well.

Bartlett bonnet chillies

Bartlett bonnet chillies

 

I met up with Samuel and Kate, her sister Nicola and my third grandson Leo in Lisbon for a long weekend, which was very enjoyable and was another tonic to me. Janet and I are both healthy and happy, and now I’m able to get on with pruning olive trees and vines I’m finding myself again. The claim for lightning damage has just been resolved well and we can now replace the damaged goods. We’re past the negative phase and are getting back to such normality as we previously enjoyed.

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

A week ago we finalised an arrangement for the two workmen to start work today (Thursday) and at that time a little rain was foreseen. Yesterday the weather forecast was 90mm of rain on Thursday and it had already started when we got up. I speculated that work would be delayed by a day but Janet said they will work in any weather. She was right. In pouring rain and dim light Luis and Jorge arrived, unloaded stout wooden poles and metal posts, and set to work placing end poles to wire my vines into lines.

First end pole

aligning metal posts

aligning metal posts

Dressed in waterproofs and wellies, I went down to the small vineyard and met them. I explained exactly what I wanted and they carefully measured out where the metal posts should go.

P1030500a  Posts are hammered in using the cylindrical hammer which Jorge is carrying in this photo. How does he know when to stop driving the post in? Use one’s built-in marker aka nose.

P1030499a

When all the metal supports were in, the end poles were secured to the ground to resist tension in the wires by screwing helices with a strong metal tie-rod (pictured) 50cm into the earth, starting off in a hole 20cm deep.

P1030506a

P1030508

P1030511aWhat is not conveyed in these pictures is what it’s like working in heavy rain. The gritty soil from the hole slips back in from the spades as you try to lift it out, the rain goes into your eyes when you’re trying to look along the line of posts, your hands slip about on the tools. Twice the rain rate touched 8cm (3 inches) per minute; working outdoors has to stop in this.

P1030520a By late afternoon the rain stopped. The men fixed the horizontal support wires which will carry the vines tied to them.

P1030524a

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Each wire is tensioned with a ratchet at one end.

P1030527

P1030526

The sky became dark grey to the south, it was 5pm and time to knock off. Our damp but tenacious workmen left. Two minutes later the heavens opened and down poured 2cm of rain in half an hour.

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 !

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.

Two quintas had the same shortcoming. The fields of Senhor B’s were lovely, his young vineyards were well made and his diospiro (persimmon fruit) orchard very productive, but the house was separated from his land. Upstairs there was only one small window giving a view of the serra (mountains) and of his neighbour’s olive orchard which the house directly adjoined. He had no right to have any windows overlooking it which meant the view of the mountains could not be enjoyed. The neighbour was uninterested in selling the olival so the house lost its appeal. The owner of the next quinta had recently died and the family did not want it although its trees were well cared for and the fields clean ready for planting.

The small but nicely-built house was on the corner of its land so no windows were permitted to look over the neighbour’s vineyards on the east and south sides. Half the rooms were lacking natural light. We added a new criterion, the house should be central in its land.

A quinta we almost bought belonged to C and her husband, who was physically unable to look after it any longer. It had good access for even a lorry. The kitchen in its single-leaf breeze-block house (not on the edge of its land) was gloomy and neither clean nor well equipped – there were connections for a gas water heater but the appliance itself was absent. There was ample hillside grazing for her flock of twenty sheep in three hectares of newly-fenced land. She said the one hectare (two acres) vineyard could produce 3,000 litres of wine which she sold to a restaurant in Castelo Branco. The adega held three 500-litre stainless steel tanks and was built adjoining the good-sized swimming pool. There was also a huge 30-metre long breeze block building, seven metres wide, divided into ten pigsties and six storage rooms, with five large poultry cages added on the outside. A tractor stood in its own spacious open-fronted shed. The vegetable garden looked well-kept and productive, both it and two ½ hectare cereal fields were irrigated from a large well near to a stream. There was a small orchard too. We liked this place. A week later we had a second viewing and negotiated an offer which included the nearly-new tractor.  We made a third unescorted visit so I could look more carefully at the vineyard. There were far fewer vines than I’d calculated to yield 1500 ℓ of wine and they trailed all over the ground. We tracked down an agronomist who said the vines should be upright and that the area gave only indifferent wine. I became suspicious about the accuracy of what we’d been told and rang the agent to say we were no longer sure about buying the place. That night C phoned us and we arranged to meet near to her home. She said that we didn’t need to use the estate agent really, how much would we pay her for her quinta? Considering all this and a series of strange related coincidences we decided not to buy this farm either.

We extended our search area further north to Fundão, and the girls in the estate agents office were very helpful in suggesting a dozen properties. Most were owned by little old widows hoping to sell up and move into a rented place in town, where they would no longer have to climb into huge olive trees to harvest or prune them, or to grow cabbages to feed to their chickens, or to sleep in a bedroom with only a magazine picture of Jesus on the wall, no paint, and (in two of the houses we viewed) rooms with bits of floor missing.

The last of these quintas was owned by a ninety-year-old man who had a black trilby which seemed to be glued onto his head. The approach to this farm was flanked by huge boulders. The upper part of the land was wilderness whilst the lower part was neglected arable land. There were olive trees and upright vines, fig trees and apples, three water storage ponds and a partly-floored granite house with a roof . However, there was no water supply, sewage, nor electricity nearby. The land sloped down to the south and the house was in the centre of the land, facing south. There was enough potential to make it interesting so after thinking about it for a few days we arranged a second viewing. The man with the hat gave us wine from the farm, fig liqueur made on the quinta and juicy fresh oranges from its trees. To cut a long story short, we bought it. After visiting over forty properties the search was over and now the real challenges began.