Thursday, December 16, 2010

Port tastes better when stomped by feet

Alistair and Gillyanne Robertson at Quinta de Vargellas
When Port magnate Alistair Robertson got his hands on an additional brand, Croft, in 2001, he knew immediately the first technical improvement to make.

He brought back foot-treading.

Crushing Port grapes the traditional way, by foot, is the key to quality, says Robertson, chairman of Taylor Fladgate.

"Feet are better than machines because they're soft," Robertson says. "You don't want any of the seeds crushed. The padding of the feet is the perfect size. It's the best possible way."

The Croft workers weren't used to treading, so at first they resisted. They have since given in, swayed by being paid several hours of overtime, but they do the job without music, which makes it a lot different from the nightly bacchanal at Robertson's best winery, Quinta de Vargellas.

The Douro Valley is appealing for hikers
Robertson invited me to Portugal's Douro Valley during harvest season to get my legs -- and everything else -- dirty by pitching in to foot-tread some grapes. How could I resist?

As a guest, I spent my day lazing on the slow train from Oporto, while my soon-to-be coworkers were busy harvesting the grapes we would crush. They put in a long day -- 8 hours picking, 4 hours treading.

I was having a cocktail when they started the most important part of treading: the first two hours, called "the cut," when most of the skins are broken and the juice released. During this time, the treaders march methodically back and forth across the granite "lagar" that holds the grapes like a search team looking for a needle in a grape stack.

Then the keyboard player arrives, everybody takes a slug of brandy, and the mood lightens as everyone's clothing darkens.

"There's a song they sing: 'Liberty, liberty, now my feet are my own'," Robertson says.

By the time they let guests like me in the lagar, it's a rollicking, messy party. The keyboardist is pumping the rhythm, folks are dancing, everyone's purple and there aren't many inhibitions. One local woman followed me around and pulled my shorts down at every opportunity. Perhaps it's a local custom.
I'm 6-feet tall, and the juice did not quite reach up to my knees. The grape soup wasn't as warm as I expected because wineries add sulphur to the mix to prevent fermentation for the first two days.

Fortunately, harvest nights in Douro Valley are still quite warm, because one would get plenty wet even if one's fellow treaders weren't splashing and smearing grape must on each other.

While dancing around in grape juice, it's hard to believe there's any real scientific basis to believe it makes better Port. But apparently even the unpredictability of amorous drunks' movements helps the process, says winemaker David Guimaraens.

This machine can't  replace feet
Port is made from several different varieties of indigenous grapes. In the past, they were all planted helter-skelter in the vineyards. In the last 15 years, science has come to the Douro Valley in a big way, and new plantings tend to be in blocks which are best for each particular variety. This means that they come to the lagar in batches that the foot-treaders must blend together.

"Nowadays it's possible to have a whole lagar full of (grape variety) Touriga Nacional," Guimaraens says. "But it's actually better to crush them together. They marry sooner."

Rapid blending is important because Port is made differently from table wine. The grapes are only allowed to ferment for three days, and then alcohol is added to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation. The unfermented grape sugar is the reason Port wines are sweet.

"It's very important to move the juice," Guimaraens says.

I'm glad to have played my part, and to have kept my shorts on -- most of the time.

Tasting notes for some of the best wines I didn't tread on:

Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage 2004
Excellent complexity, with notes of cherries and dried plums and raisin flavors that intensify on the finish. 93 points.

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny
A great balance between fruit flavors and the caramel/nut flavors of oxidation. Think dried cherries, prunes and raisin cookies. Good acidity keeps it rolling. One of my favorites for holiday drinking. 94 points

Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny
A great contemplative wine, with all the primary fruit gone and delicious secondary flavors: hazelnut, cocoa, Nutella and creme brulee crust. The extremely long finish would be wonderful while watching a fire crackle. 95 points

Quinta de Vargellas 2008
It must be the foot-treading: Layers of flavor, mostly fruits like fresh and dried plums and cherries, that reveal themselves over an extremely long finish. Outstanding now, so it's very tempting to rob the cradle. 98 points

Fonseca 10 Year Old Tawny
The best 10-year-old in Taylor's portfolio, this wine has nice raisin and dried plum flavors  and some hazelnut on the long finish. 92 points.

Fonseca 2007 Vintage Port
Well-balanced favors of dried red plum and sugar beets. Seamless, with a finish that's not overly sweet. 93 points

Fonseca 20 Year Old Tawny
More potent than the Taylor Fladgate, with strong golden raisin and raisin cookie flavors. Rich texture and oomph for those seeking it. 91 points
The Douro Valley


Anatoli Levine said...

Sounds like a great experience! Thanks for sharing!

1WineDude said...

Just back (literally this week) from the Douro myself... stunning place!