Best foot forward

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am

I trod grapes with about 30 pickers at Quinta do Vesuvio, in Portugal, the other night. Foot-treading has been done since time immemorial but these days grapes are squished with human toes only when port is being produced. Given the price of crushing and de-stemming equipment, one would think only cash-strapped producers would resort to using feet, but it is the top-line producers in the Douro Valley who believe human treading yields a finer wine.

Because port grapes have only about two days between being picked and being pressed and fortified with neutral brandy, the winemaker's challenge is to extract as much juice, colour and flavour from them as quickly as possible - without breaking the bitter seeds or extracting unwanted tannins from the skins. The top port producers have developed many mechanised variations of 'port toes' but still prefer human feet treading their finest growths. Repeatedly, winemaking trials show that foot-treading yields the highest-quality port.

The foot treading was a challenge. Not because of the sweet, slippery, squishy skins and juice, but because you are not allowed to speak for two hours. Lines of workers march arm in arm, up and down the lagares in rhythm to the calls of the capataz. Lagares are large, shallow, square concrete troughs full of grapes. The juice reaches about knee height, which makes the experience comparable to a water-aerobics workout. After two hours, the capataz roars, 'Libertad' (liberty). The group suddenly belts out a loud traditional song and then, for the final hour, everyone dances raucously - freestyle - in the juice. The glass of port passed around after libertad ensures high-quality moves. The juice has already begun fermentation and this is evident as you dance around the lagares, as there are warm spots (not for the reason you find them in swimming pools, one hopes) and cool ones.

Treading always takes place at night, which makes for a long day for the treaders who have returned from a tiring shift of harvesting in the vineyards. While much of Europe is ecstatic about this year's vintage, there is less enthusiasm in the Douro Valley. Conditions were very warm throughout the growing season and the harvest finished a couple of weeks earlier than usual.

Adrian Bridge, the Taylor Fladgate group's chief executive, says, 'Winemakers have to work hard this year to get the best from the grapes.'

Paul Symington, of Symington Family Port Companies, is equally restrained about the vintage, voicing concerns that the fruit is quite ripe with some raisining. Niepoort's Dirk van Niepoort and George Sandeman, of the House of Sandeman, also doubt that it will be a vintage year. Port producers declare a vintage port only a few times each decade.

Debra Meiburg is a master of wine