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Friday, 9 December 2011

Vinos Ambiz Annual Tasting


CSO Casablanca (c/Santa Isabel, 21) (Metro Antón Martín)
Madrid (Spain)

Saturday 10 December 2011, at 19:00 (-ish)

We'll be presenting at least the following wines:

- Airén 2011 (young white), from Carabaña (Madrid)

- Garnacha 2010 (lightly oaked), from San Martín de Valdeiglesias (Madrid)

- And at least two other 'interesting' wines that we we'll bottle up at the last minute!
We'll probably follow the same procedure as last year (and the years before), ie as we taste, and assuming we can get people to shut up and listen for more than 3 minutes, we'll give short speeches on how we grow our grapes and make our wines (eg, organic viticulture, non-use of pesticides and noxious chemicals, no adulteration of the must/wine in the bodega, sustainability, recycling of bottles etc); and we'll be answering any questions that anyone wants to ask.

You just need to turn up; we will provide the wine and the glasses. Entry is free. You can come with whatever attitude you like and you can bring your own cultural baggage in with you - you don't have to leave it at the door! Skeptics and sychophants equally welcome!

Un abrazo, and sláinte

Fabio and Juan

P.S. We're trying to collect photos of previous years' tastings to make a thematic album:

2010: Tabacalera
2009: La Dragona (Ecologistas)
2008: El Patio Maravillas (c/Acuerdo)
2007: CSO Seco
2006: Off-Limits
2005: CSO Seco (antiguo)

If you were at any of these tastings and have photos, please send us a copy!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Pottering Around the Vineyard and Bodega


Last Wednesday 9th November I went out to check on the vineyard at Villarejo. This is our 'new' vineyard that we took on last year and which we harvested for the first time a few weeks ago (see this post). White Malvar variety, old vines, about 40-60 years old I think.

View (1) of Villarejo Vineyard
There wasn't much for me to actually do, so I just wandered around looking at the vines, and soil and plant cover.

View (2) of Villarejo Vineyard

The leaves haven't fallen off yet, which means that the vines haven't entered their dormant phase over the winter, and that the sap is still flowing.

View (3) of Villarejo Vineyard

I noticed that most of my neighbours have already pruned their vines:

Neighbour's Vineyard pruned Already

I think it's a really bad idea to prune vines before the leaves fall off, because you're removing sap and nutrients before the vine has had time to store them down in the roots and trunk. The vine needs to use these nutrients to produce its first leaves in spring, before the leaves are mature enough to do photosynthesis and produce energy for growth.

Neighbour's canes piled up at edge of his vineyard
Maybe it's not that critical, because a vine won't actually die if you prune it too early! But on the other hand, it won't be as healthy and vigorous as it could be if you gave it the benefit of using all available sap and nutrients; and maybe in the long run, if you prune too early every year, you could shorten its lifespan, as the losses are cumulative.

I think it's also a bad idea to remove the canes from the vineyard. In my opinion, it's better to chop them up as small as possible and scatter them among the vines. This is good organic matter that will help improve the structure of the soil.

More neigbour's canes - ready for removal
I can't think of any possible advantage to pruning so early, as far as vine and grape quality, and health and vigour are concerned. The only possible 'advantage' could be one of convenience, ie the grapegrower has other crops and other tasks to do, and wants get the pruning out of the way as soon as possible!

I was shocked and horrified, and angry and fustrated (all at once!) to see that our immediate neighbour had uprroted his vineyard and burnt the trunks. He must have done it the day before because the pile of ash was still smouldering.

Neighbour's ash smouldering

If only I had known before, I could have spoken to him and maybe reached an agreement to rent the vineyard from him. Personal reasons apart, I think it's a tragedy on a cultural, agricultural and social level to uproot/destroy old vines. They're part of everyone's heritage and history and culture.

Another neighbour, on the other side of the uprooted one, didn't bother to harvest his grapes this year!

Neighbour's unharvested grapes
I tasted a few, and surprisingly, they were still hale and healthy, and very sweet. While wandering around my own vines I came across a crate that we must have forgotten there during the harvesting, so I made use of it, and stole a few bunches of grapes from the neighbour! I'll confess if I ever meet him! In fact, I should really make an effort to find him, and speak to him about renting his vineyards, before he decides to uproot it too!


Then I went to the bodega in Morata de Tajuña, to wash some bottles. We ask all our local customers to return our wine bottles to us. We then de-label them, wash and sterilze them, and reuse them.

I was supposed to do this task last weekend, but I had a cold and was feeling awful, and stayed in bed for 2 days instead!

In the end, I didn't do any bottle-washing as such - just soaking and de-labeling, in preparation for the actual washing tomorrow or the next day.

Bottle-soaking station
The stainless steel tank was full of water with an oak barrel immersed in it! It's an old barrel that we're rehydrating so we can use it in the future. Anyway, I used the water to fill the buckets for soaking the bottles, thereby 'saving' a few hundred litres of water.

Close-up of wine bottles getting their labels soaked off

The great majority of the labels come off relatively easily after only about one hour of soaking. A few though are just impossible, no matter how long you leave them soaking. Some labels are 'plastified' and so can't absorb any water, and some use super-strong adhesive.

Well, there are now about 500 de-labelled bottles ready for 'processing'. I hope to see you all at the bodega this Saturday and/or Sunday. Lunch and wine included! :)

Lastly, if you're following me on FaceBook and Twitter, you'll know that our clay amphora (in which we're making 200 litres of an experimental 'orange' wine) was leaking. Well, I think it's reached an equilibrium state, because it's not leaking worse, ie the damp marks on the walls of the amphora are just the same as last week; just damp, no actual liquid coming through.

More lastly, I tasted our Airén 2011 from Carabaña, and was very pleasantly surprised. I took a glass from the bottom of the tank, and it was crystal clear! Not cloudy at all. There was a whiff of an 'off' 'closed' smell (sorry, I don't know the technical term for it!) but it was volatile and disappeared almost immediately. I think this will disappear with a bit of airing at bottling, or a racking if necessary. The aromas and tastes were very intense, more than last year.

