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Thursday, 27 September 2012

An Experiment with Rojilla

Has anyone ever heard of a grape variety called "Rojilla"? or know where I could find out? I've asked on Twitter and FB but no joy. And it's not mentioned at all in the Vitis International Variety Catalogue.

I doubt that's the 'real' name of the variety, as "Rojilla" sounds very local or dialectal. In Spanish, "rojo" = red, so "rojilla" (a diminutive of rojo) means something like reddish, or a little bit red, or something like that.

And the colour of these grapes was in fact 'a little bit red', ie not deep dark red/purple/blue like in all the usual Tempranillo/Garnacha/Sirah photos that are so common, but really just red! Can you believe that I forgot to actually take a photo of them!

When I was out in Gredos last week, the grape-grower I was buying Garnacha off of, kindly gave me a few cases of this Rojilla grape, for me to make wine from, on the condition I gave him a bottle or two when it was done!

Well, on Saturday I duly stomped them and put them in a container to ferment. Actually, Madalena stomped them for me:

Madalena stomping Rojillo grapes
Rojillo grapes being stomped
Interesting! But I don't really know if there's any more Rojilla to be found in viable quantities.

Fermentation tub

There's about 20-30 litres of must + skins + pips + stems in there.

I decided to include the stems because they were well lignified and not at all green, so I thought that they might provide something positive. As the skins are not very dark, maybe they won't provide as much colour or taste or aromas as more normal darker skins do? Who knows?

Fermentation hasn’t started yet (as at Sunday 23 Sept) but I reckon it should kick off pretty swiftly, what with all the different lots of wine in the bodega at different stages of fermentation; the air must be teeming with saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast by now.


I shall play it by nose
And I shall see, how it goes;

I’ll punch it down, once a day,
And hope it tastes, like Cabernet!

Then when fermentation begins
I’ll press the juice, off the skins

I’ll maybe rack it, once or twice
To make it clean and nice

Then over winter, I’ll let it be;
Peace and quiet is the key

Will it do its malolactic?
That depends, on my vinous tactic!

Will I add the acid tartaric?
No, that’s just too barbaric!

Will I add some extra sugar?
No, I’m reaching for my Luger!

Will I add powdered tannin?
No, I’m not a wine assassin!

Will I add that mega-purple colour,
No, it makes the wine, false and duller!

Will I add cultured yeast?
No, I’m a pure, uncultured beast!

Will I add germs and bacteria?
No, that goes against, my criteria!

Will I add, a flavour enhancer?
No, it may well, give you cancer!

Will I add wooden chips of oak?
No, I wouldn’t want, to make you choke!

Will I spin my wine in cones?
No, my wine’s for people, not for drones!

Will I osmote it in reverse?
No, I’d never be so perverse!

Will I do some cryo-extraction?
No, I always get, a cry-reaction!

Will I add bags of enzymes?
No, I’m running out of en-rhymes!

So how will I intervene?
Well that remains, to be seen!

I really won’t do much
Just keep a nice light touch

Enough to ensure the wine is flawless,
But not so much, as to make it aweless!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Red grapes all in, White not ready yet

Here’s another harvest post or update of the state of my harvesting this year. This is a good time for me to write this because I’m between harvests, as it were :)

I’ve brought in all the red grapes that I’ll be bringing in this year, and the white grapes are not ready to be picked yet.

So, what have I got this year?

1. The usual Tempranillo from Carabaña that I’ve been harvesting for the last 9 years! The quantity this year was ridiculously tiny – even more ridiculously tiny than usual! On the one hand, because of the drought (it hasn’t rained properly for about a year) and on the other hand because of the rabbits, who have again eaten more than their fair share of grapes this year, just like they did last year.

So, basically there’s less than 300 litres of juice + skins fermenting at this very moment as I write, which means that there will hopefully just be enough to make 1 barrel (225 l) of Tempranillo Crianza including a few litres for top-ups during the year. I harvested early this year, because I was fed up with making the usual +14% alcohol tinto Crianza! Although there’s never been anything actually wrong with my previous Crianzas, they’ve never been anything exceptional either, imho, and in that of others! Hence the risk of experimenting this year. Maybe it’ll turn out better at 13% or 13.5%. Who knows? But I’ll never know if I don’t try it at least once!

2. Some Garnacha from Gredos. I’m going to be a bit secretive here and save the details for later :) Ha ha! I’ll just say that I’ve got four (4) separate lots of old vine Garnacha that is already fermenting separately. Some in open top old wooden barrels, and some in stainless steel. Two lots are from separate plots in Sotillo de la Adrada (see this previous post) and two lots are from ... somewhere else in the Gredos region! Ha ha!

