The wine harvest is the high moment of viticulture and there are even people who pay to cut grapes. But for those who work by need, the party is only in the first and last days. This is a report/story of a day spent in one wine harvest in Douro, which this year was destroyed (more than 20%) by the mildew and hail.
One more day, the same routine, always with their backs bent, sometimes squatting or even on their knees to reach the most hidden bunch. The harvest starts at seven in the morning, but after ten the heat starts to difficult the job. However, the day only ends at 4 pm.
First hours. Each one with their group and their row of vines. This is the most productive moment of the day. The conversations are about soap operas, the last football game and the crisis, anything to break the monotony. The boxes begin to fill with grapes, one after the other.
Midmorning. At 11 am, the youngest start looking at their watch. Lunch is only at 12 am, still one hour to go. Now, there is just one break per day to eat something that we bring from home with friends and family. One hour to rest our backs and legs.
We are about ten people, but no one sings. What we hear is just complaints of a sad and poor life, without money for anything. The school is starting and the money they raise isn’t enough for children´s books and to survive.
This year was tough in Douro because of mildew and hail. There are people who lost everything. The break in the whole region, if there are not many grapes from the neighboring regions and wine coming from Spain, should be higher than 30% percent. The quality is still unknown. In one of the hottest seasons ever, the grapes have reached the point of ripeness with surprisingly low levels of alcohol. But that is a subject to be talked in the cellar.
Any shadow is enough to have a snack. There are Portuguese and Romanian workers, people who were sent by the contractor and other people from the nearest village. At the peak of the harvest, it is a daily struggle for everyone, whether young or older, native or foreign from Ukraine, Romania, Moldavia, Bulgaria or elsewhere. The Douro and the whole Portuguese countryside is today a place of multiple languages and religions.
This time there are only adults. In another day, it was different: "Do you already have Portuguese nationality?", I asked the young Romanian woman who had been harvesting with tiredness, not very enthusiastic about the idea of cutting grapes, with her Romanian boyfriend, always beside her watching the other men. She, timid and ashamed, answered in perfect Portuguese: "Not yet. I can only apply for it at the age of fourteen". Until that moment, she was a worker like any other. After all, she was a 13 years old child, with a woman's body, but a child, half-Portuguese from the years she takes in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, studying and working in the countryside like her parents. "Shouldn't you be in school?" "Not worth it. In a few days we will go to Romania to work in the vineyards too. We miss it".
Child labor, a crime which the inspectors of the Authority for Working Conditions are investigating. They all pay: the agricultural contractor who hired the teenager and the winemaker who hired the contractor. The teenager, like any woman, receives 28 euros a day from the contractor (men receive 30 euros) and the vineyard pays the contractor 38 euros for each worker (whether male or female) plus taxes. The contractor offers the transport and pays the insurance and contributions of the workers (except the children, of course!). It's business.
When I was 13 years old, I almost begged to cut grapes or pour buckets. We used to earn a few pennies and then we returned home at sundown. It was hard, and yet, every year we longed to go back to the vineyards and the wineries, while the school did not reopen. But the vineyards aren't for children, nor for old people, much less in the Upper Douro, where temperatures reach over 40 degrees Celsius.
Three in the afternoon. The last hour is always torture. The thermometer should be closer to 50 than 40 degrees. It looks like fire is falling from heaven and rising from the earth, and the wind – when it comes - is also made of fire. Everything burns: the wires that hold the vines, the sticks that hold the wires, the leaves that protect the grapes, the grapes themselves. You can only find some comfort in the filtered shadow of the streakiest vines, still living from the rain that fell during the spring and the first weeks of summer. The fresh water refreshed the mouth for a moment, but soon the sweat became salty ardor in the eyes.
The vineyards are not in the desert, but in Foz Côa, in the Upper Douro, there are vineyards and the place is almost desert: it rains as much as in the Sahara, the landscape is arid and in the summer months there is always a steaming slush in the air.
You can see by their faces and their walking that they have reached the limit: the retired septuagenarian of France who agreed to give a few days "at the request of his nephew" and the constructor; the girl who cuts grapes with cigarettes in her hand; her mother; the sad widow who barely speaks; the sexagenarian, newly separated, limping; the man in charge, proud of the production; the Romanians who always walk together, whispering in Romanian and asking in Portuguese: "And now, chief?".
And now we're leaving, half an hour earlier. No one speaks, but the silence is the sign of thanksgiving and relief. The ordeal is over, but the men still have a truck to carry with boxes of grapes for a few extra euros. For many, the next day, the hottest of the year, is going to be worse. Who said harvesting is a party?