And finally lastly, some winery activities that you're all welcome to come along to:

Apart from bottle-washing:

- Bottling the Airén 2011

- Bottling the coupage (60% Tempranillo, 20% Graciano, 20% Sirah)

- Making orujo (grappa, marc, pomace brandy)

If anyone's interested, contact me either on my mobile (697-050-010) or by email for the details, ie date, time, where to meet, etc.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

This Natural Wine Thing

I’ve been thinking about this whole “natural wine thing” for a good few years now and have been following posts and articles and commenting on people’s wine blogs, and I’ve even written a few posts myself. A lot of ideas and concepts have been percolating around in my subconscious during all this time and every so often I’ve received direct conscious stimulus, via reading, via my own commenting and via real-life conversations. And recently the whole big formless thought-mass in my brain seems to have coalesced a bit and so I wrote this post. I hope it’s the last one I write for a long time, because I’m a wine producer, not a wine writer! But anyway, I had to get it all out!

Basically, my big preoccupation has been, and still is: “Why is this natural wine thing making such big waves?”, “Why are so many wine people getting involved in the debate?”, “Why is there any debate in the first place?”, “Why are people taking such extreme radical positions at both ends of the spectrum? And in all the spaces in between too?”

The World of Wine is Different?

This acrimonious debate (between natural wine proponents and natural wine detractors) doesn’t happen in the world of beer. There’s been a “Real Ale” movement around for years and years, and ALL beer drinkers seem to be very happy living together and drinking their beers together. There are no real ale enthusiasts who go around saying that conventional beer is adulterated industrial rubbish; neither are there any conventional beer-drinkers/writers who say that real ale is ‘faulty’ and/or a marketing ploy, while grudgingly admitting that there a few good real ales out there.

It doesn’t happen in the world of food either. There’s a market for say, hand-fed, free-range turkeys, and another one for factory-farmed supermarket turkeys. Same applies to cheeses, hams, eggs, pâtés… you name it! And all these consumers and writers seem to be quite happy to get on with it without attacking the other side.

So, what is it with wine that makes both sides so aggressive and hostile to each other? I have no definitive answer here, just some ideas that I’d like to share, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this whole issue. Here are some of my ideas about why the world of wine is different:

1. The fact that wine is an alcoholic beverage sets it apart, I think, from any other food item. The fact that alcohol alters your state of consciousness must in the end make you more enthusiastic or passionate about the product! Wine (alcohol) can make you feel … well, any emotion you can define, depending on your predisposition and circumstances and events at the moment of drinking: on the positive side, happy, mellow, optimistic, irrationally exuberant, passionate, etc … and on the negative side, sad, depressed, violent, ill, etc. The important point being that it makes you feel ‘different’ from your normal state. This is something that a food item, no matter how exotic or well-cooked can never ever make you feel. (Well, maybe chocolate! But chocolate-lovers also just eat and enjoy their favourite quality chocolate – they don’t have debates about industrial chocolate).

2. But what about beer then? Why is there not such a wide range of passions inspired by beer, which is also an alcoholic beverage? Beats me! Thoughts, anyone?

3. Wine also has certain ‘romantic’ sub-conscious cultural connotations attached to it, in the sense that many people dream about owning a vineyard (like they do about winning the lottery), but no-one dreams about owning a turkey-farm, or even a brewery! There seems to exist in all human beings’ minds this Jungian isotope of a bucolic winemaker, in his dusty cobwebbed cellar, lovingly and carefully hand-crafting his wine! This also must contribute to inflaming passions about natural wine, even though this bucolic picture is as far removed from reality as it’s possible to go.

But the above factors are not enough really, to actually cause all the acrimonious debate we’ve been seeing lately. Enabling and contributing factors, maybe yes, but there’s something missing. Well, a chance conversation a few weeks ago, made another piece of the puzzle fall into place for me. I was talking to a person involved in both the wine AND the beer world, and this is what he said. The beer world is dominated by a very small number of very large multi-national companies who between them have over 90% of the world market and the rest is made up by tiny local artisan type outfits that have little to no impact or influence on anything. In addition, the world beer market is a lot bigger than the world wine market. In contrast to this, the wine world is atomized. There are a few big global wine players but there’s no comparison with the big beer boys. Then there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of large-sized wineries, middle-sized wineries and even more small-sized wineries, and countless numbers of tiny, unclassified, unregistered micro-wineries. And all these players have a voice, and influence and are actually listened to.

(Just let me say, before developing this idea further, that I haven’t actually done any research or due diligence to confirm the numbers and the structure of the beer and wine worlds. It just seems intuitively right, from (my) common knowledge, and I haven’t got the time to do it. Can anyone confirm or refute this scenario?)

So, to continue, the only conclusion I could come to (utterly incredible as it seems) was that certain conventional wine-makers are running scared! They must be seeing a real threat in the whole natural/organic/biodynamic wine movement. I realize that this is an incredible thing to say, and I’ve been shocked myself for weeks, but I can’t come up with any other explanation. This doesn’t happen in the beer world because the handful of multinationals are so big and so totally dominate the market that they have nothing to worry about.

Conventional wineries running scared?

Some reasons why I think some conventional wineries are running scared:

1. A lot of ‘conventional’ wineries (large, middle and small) are going bankrupt; they can’t sell their wine, and they can’t even under-sell it. Because their wine is boring, globalized, and indistinguishable from any other of the tens of thousands of similar brands from all over the world. No way can they compete with a natural/organic/biodynamic wine in the same price bracket! Or I am wrong?

2. The Environmental and Health Issue. Consumers are becoming ever more aware of the issue of additives in food products and the use of chemicals in agriculture, and are slowly but surely shifting their purchasing decisions in the ‘green’ direction. Some conventional wineries – the ones with savvy and resources – have been moving in that direction for years. But others just can’t, or don’t want to do it, for whatever reason. They’re between a rock and a hard place.

