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Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Weekend in London, at RAW 2017

It was a very strange RAW weekend in London for me this year! 

Usually when I go to RAW, I come a few days before and arrange meetings, tastings, events, etc to make the most of my time, and to make the expense more worthwhile. But this year, due to 'circumstances', I wasn’t able to do that. The reason being that I had no wine available in London to use at said events; because my importers Otros Vinos had sold it all and the last shipment that I had sent over quite recently had been seized by HM Customs and Excise, and there wasn’t time to send over another shipment!

Of course there was lots of wine sitting at the RAW venue which I had shipped over specially for RAW, but due to HM C&E Regulations, I wasn’t allowed to remove the wine from the venue until after the fair – even though I’d already paid duty on the wine. Go figure! But anyway, such is life.

The upshot of the matter was that I had some extra days in London – with nothing to do!!  Apart from to relax and enjoy, that is. But I seem to have forgotten how to do that! I always seem to be active, running around, doing tasks, ticking items off my to-do lists, etc J

There were many events being held in the days before, during and after RAW in restaurants and winebars which I could have gone to (see this RAW page), but my mind and body seemed to be telling me to just stop it, let go and do nothing till Sunday 12th (the first day of the Fair). So I did. I went for a walk, bright and early, in Battersea Park, had a coffee by the lake (and started writing this post!).
Battersea Park Lake Cafe Anglo-Saxon Table
But I was soon interrupted - by the call of duty. There was champagne to be drunk! It so happened that Caroline Henry was signing copies of her new book “Terroir Champagne”:

Cover of the book
It was being held at a nice winebar and restaurant called Cellar, at 1 Voltaire St in Clapham. Within walking distance of Battersea Park, so off I walked!

Cellar, at 1 Voltaire St, Clapham
It’s a really interesting book, especially if you don’t know much about champagne, like me! There’s a brief history of the Champagne region and an explanation of why so many grapegrowers there use chemicals and why it’s so difficult to stop using them. Then there’s photos, interviews and info on about 60 champagne makers who are either organic, natural, biodynamic or generally respectful of the environment.

Moi avec le book et le T-shirt
So I ended up staying there all day, tippling champagne and chatting to all the people who came along to buy a signed copy of the book and to have some food and champagne; which for the occasion was in fact Fruit de Ma Passion, by Vincent Charlot.

I met quite a few interesting people over the course of the day and evening, though of course I forgot to take notes and photos!

One person that I met was Cain Todd, a philosopher! Who’s also written a book – called The Philosophy of Wine. We’ve agreed to barter a copy of his book for some bottles of my wine! J

Another person that I met was Rosanna McPhee, a foodie blogger:
Rosanna McPhee, right (with Caroline Henry, left)
And so it went, until it was time to go for dinner!

The first day of RAW was awful! I felt really bad and hungover. Not surprising really, as I drank far too much Champagne the day before! And more wine at night! But still, I managed to do what I had to do, ie pour my wines and talk about them for 8 hours non-stop. And it was a busy, busy, busy for those 8 hours. It was so busy that it was really difficult to escape from my table to go for a pee or to nip outside to smoke a quick cigarette, or even to get something to eat! J

But it helped that all the wines I drank were natural. So they didn’t contain any noxious chemicals which is what makes hangovers really bad. The only horrible hangover effects I got were from the alcohol itself! Which can be dealt with, by the passage of time and lots of water!

Me and my wine bitch!
The second day was much better, from a physical point of view, ie I went to bed at 10 o’clock the night before and slept like a log till next morning! The fair was just as busy as the first day; I finished all my own business cards AND my UK importer’s too! Day two was also easier easier because I had a helper at my table, so I was able to sneak off more often!

And so it went, another year at RAW. Am now back to the normal surreality of a small independent winemaker, ie pruning vines, fixing fences, bottling up, sending samples, preparing orders, going to tastings when I can, ... 


PS, My next post, which I'm working on already, will be Part 2 of my previous post "Sierra de Gredos as a Wine Region", which I think focussed far too much on the negative side of the coin. The next post will focus on all the good stuff that's happening there.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Sierra de Gredos, as a Wine Region

I’ve heard that wines from Sierra de Gredos are fashionable these days and that it’s the up-and-coming next big thing! But I’m not so sure. I suspect that it’s just some sort of media hype, or meme, or runaway phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own, because there is absolutely nothing new happening on the ground! I’ve been working there for 4 years now.

Sadly, there are no new wineries opening up; there are no new winemakers moving in; the vineyards are still being torn up like every year;

This is extremely annoying because the Sierra de Gredos really does have everything going for it as a wine region:

-                 Soil. Mostly granite covered with a topsoil of sand. But thanks to geological upheavals millions of years ago, there are also some interesting outcrops of slate

-                 Altitude. Mostly between 600 and 1200 m above sealevel

-                 Slopes. North-, south-, east-, west-facing. Take your pick

-                 Rivers. Alberche, and Tietar plus numerous streams and tributaries

-                 Temperature ranges. Yes! Big differentials between day and night temperatures. And between summer and winter temperatures

-                 Rainfall. Perfecto! Enough at the right times. Basically, 0% probability of rain during harvest. (Well, let’s just say <0 .5="" be="" o:p="" on="" safe="" side="" the="" to="">

-                 Long grape-growing tradition

-                 Interesting grape varieties to work with. The emblematic varieties are Garnacha (red) and Albillo (white), but there are several other varieties that are completely unused, unappreciated and scorned (Doré, Chelva, Morenillo, Villanueva, ...)

That seems to cover everything. But wait! There’s something really important missing, and it’s called... “winemakers”!  
Here’s a quick-n-dirty comparison with another region, of the same size, more or less - Burgundy:

Burgundy (France)
Sierra de Gredos (Spain)
Size, in kms
120 km x 20 km
150 km x 75 km
Size, in hectares planted to vines
 3,500 and shrinking
DO’s or AOC’s
Independent winemakers
Bulk wine cooperatives
Négociants / Merchants

How strange! Why are there so few winemakers in a region with the size and wine-making potential of Sierra de Gredos? Go figure. I have no idea. Any suggestions welcome.

And another question I have is ‘What to do about it?’  This question is probably even more difficult to answer!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Live Wine Milan 2017 - a natural wine fair

The other day (17th and 18th Feb) I was at Live Wine in Milan, one of the many natural wine fairs held in Italy these days. There were at least five others that I could have chosen from, for example Villa Favorita, Cerea, Fornovo, Sorgente del Vino or some others.

In France also there are at least 5 or 6 good natural wine fairs to choose from, though I probably won't go to any in France this year. In contrast, in Spain there are only 2: Vins Nus held in Barcelona and organized by the Spanish natural winegrowers association PVN (Productores de Vinos Naturales = Producers of Natural Wines); and the other one is called H2O and is organized privately by Laureano Serres and/or Joan Ramon Escoda, both natural wine producers from Catalonia.

Another difference between the Spanish natural wine scene and the French/Italian one is in the numbers of producers and visitors that show up at the fairs. The Spanish fairs have about 30/40 producers and about 1000 visitors/day, while the smaller Fr/It fairs have about 200 producers and receive about 3000 visitors.

Yet another difference that I noticed was the age range of the visitors. I couldn't help noticing it, as I was standing at my table, pouring wine and talking to them for 10 hours/day! The majority of my visitors were in their 20s/30s (and very few older people), whereas at the Spanish fairs I go to, it's the opposite way around, ie very few young people and an abundance of old coots!

Why is this? Why such a great difference between Spain and France/Italy? All three countries are major historical producers of wine, all producing the same volume of wine each year (about 50 million hl/yr), but that's the only similarity. As far as natural wine is concerned, I'd guess that there must be about 500 producers in France and 500 in Italy; but there are only about 50 in Spain.

An interesting question to ponder, no? I'm afraid I have no idea why there is such a difference. Any theories welcome.

And to finish off, a nice photo, which has nothing to do with the above. This is of my Doré vineyard which I was in the other day, at about 800 m between El Tiemblo and Cebreros, in the Sierra de Gredos. Still unpruned as yet.

Doré vineyard in Sierra de Gredos

Monday, 13 February 2017

Natural Wine. Nobody knows what it is!

Natural Wine

Nobody knows what it is!

Well, actually, quite a lot of people know what it is. It’s just that there’s no legal or official definition. So this can cause a lot of misunderstandings or even arguments.

This lack of a clear definition seems to be a good thing for many mainstream press journalists and writers, as they can just churn out the same old hackneyed topics time after time. I personally haven’t read anything original in the last 4-5 years. Does that mean it’s all been said then? Hey, maybe everything really has been said, and if I were to do a bit of searching on the internet and make a summary of all the ‘takes’, ‘positions’, ‘postures’ and ‘stances’ on all the ‘issues’, ‘sound-bites’,  ‘talking points’ and ‘philosophies’, I could post a really comprehensive and definitive post, and there would be no reason for anyone to bore anyone else with their unoriginal thoughts J.

Ach, if only I had the time to do that!

Sadly (or rather, fortunately, for you all!) I have far too many natural wine related tasks to be getting on with. Apart from writing 2 posts/month (self-inflicted goal), I also have to grow grapes, make wine, and thirdly sell said wine. Those three tasks being the top-level of their particular multi-branched, multi-twigged, multi-leafed tree.

