I want to show readers something that most people who casually drink wine or love wine or collect wine don’t see, and that’s what happens to grapes just after they’re picked.

Wednsday, my group spent part of the morning and early afternoon at Quinta Vale D. Maria, a small property way on top of a minor mountain reached by a hair-raising drive on a narrow dirt road of insane hair-pin turns so precipitously close to a sheer drop-off that only a line of dusty olive trees seemed to keep us from falling to certain death. At least that’s the way it felt to me.

We were driven up to the winery and house by jovial and bear-like Christiano van Zeller, who owns the property along with his wife, Joane. Quinta Vale D. Maria had been in his wife’s family, he said, for 250 years.

We happened to arrive just as harvest was beginning on the steep, terraced vineyards and were privileged to observe the process by which grapes are transformed from firm little clusters of globules to a mass of stuff that looks like bubbling blue beastie brains, ready for fermentation.
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Because Quinta Vale D. Maria is not a huge operation, the process was carried out by a few young workers. One man stood in the back of a truck that was filled with plastic bins of grapes. The grapes, by the way, represented a field blend of about 40 red varieties and would go into the estate’s table wine, about 85 percent of the production, with the other 15 percent being port. This fellow dumped the grapes onto the sorting table where a couple of women inspected the bunches and discarded any that looked “green” (not ripe enough) or bruised and damaged. We asked van Zeller what happened to the bins of discarded grapes, and he said that the workers would take them home and make wine for themselves and their families.
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Here’s an image taken from the other side of the action. You can get a hint, from the background, of how stunning the landscape of the Douro Valley is, with its high hills and deep valleys lined with vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate. In fact, as often happens with the sites of great vineyards and winemaking, they seem planted in places that ought to be utterly inhospitable to farming.

The top of the sorting table is actually a conveyor belt that moves the grapes along slowly and drops them into a bin below.
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Here you see the grapes coming to the end of the conveyor belt and falling into the welcoming arms (so to speak) of the destemming machine, a rotating steel screw that separates the grapes and stems and send the shorn grapes into a fat plastic hose to be pumped several yards away into a large concrete vat called a lagare.
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Quinta Vale D. Maria has four lagares, each capable of holding 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms, 4,000 kilos being a bit more than 8,800 pounds of grapes and juice (the “must”). The grapes ferment both in the lagare and in tanks. Each tank in the fermentation room holds the result of one lagare. Red tables wines ferment for seven to eight days, but juice for port ferments only two to three days. Table wine goes into small French barriques (about 59 gallons), while port goes into large old casks and stainless steel tanks.
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This machine is the “robot,” an electronically controlled device that crushes the grapes in the lagare. It can be coordinated so that the legs move up and down in sequence together or alternately or back and forth. Vale D. Maria still using the traditional foot-crushing, in which the workers enter the lagares and, one supposes, with a great deal of both concentration and hilarity, use their bare feet to crush the grapes. This ancient practice, van Zeller told us, “is important to make sure that the crushing is homogeneous.”
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The result of the grapes we saw being handled today would be Quinta Vale D. Maria’s red table wine, of which the winery produces about 25,000 bottles (about 2,100 cases), an amount, van Zeller said, that is slowly increasing. With enologist Sandra Tavares, our small group tasted vintages 2001 through 2008 of this wine, which is made from vines that are 60 to 70 years old, and whatever the variations of weather and technique involved, the wines were consistently robust and vigorous, deeply aromatic and flavorful, resolutely minerally and generally the embodiment of a marriage between power and elegance.
Quinta Vale D. Maria has importers on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.
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There’s much more to tell Readers, like tasting 45 ports from 2007 last night, or our train trip yesterday out to the eastern reaches of the Douro, almost to Spain, to spend an afternoon at Quinta do Vale Meao, and so on. Those events and others will come in future posts, but now I have to prepare for another day of tasting and traveling, this time by boat. I hope it’s a large, safe, comforting boat and not a small, dangerous, death-defying boat. Not that I care.
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