When we want 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 10-week bicycle journey crisscrossing this tiny but impressive country forever changed how we will experience wine. Travel does that: changes how you experience life long after your journey is over.
Late one evening, high above the Douro River, a voice called out. It was hard to find the person attached to that voice among 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. He was giddy with excitement over sharing his harvest with two cycling strangers. Within minutes he had clipped off bunches of no less than seven varietals of grapes and displayed them for us to try: tiny, almost clear grapes, a large bunch of 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 had been harvested in the lower elevations, but higher up, two to three thousand feet, the harvest was in full swing.
One of our first encounters was west of the city of Bragança. 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 20 men and women ranging in age from 18-50, 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, which burly men then hoisted and dumped 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. For the next 15 minutes I clipped away. He said I was very good, very fast. Of course, everyone around me already had been working for seven hours.
They would be paid 14 euros 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 onto our bikes.
We thanked the landowner 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.
Next week’s presentation: “Aleutian Images” by Rob Avery.