As I turned the corner on one of my usual running circuits, I hit the sandy track that takes me through a typical patch of vines in Colares. Normally, a monster padlock secured the gates that hang halfheartedly from the metal fence, with not a stir from within. 

But not this Saturday morning, in the last third of September.

Instead, a truck was pulled inside, lined with plastic tubs, and a forklift held another vat in its claws—full of the famous Malvasia de Colares grapes. I yelped—louder than I meant to, clearly—but the pickers worked far down the rows and didn’t hear me. For the first time since moving here, I’d caught the local harvest in motion.

The words in Portuguese that come with harvest time slip between vindima (vintage), and recolta (collection), and gather up the various tail ends like bunches of grapes—if the harvest is good, we call it by its name, colheita (harvest), and if it’s really good, in Porto, we declare a Vintage, with a capital V. (In English.)

The 2018 harvest arrived just outside the normal frame, slowed in places by cool weather, and rendered uneven—at times burned out—by a massive heat wave that struck most of Portugal in August. As we’ve talked with growers and winemakers around the Lisbon area, we’ve seen the results in our hands: mismatched bunches on some vines, perfectly ripened berries on others. That’s the nature of Natureza.

We wanted to see beyond VR Lisboa, however, so we packed up the pups and the tent around the first of October and headed north. Our first stop: Carregal do Sal, the heart of the Dão viticultural region. We drove through areas where fires had blasted over hillsides and into valleys a year ago—but, as they had during the wildfires in Napa and Sonoma last year, the vines by and large stayed below the line of attack. A vineyard makes a natural firebreak—vines don’t burn easily, and they’re low to the ground, out of the firestorm winds that rage aloft.

We camped on the Rio Dão itself the first night, enjoying a nearby praia fluvial (river beach) stripped of its summer crowds, save for a lone local fisherman and his son. We savored bread and cheese and presunto as the sun slid below the outlines of the trees like scarred soldiers still standing on the ridge. No campfire for us, as if we needed their reminder.

The next morning we followed tractors bearing buckets full of tinto and even the odd branco grapes (most whites having come in already). They coursed along every road snaking up the serras to the town of Viseu. We took in our brunch there, admiring the broad panorama of azulejos depicting folkloric scenes on the main praça, and then made our way north towards the Douro.

Crossing the river at Peso da Régua, we took in the grandeur for a few vistas, but did not stay; our focus in Portugal has remained firmly outside of the (deservedly) famous Douro. We had our sights set on the Rio Minho instead, which creates the country’s northern border with Spain, and holds a unique beauty.

We camped near Barcelos on our second night—being the home of the famed Galo (Rooster) de Barcelos—and witnessed more grapes coming in from forested fields and along little creeks running out to the ocean. Our visit to Quinta de Paços we’ll cover fully next week, but we saw the results of their harvest first hand on their estate—and in their tanks—in Rio Covo Santa Eulália.

For the weekend, we surrendered to our aging bones and secured the Casa de Carolinas near Paredes de Coura. From that perch in the little village of Covelo, we could strike forth to Monção and Melgaço, a specially designated part of the vast Vinho Verde DOC that has taken up residence in our hearts. We crossed the Minho river into Spain to collect some cheap gas—and take pictures of Portugal—and returned to focus on the Alvarinho we find just as enticing in this corner of the Minho viticultural region as it’s made by their neighbors in Spain’s Rias Baixas. We tried hard to spend more than €20 on a meal for both of us, and only succeeded once.

All over Minho, the wild vines traditionally trained into pergolas stand in contrast to the modern, goblet-style pruning—the old and the new together. I felt as though I stepped back in time more than once in these mountainous borderlands…it’s so easy up there to imagine yourself in the 13th century looking out over the hills. The rustic red vinhão grapes grown there create a wine served by the ceramic jug that could have easily been poured centuries ago, alongside the roast leitão and potatoes.

Warm, filling food, as the nights get colder…like the migas I’ve created from our own larder, to serve alongside roast pork or beef, or to enjoy on their own. I was also reminded of them by the vegetarian alheira at Abrigo do Taboao at the praia fluvial in Paredes de Coura—what fine things can be made from day-old bread! The perfect way to use up all those delicious bits you have left over, to make something so hearty and satisfying, in the Portuguese fashion.

As Minhas Migas (My Crumbs)

3 large slices of whole grain bread, torn into 1-inch pieces

olive oil or butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup diced pancetta or other bacony bits

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup chopped Italian (Portuguese) parsley

enough milk or stock to moisten the bread

thin chouriço slices, about a dozen

ground black pepper to taste

  1. Sweat the onion in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or butter (or a combination) in a sauté pan over medium heat for 4-5 minutes. Add the pancetta, and allow it all to brown a bit around the edges.
  2. Add the torn bread pieces and toast them. Take the mixture from the heat.
  3. Stir the lemon juice and zest into the mixture.
  4. Then, toss in the parsley. Add ground black pepper and salt to taste (not much salt, if any; the chouriço adds more).
  5. Add a bit of milk if needed to ensure the mixture is moist enough to stand up to 30 minutes in the oven.
  6. Place into a loaf pan and arrange the chouriço slices on top.
  7. Bake at 180C/375F for 30 minutes or until crisp on top.