Treading grapes by foot is a centuries-old feature of producing some of the highest-quality Ports of Portugal’s Douro Valley – but this traditional practice is the latest casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Recognising that having a team of people treading grapes in a granite lagar is incompatible with the need for social distancing, Port producers are using modern technology to do the job instead.
“This was something we identified very early on,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, owner of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft. New mechanised equipment was due to be delivered to the company’s Vargellas winery in the second week of August, in time for the 2020 harvest.
Similarly, Symington Family Estates – owner of Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s and Cockburn – has suspended foot treading at its Quinta do Vesuvio property for the 2020 harvest – believed to be the first time this has happened since the Vesuvio winery opened in 1827; there was limited production even during the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century.
“It will be the first year since we bought the estate in 1989 that we won’t produce Quinta do Vesuvio vintage Port via the traditional foot-treading method,” says Symington Family Estates director Rob Symington. “The grapes from Vesuvio will be transported to another of our wineries, where they will be vinified using our modern [mechanised] lagares.”
What difference will this make? Bridge reckons that Ports made using foot treading are “1% to 1.5% better” than those trodden mechanically, adding: “Undoubtedly there is a risk that we will not gain the full potential out of those grapes, but most people would probably not notice that.”
Meanwhile, the robotic lagares installed by the Symingtons are said to produce similar or better-quality Ports compared to the traditional method. So is foot treading redundant in a post-Covid world?
“We very much hope that 2020 is a one-off, and that we will return to foot-treading at Vesuvio as soon as it is safe and responsible to do so,” says Rob Symington.
“There’s a lot to learn from this forced ceasing of treading – long-term implications which we will study,” adds Bridge. “We remain convinced that foot-treading does produce better-quality Ports.”
As for what will happen in 12 months’ time, “We just don’t know. But I don’t see why, in a non-socially distanced world, we would not be able do it.”