Quinta do Noval Harvest: Day 3
20th September 2006
Sunny and bright with temperatures rising to 28-29 degrees
Renova, Jardim Feco and Quinta da Foz
Touriga Nacional, Old Vines (mixed varietals)
This north side of the Quinta is beautiful in the early morning light: its walls take on a pristine zinc white tone and as the sun begins to creep over Corucho this virgin canvas is suffused with soft local colour and a luminous reflected glow. This is the time when the vindimadores begin their preparations for the busy day ahead.
Today the men arrange boxes along several rows of vines in the large parcel of Touriga Nacional known as Renova. The team of pickers soon arrive: stepping down from the old camion they stream out along the infinite columns of stone schist and green foliage. Occupying perhaps two rows, picking begins in earnest and soon one of the members of the group begins to sing. It is easy on the ear and folk-like, with a sing-song rhythm that seems to suit the pace of picking. Often perfectly in tune and with an attractive melody, I can easily imagine how once away from Noval a familiar refrain heard in these vineyards might suddenly come to mind - a sure sign of just why these old harmonies have survived. Though I do not know the meaning of the words, the feelings evoked by the melodic sounds seem to warm the heart and lend a sense of great tradition and pride in hard toil. An elderly lady will often strike up an a cappella tune as she picks, her lone voice echoing across the stone terraces and soon a descanting male voice joins in, sometimes a little frail and struggling to match her vocal quality, after a verse or two the voices peter out only to recommence elsewhere among the pickers. One of the most treasured memories I will take from the Douro is the sound of vindimadores singing among the vines
Early morning - boxes are placed along the vines
Picking begins in earnest
When looking north-west from the Quinta, mid-way along the cobbled main drive at a point where it veers 90 degrees and disappears from view, there is an earthen platform with a tree and small stone seat. It is to here the Renova grapes are carried and deposited into a collection truck. This particular section of the vineyard cascades downhill all the way to the Pinhao road several hundred metres below and sitting amid the serried ranks of noble vines you see the giant painted white on black letters spelling ‘NOVAL' a familiar sight to all passers-by and occasional winetourists.
Filling the tanks with grapesThe day ahead looks busy and the Norwegian film crew are planning to capture footage of the pickers at work in the morning sun, as an added bonus they will conduct an interview with Michael Broadbent on the dappled terrace beneath the great Cedar of Lebanon. This promises a rather fitting conclusion to their brief and welcome visit to Quinta do Noval .
Every day, during the month long harvest or vindima as it is expressed in Portuguese, is full of activity; though not simply confined to the vineyard and chais. When there is a large workforce to feed three times a day the cooks in the kitchens are kept extremely busy. From the ‘staff kitchen' approximately 90 main meals are passed through the revolving serving hatch daily and the traditional Douro dishes are of the highest quality. Wonderful casseroles of beef, chicken, lamb and Pork are popular. Soup is a great tradition here at Noval and there is even a mid-morning ‘soup break' for the hungry teams of workers, a fabulous assortment might be sampled including Potato, Cabbage and Spinach. I fear for my own rapidly expanding waistline as the splendid Noval cooks, Barbara and Maria-Joao prepare and serve the most delicious puddings including chocolate mousse and fabulous Fig, Lemon and Almond tarts...
The giant painted letters spelling 'Noval' - a familiar sight to passers by
The hot afternoon sun continues to beat down on the Renova vines and most vindimadores wear protective hats, some the wide brimmed traditional Portuguese straw. The last boxes of Touriga Nacional are carried up the steep hillside and personal possessions are gathered together ahead of the final trek to the camion and a much needed rest...perhaps.
The mid-day sun beats down on the vines of Renova
Renova - the large parcel of vines reaching to the skyToday's harvest is considerable though not quite the volume harvested during my first two days at Noval: picking has taken place in three separate locations and a total of 12,000 kilos of Touriga Nacional and Old Vine varietals have been transported back to the chais.
On my second evening at Quinta do Noval (18th) I was introduced to the traditional process of treading grapes by foot. Though not unique to Noval only a handful of properties in the Douro maintain this labour intensive tradition. All other Port wine estates utilize robotic or mechanical systems. Treading takes place in the ‘Lagares' (as they are known) situated within part of the main Quinta buildings. They comprise a series of open shallow cement vats, perhaps one metre deep and several metres square. Each Lagare contains a large drain connected directly to the fermentation vats in an adjacent room and all are top filled with the grapes every clement harvest day. Treading is taken very seriously as it is this process which lends Noval Port wine a very special quality.
The human foot is considered far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing, it would be hard to argue against this ancient method, for the quality of Noval's great Port wines is unsurpassed. Provided you have a force of dedicated workers who consider themselves part of a great winemaking family, this laborious but invaluable human process will continue for generations to come.
Michael Broadbent talks to Norwegian television, seated beneath the great Noval Cedar of Lebanon
Michael Broadbent: without doubt the world's greatest living authority on vintage wine. Now in his eightieth year, his knowledge of classic vintages is unsurpassed, responsible for establishing Christies Fine Wine department and distinguished author on many vinous topics, his palate and ability to assess great wine is truly impressive. Though Michael might now be described as 'semi-retired' he continues to play an active role in wine commentary and still writes his regular column for Decanter. There can be no doubt his major contribution to the appreciation and understanding of fine wine over five decades has had a global impact. With 140 notebooks filled with nearly 90,00 tasting notes, his vast experience helps us all understand what defines truly great wine.
A Master of Wine and Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite, an honour bestowed by the French government, Michael has achieved a great deal in this rarefied world and undoubtedly deserves the accolade of the world's most experienced wine taster.
The nightly routine
At 8pm every evening during the harvest (and occasionally during the day), the treading teams commence. Bare footed and bare legged, clad in T-shirts and shorts, each individual climbs carefully into the massive volume of freshly picked grapes. At first sight the whole thing appears faintly amusing, however, it takes but a moment to realize the atmosphere combines respectful solemnity with a marathon runner's dedication and desire to see this two part, three hour job through to the end. When the Lagares are very busy up to three or four teams of nine people will be employed at once.
The nine individuals in each team link or place arms around each other's shoulders, in the fashion of an open Rugby scrum, thus, forming a continuous treading line. One designated individual acts rather like the ‘stroke' in a rowing team and quite loudly begins to call the treading rhythm, as he does so the left and then right leg of each of the nine individuals rises and falls in unison compressing the moist fruit with the bare soles of their feet. Like wading through heavy Scots porridge the nine continue relentlessly on for two full hours without a break, to the chanting of their leader. Once this first stage known as the ‘Military' is completed, a further one hour of ‘freestyle' treading follows whereupon each person is free to express his or her own individuality of style without anyone dictating a particular pace.
'Military' treading in the stone lagares at Noval
When this long and arduous process is complete, pale skinned legs are stained by the purple flesh of grapes and one imagines rendered soft and tender to the touch... tonight I will ponder this particular thought and continue my intensive Port wine education. In tomorrow's Harvest Report I plan to reveal some of the wonderful and delicious non-alcoholic products of the Noval estate while introducing readers to three of its most distinguished and revered inhabitants...