A few months ago I was talking about the definition of natural wine to a visitor to my vineyards, and I believe I may have come up with an original sound-bite. I said “Natural wine is a bit like pornography – it’s difficult to define but you know it when you see it!”  Well, it’s not totally original, because someone really did say that – about pornography. But I’m claiming the prize for saying it first about natural wine J

Anyway, in this post I’d just like to repeat a message to all those writers and bloggers and commentators who insist on saying things like “but it can’t be ‘natural’ because the vines are all planted in rows, and then pruned, and then the grapes are crushed using machinery, etc, etc” you get the idea.

My message is: adjectives in English (in fact most words in most languages) have many different meanings! This is so blatantly obvious that that I’m left kind of speechless (or wordless!). Just open up a dictionary and you’ll see. For example I just typed “online dictionary” into Google and the first one on the list was and after typing in “natural” I got 31 different meanings of the word natural. Thirty-one!  Obviously many of them are pretty similar, but look at definition No.7:

having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives:
natural food; natural ingredients.
Compare organic (def 11).

That’s obviously the meaning that natural winemakers, distributors and retailers are using when we write about natural wines. Whereas the boring pedants who bore us all with their boring utterances are sticking to definition No.1:

existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial):
a natural bridge.

The same results come up for any dictionary you care to consult. And it works for just about any word in the English language!

Another message I have is this one: Why don’t they all go and bore the pants off the producers, distributors and retails of natural gas? There are many, many more consumers of natural gas than there are of natural wine, and the gas industry moves vastly greater quantities of money. And as if that weren’t enough reason, according to their meaning No.1, natural gas is much, much more artificial than natural wine, as it requires incredibly expensive and complex technology to produce the stuff! J

Having delivered my messages, I would also like say why I believe that natural wines are ‘better’ in all possible senses of the word than industrial-chemical-commodity-supermarket wines (ie about 90% of the wines produced in the world today):

1.              Natural wines are better for the environment. I don’t think there’s even any debate on this point, is there? Industrial-chemical vineyards pollute the environment (groundwater, soil, lifeforms, everything) even if they abide by the letter of the law.
2.              Natural wines are 100% risk-free in terms of human health (final consumers and workers on the land and in wineries).  No debate there either, surely?
3.              Thirdly, and this point is immensely debatable, natural wines taste better, are more interesting, are expressive of their terroir and grape variety, are more digestible, and generally just more soul-raising and inspiring of joie-de-vivre! Not all natural wines are like that, naturally! There will be some that are crap, but I’d say most of them are like that. Just go to any natural wine fair and try to find a bad wine. This is 2017! Decades have passed since the latest modern natural wine renaissance. The bad one have been weeded out and have disappeared.

Here's a couple of photos:

A worm
Worms are a sign of a healthy, living uncontaminated soil. You don’t see them in the 90% of agro-chemically exploited vineyards. (I say ‘exploited’ and not ‘farmed’ because it’s an insult to farmers to use the same verb to describe what the industry is doing to the land).

My vineyard and the neighbour's vineyard
 Spot the difference. Which vineyard is clean and alive and allows its vines to be healthy and vigorous  and to produce healthy, balanced, complex and delicious grapes? And which one is polluted and dead?

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Recycling and Sustainability

Hmmm, it’s been quite some time since I wrote about recycling and sustainability! In fact it was over 7 years ago since I last wrote anything about it! See these old posts if you like:

So what have I got to say for myself now? How is the reuse/recycling of bottles at Vinos Ambiz coming along?

Well on the one hand, it’s gotten a lot worse! Back in the old days (ie pre-2010) I used to delabel, wash and reuse 100% of my bottles. That’s because my production was so small – about 1000 bottles per year – that it was no bother to wash a few hundred bottles a session every few months. Also there was no alternative, because being illegal as I was, the bottle companies wouldn’t deliver any new bottles to me!

Then my production expanded, I had much more work to do – more vineyards to tend, more wines to make and look after – and so I didn’t have the time to wash and reuse old bottles. Also, I became a legal winery and so could take delivery of new bottles!

This used to annoy me a lot – that I was no longer reusing bottles. And in fact I used to delabel, wash and reuse tiny token symbolic lots of bottles whenever I accumulated around 20 or so old bottles. Ridiculous really (considering that I was now producing about 10,000 bottles a year!) but at least it kept my mind and memory thinking about the problem every now and then. I didn’t totally forget, even though in practice I was no longer recycling bottles.

Then a few months ago, around October last year, I came across a company that actually collects, delabels, washes, sterilizes, and packages and sells used bottles. I couldn’t believe it! But I contacted them and after getting the information, I ordered 2 pallets (1000 bottles) from them.

