This weekend marks the beginning of the most exciting time of the year for me as a winemaker... harvest. It’s the culmination of 10 long months of hard work in the vineyards. Grape growers endure difficult weather, pests and other challenges, but never lose site of their ultimate goal… to deliver great fruit to the winery. Now people like me take over the fruit and have the responsibility of guiding it into this wonderful beverage we call wine.
Ready for harvest
Harvest means crush which is quickly followed by fermentation... and to me there is nothing more thrilling than the sound, the smell, the touch of a fermentation. A fermentation reminds us of how powerful nature is... an unstoppable force. In the days that precede harvest, I get this same feeling I had on Christmas Eve as a kid. Couldn’t quite fall asleep... couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning. For the past three years, my harvest season begins in the middle of September at PENADA, the family vineyard in Northern Portugal. Here I’m working mostly with red wines. Then back in Massachusetts I turn my focus into Travessia’s white wines. In all, it’s about 8 weeks of craziness.
In the meantime... There’s an Ebola outbreak that seems to be getting worse. Young girls are still being kidnapped in Nigeria. Al Qaeda hasn’t gone away, and now there’s ISIS, an even more radical organization. I don’t really have much time to watch TV or read the news, but one has to be living in a cave to not be aware of our troubled world. Then we all have our own personal issues to deal with... maybe it’s a friend that passed away unexpectedly, or a loved one that isn’t doing so well. So in the midst of all this harvest excitement I try to remind myself that it’s all a bit insignificant. It’s just wine.
But I’m incapable of hiding my excitement. This is what I live for. So in the coming days and weeks, excuse me if I seem self-absorbed.
As some of you may know, I've been working on a new winery project with my parents in Portugal. I will soon tell you more about that, but today I want to speak of a truly unique place and a very special person.
In Portugal people don't just drink wine, they live it. Everyone has an opinion about wine… when should the grapes be harvested, how the wine should be made, etc. In the countryside, residents plant grapevines in their land like we plant tomato vines in our backyards here in the US. Wine is embedded into the culture and life of most Portuguese. This is the way it has been for centuries.
During my last trip in February, I visited a long-time family friend, Senhor José Barreira (Zeca). Senhor Zeca, who is 78 years old, lives in São Jumil, a small village in the Vinhais county of the Trás-Os-Montes Province.
São Jumil - Vinhais - Portugal
I remember visiting often with my parents as a kid. Food was always plentiful and so was the wine. I hadn't been here for over 20 years so after lunch I asked Senhor Zeca if we could go for a walk around the village. He took me to the "Adegas".
Adegas - São Jumil
São Jumil is known across the region for these "Adegas"… a cluster of small wineries built on a gently sloping hillside, some of which are dated as far back as the 18th century. Supposedly, this location was picked because it allowed for the wines to be aged at an appropriate natural temperature. How many wineries? According to Senhor Zeca, there are 48 of them altogether. There are now more wineries than people living in the village since São Jumil's population has dropped to a mere 35. Some of the winery owners have died and some have moved to the cities.
Senhor Zeca at his Cellar Door
Most of these wineries have common walls and share continuous roof tops. The typical winery here consists of nothing more than two rooms. First, a fermentation room consisting of a "Lagar". Grapes are dumped through a small door into the Lagar and fermented with nothing more than the occasional punch down of the fermentation cap. No yeasts added (they already live in the Lagar), no temperature control, no enzymes, no laboratory tools. It's non-interventional winemaking to the extreme. When the fermentation is completed, the wine is transferred to a second and adjacent lower-level room where it is stored and aged for the most part in 500 Liter "Pipas".
One can only imagine the joy and flurry at these Adegas during harvest! In his heyday, Senhor Zeca used to make the equivalent to 2,500 gallons per year! His family would drink part of it, give a lot to friends and sell some as well. These days, some of the Adegas have been abandoned and efforts to raise money to restore the collapsing buildings have failed.
Senhor Zeca and his Vineyard
Despite his age, Senhor Zeca still takes care of his vineyard. The grape varieties? That's really not of major concern here… it's a field blend of many varieties, just like it has always been.
As I left that day, I could not help but to wonder about the future of these Adegas. For how much longer will people like Senhor Zeca keep this very special place alive?