Peter Ranscombe dons his saltire boxer shorts to join in the crushing of the grapes in the Douro valley and along the way discovers how classic ports also need a modern edge.
AS THE sun began to set across the Douro river valley, the sound of an accordion started to waft through the evening air.
Following the music led to the winery at Quinta do Noval, the port house owned by Axa Millesimes, the winemaking arm of the French insurance firm.
Inside, the workers on the evening shift were stripping off to their shorts and climbing into the lagares, the giant granite baths in which grapes picked over the course of the day had been placed.
And it seemed rude not to join in.
Treading the grapes – or, more accurately, stomping the grapes – is a tradition that stretches back for generations in Portugal’s Douro valley.
Originally, the workers who had harvested the grapes during the day would have stayed on into the evening to mash the fruit with their feet, releasing the juice from inside the skins.
Nowadays, a separate evening shift and then a night shift arrive at the quinta to tread the grapes.
The first part of the evening involves the workers linking arms across each other’s shoulders and forming a line to stomp their way from one end of the lagar to the other.
The second part is more freestyle, with the accordion cranking out a jig and the workers breaking into a dance to crush the grapes.
All the grapes grown on Noval’s estate, which has a history stretching back to at least 1715, are still fermented in the stone lagares, with the process for most of the fruit started off with foot stomping.
While the treading of the grapes may feel primitive, even primordial, feet appear to be ideal for extracting colour, flavour and tannin – the same dry-tasting substance found in tea that makes you suck in your cheeks – in the short space of time available before the natural yeast that lives in the winery air takes over and begins to ferment the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol.
As the grape treading continued, a quick glance along to the end of the row of lagares revealed that the quinta may be wedded to tradition but that hasn’t stopped it from embracing technology too.
On a gantry slung above the stone containers hangs a set of metal “feet” designed to replicate the action of the workers.
The robotic treader was installed in the months following Axa’s purchase of the property in 1993 and is used to supplement the two shifts, continuing to tread at night when needed and also being used to break up the cap of grape skins that forms during fermentation, when workers can’t enter the lagares due to the poisonous carbon dioxide being produced.
Further down the hillside, in the company’s second winery, stainless steel lagares are being installed.
While grapes destined for the vintage and late-bottled vintage (LBV) ports will continue to be trodden in the stone lagares, the new metallic equipment will be used to make some of the more-basic red ports – such as the Noval Black ruby reserve – and experiments will be carried out to discover if treading the grapes also improves the flavour and texture of the quina’s red table wines too.
“Every single bit of technology that can help us is welcome,” explains Carlos Agrellos, the quinta’s newly-appointed technical director and head winemaker.
Changing climate, changing techniques
Agrellos’s embracing of technology extends into the vineyards; he and his team plot out the following day’s harvest using Google Maps Pro the night before and keep in touch with each other during the daytime using a harvest WhatsApp group.
“There are maybe five of us who each need to know when a truck load of grapes arrives at the winery so this saves us perhaps 15 phone calls a day,” he says.
As the climate changes and grows warmer – with more extreme weather, such as the hail that struck Noval’s vineyards in the spring – Agrellos and his colleagues are also looking at ways in which equipment can be used to help with the harvest.
The Douro is famous for its steeped-side hills covered in terraced vineyards, which really have to be seen to be believed.
Most of the terraces are so steep that they must be harvested by hand because tractors haven’t been able to access them in the past, but Agrellos thinks the situation needs to be reexamined.
He is concerned that workers will no longer be able to work for long hours in the sun if autumn temperatures rise.
“On a well laid-out terrace, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use modern harvest machines with nitrogen as an inert gas to preserve the fruit,” he says.
Agrellos isn’t only concerned about the health of his workers – he’s also fearful of the effect the hot sun will have on his grapes.
He points to this summer when – on 3, 4 and 5 August – the temperature of the direct sun hitting certain grapes on the vines spiked at 52°C, leaving the fruit shrivelled and burnt.
“Over one weekend, all the fruit was lost,” he says.
“That’s becoming more frequent every year.”
While technology may provide solutions for harvesting and wine making, Agrellos is looking towards tradition to help save his grapes.
