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Feat of the Feet
By Michael Apstein
Mar 5, 2013
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Treading the grapes by foot “is fundamental for making Vintage Port,” insists Natasha Bridge, the chief blender at The Fladgate Partnership, the family run company that owns Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, three of Port’s best houses. “It may only account for a 3 to 4% difference in quality, but it’s one of the differences between making good and great Port.”

She explains, “We have only three days to extract flavor from the white flesh of the grapes and the color from the skins. It may defy logic, but . . .”

“It’s not just to show the visiting Englishman,” quips David Guimaraens, wine director for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, in his English-Australian accent. (His unique accent is a result of his father, Bruce, the previous chief winemaker at Fonseca for 40 years, giving his son a one-way ticket to Australia to study winemaking. He clearly succeeded because he managed to buy a return ticket.) Guimaraens believes foot treading is essential for really top quality Port because it’s a gentler way to squeeze flavor from the grapes while leaving behind bitter tannins from the seeds.

An Olympic Event

You’d be forgiven if you thought it was a military exercise or possibly the start of an Olympic event rather than the start of winemaking.

Two lines of about a dozen young, fit men and women stand atop the short wall at each end of the lagar, a three-foot-deep granite square pit filled with a purple murky liquid that’s really a very expensive combination of grapes, stalks and a bit of what at this stage is still grape juice. They stretch their arms and twist their torsos, as though warming up, change into T shirts and then lower themselves gently into the lagar, maintaining their formation in straight lines at each end.

Um, dois, esquerdo, direito (one, two, left, right) is the call of the staff sergeant-like leader in a monatomic methodical chant. In response, like rowers listening to their coxswain, the lines start marching in place, creating more liquid as their feet gently crush the grapes. Gradually, still rhythmically with a Germanic-like order, the two lines move slowly toward one another. Over the next two hours of what’s known in the Port wine country of Portugal’s Douro River as the cut, the lines move back and forth, covering every square inch of the granite lagar.

Then out comes the accordion. Exuberant and animated dancing begins amid laughing and playful frolicking. Workers dip their hands into the liquid and leave hand prints on the back or front of someone’s formerly pure white T shirt.

Fortification

Although wine has been made in the remote Eastern Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its rugged beauty and uniqueness, since Roman times, it’s a very inhospitable environment. “It’s hot weather winemaking,” says Antonio Magalhães, the chief viticulturalist for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft. In the blazing heat of the Douro, where it’s often close to 100F degrees during the day, the grapes have the potential to become over ripe. Port producers compensate by fortification: stopping fermentation with the addition of brandy, which raises the alcohol to 20% and kills the yeast. The result is a sweet wine, balanced by the grip of round tannins extracted from the skins, capable of developing gloriously as it ages for decades.

Fortification as it is practiced today became widespread in the Douro during the 18th century. It catapulted Port onto the world’s stage by accomplishing two critical goals: It reduced the risk of the wine’s spoilage, but more importantly, it preserved the sugar, a rare commodity at the time that people cherished. This was a time before sugar was widespread. The sugar beet and cane sugar industries were still in their infancy. Hence, sweet wines were prized and at the top of the prestige ladder.

The Challenge

The hurdle for Port winemakers, according to Ms. Bridge, is to extract the color and flavor of the grapes in just three days before fortification without extracting the bitter tannins from the seeds. (Winemakers producing red table wine have weeks, not days, to extract the flavors of the grapes gently). The solution for the Douro was the human foot. Foot treading gently crushes the grapes, releasing the clear juice to mix with the pigments and flavors in the skins without damaging the seeds. It was a particularly practical solution since labor was abundant and electricity absent in the region until the mid 1970s.

While other Port houses still use foot treading for some of their high-end Ports, Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, believes that Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft are the only Port houses that continue to use this time-honored traditional method for all their highest level, that is, Vintage Ports.

Not Only Port

The Portuguese are not the only advocates for foot stomping.

In Burgundy, the fragility of the Pinot Noir grapes requires delicate winemaking techniques. Pigeage, or punching down the cap, is often performed, partially at least, by foot because it’s a more gentle way to mix the juices and skins and extract the grapes’ flavors and color. It’s dangerous because of the greater depth of the Burgundy vat compared to a Port lagar and because of the escaping, potentially suffocating, carbon dioxide gas produced by fermentation. At Maison Louis Latour, a top négociant, the worker is attached by a harness and cable before he is lowered into the vat.

“The legs are very sensitive at detecting temperatures so if you feel a cool spot, you know there’s less fermentation occurring and you need to mix that area more,” relates Alex Gambal, an American who has established a high quality small négociant firm in Beaune.

Port Toes

Most Port, even at the best houses, however, is made by “pumping over,” circulating the liquid and crushed skins to facilitate extraction. Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft have replaced pumping over with proprietary machines known as “Port Toes,” computer controlled paddles on pistons in specially designed stainless steel tanks, which were developed by Guimaraens in the mid-1990s to reproduce the action of the human foot.

The advantage of Port Toes compared to pumping over is a gentler extraction that releases more supple, less bitter tannins, according to Guimaraens. Needless to say, over the years Guimaraens has analyzed Port made with Port Toes and conducted blind tastings to compare them to those made by foot treading. According to Guimaraens, Port made with Port Toes is an excellent wine, although ever so slightly different from that made by foot treading. He believes, similar to the stylistic change of modern Bordeaux, that the wines made using robotic feet are slightly fruitier with more supple tannins.

In a future column, I’ll talk about the different types of Port – Ruby, Tawny and Vintage – and when and how to enjoy them.

Comments or questions? Email me at Michael.apstein1@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein.