CHARLES METCALFE, PART 2
It has often been said that the best ports are made by foot-treading the grapes when they have been picked, to help extract colour, tannins and aromas. The new question is: man or machine? Vesuvio makes port only by treading by human feet, all the others use a mix of methods for their winemaking, pressure-driven ‘auto-fermenters’, steel tanks with rotating cap-plungers, conventional pump-over tanks and wonderful modern stainless steel lagares with robotic ‘treaders’.
These robotic lagares are installed at four of the Symington estates. Cavadinha has six lagars, Sol four, Malvedos three and Senhora da Ribeira three. A row of three of these cost €120,000. That’s quite an investment to replace a team of human treaders. But when you consider those human treaders have already spent a long day in the vineyard picking grapes, and then have to do another three hours’ treading, you understand why the Symingtons have gone robotic in some places. There are no other hours in the day these people could tread apart from the evenings, and some wineries already employ an entirely different set of workers for the evening treading because of transport and accommodation reasons.
And the robotic treaders really do tread. Each pneumatically-operated plunger has a set of food-grade silicone ‘feet’. When in ‘tread’ mode, these make gentle contact with the bottom of the lagar, and with any grape skins under the ‘feet’. Then they bounce straight up, carefully set to avoid crushing undesirable tannins out of pips. And so they continue for four hours, more rhythmically and for longer than any human treaders could manage, even when the latter are encouraged by the shouts of the foreman. While human treaders tread, he keeps up cries of ‘hey-ey, up’ (or the Portuguese equivalent), while short-clad legs rise and fall in rhythm, arms linked in a line. After two hours of this, ‘liberdade’ (liberty) follows, for an hour, where an accordionist takes over, treaders sing, form conga lines, and dance with each other. Female picker/treaders are much in demand at this point, though some ladies stymie male advances by dancing with each other.
At Vesuvio, all this treading finishes at 10.30pm, and the workers are whisked back to their sleeping quarters by lorry, ready to get enough sleep to see them through the next day. But in the morning, the winemakers in charge at Malvedos, Cavadinha, Senhora da Ribeira and Sol can decide whether to give their robotic lagars another hour or so of ‘treading’ at several times through the day. Later they can switch the treader to ‘plunge’ mode, in which the ‘feet’ don’t touch the bottom, but just turn over the floating cap of skins and pips. This keeps the cap moist, and carries on the extraction of colour and flavour. Again, much more efficient than the traditional alternative of stationing a man by the side to poke the cap down with a wooden pole (or have a snooze when the boss is somewhere else).
– end part 2 of 2 –