That’s all there is tinto-wise. This is what there will be, blanco-wise:

1- The usual Airén from Carabaña that I’ve been harvesting for the last 10 years. The grapes are not ripe yet – they were at 11% a few days ago, and there are still quite a lot of green bunches visible. I’d like to harvest this at between 12% and 13%, and make the usual young white that I usually make every year. I’m really happy with the way it’s been turning out, and I think my clients are too. I’m on a little, personal Airén crusade here, I think, because I believe that really good wines can be made with Airén, especially if a better winemaker than me were to put his/her mind and hand to it!

Airén has such a negative cultural and vinous baggage to carry! Sigh! Oh woe, is life not hard enough already without having to shoulder all this negative baggage? :) Ha ha, only jesting! Deep down, I’m really a masochistic cynical bastard who thrives on hardship and albatrosses! Ha ha, jesting again! But seriously, I really do like Airén and really do believe that great wines can be made from it. So I shall make more of the same this year, plus of course I shall do a few experiments. Firstly, as I have all these old barrels available, I’ll do a bit of fermenting in them, in addition to the usual stainless steel. Secondly, I hope to come up with some other experiment to do when the time comes! Suggestions welcome! Here’s an interesting article about Airén by FringeWines

2. Malvar from Villarejo. Again I’m going to do the same as last year with these grapes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I was really pleased with last years’ wines and experiments. There were three lots of wines last year: Carbonic Maceration, Skin Contact (15 days) (‘orange’), and a straight 5-month skin contact ‘orange’ from an old amphora (tinaja in Spanish), all from the same Malvar from Villarejo. And I think my clients were happy with them too. So this year, I bought another amphora (see photo) so as to make another 300 bottles, in addition to the original 300!

And that’s it, I’m afraid (apart from the older wines from previous years that are still aging). Only about 4,000 bottles in total, I think. I had originally intended to make quite a lot more wine this year, but my best laid plans were rudely scattered to the winds by the great plough of life and circumstances, and will have to be rebuilt next year. C’est la vie!

So now, it’s the calm before the storm, ie just checking the white grapes in the vineyards, and checking on the red fermentations in the bodega.

Lastly, quite a few people have contacted me over the last few months with a view to visiting the vineyards and winery, but I haven’t been able to arrange these visits properly – due to my own inability to deal with emails and to arranging visits, etc. But I really do like receiving visits, so if you’re reading this, please just contact me again and insist harder! I’m not being exclusive or playing hard to get here, it’s just that I can’t cope with everything that I have to do all at once! So the ‘de facto’ or ‘fait accompli’ solution or whatever it’s called, is to tell me that you ‘have to’ visit on such-and-such a day, and then I’ll work all my other tasks and activities and urgent urgencies around the visit! Et violà! Problem solved!

And really lastly, I read somewhere that all posts should have at least one photo, so here it is:
Ambite vineyard under snow in January 2009!

A Little Post on Enzymes

I‘ve just read a really interesting guest post on Fiona Beckett’s blog on enzymes, and it made me think a bit about ‘natural wines’. Yet again!

But before I set off on why I don’t add enzymes to my wines, I’d just like to say what a great initiative the people at Birds & Bats Wine Productions are undertaking. This is just the sort of thing, imho, that the wine-world needs. Some new life, a breath of fresh air, and more good and interesting wines!

I’m actually quite depressed at the moment, after my recent experience of the state of rural viticulture and winemaking in the Sierra de Gredos. I don’t actually have the time to wallow in my depression at the moment because I’m right in the middle of harvesting and fermenting, but it’s there under the surface as it were. I happen to have the time to write about this at the moment, because I’m between harvests – ie, the reds (Tempranillo and Garnacha) are all in and fermenting, but the whites (Airén and Malvar) are not quite ripe yet.

Anyway, you can read my previous post (here) about the tragic and sad state of the local viticulture and winemaking that made me depressed! But not to exaggerate! I have of course been enjoying tremendously, living life to the full and keeping myself off the streets :)

So...back to enzymes...

I had no idea what enzymes were or did, but now I’m a little wiser, after reading the article and comments! Thanks again Fiona and Birds & Bats. Well, no disrespect intended to anyone in the enzyme-adding business, but it seems like a total irrelevance to me if the winemaker’s intention is to make a low intervention wine, ‘natural’ wine. If enzymes are already present in the grapes, as the article says, then there is no valid reason (from a natural winemaker’s point of view) for adding any during the winemaking. If your vineyard soil is living and healthy, and if your vines are vigorous and healthy, then your grapes will be balanced and healthy and will contain all the enzymes required, thank you very much!