3. The Labelling Issue. Related to the above, consumers are starting to question why wine is exempted from the requirement to list all the ingredients on the packaging of a food product. Natural/organic/biodynamic winemakers tend to be quite open and vociferous about this issue, and that’s another point in their favour vis-à-vis the consumer.

4. The Quality Issue. I’m not talking about mere compliance with legal, health & safety, and technical requirements, and then printing a ‘quality seal’ on the label. I’m talking about the real intrinsic quality of the grapes and of the purity of the finished product. Conventional (industrial-chemical) wine may well taste nice and comply with all the current tasting criteria, but that’s not enough. More and more consumers know that its full of unnecessary chemicals and substances, that may even have health implications even though they are legal and deemed ‘safe’. There’s no comparison between the clean, pure, pristine aromas and tastes of a well-made natural wine, and those of a ‘well-made’ industrial one.

A Twitter conversation some time ago, about ‘quality’ wine, made me realize that there’s actually a lot more natural wine and natural wine-makers out there than people realize – and they’ve been around for a long, long time! The thing is, they don’t promote themselves as such. I’m referring to top-of-the-range quality wine producers (‘conventional’ ones), who have been quietly practicing organic/sustainable/biodynamic agriculture in their vineyards, but without publicizing the fact; and who have been respecting the must/wine in the winery and haven’t been over-manipulating or intervening excessively; who in fact have been producing natural wines without telling anyone about it! And some of them have been doing it for a long, long time – long before the ‘green’ movement started back in the 1970’s. I think that this fact is very interesting and significant. And they’re not the ones that are going bankrupt!

Basically, conventional industrial-chemical wineries have got a lot to be worried about. In the middle of a world recession, the only sector that seems to be actually growing is the organic/ natural/ biodynamic/ green sector, including wine, so they are seen as direct competition. Hence the aggressive reaction to the natural wine phenomenon. They’re defending their turf – by attacking!

Typical Criticisms of Natural Wine

I’ve noticed over the years that the ‘criticisms’ of natural wine come in several different flavours:

1. The “Semantic” Attack

Many posts start off (or even focus exclusively) on how natural wines are not in fact natural at all, based on the dictionary definition of the word ‘natural’; ie the authors seem to imply that a wine would only be natural if the must spontaneously dripped out of the grapes, fell onto a leaf or into a hole, and fermented there all by itself. Then a human would come by, gather it up and say “Hey, natural wine, anyone?”

Well, I think that everybody (proponents and detractors alike) already know that it’s not natural to plant vines in rows, to prune them specifically to promote fruit production as opposed to foliage, and to use machines and constructs to make wine. Anything that humans do, using even the most basic tools is not natural by that definition.

The question I ask myself is why this focus on semantics when it’s so obvious that ‘natural’ is just a word, adopted spontaneously by a critical mass of people, and given another meaning. Here’s my theory:

The unspoken, unwritten connotations of calling certain wines ‘natural’ implies that other wines are ‘un-natural’ - and that’s not nice at all for the producers and sellers of those ‘other’ wines! (same applies with words like ‘authentic’, ‘real’, ‘sustainable’, etc). I used to be kind of understanding and a bit embarrassed about this issue, and actually took the side of the conventional wine-makers, but I have to say that I’ve come round, and now I think that it’s perfectly fine to call certain wines ‘natural’, because basically it’s TRUE.

The unnecessary additives and excessive processing totally de-naturalize those other wines. The number and range of these additives and aggressive processes that can be applied to wine-making is truly mind-boggling; the final product is so far removed from the grapes and the land that the figure of ‘wine-maker’ is no longer even relevant – we’re now talking about process engineers and chemists - chemical soup-makers adding ingredients and cooking up soup-wines to order, in accordance with commercial and industrial criteria of convenience.

So why the semantic attack? I think that the reason that critics focus so much on semantics is that deep down they also know that it’s true. And it hurts. It’s perfectly obvious, by any definition, that the wines they’re making or promoting are totally un-natural. They’re attacking because attack is the best form of defence, even if it’s a totally irrelevant and trivial attack.

Basically, this semantic criticism is just a distraction from the real, more interesting issues related to natural wine. Those semantic related posts should really be posted on a linguistics page, where etymologists and wordsmiths can discuss the different meanings of the word ‘natural’ in the English language.

2. The “Marketing Ploy” Attack

Many posts critical of natural wine say that this natural wine thing is just a passing fad, a marketing ploy, just the latest cool thing to talk about, write about and drink. Well, on the one hand, I think that this is true, because there really is an extraordinary amount of debate going on, and there are things happening in the real world too (like new natural wine bars opening up, restaurants including natural wines in their wine lists, etc). Well, yes! That’s how we humans operate! Things go in and out of fashion, and now it’s natural wine’s turn to be in the limelight for a while, until the next big thing comes along. But on the other hand, I think there’s more to it than that. Much more. I think that this ‘fad’ is part of a much wider, further-reaching and longer-term phenomenon: I’m talking about the slowly and gradually increasing awareness by the general public of the environmental and health issues related to industrial and chemical food production (including wine), which started back in the 60’s or 70’s, if not before. Natural wine is just another facet of the same ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ movement. The zeitgeist has been getting greener for decades and is getting greener and greener as time goes by.

Food scandals and health and environmental tragedies happen regularly every year or so. (I won’t bore you with a list, but just quickly remember, for example: Mad Cow Disease, Swine Fever, poisoned Perrier water, dioxin chickens, wine with methanol, the Hungarian toxic sludge disaster, etc, not to mention certain chemicals suddenly being banned which were previously deemed to be ‘safe’). Just type “food scandal” at Google and see for yourself.

I think the industrial-chemical wine producers and promoters know that slowly the tide is turning, that the zeitgeist is greening, and that their numbers are up! In fact, for many of them, touched by the recession, it’s endkampf already – they’re going bankrupt and they can’t sell their wine. Real data from reliable official sources back me up here – see the exponentially increasing graphs of organic land under cultivation and of new companies producing and/or selling organic products (United Nations FAO, EU Agriculture Directorate, Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, for example).

Basically, this criticism is also just a distraction, with no real content related to natural wine worth discussing here. Such criticisms should really be posted in a marketing or sociology page.

3. The “Mystic, Star-Gazing, Tree-Hugging Winemaker” Attack

Posts critical of natural wines sometimes contain personal references to individual natural winemakers who either said or did something weird, or who in fact really are a bit eccentric. These references are intended to de-legitimize the winemaker by implying that he or she is not a true professional and is more concerned with ‘weird’ stuff like astrology, tree-hugging, cow horns, etc than with the serious business of making wine. Any serious wine critic would just taste the wine in question and professionally criticize it. Again, I’d say this is just another example of distraction, mud-slinging, and finger-pointing.

4. The “Unscrupulous Winemaker” Attack

Another criticism is the insinuation that unscrupulous natural winemakers are selling faulty wine to an unsuspecting public. As far as ‘unscrupulous’ is concerned, firstly I don’t think that natural wine-makers are a species apart and not susceptible to normal human failings. Common sense would suggest that there obviously must be some natural winemakers who are in fact unscrupulous. But it would be a pointless task, in my opinion, to try and find out the exact percentage! And secondly, I’d say “Look who’s talking!” Just think of the number and magnitude and frequency of conventional wine scandals, perpetrated by unscrupulous conventional wine people! Again I won’t bore you with a list, but just quickly remember only last year when unscrupulous French wine producers sold 18 million bottles of fake Pinot Noir to the USA!!! It’s really quite extraordinary for conventional wine people to accuse natural wine people of being unscrupulous! I suppose they must be thinking (again!) along the lines of “Attack is the best form of defence” or pointing the finger at someone else distracts attention from your own misdeeds. Again, just type “wine scandal” at Google and see for yourself.

Basically, this criticism is yet another distraction.

5. The “Lump All Natural Wines Together” Attack

Many posts criticizing natural wines lump them all together and make sweeping statements like “Natural wines are “X” (insert adjective). This is illogical to say the least, as natural wines come in all possible ranges of styles, depending on the region, climate, grape variety, winemaker, etc. There are just as many, if not more styles and variations of natural wines as there are of conventional ones. It’s just as ridiculous to say something like “Conventional wines are “X” (insert adjective). Enough said!

6. The “Faulty Wine” Attack

I’ve been saving this one for the last!

Many posts critical of natural wines state openly that natural wines are somehow faulty or have serious defects, and that they sometimes have minor ones, like cloudiness or ‘funkiness’. (The authors can never resist an attempt at humour and/or creative writing here, when talking about funkiness!). Firstly, I’d like to deal with a minor point, and then move on to the important, interesting and relevant topic of ‘wine faults’:

The Numbers Game. Critics seem to imply that all or most (or just many) natural wines are inherently faulty, but common sense suggests that this simply can’t be the case. Natural wines have been around a long time, so if they really were all faulty then the consumers would have stopped buying them and the winemakers would have stopped making them! What are the real numbers? People who have been to natural wine fairs and tasted a lot of different natural wines would be in an excellent position to opine! Unfortunately, I myself haven’t tasted widely enough, but for what it’s worth, of the limited number of natural wines that I have tasted, I considered none to be faulty.

Now for the “fault” issue. This is where I think an interesting, sensible and engaging debate could be had between natural wine proponents and sceptics. Because this is what it’s really all about! It’s about judging a wine on its own merits. It’s about tasting. The proof is in the bottle, after all, so let’s have no more nonsense about semantics, marketing ploys, mysticism or any other peripheral distraction. The fault issue is in fact, in my opinion, the ONLY area where a legitimate, sensible, useful and interesting criticism of natural wines can be made.

So where do I stand on this issue? Firstly, I believe that many critics and tasters often find “faults” where none exist. How can I say such a thing? Because I suspect that many wine tasters and critics have become too accustomed to the standard, international, globalized, Parkerized style of wine that is considered to be ‘good’ lately, and their range of tolerance, or acceptability, is very narrow and restricted for all the measureable characteristics of a wine considered relevant nowadays. If any characteristic (acidity, fruitiness, sweetness, body, alcohol, volatile acidity, etc) falls outwith their restricted band of acceptability, they’re too quick to call the wine faulty. They can’t see the wood for the trees, or they don’t realize just how restricted and conditioned they’ve become by globally imposed homogenized commercial marketing based tasting criteria.

Secondly, before globalization and planetary-scale exporting, there was a massive range of local wine styles, each of which had its own merits and de-merits. But now all wines, no matter where they come from, or what grape variety they are made from, have to be judged to one global, international standard (ie, Parker’s personal liking for big, alcoholic, oaky fruit-bombs). Why? That’s just one style of wine among many. But why should any wine whose traditional style was anything other than big, alcoholic, oaky and fruit-driven even be compared to such a wine, let alone judged by those criteria?

Thirdly, I believe that the universal presence of sulphites (up to the legal limits) has also blurred critics’ and tasters’ ability to perceive the true tastes and aromas of wine. When these levels of sulphites are lacking (industrial-chemical wines can contain up to 10 times more sulphites than a natural wine), many previously masked tastes and aromas show through that a conventional critic cannot identify or recognize and immediately calls a fault. I think there’s immense scope for a mutually interesting and useful debate on this point, which I haven’t seen happening so far. For example, why are certain aromas and tastes considered ‘good’ or ‘positive’ today and others considered ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ and classified as ‘faults’. The most extreme example that springs to mind is the bubbles in champagne being considered a ‘fault’ back in the 18th century.

Fourthly, in the case of oxidized (or oxidative, if you like) natural wines, conventional critics simply don’t understand that far from being faulty, these wines were in fact made that way on purpose! They are a genre of wine in their own right. Consumers actually like them, buy them, drink them and enjoy them! Like blue, mouldy cheese, for example. A conventional cheese-lover would recoil in shock and horror on being presented with such a cheese for the first time, and would immediately assume that it was 'faulty'. After all, the look, smell and taste of mould is nothing like those of your standard, globalized white cheese, is it?