There were a few complications at first. The bottles had to be of the right height and width, because I already had several thousand cardboard boxes in the winery which would last me for years. So I had to ensure that they would send me the right model of bottle. The Bordeaux models (straight with pronounced ‘shoulders’ and a ‘neck’) are all pretty similar really, but a few millimetres here or there would mean that they wouldn’t fit into my boxes. I even got them to send me a box of 6 bottles, so that I could physically check that they fitted – not trusting myself to rely on mere measurements!

Anyway, it all worked out in the end, and the pallets duly arrived. I was also a bit worried that they might not be totally clean, but no worries there either. They looked, felt and smelt totally clean and  brand new. And they sent me a certificate ‘proving’ (somehow!) that they were completely free of bacteria or other impurities.

So, I am overjoyed really. Again I can use 100% reused/recycled bottles, like in the old days. Only this time I’ll be using 10,000 bottles/year as opposed to 1,000! I fully intend to order all my bottles form Infinity Reutiliza from now on.

According to their webpage, they collect all the used wine bottles from the local bars and restaurants in the village of Villena, and a few other neighbouring villages. They then de-label them, classify them according to different models, wash them, sterilize them, and then package them up and sell them.

Here are some photos. Though it’s quite difficult to get excited about a bunch of old bottles!

Two pallets of new old bottles

Bottling up - only one pallet left
Bottling up and corking

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Clearing up the Clutter (and planning for the future)

This is the new look of my my part of the winery:

Lots of empty space, everything nice ‘n’ tidy, and everything in its place. I’ve spent a good few weeks tidying everything up, throwing out rubbish, and classifying and storing wines and equipment in a more rational and tidy manner. It must be a phase I’m going through, or maybe it’s just obsession and eccentricity, but I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with the chaos and lack of structure in my life (and in my wine business). Which I was OK with for a long time. But it must be time for a sea change I suppose!

This is just Phase 1 of a longer-term project. Because apart from just keeping everything tidy and not having ‘stuff’ lying around at random, I also want to create some specific areas in all this empty space that I’ve liberated. Eventually, I will have:

1.              Tasting areas, where I can organize proper tastings for visitors and clients 

2.              An office area, where I can do paperwork and correspondence

3.              A merchandising area where I can set up my bottles of wine and info sheets, etc

4.              A chill-out area, for lying down, lounging, reading, sleeping, etc

Here’s the tasting area as it is at the moment:

Comfortable tasting area
Those bottles that can be seen on the table are bottles that I’ve opened for tastings in the past, and which I keep there on purpose to prove (beyond any reasonable doubt) that natural wines (ie wines without any added sulphites or other chemicals) can last perfectly well for a long time without deteriorating or turning into vinegar. It’s so boring and annoying to hear and read about how natural wines are so delicate and fragile that they are undrinkable after a few days of being opened. The truth is the total opposite.
These bottles, that you can see on the left were opened on 14th January 2014, (that's 2 years ago - to the day!) and they are still drinkable.

Save the date
ye olde oxydyzed wine samples

Obviously, they have become tremendously oxidized as I keep them there on the table at ambient temperature (which ranges from 8ºC in winter to 25ºC in summer) and closed with just a cork; and which I open and close every time I receive a visitor! They are of course very dark, and obviously unsellable commercially speaking, but the point I’m trying to prove with this ongoing experiment, is that good quality natural wines do NOT automatically turn into vinegar. I’m pretty sure they will eventually, and I’m looking forward to seeing how many more years it will take.

But getting back to the tasting area…  as you can see it’s a very laid back tasting area, with comfortable settees. This will influence the so-called objectivity of the tasters, but for the better, IMO, because I believe that wine is for enjoying and not for analysing or solving as if each bottle of wine were a quadratic equation! By sitting back comfortably on a sofa and tasting the wines in a relaxed and comfortable setting, it will provide a truer picture of what my wines are all about. But as there is no accounting for taste, I will also provide a more uncomfortable tasting environment for the more analytic visitor, ie a high table with hard stools with space to take notes and lay out laptops, etc. I have the luxury of having so much space in my winery, which is sadly underutilized at the moment, that I can easily afford to do this.

No photos available of this uncomfortable tasting area, because as yet I don’t have a table or high stools. But watch this space!

Another area of which I do have photos is this underground concrete ‘cellar’. This used to be a holding tank for wine back in the days before the village co-op went bankrupt. There are 32 such tanks (3 m x 3m by 3 m). Recently I cleaned out two of them, and installed some bottle racks, and laid out all the old, odd, declassified, remainders of old vintages that I can’t sell commercially any more, as the quantities are too small. I’m also thinking of putting in a few seats and a mini table, to do underground tastings!

Cellar entrance

view into cellar
view of rack and wines in cellar

Me building rack with screwdriver
Enough for now.
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