Why Human Feet Make the Best Port
"For the first two hours, you need military discipline."
All photos by the author.
It is a bizarre sensation to step into a huge vat of crushed grapes. My bare feet smoosh through the skins, pulp, and juice floating around the concrete enclosure, known as a lagares here in Portugal. It feels so weird that it feels wrong. I’m here in the Douro Valley for the tail end of the grape crushing process that leads to the production of Taylor's port wine.
A dude plays a synthesizer in the corner, and I join the Portuguese workers to stomp and tromp the hell out of the grapes. Turns out the process isn’t a gimmick. This style of grape pressing is preferred over the mechanical alternative when it comes to high-end port making.
The human foot is strong enough to crush the fruit but it’s soft enough to ensure the grape’s seeds don’t burst open. If you’ve ever chewed up a grape seed, you know the bitter flavor that it yields. You don’t want that in port.
After twenty minutes of dancing around the lagares, I start sweating. I wonder if I’m adding salt to the future port’s flavor profile.
A month later down the Douro River at another port house, Quinta Vale D. Maria, I look into the tanks where this year’s crush has already taken place. There are tables and chairs set up inside; the winery uses the space for dinner parties on occasion.
“We use these granite tanks, not very high, only enough to fill in the grapes to the top of the knee of a standing person. We crush grapes by foot and ferment the wine here,” says Cristiano van Zeller, who helms his family’s port company that dates back to 1780.
“It’s very hard work, mainly for the first two hours when you need military discipline,” van Zeller says. “You need to march at pace for two hours to make sure everything is crushed evenly. Then you cry ‘freedom,’ and then they can go around as they wish for the next hour, hour and a half.”
I ask van Zeller if his employees also find fun ways to pass the time.
“There used to be a lot of singing and dancing used to be done at night by the workers who had spent the day picking. The women would be dancing while the men would be crushing. That was many years ago,” van Zeller says. “Nowadays they have all the fun they can while marching on top of the grapes, listening to music or discussing football.”
While foot treading is the traditional way, port makers haven’t been consistently using the method since the dawn of the craft.
“We’ve gone full circle in wine making and port making. Up until the 50s and 60s, all of the port was made like that. Then throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there was this idea that you needed all of this stainless steel,” says van Zeller. “Then we found out very easily that [foot treading] makes a huge difference, at least here, so we went all the way back.”
At lunch, we drink wine like it’s water, and port like it’s even tastier water, and I wonder whose feet—not a robot—did all the heavy lifting.