Fifthly, another thing that conventional critics don’t seem to realize is that cloudiness is not a fault either, but a deliberate feature! Some natural wine consumers actually like cloudiness (sometimes) and natural winemakers actually desist from filtering and/or clarifying on purpose! Why? Because some winemakers and some wine-lovers believe that when you filter and/or clarify wine you also take out the ‘good stuff’ (ie aromas and flavours) along with the supposed ‘bad stuff’. Cloudiness is really just a ‘commercial fault’ because market studies have shown that the average consumer prefers a transparent clear wine to a cloudy one. But what’s that got to do with good wine or good wine-making? Nada! It’s got everything to do with good marketing.


So, where does all the above leave me? Well, as far as the debate is concerned, I’m willing to engage with any critic who focuses on the merits and demerits of a natural wine, in a professional or amateur capacity; I would love to talk about possible faults and characteristics and perception and ranges of acceptability and beyond; but I’ve no more time for semantics or other distractions, even though they’re interesting topics in their own right.

And what kind of wines will I be making? ‘Natural’ or not natural? Well, I’m not going to get bogged down writing my own definition of natural wine and getting into pointless arguments, both with natural wine sceptics AND proponents. For me, this question is best resolved by full disclosure by the winemakers, of what they add and of what they take out, and of what they do and don’t do to the must/wine in the winery. Then consumers can decide for themselves whether the wine in question meets their personal criteria for being ‘natural’. It’ll be a different story, though, if/when legislation is passed officially defining natural wine! So, that’s what I intend to do: provide all the relevant winemaking information on the label and on my webpage.

I’ll be making wines that are top quality – according to my own definition above (and of course also complying with any legal requirements). I believe that the quality of the grapes is fundamental to the quality of the wine. So I’ll be both growing my own, and also buying in from known and trusted growers. I won’t be adding any chemicals, and I won’t be taking anything out. I won’t be subjecting the must or wine to any unnecessary processing.

I guess that makes my wines pretty natural, but I also won’t be dogmatic. If I have to use sulphites, I will. If I have to choose between intervening in some way or risk losing the wine, then I’ll intervene. This may make the wine in question a bit less ‘natural’ in the eyes of some, but I can live with that. My intention is of course not to intervene, but sometimes “mistakes are made”, as they say, due to inexperience, carelessness, or whatever. But even in these worst case scenarios of unavoidable intervention, my wines will still be of a higher quality than an equivalent industrial-chemical one, and will still easily comply with any current organic legislation.

I’ll be growing grapes in a way that is actively beneficial for the environment, and supporting other growers who work in the same way. I won’t be purchasing chemicals, and polluting the soil and groundwaters, and killing wildlife. On the contrary, I’ll be creating biodiversity and improving the fertility and structure of the soil.

I’ll be making wines that express all the above! I’ll be making wines that taste good, but not at any cost; like I said, I won’t support the chemical industry that is partly responsible for the world’s pollution and health problems. Ultimately, this is a very personal decision, because I could easily produce chemical wines if I wanted to – in fact it would probably be easier and cheaper for me! But I’ve decided. Life is short! I want to do something that is not only immensely gratifying to me personally in the present, but is also socially useful and positive, and contributes to leaving the world in a better state than I found it in, for the benefit of our children and future generations. As opposed to the industrial-chemical approach which basically consists of abusing the environment, and treating it as if it were a free dumping ground for their effluents, to be cleaned up later, by others, in the interests of short-term production at any cost.

This is what I’ve decided. The proof is in the bottle. All the rest is just words.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Some Winery Activities (and Why I Hate Pumps)

Last Sunday 16th October we did a lot of work in the winery, and accomplished three different tasks. We were out there bright and early (at 10:00 in the morning) and we started with the usual procedure, ie washing down and setting up the equipment, machines and bits and pieces; and finished off bright and late (at 12:00 midnight) with the usual procedure, ie washing down the equipment and puting everything back in its place!

Task 1: Pressing the "Orange", "Skin-Contact" or "Sobremadre" Wine

First, we pressed the Malvar grapes, that we crushed 14 days ago, and which had been fermenting in contact with their skins during all this time. This is a special rather interesting wine we’re making, known as "Orange", "Skin-Contact" or "Sobremadre" wine.

Macerated Grapes, before Pressing

Press Full of Crushed and Macerated Grapes

We made a similar wine last year as an experiment (but with Airén and with only 7 days skin contact) but people loved it, so this year we’ve made more. This ‘orange wine thing’ deserves a whole post in its own right, I think, as I’ve recently discovered that far from being a new thing, it’s actually a very old traditional style of wine, and that it was very popular in my region (Castilla La Mancha, Spain) until not so long ago. I’ll have to do some research first, though.

Some winemakers in Spain who have been making this kind of wine include Laureano Serres, Samuel Cano.

Fresh Grape Juice Coming Off the Press

We're really pleased with the way this wine has turned out so far. The aromas are clean and complex; and the taste has some bitter elements and also some fruit. I think this is a wine best left to develop and evolve for some time, at least over the winter. There's still a tiny bit of fermentation to go still, as I got a whiff of CO2 as I opened up the tank.

We did a long, long, slow pressing, in parallel with the other tasks. In total we pressed about 400 litres of wine in 10 hours!

Task 2: Bottling the "5-on-the-dot"

This is a coupage that was created by one of our barrel sponsors, Nacho Bueno. See this previous post about how we went about creating this coupage, or this other one about the barrel-sponsoring scheme itself.

Bottling Device

I’m actually in a bit of a quandary about how to continue with this scheme! This year, a total of 16 sponsors helped me finance 7 new barrels, and more and more people are getting in contact with me to sponsor a barrel for next year. But I don’t really know if I need or want more new oak!!!

