Cellar dedicated to the art of enjoyment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 February, 1996, 12:00am

IN a basement cellar in Macau, ancient farm implements used last century in the rugged granite interior of the Duoro hang from the walls. Enormous earthenware jars, taller than a man, stand in dusky corners. Bins filled with plastic grapes show visitors how fruit was stamped by foot in pre-biblical times when wine-making spread through the Iberian Peninsula.

Macau, which must surely have more museums per capita than any other territory on earth, has done it again. The latest addition to its historical collection is the Museu do Vinho (wine museum), which opened late last year . It's another cultural victory for Macau, adding to other archives that range from the stunning Maritime Museum to a hi-tech collection tracing the background of the city's Grand Prix motor racing.

Naturally, the museum devoted to the art of wine-making concentrates on the varied regions of Portugal. It's a fascinating exhibition, which took two years to plan.

Jose Alexandre Braga Goncalves, director of the Government Tourist Office, supervised the collection of artefacts dealing with wine and collated a vast library of facts.

For anyone with an interest in wine or anyone who likes a glass of the stuff, the museum offers an opportunity to browse for an hour through 30 centuries of history.

Under lock and key behind stout steel bars, there is a treasury of aged wines, some going back into the great vintages of the 19th century.

'It's not for drinking,' Goncalves laughs, pointing to the riches of the ages from the most prestigious acres of Portugal's vineyards.

The museum is sensibly laid out. For a start, it's in a cellar, which is logical, in the Tourism Centre building close to the ferry terminal.

The visitor strolls past what was once a horse-drawn vineyard cart. Then there is a long passageway where, in a series of simple yet interesting displays, the history of wine and wine-making is traced from the first-known fermentation of the grape in the Caucasus to its spread to Mesopotamia, to Lebanon and Egypt, to Greece, then on to Sicily, Italy and France.

There are old vats and hand-carved wooden pitchforks, fertiliser cans that were laboriously carried on the backs of workers through the steep vineyards where grapes for port are grown, and old hand-powered machinery that used one-tonne blocks of stone to help crush the fruit and extract the precious juice.

Every step of the process, from planting vines to testing vintages in modern laboratories, is covered by the displays.

One chamber is devoted to displays of the various wine regions of Portugal. Every district is illustrated by a map and accompanying panels of information on statistics, history and wine-makers. More than 750 different vintages are on display, grouped with illustrations of the regions where they are made.

The information is not concentrated solely on wine, but deals with culture, history, people and trade. The huge lumbering sailing barges, which still carry bulk casks of port down the northern rivers, are pictured, as are old photographs of farmers heavily laden with back-packs of grapes toiling on the steep flanks of mountains.

Like many people, Goncalves is puzzled why so little Portuguese wine is sold in Hong Kong. Apart from the ubiquitous Matheus Rose, there are few examples of the country's huge wine industry on sale here in wine shops or restaurants.

About 15 per cent of Portugal's population makes its living from making or selling wine. The 350,000 hectares under vine produce about 10 million hectolitres a year, making Portugal the world's sixth largest wine industry. Goncalves, who has lived in Macau working for the tourism office for four years, says one aim of the museum is to educate local residents and tourists about the unknown joys of Portugal's vast array of wines.

'If people know how many different wines are made in the country, they might experiment and try some of the different vintages which are now being imported to Macau,' he explained.

Many restaurants there now stock a wider range than familiar vinho verdes and rose, with some of the distinguished deep reds of the south appearing for the first time on wine lists.

Some of those lesser-known vintages will be available at a retail outlet in the museum. Although it was officially opened last week, the displays are not finalised; until they are, entrance to this fascinating cellar is free.

Goncalves says the sampling bar and shop, which will also stock books on Portugal's rich wine history, will complement the museum.

'Wine is all about enjoyment of life,' he says, standing in front of some of the scores of excellent sparkling wine from the Barraida region.

'We want to make that known to people.'