In January 2016 I realised that there was far too much olive pruning for me to tackle alone when there’s so much other work to do, so I hired a team of three men for a few days to do two of my groves, about two hundred and fifty trees. I left them to make a good start and went to check them after four hours. I was very concerned that their version of pruning involved the use of a chainsaw and no ladder, but didn’t want to tell them how to do their job. By lunchtime I could stay away no longer. Their boss told me that there was much dead wood in the trees because of drought over the last two years, and removing it is much faster with a chain saw.  P1020297But my pride-and-joy West Olival has been skeletised and reduced from trees over four metres high and five wide to small 2½ metre trees. I found this very discouraging, as it will take many years for the trees to regain their form and to yield olives in harvestable quantities. I did take one of the workers aside and have him conventionally prune twenty trees with a hand saw as I do, at the normal rate of over an hour per tree. The South olival remains pruned only by me! IMG_1652

It was last May whilst clearing and burning the debris – a bonfire six feet tall onto which I continuously drag and throw branches for several hours- from this “service” that I had a second heart attack brought on by strenuous work in strong sunshine, hot protective clothing and great heat from the fire. Long story short, four months recovery with the help of Janet and without the help of doctors, and I’m back on form now weighing thirteen kilos less. I had to put the quinta onto maintenance mode and only did what was absolutely necessary (hence the lack of blogging).

With no Harry Dog depending on us now, we began to go on holidays, Madrid and Barcelona in June,  then holidays with our family and lots of trips out. During the early summer I could work only slowly, tying the vines to wires and pruning them. It took weeks longer than before, because with my now underpowered body thermostat I could not work in the heat for very long.P1010376

From early July to late September there was no rain at all and half of the local vineyards had no grape harvest. We had to throw away over half the crop as it was dried out. But because my vineyards are irrigated we did have some usable bunches of grapes, about 450kg, which contained less juice than usual but more concentrated and in some cases, sweeter.P1010380

Pictured left – dried-out grapes, the effect of drought.  Pictured right, the saccharometer reading for red grape juice in the vineyard, September 2016.  IMG_1237 high sacc readingThe usual initial Specific Gravity of the grape juice at the start of fermentation should be about 1.085 in order to ferment out all the fruit sugars, so our grape juice with 27% sugar needed diluting a fair bit! It eventually yielded 150ℓ red wine and 35ℓ of white. After the wine was made my sister and her husband came to stay for a week – we cruised up the Douro over the weekend – and once the wine was racked in early October we went on holiday to Madeira, a sunshine holiday with Laura and our grandsons.

So now that I am feeling well it’s back to blogging and to working the quinta !

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

 

 

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 grapes by tractor In late August we walk through the vineyards twice a week, sampling the fruit to see whether it is time for the vindima (grape harvest) yet. We spend twelve hours cleaning the adega, washing crates, rinsing the dornas (fermentation vats) and cubas (stainless steel storage tanks), ready to make wine.

c rose

When the grapes are plump, smell fruity and taste sweet it’s time to pick them. In the unwired parts of the vineyards, despite careful pruning to make the vines taller they trail on the ground and bunches are hidden, harder to find and uncomfortable to pick. With no air movement the grapes get damp and start to rot. Alternatively if there is a tree nearby they will climb into that, and the vines have to be cut free.

d cut from tree

This year the vindima was far easier than in the past because now there are fourteen lines where I have pruned and trained the vines along wires. This gives easy access to the fruit which grows at a comfortable height, is clean and has good exposure to sun and air.

e ready to start

September is usually sunny but this year there was rain forecast, which meant a lack of the sunshine needed to make sugars. Also rain washes the natural yeast off the grapes so fermentation takes a long time to start, increasing the risk of spoilage. The day before we intended to start it rained so we had to hold off for two days to allow some yeasts to re-colonise the grape skins. A lower risk of rain was predicted for four days up to the 15th, when a week of heavy rain would start.

g esmeg 1

We started picking on Thursday 11th and by Friday lunchtime we had 23 crates of red grapes. After lunch we were mentally ready to use the esmegador (crusher), a heavy fearsome machine which we have to manhandle into position on top of a dorna. It comprises a trough to receive bunches of grapes which are pushed by a rotating screw into a large pair of 9” long serrated rollers. Everything is crushed through and the pulp splatters into the dorna. The stalks, which would make the fermenting grape juice bitter, are pushed along a sharp steel perforated trough by spiral paddles and fall out of the end of the machine into a large bucket.

esmegador

It roars, bumps and grinds whilst I’m tipping the loads of bunches in to the exposed screw then feeding them evenly to the mangle. Such a dangerous machine would not be available to the public in England ! We really don’t like the machine at all but it does in minutes a far better job than we could do in hours either with a hand-powered crusher (where you have to take out the stalks from the wet pulp afterwards) or by treading (which is very slow, cold, inefficient and hard work).

We crushed 23 crates of grapes then added some Montrachet yeast to get the Red1 fermentation off to a clean start.

k white grapes in sunshineOn Saturday we picked and crushed three hundred kilos of grapes to make Red2, and as we still had two hours of daylight we started to pick the white grapes. On Sunday 14th we finished picking the white grapes, which after crushing gave us 150 litres of must. For the fourth time in a week we washed the equipment, this time storing it when it was dry, the crates ready for the colheita in November and the esmegador until next year.

m stir wine   n washed eqpt

For the next few days Janet will stir the must three times a day, pushing the thick layer of crushed grapes into the liquid so the juice all ferments. Then whilst Janet is in England, comes the dreaded racking. We met the weather forecast deadline, all our grapes harvested in four days. Just as well, as this picture was taken from our verandah this morning (15th Sept).

p  rain on 15th

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 !

Sept08

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.