People from all corners of the world have tried Portuguese wine. Even you might have tasted one already. However, do you know about the grape harvest tradition that goes behind it? In Portugal, wine is not a mere drink. It is a cultural experience deeply rooted in the country’s heritage and history.
Every year, wine lovers visit Portugal seeking unique experiences to taste and learn more about the over 250 grape varieties in the country. These confer a unique taste to famous drinks like the Porto wine, Moscatel de Setúbal, and Vinho Verde (Green Wine). Portugal has, undoubtedly, one of the best wine destinations in the world, the Douro Valley, but also a strong harvest tradition that still plays a vital role in the industry’s success and culture.
Are you planning a trip to Portugal and would love to visit a winery or even harvest for a day in the beautiful Douro Valley or Alentejo? Continue reading to learn more about this tradition which you can participate in!
The origins of the grape harvest tradition
Since the Classical Antiquity period in History, between the 8th century BC and 5th century AD, the harvest was accompanied by a strong tradition of celebrations and festivities. It took place in ancient civilizations, namely the Roman Empire and Greece. Around the world, this practice would determine the beginning of the season to gather the crops cultivated throughout the year. These could either be cereals, corn, grapes and even apples.
According to its Anglo-Saxon origin, harvest, designated as Haerfest, means Autumn, a season defined by the produce cultivated and collected that year. For that reason, harvest is also known as the period of rejoicing. Per se, a time to celebrate the hard work put in toward cultivation and pampering, in this case, of the vines. In Rome, these celebrations would start in late August, around the 19th. Families and workers would suspend their daily activities to gather in the vineyards and start hand-picking the grapes, which would be poured into tanks to be manually pressed (by foot or hand).
All in all, the grape harvest traditions of the Roman Empire are still today very much relevant and present in the wine-producing cultures of certain countries, namely Portugal!
The harvest season in Portugal
In the Portuguese wine-growing regions, the grape harvest is one of the most awaited seasons of the year! Producers, farmers and visitors alike look forward to the months of September and October, also known as the vindima (the Portuguese word for grape harvest). This period of time encompasses the harvesting of the grapes and the beginning of the production of the new wines. Between these months, usually, grapes are ripe, presenting a weight, colour, aroma and taste that meets the conditions to start production.
The harvest does not have a specific start date. Each year, the estates decide, considering the weather conditions of the past year and the impact it had on the cultivations (there have been years when the harvest season began in late August due to extreme weather). These dates also vary from vineyard to vineyard, depending on the type of wines produced and the adopted techniques.
Even though the vindima is a typical tradition associated with the North of Portugal and the Douro Valley, the truth is that the harvest takes place in many other regions of the country, namely in Lisbon and Alentejo. From the North to the South, wine estates harvest a wide range of grapes to make some of the best wines and liquours in the world!
The culmination of this season is St. Martin’s Day, São Martinho, on the 11th of November. On this day, families gather to eat a traditional plate of roasted chestnuts accompanied by traditional drinks, such as the Jeropiga, a sweet liquour. On this day, one can also taste the first wines of the season, which have been in maturation for the whole year.
A day in the Portuguese harvest
A day in the harvest starts bright and early, bringing men and women together into the vineyards. Women, with the help of men in wooden ladders (to reach the grapes at the highest points), would hand-pick the grapes and gather it in baskets that would later be carried by bulls to the tank. The morning would pass by with the sound of the concertina, the singing birds and the drums.
At lunch, the workers and families would come together for a deserved and extended time to socialize and rest from a morning of harvest. Afterwards, the day followed with the wine pressing techniques. With the pants folded up to their thighs, standing on a lagar (wide tank), men would stomp on the grapes with their feet to extract the juice inside the fruit. This technique is known as Pisa Pé. At the same time, arm-held in a circle, they would sing together.
The evening would follow with celebrations, food, dance and music in a jolly environment of appreciation and gratefulness for a good year of harvest!
Modern-day harvest celebrations
Still to this day, the Portuguese harvest marks a season that brings together families and communities into unique experiences and celebrations that carry on decades of history. The day starts early in the morning. However, technology has made its way into the harvesting practices that now present new nuances (even though they are still very much supported by the principle of hand-picking the grapes).
Today, men and women gather the fresh fruit in plastic containers that are transported by tractors to the site where they are pressed. This process is sometimes still done in an old-fashioned way. Nonetheless, most producers now do it mechanically through specialized machines that extract the grapes’ juice with great precision.
At lunch, people have the chance to catch up with their friends and family and eat traditional food accompanied, of course, by some delicious wine! In the evenings, there are places where the celebrations carry on into the villages’ streets. These often mix fireworks with music, contests, dance, and wine! A lot of wine.
Now, tourists can also be a part of these celebrations and moments! In the past years, wineries across Portugal have been opening their doors during September and October to invite wine lovers to take part in the grape harvest traditions. Because this is a popular celebration in the country that attracts many visitors, we advise you to book these experiences in advance to guarantee your participation.
In the Alentejo region, the Herdade do Esporão offers arranged visits for you to have a closer look at the winemaking process from the grape all the way to the bottle, followed by a wine-tasting experience of some of their most known wines. All of this is followed by some delicious traditional Portuguese lunch. Alternatively, you can venture on wine tasting experiences in the North of Portugal or even visit smaller family-run wine estates. In the latter, you can have a more hands-on experience with the harvest traditions and practices, like hand-picking the grapes (and even having a sneaky taste of them!) and stomping on the grapes by participating in the Pisa Pé! The truth is, there are many wineries and wine estates where you can have these memorable experiences, and we at TourTailors would be more than happy to make these part of your Portugal itinerary!
Here are some Portuguese sayings to get you harvest-ready!
“Until the cleaning of the baskets, it is still the harvest,” is a Portuguese proverb you might hear during the Portuguese harvest season. When locals say this, they are talking about the final stage of the harvest, the cleaning of the baskets, which advises people to wait until the end of any business or project without taking prior conclusions. Another saying you will come across is “Agosto madura, setembro vindima”, which refers to the process of maturation of the grapes during August when they gain colour and ripen to the perfect condition to be harvested in September. A more metaphorical proverb locals use is “Muita parra, pouca uva,” meaning, expectations (many vines) do not always meet the outcome (few grapes).