He is abandoning the more recent use of cordon and double-cordon vine training schemes and returning to the Guyot method used in the past, providing more leaves in the right places to shield the grapes from the worst of the sun’s intensity.
He also hopes that studying in more depth some of the 100 or so traditional grape varieties permitted for port production will also yield plants that are better-suited to harsher hot conditions.
Tell me I’m your Nacional anthem
One spot in which tradition continues to reign supreme is in the Nacional plot within the vineyards.
Here, just 3,000 vines spread over five terraces are used to produce Nacional, the single vineyard vintage port that made Quinta do Noval famous in the UK and United States.
Noval first “declared” or released Nacional as a vintage port in 1931 when most port houses didn’t follow suit.
At the height of the great depression and following a bumper vintage in 1927, the scarsity of the port put Noval on the map.
Yet there’s also something very special about the plot itself – the vines sit on European not American rootstock.
When the phylloxera louse attacked Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, the solution was to graft cuttings of European grape varieties onto disease-resistant American roots.
But the vineyard managers replanting Noval in the 1920s noticed the vines in the Nacional blocks weren’t suffering from phylloxera and so left the European roots in place.
There’s a distinct different in the characteristics of the Nacional and Noval’s main vintage port, especially on the nose, with the single vineyard port presenting a rose or violet floral note.
The production process is the same, from the treading of the grapes through to the ageing in barrels.
The only difference is in the vineyard, with Nacional’a plots representing a field blend of 30 varieties.
“It’s not us, it’s the fruit,” shrugs Ana Carvelho, the Axa Millesimes global brand ambassador, as she leads the way past the vines.
Climbing up the dirt track through the vineyards to the top of the estate and then descending back down the stairs between the terraces, it’s impossible not to be blown away by the sheer beauty of the Douro, nor to be impressed by how tradition and modernity are being blended to produce arguably the world’s most famous fortified wine.
Five of the best from Quinta do Noval
Quinta do Noval Extra Dry White Port (£13, Villeneuve Wines)
Granny Smith apple, pear and pear drops on the nose, leading into rounder apple puree, red apple and ripe pear on the palate. Its rounded body and fresh yet well-balanced acidity make it delicious on its own, but mixing it with tonic, some mint leaves and a slice of lemon turns it into a sensational long drink.
Noval Black (£21.50, Harvey Nichols)
The quinta re-branded its ruby reserve port in 2013, demonstrating that you can still innovate with your marketing even in a heavily-regulated industry. I love the blackcurrant, blackberry and spun sugar aromas on the nose and the way the dark fruit mingles with redder fruit flavours on the palate.
Quinta do Noval Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port, 2012 (£21.95, Master of Malt)
Noval and fellow port house Ramos Pinto created a whole new category of port in 1954, with late-bottled vintage, which is held for between four and six years before being released. Noval’s LBV is made using only grapes from its estate and has dark chocolate, black cherry, blackberry and redcurrant on the nose, with a light texture in the mouth and a mix of black and red fruits, before the chocolate returns for a sweet finish.
Quinta do Noval 20-year-old Tawny Port (£47.99 for 750ml and £23.99 for 375ml, both Inverarity 1-2-1)
Tawny ports are deliberately exposed to oxygen as they age, producing lots of caramel flavours instead of darker fruits. Noval’s tawny has been a mainstay in Scottish Field’s “Wines for Christmas” articles for years, but why not try chilling it slightly in the fridge to serve it in the summer too? I love its nutty almond and spun sugar flavours, plus a hint of marmalade and then white pepper on the finish.
Quinta do Noval Nacional, 2000 (£970, Millesima UK)
It’s very rare that I’d recommend such an expensive bottle and I fully realise few readers will get to try it, but the 2000 Nacional was the most-impressive port I sampled at the quinta. The classic rose or violet note was there on the nose, with intense red cherry, ripe raspberry, sharper cranberry and redcurrant, plus spun sugar and caramel. The complexity continued onto the palate, with red cherry, black cherry, vanilla, raspberry jam and more caramel, all wrapped in a rounded body with surprisingly fresh acidity, the hallmark of all Noval’s ports.