The list of practical advantages in the guest post have not convinced me:

Makes life easier for the producer”: also called taking short-cuts?

Reduces cost to the consumer”: and reduces the quality of the wine too? Why not use ‘cost plus’ pricing?

Speed up the winemaking process”: Why do that? You in hurry to go somewhere else? Let the wine take the time it needs without rushing it!

Protect customer’s health”: Yes, we’ve all heard that one before! Everyone and their auntie says that about their products, even the likes of Monsanto, McDonalds and ACME Toxins!!!

Release more potential from the grapes”: the grapes will release all the potential they need to release all by themselves, if they’re healthy and balanced and harvested at the right time

Ensure wine does not spoil”: the wine will not spoil if the grapes are healthy and balanced and harvested at the right time and if the winemaker doesn’t do anything silly during winemaking!

Protect customers and deliver a quality wine”: Nice truism! Show me a winemaker that does not want to protect his customers and doesn’t want to deliver a quality wine!!!

We cannot afford to spoil thousands of good grapes”: Relax! Don’t be so fearful! If your grapes are healthy and balanced and harvested at the right time and if you don’t do anything silly during winemaking, your grapes won’t spoil

“...sinister chemical additions such as the dreaded sulphites”: there are a lot worse things than dreaded sulphites!

But, I'm sorry for harping on so much about this! This enzyme business really is quite trivial, and there are many things that are a lot, lot worse that one can do to one’s wine. The important thing here is that someone is doing something interesting in the wine world!

I hope I haven’t come across a some sort of extremist natural wine Taliban here! I like to think of myself as quite flexible and middle-of-the-road and sensible, as far as natural winemaking goes! For example, I’m quite happy to use a bit of sulphites if necessary. But only if necessary. By default I don’t use it. My main goal is to produce lovely, delicious, drinkable, terroir-expressing wines – but not at any price! I don’t use pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or chemical fertilizers in the vineyard or any chemicals in the winery, for reasons of pollution, health and quality of the wine! It’s easy to make a delicious wine if you use chemicals and aggressive processing. But delicious at any price is not for me! There are more important things in life that being gratified by a delicious wine – like the state of the environment that we’re going to hand on to our children and future generations!

I wonder if this whole post is counter-productive? I mean, I’d hardly even heard of enzymes before reading Fiona’s post, let alone considered adding them to my wines! And I’ve actually had to think up all those reasons above, for not adding them, when before it didn’t even cross my mind to add them!!! I think that just goes to prove that there’s no real reason to manipulate the wine unnecessarily. By adding enzymes in this case, or by adding or doing anything else either, in general.

So enzymes have been added to wine since the 1970’s, as the guest post says. So for about 8,000 years, no enzymes were added! Was the quality of the wines produced over 8,000 years so bad, that people have been waiting for 8,000 years for enzymes to be discovered? And reverse osmosis? And spinning cones? And MegaPurple? And oak chips? And commercial yeasts? And tannin powder? etc, etc, and all the other technological products and processes that have been invented over the last 50 years?

I think this goes beyond a mere question of quality, or definition of quality! Basically, what is happening is that wine has been ‘commoditized’ just like any other product in today’s industrialized, profit-driven marketplace. Certain wine brands move millions of bottles every year, so they are obliged to churn out the same standardized product/brand every year, no matter what the climate or state of the grapes. It’s a brand. It’s an industrial product. It’s made in a liquid engineering processing factory, not in a winery. So anything goes, any technology, any product, any addition, as long as it’s legal (and sometimes not even that) in order to make that product according to the specifications.

The whole concept and meaning of the word of ‘quality’ I believe has been co-opted by industry and their marketeers. For them it means mere compliance with commercial and legal and organoleptic specifications, and has absolutely nothing to do with the real, basic, intrinsic, clean, ecological quality of the soil, grapes or wine.

Enough! This is turning into a terrible rant!

Thanks again Fiona for a great thought-provoking post, and all the best to Birds & Bats.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Another day in the life…

The other day (Wed 12 Sept 2012) I went out to Gredos to check out an old-vine Garnacha vineyard in a little village called Sotillo de la Adrada. A few months ago I reached an agreement with the owner of the vineyard to buy the grapes, and I’ve been going out there once a week or so over the last month to check the grapes as to ripeness and to set the date for harvesting. Quite banal and boring really, but it set me off thinking of ‘greater things’ or the ‘wider context’ as it were.