I really don’t like the taste of over-oaked wines and much prefer the taste of fruit, minerals, flowers, etc, ... anything really, rather than oak! On the one hand, I like the idea of having consumers participate directly, and I enjoy and appreciate getting their feedback, and sending them updates on anything related to their barrels. But on the other hand, I don’t want to buy new barrels for no apparent reason!!! I think maybe I could use old barrels, for both fermentation and aging. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about this.

This coupage is called "5-on-the-Dot" (Las 5 en Punto, in Spanish) because it contains 5 grape varieties: Tempranillo (80%) and 5% each of Sirah, Garnacha, Petit Verdot and Airén.

The wine was in contact with new American oak for 3 months, and after regular tastings (some with Nacho himself), we decided that that was enough, otherwise the oak would have started to dominate the fruit and other tastes of the wine. We'll have to do more tastings to see when we should release this wine; but I suspect that this is a wine that is best drunk young.

"Bottle rack" (3 x 4 cases of 24 bottles)

288 bottles exactly!

Task 3: Making a Coupage

The third task was to make a coupage: 60% Tempranillo, 20% Graciano and 20% Sirah. The three wines were in barrels already and we pumped them all into a large stainless steel tank. It/they'll stay there for a month or so, to mix thoroughly and then we'll bottle up.

Raquel Helps Us Pump Wine out of the Barrels

We used an electric pump to move the wine. I think I've complained before about pumps, but this operation on Sunday has decided things for me. I'm now going to actively look for a manual, hand-operated pump (like a bilge-pump or something like that). Why?

Firstly, because electric motor pumps make TOO MUCH NOISE. Something tells me that that kind of noise can't be good for the wine. I don't mean that it'll make the wine go off or deteriorate it significantly, but still... the vibrations must get transmitted through the volume of liquid and the wine must be affected in some way or other. For example, maybe instead of having peace and quiet and silence for the molecules to combine to make a longer, rounder, smoother, tastier wine, the vibrations might shatter and/or shake up the molecules and make them shorter and harsher (or prevent them from combining), and delay the aging process.(*)

Secondly, the noise certainly affects MY peace of mind - it makes me annoyed and nervous and unhappy! And that could well affect the quality of the wine! For example, I could decide to do something, or not to do something, while annoyed and/or nervous and/or unhappy that I may not have decided to do while relaxed and happy and thinking straight!

Thirdly, I think electric motor pumps move the wine far too fast and violently, and I don't think that can be good for the wine either. It takes slightly over 3 minutes to empty a barrel containing 225 litres. Just like for the noise, something tells me that that can’t be good for the wine.

Fourthly, the time savings are not as significant as it would seem at first sight, because 1) you have to add in the time it takes to actually set the pump up (ie, getting it into position, attaching the hoses, priming it, running water through, etc); and because 2) you have to add in the time you spend cleaning up afterwards (unhooking all the pieces, cleaning them, putting everything back in its place, etc).

Fifthly: I actually like working in my winery, so I don't need to "save time" there! I think that spending say 30 minutes pumping wine out of a barrel by hand could actually be time well spent: not only is a bit of physical labour good for your health, but more importantly you can use that time to think!


So, what did we do with the pomace (ie, the skins and pips left over after pressing)? Did we throw them back into the vineyard to provide nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and close the cycle, as we usually do? No way!!!! This time we’ve kept all those lovely raw materials back, so that we can make some ‘grappa’, or ‘orujo’ or ‘marc’ or ‘pomace’ brandy. To do this, we’ve pencilled in the weekend of Sat 29th or Sun 30th or Mon 31st (it’s a 4-day weekend in Spain as Tue 1st Nov is a national holiday).

We’ve also kept back the pomace from our Graciano pressing a few weeks ago, so we can make two different types of ‘orujo’. So we have the raw materials, we have a still, we have plenty of volunteers to sit around all day watching the still boil and tend the barbeque, and do quality control, ... all we need now is someone who actually knows how to make ‘orujo’!!!! Because I certainly don’t know how to do it.

Three Bins Full of Pomace

Three years ago I spent a whole day sitting around doing quality control while ‘others’ distilled the ‘orujo’ but I confess that I wasn’t paying much attention to the details. I seem to remember that you have to throw the first third out, because it’s poisonous (methanol); you have to throw last third out too, because it’s watery crap! And the quality product is the middle third. More research and due diligence to be done!

Anyone who wants to come and sit around all day doing quality control and/or tending the barbeque is welcome to come. Morata de Tajuña (Madrid). Date, to be confirmed!

Lastly, a photo of the lovely (unexpected) ‘lunch’ we had at about 6:00 in the evening. Raquel, in the photo above standing on the barrels, was in France (Tours) a few days ago and thoughtfully brought back two different types of goat cheese, and two different types of “rillette”. All washed down with fresh skin-contact Malvar, as it was dripping out of the press!!!

Lovely Lunch

(*) This theory is not based on any ‘scientific’ data whatsoever. I haven’t done any research or due diligence. Just my intuition speaking!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Processing the Malvar Grapes 2011 (Part 2)

Last Sunday (2nd October) we continued processing the white Malvar grapes that we had destemmed and hermetically sealed inside stainless steel tanks two weeks ago (see this post).

Over the last 2 weeks the grapes underwent carbonic maceration, reached a level of about 1 or 2% alcohol, and released a lot of interesting aromas and flavours that wouldn’t have otherwise been released with a conventional fermentation.

We opened up all 3 tanks (700 l, 700 l and 300 l), and this is what we saw:

Destemmed grapes, after 14 days of carbonic maceration

The aromas were beautiful, though the sight wasn’t that pretty! Compare to the day we sealed the tank (here). The white stuff at the bottom left of the photo is not a trick of the light – it looked like (and tasted like) yeast! And a lot of stems had found their way up to the top; we thought that we had eliminated all of them.

Anyway, we now divided the production process into three halves: (yes three! “Innovate or die!”)

