Perhaps one of the best times to experience the chameleon-like beauty of Portugal’s oldest wine region is during the Douro Valley grape harvest. You can get involved in the grape picking and even try treading grapes barefoot.
Although it’s usually towards the end of September, the exact timing of the Douro grape harvest depends on the weather during the growing season and the forecast for September rains. Too much rain when the grapes are ripe will spoil them so timing is crucial.
Just in time for the Douro grape harvest
I’d booked our country hotel near Lamego partly because it looked delightful but also because guests are invited to watch or participate in the wine harvest. Work constraints meant my friend and I to be there a little earlier in September so I was worried we might miss everything.
We were in luck.
The hotel emailed just days before our trip to confirm that grape picking would definitely be in progress during our stay.
“I just have one question for before we start. Are you here to do some real work for me, or just to take some photos?” asked the owner, Maria Manuel Cyrne, while Tracey and I were tucking into a sumptuous breakfast. Slightly taken aback, we looked at each other then nodded in silent agreement.
“We’ll go for the lazy option,” I replied. Our excuse? We were on holiday and had a full day planned exploring Lamego and surrounds.
“In that case, we’ll need the drums,” said Maria before disappearing. She returned within minutes, heralded by the sound of drumming. She’d brought straw hats for us to wear and was already wearing hers over a wide grin.
As she drove us along the apple tree lined dirt tracks that crossed her land, she shared the story of how she and her husband had bought back the manor house and estate where she grew up and transformed it in to charming rural accommodation.
We also discovered the reason for the excess of soft furnishings and ornaments in the guest living rooms of the main house. Maria used to own an interior design shop in Lisbon and much of the stock furnished the hotel.
Grape picking in the Douro Valley
Although Maria grows grapes and other fruit and vegetables on the estate, she doesn’t produce wine here. Her grapes go to the nearby Murganheira winery, which is renowned for its sparkling wines.
We arrived at the day’s grape picking spot just as the workers had finished their morning break and were about to return to their back-breaking task. I did a few days’ fruit picking during my backpacking years and will never forget the pain.
That’s why I started to feel uncomfortable as Maria started banging the drum and singing, calling on her workers to join in and start dancing. They obliged with good grace, especially the women, and Tracey and I were soon being whirled around in the dust to the tune of high pitched traditional harvest songs while Maria took photos.
After a few minutes of forced frivolity, it was time to get on with the grape picking. While the experts quickly resumed their positions either side of a row of vines, Tracey and I were handed a pair of secateurs and a plastic tray each. It wasn’t long before most of the workers had all but disappeared from view as they deftly snipped away, their trays quickly filling with bunches of dark purple grapes. A tractor trundled along, exchanging full trays for empty ones.
Our inexperienced tourist team of two barely made it a few metres up our row before calling it a day. This lack of results had been anticipated and the professional grape pickers had already started work further along our row of vines. Feeling slightly ashamed of our efforts but relieved to not have to do any more hard work, we waved goodbye and set off on further Douro adventures.
As we drove around the Douro wine region that week, we saw evidence of the harvest everywhere. Trucks drove past laden with crates piled high with fat juicy grapes. Groups of grape pickers gathered at collection points at the start and end of the picking day, or at the side of the roads and tracks for their breaks. There was an energy and buzz of activity that I haven’t witnessed in the Douro Valley at other times of the year.
The highlight of our Douro Valley grape harvest experience was serendipitous.
I’d arranged for us to go to Quinta do Pôpa near Pinhão for a wine tasting session. Leila began by telling us the history of the estate. The original owner, whose nickname was Pôpa, started out as a poor vineyard worker, then foreman, who had dreams of owning his own vineyards. Sadly, he died shortly after he managed to purchase some. His son took over and later on, the grandchildren decided to give the estate a new image.
Unlike most of the wineries in the Douro Valley, Quinta do Pôpa does not produce port wine. The family have worked with renowned wine maker, Luís Pato, to create their own fine wines, including a sweet red. Their premium wine, VV, is made from the 21 varieties of grapes that come from their 4 hectares of antique vines. These grapes are too precious for machine crushing and are the only ones that are still trod manually to prevent the seeds from being crushed and affecting the flavour.
“We need your help,” said Stephan, one of Pôpa’s grandchildren, “but you have to commit to working for a full hour, at least.”
He explained that he had been up until 4 am that morning treading these vintage grapes and that over a period of seven days, they would need retreading every few hours while they fermented. If not, the estate’s best wine would be ruined for the year. Grateful for any extra pairs of feet, he was rustling up as many volunteers as he could among the afternoon’s visitors.
For us, this was more than we had dared to hope for. Most of the Douro Valley grape harvest programmes with grape treading experiences* were not due to start for another week so we’d resigned ourselves to missing out.
This time, we were more than willing to get our feet dirty and do some work.
I say dirty, but of course we washed and sterilised our legs and feet before climbing into a steel vat full of cold, lumpy Ribena-coloured liquid. Stephan had managed to persuade a couple of his friends to join in so the five of us spread out in a line at one end of the tank as he demonstrated the technique.
To crush grapes, you need to get them under your feet. This means lifting your knees fairly high as you step forward which does get tiring after a while. The vat has its own cooling system so we encountered odd cold and warm spots as we slowly stomped around, leaving trails of grapey bubbles in our wake.
The seeds also had an exfoliating effect so by the time the hour was up, my feet and legs felt beautifully smooth. But purple!
In true Blue Peter style, we were rewarded with a glass of the good stuff from a previous year. It was so good we bought a bottle to take home.
For more tips on visiting the Douro Valley, read How and When to Explore the Douro Valley.