I have been doing a lot of reading over the last few weeks, so I am afraid my blog has been mainly book reviews of late – and there are more to come. But this is a bit different. It is a novel from 1945 by the Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, so it’s nothing new but I thought it might be of interest to wine lovers. The title is Vindima in Portuguese, but in English translation it is rendered as Grape Harvest – a grape harvest in the Douro in fact. Firstly, some practical details. I could only find electronic editions of the English translation, and I bought the Kindle version, though it is also available for Kobo. Check for the latest prices, and price-matching deals, but expect to pay well under £10. There were no major practical issues with the Kindle edition, though I presume that the “nosy” clarity of a dawn was an OCR glitch, and there were quite a few superfluous hyphens in words that must have corresponded to line breaks in a print version.
Let me set the scene. A lot of the action takes place at Quinta da Cavadinha, a property now owned by Warre’s, and one that makes a vital contribution to their Vintage Ports. I visited the estate a few years ago and found this plaque with a quotation from the book.In English: “A vine-strewn slope gazing down at the river and up into the heavens, Cavadinha, its name writ in huge letters on an iron arch over the wide entry gate, is the most enchanting of estates“. And here is that vine-strewn slope from the vantage point of Cavadinha. The river Pinhão, a tributary of the Douro that joins the main river at the eponymous town, is here just about visible in the trees at the bottom of the valley.
Sadly, the panoramic grandeur of the Douro is rarely expressed well in small images – you just have to imagine the vista below extending over 180º or so. But don’t be fooled by the quotation. Grape Harvest is not a sentimental glorification of Cavadinha. It covers mainly the dark aspects of gritty reality. Very much not the sort of thing you would expect to be proudly displayed on a plaque.
As suggested by the title, the book does indeed cover events associated with a harvest. It starts with the harvesting team being hired from a poor farming village, and ends with their return home. In between, there is a depiction of many complex relationships, focussing on Douro society, but extending also to Porto and beyond. We have the exploited harvest workers; the uncaring nouveau riche quinta owner and his family; the more benevolent old-money family who own the neighbouring quinta; and a doctor visiting from Lisbon. There are deaths, love affairs, infatuations, broken hearts and illicit sex. Despite there being an awful lot going on, the writing is deep, poetic, unsentimental, and life-affirming, where the human spirit rises above the literal blood, sweat and tears. A lot of it reminded me more of Victorian times than 1945, so the first mention of a motor car came as a bit of a surprise. But we must remember that Portugal was very isolationalist under Salazar, and the Douro was particularly backwards, even by Portuguese standards. At times, I also felt transported into the world of D H Lawrence, as a sexually charged atmosphere pervades a lot of the book. On reading that the treading of grapes was “reminiscent of sensual copulation” I was completely baffled, but by the end of the two-paragraph extended metaphor I was left in no doubt what the author had in mind, and grape-treading will never be the same again for me. One wonders what Torga would have made of the robotic lagares at the modern-day Quinta da Cavadinha.
It’s fiction of course, but the author’s personal experience must have formed the basis for a lot of the novel. Torga’s humble roots were in the mountains just to the North of the Douro – precisely the area from where the villagers recruited for the Cavadinha harvest might have hailed. He was himself well-educated, but his profession as a doctor kept him in constant touch with all walks of life, and doubtless informed the character of the doctor in the novel, and the incidents of child-birth, illness and medical emergency. A little bit more about Torga, with medical excerpts from his diary, is available towards the end of this issue of the British Journal of General Practice. I decided I liked Torga so much that I have already ordered a collection of his short stories in translation, and would very much suggest that anyone with an interest in literature and Port should at least grab the free initial chapters of Grape Harvest – together with Torga’s 1988 introduction, they give a good feel for what is to follow.
The novel was written over 70 years ago now and, as Torga himself says in his introduction, the extremes of poverty and exploitation described in the novel no longer exist in the Douro. But it is sobering to realise that colheitas from that period still exist in Villa Nova de Gaia, and that if you love Port you may even have drunk some.