It takes me about 90 minutes to get there from Madrid, and I don’t like listening to the radio or even music in the car, so I prefer to use the time to just think and fantasize!!!

Well, first the actual visit, and then I’ll move on to what I think is going on.

Beautiful vineyard! I’ve seen quite a few around Sotillo recently and this one is fairly typical: sandy soil, at an altitude of between 600 m and 700 m, on the fairly flat foothills of the Gredos mountain range; not actually ‘mountainous’ like the vineyards in the more famous Cebreros just down the road, but more ‘valley-like’ I’d say.

All the vineyards I’ve seen there are quite small (max 1 or 2 ha) and a lot are interspersed with olive trees, and fig-trees.

Prickly pears in the vineyard

Fig tree in the vineyard

Olive tree in the vineyard

So I took samples of grapes, picking berries at random from every 3rd or 4th vine more or less during a random walk from one end of the vineyard to the other. And I tasted some berries, chewed the skins, and the pips, and looking though the spectrometer I got a probable alcohol level of 13.6%. So I decided to harvest this weekend! And the owner thought I was absolutely crazy! Because no-one else has harvested in the village, and they won’t be harvesting till October!

But hey, what can I say? I’m doing some experimenting here! I don’t think the wine world needs any more 15% or 16% or 17% alcohol Garnachas, does it? There’s some good ones out there already, and some not so good ones too! So, I’m going to try something a bit different, ie attempt to make a ‘lighter’ Garnacha alcohol-wise, while at the same time not losing any of the Garnachosity :)  We shall just have to wait and see! Anyway, I have a wine-making plan, but no doubt it will change every other day and the ultimate results are of course unpredictable!!!

There are also some vines in the vineyard

And now for the profound and sad thoughts!

Tragic and sad. Those are the main feelings I’ve been getting. Sotillo de la Adrada, like many, many other small towns in Spain (and no doubt in other countries in Europe too) with some agricultural heritage in general, and with a history of grape-growing and wine-making in particular, is dying!

Well, let’s not get too dramatic here! Let me rephrase: let’s just say that Sotillo is dying in terms of its agricultural and viticultural and vinous heritage. I’m sure it will live on for many years somehow or other!

Firstly, all the vineyard owners I’ve met were old men, well past retirement age!

Secondly, I saw many vineyards around Sotillo that have been abandoned, and many that look like they’re going to be abandoned any year now.

The reasons for this state of affairs are no doubt complex (and worthy of a socio-economic analysis!) but here are a few basic reasons which I believe may be relevant:

1. The sons and daughters of these vineyard owners have absolutely no interest in running them. They’ve probably gone to school and university and have a job in an office in the nearest city. Which is fair enough, as their parents made a huge effort to give them an education so that they wouldn’t have to slave in the fields from dawn to dark, from the age of 7 to 70, like they themselves have done!

2.The only outlet for the grapes produced by these grape-growers is the local co-op, which for decades has been faithfully buying up all the local grapes and faithfully making local table wine. And this is now a big problem for everybody concerned! Maybe a few decades ago, when Spain was a quasi-third-world country, there was a big demand for local table wine, and it all got sold, and everyone was happy. Back then, local table wine was a basic commodity like eggs, bread, fruit and veg, etc. But it’s not like that anymore. Spain, even in small rural villages, has supermarkets, and people just don’t buy as much table wine as they used to. And if they do, then it won’t necessarily be local, but it could be from anywhere, and based on price and transport logistics, etc. There must be thousands of wine-making co-ops in Spain, all making cheap table wine and all desperately competing on price points. It’s a no-no! It’s certain death, eventually, for both the co-op itself and for the many local grape-growers. Just a question of time.

The vineyard owner that I’ve reached an agreement with was complaining: last year he sold his grapes to the co-op. Firstly, they paid him a totally ridiculous price (per kilo and per degree of probable alcohol), and secondly, they haven’t paid him yet for last year’s harvest. That’s 12 months!

This is basically why so many vineyard owners are abandoning their vineyards. The running costs during the year (ploughing, pruning, composting, harvesting, etc) are not even covered by the price of grapes that the co-op is paying. And they don’t even pay that in a reasonable time frame.

It’s a vicious circle too. The co-op pays by kilo of grapes AND by degree of possible alcohol. So of course, the grapegrowers harvest as late as possible, because that way they earn more money. And the co-op proceeds to make wine that has 15%, 16%, 17% and more alcohol, and no doubt mixes and homogenizes and manipulates in all sorts of ways to produce millions of litres of cheap table wine. Competing with thousands of other co-ops who are doing exactly the same thing, all chasing a shrinking market for that type of product.

