Everyone in my village makes their own wine. My house has a 500 litre vat downstairs and most of the ground floor space is dedicated to wine making. Most of the old houses around here have an adegga. In the old world economy, if you don’t drink it, you can barter it for something else you need.
When I first moved in and I still had my wits, I decided that my time would be best spent building rather than winemaking. I gave away some four oak barrels, about 100 bottles and a bunch of other stuff to make some space for my hardware.
Two years on, and somewhat less sane and sensible, I have decided to give this wine caper a go.
At the end of the vindima I picked my own grapes. I have two varieties at my place. One is the very typical ‘morangueiro’ also known as ‘vinho americano’ named after the hybrid imported from North America to combat the Phylloxera plague which decimated European vines in the late 19th century.
The hybrid grape is known as isabella, whose parents are vitis labrusca (whose strong strawberry, morango, scent lends itself to the Portuguese name) and the native European grape vitis vinifera. Unfortunately it looks like isabella might have been the actual carrier of the nymph-fly Phylloxera to Europe from the Americas in the first place, where the native American grapes were immune. Subsequent to the plague, the vinho americano was employed as a disease resistant and hardy variety to be used as a rootstock. In poor and needy early 20th century Portugal, many farmers preferred to cultivate isabella without grafting or restoring the native varieties. In viticulture, not only was it recognised that the grape produced very poor quality wine but the hybrid grapes were considered an aberration on the European wine industry, and a ban was put on the commercialisation of this variety. Hence, you won’t find morangueiro in a bottle. More recently, morangueiro was a suspected cause of white matter lesions in the brain, i.e. brain damage, but the experts now say that it’s falling on your head after drinking morangueiro that’s the culprit. Still, “it would explain a few things” as my brother-in-law put it.
Farmers today continue to grow isabella /morangueiro/vinho americano, especially in the Azores Islands where all European grapes had died. It’s the predominate backyard grape in this region. It’s prolific and hardy and some people have even become fans of the taste.
My other grape variety they call “tinta”. This could be one of a number of grapes native to Portugal: tinta amarela, tinta barroca, tinta caiada, tinta francisca, tinta miuda, or tinta negra mole. Or it could be that the neighbours don’t know what it is and it’s always just been called ‘red’. Or it could be mean they think it tastes like paint…
OK, less conversation, more action: I picked my grapes, cleaned them from the stem, gave them a wash and put them in two big buckets. I still own a grape masher, but it’s an enormously weighty contraption and I thought it wouldn’t be worth getting it out for only about 80 litres of grapes. Anyway, as foot mashing is traditional somewhere in Portugal I thought I’d give it a whirl. Set up the camera, washed the feet and jumped in.
And immediately fell on my arse, on concrete, causing a bruise as big as a t-bone steak. It’s slippery in a bucket of grapes. DER.
That night, hot feet woke me up, but I didn’t think too much of it. The following night, after another round of foot mashing, my burning, itching feet woke me up again. Not just itchy, I mean itchy bitchy itchy. I had to get up and give them a cold bath and then balm them gently with ointment until they calmed down.
Obviously that put a stop to any more foot-grape shenanigans. As the week continued my feet just got itchier and so shredded up and gory that I looked like I had leprosy.
I complained to the neighbours. They said of course, idiot tourist, you see us foot mashing? No. DER.
I continued a once-daily mashing of the pomace with, logically, a potato masher. This process is meant to stimulate the fermenting of the grapes, but already I could see that there wasn’t much happening with the ‘tinta’ batch. No bubbles, not much smell. At this point someone more experienced might have added sugar or yeast to get it moving along, but my neighbours use no additives at all, so why would I?
After a week the neighbours told me I had to listen to the wine ingasso (pomace) and if it was quiet, I should drain it off. Indeed, as the wine said nothing, I drained it off, putting one batch in a brand new plastic jerrycan and the other batch into 5L plastic bottles. As I was draining the last of it through a pillowcase, Tia Maria suddenly appeared shaking her head disappointedly. She used some peasant viticulture terms that lay just outside my vocabulary, but I got the gist. It wasn’t looking good.
The method I was using was to follow what the neighbours do, but I was also bearing in mind advice from wine forums where the people are (perhaps) more concerned with the flavour of their labour. I should have done precisely what the neighbours do, but the trouble is, the traditional method is only focussed on saving the crop from souring. I was at crossed purposes, hedging my bets between an amish-like purity and the web-wino’s techno-intelligence.
At this point nothing was going to save this year’s “vintage”. The tinta had never tasted like wine, and was now swinging towards vinegar. The morangueiro at least had some alcoholic quality to it, but I wouldn’t say it was drinkable, exactly.
The one saving grace was that I also made 30 litres of agua pé from the must of the morangueiro. Agua pé is a drink traditionally given to the workers, to children and to the chestnut-eating people on St Martin’s day. It’s water that has been drained through the grape must, with a bucket of sugar added. It is mildly alcoholic, but is basically a nasty cordial… and that’s alright by me.
And there is a final consolation: if your wine turns out complete crap, you can still distill it to make aguardente. Morangueiro makes great aguardente… but for that story you’ll have to read part two…