Grape Harvest (Vindima), by Miguel Torga

vindimaI 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 “nosyclarity 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.cavadinho plaqueIn 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. cavadinha view

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.

Port and the Douro – book review

port and the douroHere I review Port and the Douro by Richard Mayson. This is the 3rd edition, which was originally published in 2013, but I have a paperback version published by Infinite Ideas in April 2016. It has an RRP of £30, but I didn’t pay a penny of my own money as I was sent a review copy. This printing was apparently “heavily revised” – from the first printing of the 3rd edition presumably. But as I do not have the original 3rd edition, I cannot really comment on that, apart from to say that all vintages are described up to and including 2015, and the sales and production statistics now go as far as 2014.

The look and feel is very similar to Biodynamic Wine, which I reviewed in my previous blog post: a 234 x 156mm paperback with clear printing and a rather nice general feel to the book. But this is a bigger book of 308 pages and a slightly smaller typeface. Most of the illustrations are hand painted sketches, but there are a few diagrams and maps, and several colour plates clustered together in the centre of the book. The text is also broken up by boxes. This is something I generally do not like, as I would much rather the author figure out for me how best to incorporate everything into the flow of the narrative, but here I thought the series of boxes on the theme Men who shaped the Douro worked rather well.

The book is very much in the mould of many other specialist books on wine regions, and in that sense it works well – very well indeed, to extent that it is difficult to fault. Better maps perhaps? But I am very much aware how much good quality cartography costs. Tasting notes? Maybe, but I personally find them of very limited value. Another possible criticism is that it somehow fails to excite. But what sort of excitement can one reasonably expect from a book on Port and the Douro? For me, perhaps only in the sense that I regard the Douro region to be the most atmospheric wine region I have ever visited, with its vastness and haunting beauty, and it would have been nice to have more of that feeling communicated. Though I admit it is a big demand on a specialist wine writer – there are only so many Andrew Jeffords in the world 🙂 However, still on the subject of the feel of the Douro region, I was delighted to find that Mayson mentioned Miguel Torga’s novel Vindima (Grape Harvest in English translation). It is a novel I had been intending to dig out after visiting Quinta da Cavadinha, which features in it, but later forgot the name of the author and book –  now I am grateful to be reading it in translation on my Kindle, and it is giving me my required shot of Douro poetry. But I digress… there follows below a description of the contents of Port and the Douro.

The first chapter covers in some detail the history of Portugal – Porto and the Douro in particular. This is followed by one on the vineyards, vines, major grape varieties, and quintas (farms or estates). Then a description of the various types of Port, with a separate chapter devoted to Vintage Port. Port producers and shipper then get their own chapter, which is followed by one on Douro (unfortified) wines. Finally there is some guidance for the visitor to Porto and the Douro.

So – a very good solid book with very little to criticise (even if I seem to have spent most of this review writing about my criticisms).

Porto, the Douro, and some Vinho Verde

I returned a few weeks ago from the most most amazing holiday in Portugal.  The focus of our trip was Roy Hersh’s 2012 Port Explorers Tour, but we also spent a few extra days in Porto.  We stayed in Porto and Régua, visiting Port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, and quintas in the Douro.  Additionally, we went on a refreshing excursion to Vinho Verde.

I recommend both Porto and the Douro very strongly as a wine destination. Even before the Port Explorers Tour started we enjoyed Porto very much, and found everyone friendly and helpful.  It was also nice that none of it has yet become a sanitised tourist destination, though bits of Vila Nova de Gaia are heading in that direction.  And if you want to have great tastings set up for you and meet the people behind the wines, I doubt you could do better than to join one of Roy’s tours.

I intend to blog with more thoughts from this trip – nothing too structured, and probably not many tasting notes – just the things that made the biggest impact on me.  For now here is a quick pictorial summary.

Here are some barcos rebelos with part of Vila Nova de Gaia in the background.  This was the style of boat that used to bring the wine down the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia for storage before shipping.  Now they are used to advertise Port houses, and the wine arrives by road in small tankers.

This was how we spent a lot of our time.  Here we are at our very first tasting with Roy – at Porto Poças.  Someone has to do it – that wine will not taste itself.

And this was our first meal with the group, at Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II in Vila Nova de Gaia.  A selection of nibbles, which we soon were to learn was a common way to start a meal, and a mackerel dish in the foreground.

The Douro valley.  Back in Porto, everyone seemed to speak of it with misty eyes.   Now we understand why.  Wow!  The most impressive thing was the sheer scale of the landscape – horizontally as well as vertically.

And finally an example of some of the wine-making kit we saw.  These are the robotic lagares at Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo – the modern version of the place where all the grape treading goes on.  See the robotic feet at the far end.

Below is a complete list of the significant wine and food related events on our trip.  Those marked with a star, were set up as part of the Port Explorers Tour.  I am not going to get round to writing about all of these, so if you want an opinion get in touch – use the comment box or drop me an email.

Port Lodges
Taylor’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Sandeman’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Dalva (tasting, in shop only)
Porto Poças (tour and tasting) *
Burmester (tour and tasting) *
Offley (tour and tasting) *
J H Andresen (tour and tasting) *
Graham’s (tour and tasting)

Quintas in the Douro
Pintas, Wine and Soul (tour and tasting) *
Passadouro (dinner) *
Seixo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Crasto (tour, tasting and dinner) *
Tedo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Vista Alegre (tour and tasting) *
Cavadinha (tour and tasting) *
Quinta do Portal (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Vinho Verde
Casal do Paço (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Dom Luis – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch)
Fishe Fixe – Porto (two lunches)
Majestic Café – Porto (dinner)
Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II – Vila Nova de Gaia (dinner) *
Ar de Rio – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch) *
Bufete Fase – Porto (Francesinha bar for dinner) *
Pedro Lemos – Porto (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOC – Folgosa (lunch) *
LBV 79 – Pinhõa (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOP – Porto (dinner) *