1. Crushing, pressing and pouring into a stainless steel tank to finish fermentation

To do this we set up a manual crusher, right on top of the door of a pneumatic press:

Manual Crusher on top of Automatic Press

Juan and Juan setting up the manual crusher

It was a bit precarious, and we had to use some blocks of wood to raise it a little and so it wouldn’t scratch the stainless steel. Also, one person had to hold it steady, while another person worked the crusher.

We also taped some plastic ‘curtains’ around the opening at the bottom of the crusher, so that all the grapes would fall into the press, and not skite out onto the floor.

The press is completely automatic, and we programmed the cycle to be as long and gentle as possible, ie very low pressure so as not to break the pips or stems that were mixed in with the grapes.

Juice coming out the bottom of the press

2.A. Crushing only (no pressing) and pouring into a stainless steel tank for fermentation with skin contact

Next we crushed (only crushed, no pressing) another lot of 700 kg. We moved the manual crusher off the press, onto to top of an empty stainless steel tank:

Production line

In the photo above, two people (Juan and Raquel) are scooping grapes out of the tank in the foreground; passing a bucket to Jacobo (holding a bucket) who pours it into the manual crushed (blue machine in the background, sitting on top of an open tank), while Sonia is working the crusher. The women on the right are stomping grapes with their feet (equivalent to crushing):

Photo of Juan taking a photo of Cristina, Adriana and Jenny’s feet!

Cristina, Adriana and Jenny stomping grapes

We’re going to leave this juice in contact with the skins for at least 1 week, which is what we did last year; but depending on tastings during this week, we may leave it for 2 weeks. Then we’ll press the wine off the skins and leave it to settle over the winter (the cold dark harsh Castillian winter).

2.B. Crushing only (again no pressing) and pouring into a clay amphora for fermentation with skin contact

This was more or less the same as above, but instead of using stainless steel, we used a clay amphora, which we found in a corner of the patio of the bodega. It was a lot of extra work to do this, but I think it will be well worth the effort. First we had to wash it thoroughly:

      Insert Washing amphora photo here

The owner of the amphora was a bit worried about us using it, as it has nostalgic sentimental value for him. He remembers it being used in this parent’s house when he was little. We reckon that it’s about 60-80 years old at least. It was made in Colmenar de Oreja (by a company called ‘González’ (photo pending). Back in the post-war period Colmenar de Oreja was famous for its clay amphorae, because it was close to a major clay deposit; and not just for little ones, like the one we’re using. They used to actually make the big ones ‘in situ’ in the bodegas with capacities of up to 20,000 liters. All the ‘tinajeros’ (amphora-makers) went out of business in the 60’s; which is how we know that it’s at least 60 years old.

Amphora base

The base consists of a concrete ring, which is what the amphora actually rests on. This is inside a plastic ‘capazo’ with the top few inches, including the handles, sawn off. There are two bricks in there too (only one visible) just in case.

Moving into position

More positioning

In position, at last

Still in position

Note the corks (above): there are actually three openings: one at the top (what for?), one at the bottom and another one (not visible) even lower. It was quite a task to find corks for those openings and Juan had to spend all Saturday morning traipsing round Madrid looking for some. He had thought to go to Castellana de Corchos, a traditional old cork product shop in the centre of the old part of town, but it seems that it’s gone out of business.

Filling up

We taped a piece of plastic around the edge (above) to protect the amphora from spills of juice, but to no avail, as it was too short; we should have covered it all. But no matter, we washed it down when we finished filling it.

We intend to leave this lot of wine in contact with the skins for a lot longer than 2 weeks – maybe even over the whole winter! This is an experiment. I can’t let a year go by without doing at least one experiment! So we’ll just keep checking on it and see how it goes. Any suggestions most welcome!

Nice, but is it art?

In the photo above are the grapes and the must at the bottom of the tank, tipped over at an angle – so we could reach in to scoop them out. I thought it was a nice combination/contrast between the natural organic world (grapes and must) and the geometrical, mathematical, technological, manmade world (stainless steel, perfect circles, straight lines).

And lastly, this is what was left over after the pressing:

Skins and pips


We usually throw all these skins and pips (and stems) back into the vineyard. There, they decompose and break down into little pieces over time, and improve the structure of the soil.

But this year we’ve kept some back, because we’re going to make some ‘orujo’ (grappa or marc, or 'pomace brandy' even). A neighbor has a still (alambique, alambicco, alambic), and we have the raw materials, so one day in the not too distant future we’re going to join forces and distill some liquor. I don’t know how to do this (but the neighbor does!) so I intend to just sit around, watch the still, and do some quality control work!

And even more lastly, thanks to Cristina (@GazpachoGirl) and friends Adriana and Jenny, and to Richard (@voorschot) and family for coming out to visit and help.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Processing the Malvar Grapes 2011 (Part 1)

On Monday 19th we processed the grapes that we'd picked on the previous Saturday 18th and Sunday 17th from Villarejo. During the day we kept them inside (at about 25ºC) and at night we took them out into the patio, where the night-time temperature dropped to about 12ºC.

Malvar Grapes, Destemmed
We don’t usually do this but in this case we had no choice. Our usual procedure is to pick the grapes in the morning, stop for a long leisurely lunch, and then process the grapes in the evening.

Yes, I've become a flying winemaker and I'm off to the southern hemisphere in my biplane to do a bit of pruning!!!!

Before starting to process the grapes, we had to do the usual washing and cleaning and setting up:

Washing down the tanks

Washing down the "capazos" (baskets)

Washing down the Beast

with brushes and soapy water
We (my partner Juan and I) had many lengthy debates over the last few weeks about what kind of wine to make with these grapes, and in the end what we did was this: (I really don't know if this is a good idea or not, or if it's risky, or stupid or what! Like I've said before, during the harvest period, my brain doesn't seem to function 'properly'.)

Tipping grapes into the destemmer
Anyway, we destemmed all the bunches, using a very expensive machine, kindly lent to us by the other Juan, the owner of the bodega we're sharing this year. It works very slowly and gently, and destems the grapes in such a way that it doesn't break or crush the individual grapes (except for very few, say about 5%). Then we put these destemmed grapes into several small stainless steel tanks (700 + 700 + 300 kg) and sealed them hermetically. We'll leave them there for about 2 weeks for them to 'macerate carbonically'. Then we'll open up the tanks and continue with the fermentation process (the must/wine should have reached an alcohol level of about 2% by then).

