This post, written by Willie Weir, first appeared on his blog, Yellow Tent Adventures, in Oct. 2010, and also on KUOW. We publish it here as a sort of ‘wine tasting.’ Take a moment to drink in this colorful story of northern Portugal, the wine of the people, and the world’s single best grape. Then join Cascade at the Seattle Flagship REI on Jan. 11, 2011 at 7 p.m., where Willie will further regale us with stories about bike travels through Portugal with his wife Kat this year.
A bottle of wine.
We go to the store. We peruse the shelves. Check out the variety, the vintage, the price. We buy it. We open it. We drink it.
Our time in northern Portugal has changed that. There is a connection to the contents of that bottle that will ever change how we experience it.
Late one evening high above the Douro River a voice called out. It was hard to find the person attached to that voice amongst the vast rows of grapes. But a cap and a smile and a wave drew our attention to an old man and a little black dog.
Within minutes he had clipped off bunches of no less than seven varieties of grapes and displayed them for us to try. He was giddy with excitement over sharing his harvest with two cycling strangers. Tiny almost clear grapes. Light green grapes the size of your thumb. Others the color of a rose petal. They were all sweet and delicious, but one dark blue/purple grape was the single best grape I’ve ever tasted. It was earthy and robust and complex. It didn’t need to be made into wine. It had already achieved greatness.
We camped next to those grape vines and watched the sunrise light up thousands of acres of vineyards in the Douro valley.
Most of the grapes have been harvested in the lower elevations, but higher up, two to three thousand feet, the harvest has been in full swing.
One of our first encounters was west of the city of Braganca. It was a small field. The owner, we assumed, a young man with frosted hair and clean hands was overseeing the picking. He seemed uninterested in the traveling cyclists. But the moment we asked him about his land he came to life and was delighted to answer our questions.
The workers, a group of twenty men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 50, were hunched over with hand pruners, chatting and laughing as they clipped the grapes. They filled smaller plastic baskets that were dumped into larger baskets, where burly men then hoisted and dumped them into the metal containers on an old tractor trailer.
The owner filled one of our water bottles with last year’s wine. These grapes wouldn’t make it into a bottle with a label at the market or wine store. This was wine of the people. Stored in huge glass bottles protected by a woven plastic mesh.
Do you want to try? The owner asked. He handed me a pair of clippers.
Why not? For the next fifteen minutes I clipped away. He said I was very good. Very fast. Of course, everyone around me had already been working for seven hours.
They would be paid 14 Euro for a full day’s work.
The tractor driver, a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man with a beaming smile, pointed to a crate of grapes and insisted that we take them all. I’m not sure how he expected us to pack 25 pounds of grapes on to our bikes.
We thanked the land owner and the workers for their time and gifts. I reached up to shake the hand of one of the men on top of the large metal containers heaped with grapes. His hands being dirty, he offered me his elbow.
I shook my head and grabbed his hand. It was sticky with the mixture of soil and sweat and grape juice. He laughed and squeezed hard.
The wine of the people that we drank from our water bottle was not subtle or refined or worthy of a rating.
It was tangy and a bit sour.
But it was wine with a story and a handshake.
And we loved it.