Quinta do Noval Harvest: Day 1
18th September 2006
Sunny and bright with temperatures rising to 29 degrees
Roncao valley, Canadas, Corucho (north side)
Tinto Roriz, Tinto Barroca
The harvest at Quinta do Noval has been in full swing since the 30th August and we are now past mid September. The only hiccup in a steady progress towards the perfect 2006 vintage being a short spell of torridly hot weather one month earlier. Having started early the picking was a little spasmodic to begin with and patience was the order of the day - though now the harvest is in underway. Subject to weather conditions the pickers set out at 7am each day. The teams are smaller than I had imagined, sepia images of times past indicate large numbers of vendangers with heavy wicker baskets at work in the vines, but now the groups seem more modest in number ranging between 6 and 12. The pickers are predominantly women with a smattering of older men and boys, the stronger men taking on the task of carrying the grape laden boxes back to the trucks parked on the precariously narrow tracks which zig-zag the hillsides of the Douro valley. This is truly arduous work and one cannot fail to be impressed by the steady and systematic execution of such a back breaking routine. One virtue of this modern age is the introduction of plastic boxes, the grapes are heavy and any reduction in the Portuguese picker's load must be warmly appreciated.
Early morning - north side of the Quinta The daily routine at Noval comprises the picking of selected parcels of vines according to ripeness of the grapes. Each parcel has a name and grape varieties vary from plot to plot. Antonio Agrellos the winemaker and his team know every square each of the Noval vines intimately and according to their great experience take the decision of when and where to pick. All trucks carry three large square stainless steel tanks, at the start of picking they are parked adjacent to the parcel and duly filled. Once fully laden, the truck will descend to the loading bay of the chais abutting the main Quinta, here the grapes are de-stemmed and passed directly into the shallow stone vats known as ‘Lagares'. Once each Lagare is full with grapes a group of men and women perform the treading, usually in the evening beginning at 8pm, though treading also takes place during the day-time. The resultant juice is drained into the fermentation vats and a process of vinification begins.
Monday dawns bright, if a little hazy: most Douro mornings begin with mist or low cloud and as the late summer sun rises ever upward the heat takes its searing grip on the dusty hillsides below and the blue-grey veil is steadily lifted to reveal ever more sharply defined rows of vines. The rounded undulating hillsides of the valley appear as if clad in a corduroy cloak, so regular and regimental is the contrast between parched earth and stone schist with the ribs of lush green foliage.
This being my first visit to Noval I need to find my bearings and learn a little of the daily routine. After a splendid breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice and home cured bacon and eggs I decide to ascend the north side of ‘Corucho' the hill on which the Quinta is perched, to gain a clearer view of the property and my first sight of the harvest in progress.
Picking today will take place on Corucho and some distance away at Canadas and in the Roncao valley to the east of Noval. The grape varieties being picked are Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca and work will continue, punctuated by a short soup break, until lunchtime around 1-1.30pm. Walking up the stony track behind the Quinta you approach what amounts to the harvest worker's ‘bunkhouse', white with enormous bold black letters painted on the façade spelling ‘NOVAL' - it sits immediately above and behind the main house.
The Noval Bunkhouse
The early morning air is filled with the pungent and pleasing aroma of decaying figs. Several fig trees line the track and I am now walking over a carpet of spoiling fruit. As I look down over the outbuildings of Noval to the valley below I hear the grunting of pigs, clearly it is breakfast time for the three resident and stately Porcos who inhabit the best situated sty in the world - sitting incongruously betwixt and between the ancient and world famous pre-phylloxera vines of the legendary Nacional vineyard.
A cool start to the day (top), Tinta Roriz with a smile (below)The north side of the hill is still bathed in a cool blue light, contrasting starkly with the sun-soaked hillsides across the valley. As I climb a little higher I catch the sound of distant voices, locating the pickers is not always easy when approaching from below, so steep are the terraces they remain concealed by the foliage. I take some shots of the middle-aged ladies and young girls hard at work. Two Hours later as I walk back down the rubble strewn track a grape laden truck passes me by on the way to the chais to unload the morning's bounty and looking up the sun begins to warm the cold white face of the distant Quinta, colour slowly floods our part of the valley and lunchtime beckons. Michael Broadbent, his distinguished palate and wife Daphne are about to arrive, they will be staying as fellow guests at Quinta do Noval for several days and Rute Monteiro, Noval's very able Public Relations manager tells me they might be here in time for lunch.
Back in the vineyard harvesting of the Tinta Roriz progresses during the baking afternoon sun and concludes around 4.30pm. It seems like a successful day: nearly 20,000 kilos of grapes have been picked and the activity in and around the chais will continue throughout the evening.
This is the busiest time to be at Noval and the most exciting, everyone is filled with anticipation and all are striving to contribute their best efforts in a push to make yet another great vintage. Important visitors come and go, noted wine writers and journalists, film crews reporting for foreign TV stations and proprietors of other famous Quintas are simply dropping in to talk wine. Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education and tomorrow's Noval Harvest Report will offer an insight into the Norwegian sense of humour...
Colour slowly floods our part of the valley