Then it gets complicated! About half the quantity, we'll crush and press and let the must/wine continue to ferment until it's done. This should give us a nice, fresh, young wine, by straight Carbonic Maceration, which will be ready to release in December. About another half, we'll crush only (no pressing) and let it continue to ferment with skin contact, for an amount of time to be decided later (when my Brain 1.0 starts boots up again).

And lastly, as I'm determined to complicate my life, I'm going to ferment about 200 kg of these grapes with skin contact in a clay amphora that I found in the bodega, but for a much longer period of time - to see what happens!!! First, though, I have to clean it. And even before that I have to extract it from the corner from behind loads of stuff, including a 500 kg agricultural implement that will have to be dragged out of the way using a tractor!

And even more lastly, and so as to complicate my life even more, this year I want to make some grappa (or orujo or marc) using the grape skins left over after fermentation. I've already found a neighbour who has a still (alambicco or alambique), and the we have the raw materials; so all we need really is the time to sit around and watch a still distilling all day. I think that can be arranged in about 2 or 3 weeks.

¡Vivan las complicaciones! ("Long live complications!") Life is Short! The Future is Uncertain! Moments of Happiness! Me Cago en el Amor! From that great, great Italian philospher Tonino Carotone.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Malvar Harvest 2011 (Villarejo)

Last Saturday (17th) and Sunday (18th) we harvested all grapes from our new vineyard in Villarejo de Salvanés (Spain). Incredibly, and in contrast to all expectations, we managed to pick all the grapes and we don't have to go back another day to finish off. We had calculated at least 4 days of picking, but we did it in only 2 days. Two reasons for this, I think:

Harvesting in Villarejo (1)

Firstly, we had an amazing turnout of volunteers to help us pick: friends, friends of friends, and consumers who buy our wines, etc. On Sunday there were 16 of us!

Harvesting in Villarejo (2)

Secondly, I think that the vineyard is actually less than a hectare, which is the size we had just assumed it was, for some reason or other!. I'll have to check it out on SigPac as soon as I can. This is a free online application by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. It's a bit like Google Maps, but focussed on agriculture, ie it shows the type of crops planted, the boundaries of each individual plot, easy-to-use tools for measuring distances and aeras, etc.

Harvesting in Villarejo (3)

No rabbits here in this vineyard thankfully, like in Carabaña (see this post from last week), where they ate a significant percentage of our grapes!. I think this is because this vineyard in Villarejo is completely surrounded by other vineyards and olive groves, whereas in Carabaña, the vineyard is surrounded by grassland and low hills, which seems to be more rabbit-friendly teeritory.

Harvesting in Villarejo (4)

Some of the grapes we harvested were affected by oidium or mildew, which appeared suddenly over the last two weeks. This was our fault entirely because earlier this year (in Spring - early Summer) we decided not to spray any sulphur powder, because the vines and grapes looked so healthy and vigourous. I think maybe a preventive powdering will be required next year.

Clusters Affected by Oidium

A Nice Cluster, Not Affected by Oidium

Also, we're going to have to think really hard about the pruning this Winter. All the vines (which are old - about 60 years at least, judging by the size of the trunks) have been shaped in a rather strange way that we hadn't seen before. Instead of the usual main vertical trunk, with three or four horizontal 'arms', these vines consist of just the trunk with the shoots coming directly off the top all round. When the shoots are fully grown, they grow out and down, and they create a sort of upsidedown bowl, with the grape bunches on the inside, with not much exposure to wind or sunshine. (An image is worth 1000 words here, but unfortunately I don't have one!). We'll have to prune in such a way as to give the bunches maximum exposure to sun and wind.
Harvesting in Villarejo (5)

We decided not to stop for lunch as we usually do at 2-ish, but instead to finish picking the whole vineyard. That way we could go for lunch late (even by Spanish standards!) and relax and enjoy for the rest of the day.

Loading Up the Last Cases

All my worrying of the previous days was for nothing! The rational part of my brain knows this! Every single harvest we've done over the last 8 years (and that makes at least 32 harvests!) has always worked out well in the end, no matter what the inevitable complications that have always arisen, so why should the next one be any different? Go figure! When is HumanBrain 2.0 coming out, that's what I want to know!

Some Cases of Grapes

I have to say that I was even a bit short and aggressive to my partner Juan, about some triviality or other (like which rows people were working on or something), which with hindsight now is totally embarassing and ridiculous. But thankfully I think he understands that during vendimia people say all sorts of things that are out of character and that can be completely and safely ignored for the duration! Anyway, I think I'm on the road to recovery. My brain is functioning better every day, and I'm growing a beard to try to hide the cold-sores that have erupted on my face due to the stress and not eating properly! I'm already smoking less and eating more fruit! I know that the grapes are safe and and the fermetations are all under control :)

Fabio, Smoking Less!

Anyway, at about 5 o'clock we took the grapes to the bodega in Morata de Tajuña and put them inside (at a temperature 25ºC), stacked up on pallets, ready for processing the next day. In the end we only took in about 2,000 kg. That night we took them outside into the patio, as nightime temperatures have been dropping a lot here in Madrid lately (minimums of about 12ºC). It's still nice'n' hot during the day though, ie I'm still wearing sandals, shorts and a T-shirt.
Cooling Off in the Patio of the Bodega

Having arrived safety at the bodega in Morata de Tajuña, about 20 km from Villarejo, we lit a barbecue, and ate and drank (our wine from 2010!) and made merry!!! There was no shortage of beer either, because there's nothing like a cold bottle of beer after a long hot day picking grapes!! It has to be said!



And lastly, a Spanish saying, which was tweeted to me the other day by @VdelaSerna:

"Al cura de Villarejo de Salvanés
le cuelgan los cojones hasta los piés"
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