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.
See this article for alternative Douro Valley hotels
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.
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Julie, did they ever explain the use of the drums?
Julie – I returned last Friday from Pinhao and Porto, and received your latest blog update, with Kelly’s post, this morning. So offer here for Kelly’s interest my recent experience of Pinhao. Arrived by slow but inexpensive train from Campanha, Porto. Stayed at Residencial Ponto Grande (single B&B, en suite, aircon, balcony overlooking Douro, 25 Euro), but ample alternatives including 4* Vintage House Hotel or Quinta de la Rosa apartments. There are at least four Quinta within 15 mins of the photogenic azulejo covered railway station, itself about 5 mins from the quayside opposite a 90 degree bend in the river. I’ve visited two of them, Quinta da Foz last May (10 mins west of village) and Quinta de la Rosa on my recent visit (15 mins west moderate uphill). At Quinta del la Rosa I enjoyed a tour of their facilities, wine tasting, substantial three course lunch with more wine, port and coffee on a terrace overlooking the Douro for 35 Euro. Alina and Eduardo were my kindly and attentive hosts. More details on their website which shows accommodation options also. Also in the village, Quinta do Bonfim (5 mins east) and Quinta dos Carvalhos (10 mins south, over the bridge). A little further, at about 20 mins walk east, appears to be Quinta da Roeda (Croft Est). I surmise this from Google Earth but a sign in the village next to the bridge suggests its location. The station building also hosts a small wine tasting museum shop. More generally, boat trips from the quayside and the railway to Pocinho, upper Douro, are a delight. I had planned a taxi to Provesende with a 2 hr return downhill walk, but then thought better of it at 37 degrees. A good option in September though. I plan to return September 2016. Novo Gaia, Porto is also good for port wine tasting. Free tasting vouchers with Yellow Bus Tour ticket and with the Teleferico (cablecar) from near Ponte Luiz bridge to Novo Gaia. Julie, I visit Lisbon again end of September, but look forward to your Azores blog post with view to a visit in Nov/Dec this year, funds permitting. Garry
Thanks for all the tips, Garry. Sounds as though you had a great time and you definitely did the right thing postponing the walk. No sense making yourself ill! I got back from the Azores yesterday – absolutely loved it even if the weather was contriving against us on several days. It’ll take me a while to get a post out but I’ll see what I can do to tempt/help you to plan a trip later this year.
Hi Julie – planning a trip to Portugal this September and we’re really enjoying your blog! We are planning to take the boat from Porto to Peso da Regua and/or Pinhao, spend a few nights at a winery, and take the train back. We won’t have a car but would like to visit wineries – are there local tour companies or drivers that will take you around to visit wineries from Pinhao or Regua, and what does that typically cost? Most of the tour information we’re finding is in and out of Porto.
We’d also consider renting a car if you strongly recommend that for being able to get around – thanks so much!
Hi Kelly, If you haven’t already seen the tips that Garry has provided in the comments, please have a read.
As for a car, if you have the time and confidence, I’d go for it. You’ll have so much more freedom and flexibility to visit out of the way places as and when it suits you.
A very interesting post and I plan to put a visit to the Duoro Valley on our “must see” list. Your hotel room was gorgeous and looks very posh. I have to agree though, that the chance to stomp some grapes would definitely be memorable – sounds like fun with a terrific reward at the end! Anita
I can’t imagine anyone not liking the Douro Valley so definitely put it on your list, Anita. Even if you don’t get to stomp on grapes, there’ll be plenty of wine to sample while you’re there. Probably best to stay overnight at one of the Quintas so no one needs to drive.
Thanks for the post. Have been following up your previous posts on Street Art, Cabo Espichel, and Douro, during my three visits so far in 2015. Fourth visit in a few weeks to return to Pinhao and Porto, and Lisbon again in September to avoid the high temperatures there in July. From your post it looks like I’ve missed a trick here. Must now pencil-in a Douro grape harvest for September 2016.
Excellent news, Garry! I love that you follow me around 😉