Among Port producers, old traditions die hard. While most of the wine world has moved on to more efficient high-tech methods, in parts of Portugal's Douro Valley, things look just as they did centuries ago. Come harvest time, grape pickers pile the grapes into a big stone tank, called a lagar, and then hop in themselves, crushing the grapes with their bare feet.
Many producers and connoisseurs believe that this method still produces the best vintage Ports, but the practice is getting hard to keep up because few pickers want to spend eight to 10 hours a day treading in a lagar, which is akin to running a marathon through deep sand.
Now, the winemaking team at W & J Graham has developed a substitute method, called the automated lagar. "The reality is that labor is getting scarcer. We have to find ways to increase automation without sacrificing quality," said Rupert Symington, a director of Graham, whose family owns such illustrious houses as Graham, Dow and Warre. He said that about 40 percent to 50 percent of Graham's best Port is made in traditional lagares. (In contrast, only about 8 percent to 10 percent of the wine from the Douro is still produced this way.)
Human feet crush grapes thoroughly but gently, extracting the maximum color, aroma and flavor without breaking the bitter-tasting seeds. The automated lagar replicates the foot-treading process as closely as possible: Four temperature-controlled pads are suspended above a stainless-steel tank and move slowly along its length. Pistons push the pads sequentially down into the grape must until they reach the floor. After two to three days of fermentation, the juice is siphoned off into casks and the lagar is tipped so that the cap (the floating mass of crushed grapes) is fed into the press. Commented Symington, "It makes up in quality for what it loses in charm."
Automated lagares are not a new idea for the region. Other shippers over the last 20 years have tried various methods, but the results have not been very good. The Port house of Cockburn even tried using mechanized artificial legs to replicate the work of its pickers.
Graham claims its new method has numerous advantages over the previous forms of mechanization as well as the traditional lagares. Compared to many other automated methods, the system provides a large surface area for contact between the juice and the cap. The stainless steel tanks are more hygienic and easier to clean than the old stone tanks. The fermentation temperature can be controlled easily, preventing spoilage in hot weather. And the tanks can be unloaded quickly and conveniently, rather than having to rake out the cap.
The method was first used with the 1998 vintage. "We made identical lots of grapes in the traditional and automatic methods and in the automatic lagares," said Symington. "We were so pleased by the results that we are going into production with this system." Graham will install several automated lagares in its new Quinta dos Malvedos winery, which is expected to open in time for the 2000 harvest. In the meantime, the company will continue to experiment with the system under different conditions.
The first wines made in the automated lagares will be bottled starting in 2000, though consumers aren't likely to see them labeled as such on the shelves. Graham intends to maintain all three styles of winemaking for the time being, at least until one proves itself to be unquestionably the best, said Symington. "We remain very loyal to the lagar method," he commented. "We believe that new technology is very good for making Port, but there is something about the lagar that we respect, especially for single-quinta Port."