Misty Minho is one of the last areas in Portugal for the grape harvest but our neighbours seemed to be leaving it very late. All the grapes on the terraces further down the valley had already been picked. Up to now the weather had been glorious but now the October forecast was threatening heavy rains.
‘Falamos amanha – we’ll talk tomorrow’ Carolina shouted from her kitchen window when I asked her whether the weather could spoil the plans for the next day. Carolina and her elderly brother Manuel had been busy cleaning out their adega and giving last minute instructions to a steady stream of visitors, mainly relations and neighbours. The next day, 30 September, was to be the day of the vindima when they would finally pick their grapes.
Minho region is in Vinho verde DOC (Denominaçao de Origem Controlada) with white citrussy Loureiro and red Vinhão grapes favoured here in our part of the Lima valley, mostly on family small-holdings for their own consumption. The Vinhão makes a frothy dark purple wine and is served in white porcelain bowls leaving a comical stain on the lips and teeth !
As it was the weather held and all fifteen of us trooped down to the fields and hooked our buckets on the wires stretched between the overhead pergolas from which the vines hang. (I am told they are trained this way to keep the vines free from damp and frost and also to free up space beneath for cabbages beneath). We worked fast; threading our clippers in between the leafy vines to reach the large bunches of fat purple grapes and then dropping them into our buckets.
Every now and again the small buckets were emptied into larger buckets and once we reached the end of a row these large buckets were hoisted onto a trailer. The tiny tractor then toiled its way up the hill to the adega while we tramped across the drying milho or cornfields to the next row of vines. Manuel and Carolina’s vines seemed to be scattered across the fields below their house but our fellow pickers seemed to know exactly which rows belonged to whom.
Up at the adega the vinhão grapes were tipped into a press and the corkscrew action propelled the dark red purple mass of juice, skins and stalks (bagaço) along a pipe into a large concrete tank in the corner of the cavernous cellar. There it bubbled ominously as the bagaço steadily rose to the surface.
Lunch was a delight. All morning Carolina and her helpers were bustling around large black cauldrons precariously positioned on grates under her huge chimneys. After vain attempts to scrub off the purple black stains from our skin we entered the low room and Carolina bade us be seated at the long trestle tables. The tables were decked out in her best table linen complete with bottles of thick green olive oil and jugs of last year’s wine.
We were then served platters of bacalhau with steaming potatoes, chicken stew (made from two of her best birds) and rice cooked in gravy taken from the chicken stew. We cleaned our plates with chunks of broa or cornbread and drank wine from our bowls. This was followed by a dessert called Uvas papas which is made by gentling heating grape juice and stirring in corn meal. This is poured onto saucers and left to set to a jelly like consistency. This tasted better than it looked with the aromatic tartness of the grape juice cutting through the slightly stodgy consistency.
Out came the coffee and bottles of the local firewater or aguadente. This particular version of aguadente is distilled from juice squeezed from the bagaço. I took a hesitant sip and felt it burn its way down my chest. Watching in amusement my fellow diners then poured theirs into their coffee and drank it down.
For several days after the vindima Manuel went down into the adega and watched the bubbling mass in the concrete tank. Each day he offered us a sample and we revelled in the peppery berry fruit flavours. Judging the moment carefully he then siphoned off the liquid from the concrete tank into stainless steel barrels lined up along the old stone wall. This year’s vindima had yielded 3000 litres of wine. Enough to see them through to the next one !