Small wonder that it’s so easy to find vineyards, either to rent directly or to buy the grapes from!!!

And here’s an anecdote, which illustrates how desperate the situation is. Like I said above, I’ve been visiting Sotillo quite regularly this summer, and word must have got around that I was buying grapes (and at a better price than the co-op and with immediate payment at harvest!), because I was invited to a local wine tasting event, organized by the Town Council. And not just invited to attend, but I was actually invited to give a talk and to sit on a tasting panel to judge the local wines that would be participating! This is totally ridiculous! Firstly, I’m not an experience or qualified taster, and in fact, I probably couldn’t even taste my way out of a paper bag! The only experience I have of tasting is of my own wines, and the occasional tastings I participate in informally! Secondly, it’s not like I’m Mr Delmonte about to decide whether to buy up the whole village’s grape production!!! I’m only buying a couple of thousand kilos from one grower, FCS!!!

So I gave a short little talk to an audience of about 40 old grapegrowers! I told them briefly about what I do with Vinos Ambiz, ie that I grow my own grapes organically with no chemicals, that I buy grapes that have been grown organically from third parties, that I make wine without chemicals, and that I sell it all, either locally in Madrid or abroad. Well, I must have said something right, because after the talk and the tastings, when we were all mingling and chatting and having aperitivos and canapés, two of the grapesgrowers come up to me to ask if I’d be interested in seeing their vineyards and buying their grapes next year!!!

That tasting itself was quite traumatic for me, as I’d never done an ‘official’ tasting before, with scores and notes, etc! I think that I was so nervous that I couldn’t really taste anything properly, and all 14 wines tasted exactly the same to me. They were all local Garnachas, they all had at least 17% or 18% alcohol, and they all had loads of residual sugar, as the fermentations had all stuck!!! They were more like ports or fortified wine rather than ‘regular’ wine. Actually, chatting later with the other tasters on the panel, I discovered that they also thought that all 14 wines were pretty similar!!!

I suspect that what was happening here was that these grapegrowers were selling their grapes to the co-op (harvesting as late as possible, so as to get paid more) but keeping a few hundred kilos back to make wine for themselves and their family and friends!

So there you have it. Sad and tragic. A potential treasure - hundreds of hectares of old-vine Garnacha, and other interesting unknown varieties - all being abandoned and lost.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

First Mini-Harvest Report from Spain

Well, I’ve actually done two harvests already and now I’ll all stressed out because I’ve got nothing to worry about until the white Airén and Malvar are ready in about 1 week or 10 days!

The first harvest was a small lot of old vine Garnacha from Méntrida, and it was really easy because I didn’t actually have to go and harvest it myself!

Garnacha Grapes
I reached an agreement with the grape-grower that he would harvest it (on the date I specified) and he would bring it to the bodega in small boxes. No payment! ie, €0/kg! I will make the wine and give him half of it when it’s ready! Win-win, everybody happy!

So here it is, in two old oak barrels:

Crushed Garnacha in opened barred

It hasn’t started fermenting yet, but it should kick off any day now.

The second harvest was also quite easy going. This was our usual Tempranillo from the Carabaña vineyard. This year has been really really dry and it has hardly rained at all (insert some meteo data) so the quantity was about 25% less tan usual. This year I only just got barely enough to make one barrel of Crianza, about 250 kg.

So, last Sunday, three adults and three children (3½, 7 and 9) managed to harvest the lot in the course of the morning between 9:00 and 13:00. We then went back to the bodega and lit a barbeque for lunch.

Even though the quantity was small, the quality was 100%; not a single bunch was affected by any sort of humidity or fungus-related disease, eg mildew or oidium.

This year, in an attempt to improve on the Tempranillo Crianza that we’ve been making for the last 7 years or so, we harvested a little earlier than usual; we should get an alcohol level of 13%, as opposed to the usual +14%. It’s a bit of a risk, because I’ve never done that before, but hey, there’s only one way to find out!! Is there not?

On the following Monday, 2 adults and 2 children (6 and 7½) crushed and stomped the grapes underfoot. The Tempranillo is in stainless steel, and it hasn’t started fermenting either to date.

Stomping the Tempranillo

So now, I’m just hanging around, getting nervous, waiting for the Airén and Malvar to ripen in Carabaña and in Villarejo, waiting for some more lots of Garnacha from Gredos to come in. What’s that expression again? “Idle hands make light work” or something like that!!!

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