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Friday 8 January 2021

Vineyard Work in Sierra de Gredos

Vineyard Work in Sierra de Gredos


(This is a post which I wrote way back in March 2020 and which I just found in my Drafts folder!)


Another year, another post!

I'm very disappointed that I haven't been able to post more often. I'm either just too lazy, too busy or too tired! But I shall make another effort this year and see if I can do better than once a year!

(Aside: this is the third week of lockdown in Spain due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, as a grapegrower and winemaker, I am considered as part of the agriculture and food sector, hence "essential services" and so am allowed to travel to go to work.)

So, during the month of February I was focussing on a vineyard to the exclusion of almost everything else. It's a wonderful vineyard, in the middle of a pine forest and surrounded by rock roses and pinetrees, off the beaten track, and so very peaceful and relaxing.

There are many problems with this vineyard, the most serious of which is the lack of rain, and a few  vines died this year. But there's nothing I can do about that.

Panoramic view of the bottom of the vineyard

Another problem is that wild deer have somehow been getting in and eating the shoots/leaves/grapes. So I've been checking the perimeter fence and have been fixing the weak points.

One weak point is between the lowest part of the fence and the ground. The sneaky beasts somehow manage to wriggle their way in through these tiny gaps! So I'm going round the whole perimiter and blocking all the gaps, no matter how small. Using rocks and branches and clippings.

The vineyard is surrounded by pinetrees and rock roses. Rock roses are hardy and invasive. They smell nice and look nice, ...but they're invasive! If you don't keep an eye on them constantly, they'll just take over your vineyard!

In the foreground: Rock roses that I've cut back making the fence visible
In the background: Rock roses growing through the fence

Another problem with the deer is that not only can they sneak in under the fence, but they can also leap over it! So, when I finish blocking the gaps, I'll go round the perimeter again, but this time looking for any low points. I will then raise the height using poles (tied to the existing posts) and string or wire, and possibly some old CD's.

I found the poles in the forest beside the vineyard:

Pine forest seen through the fence

Pine forest seen from the pine forest

I didn't actually have to chop any trees down! There were lots of fallen trees and branches lying around already. I just had to saw them into lenghths and drag them up to the vineyard:

Then I tied them with wire to the existing low posts, and strung up some bright tape:

Apart from all of that, I also gave the vines some manure this year. This involved, first of all, digging up around each vine. This is a really fun activity and I recommend you come out to El Tiemblo, in the Sierra de Gredos, and lend a hand next year in another vineyard :)

After digging up arround the vines, we shovelled in some manure, using wheelbarrows and shovels:

Shovelling shit!

Shovelled shit!

Apart from digging a hole/trench beside each vine for the manure, we've also hoed up a circle of grass around the vine, to help retain any rainwater that may fall this spring. This vineyard is very steep, so any rain that falls tends to run off as opposed to being absorbed by the earth, due to the grass.

This vineyard is Garnacha, about 50 years old, and I use it to make a classic red wine, aged in barrel. I used to get about 4 or 5 barrels (1500 bottles) but last year only 1 barrel (300 bottles) due to the drought.

I call it "El Castañar" because the vineyard is on the way to the famous El Castañar de El Tiemblo, chestnut forest of El Tiemblo, which is about 5 km further up the road.

And lastly, I had to clear up a slight mess caused by a pine tree falling into the vineyard and destroyimg a small part of the fence:

All that was in February.

In March I was mainly bottling up (including some pet nats), but I'll write about that in another post soon. Hopefully!

I hope you are all bearing up well during the lockdown and confinement. If you need more wine these days, I'd be very happy to ship some to you, or have my distributor ship it, depending on where you live!

Friday 8 February 2019

It's that time of year again

Yes, it's winter here in Spain too! Though here in central Spain, specifically in the Madrid - Sierra de Gredos region - it's not really that extreme. No polar vortices here! But not even the nastier winter weather that costal Spain has been suffering from recently, ie flooding, torrential rain, etc. It's not even that cold here - it just dips a bit below zero (Celsius) at night, and then during the day it's around 5-10 degrees Celsius.

Chilly beans!
In the bodega, the temperature is about 10-12 degrees Celsius, which is OK if you're moving around and actively doing physical tasks. But if you're sitting down sticking labels onto bottles all day, then its not so pleasant! Which is basically what I'm doing these days.

Bottling up the Dore 2018
It's also the pruning season. So I try to alternate between sticking labels (and bottling up, corking, boxing and building pallets) and pruning and fixing fences and manuring in the vineyards.

The bodega is a huge mess at the moment and everything looks chaotic and out of place. I used to not be bothered about this but now it's started to annoy me. I'm going to have to take a day out from bottling/pruning/labelling etc to tidy up! That will involve moving pallets around and carrying stuff from one place to another! And will take at least a whole day to do.

Another thing I have to do is press off a tub of Roman Slave Juice! It's been macerating for quite long enough now (since October). Pliny the Elder, in his book De Naturae, only gives three recipes for making this beverage, and none of them involved maceration for this length of time.

Roman Slave Juice macerating. To be pressed off.

Enough for today. I now have to prepare the wines I'll be taking to a natural wine fair tomorrow in Barcelona, the Salo de Vins Naturals.

Thursday 24 January 2019

New Tasting Zone

New year, and a new tasting zone!

Well, a whole year went by and I didn't post a single post in 2018. Which is a shame, because I like writing posts, and I hope that some people enjoy reading them! So I've resolved not to let that happen again. I will try to post at least one post per month, even if quick 'n' dirty.

The problem is that I don't have enough time! Ever since I got fired from my day-job I've been working full-time either in the vineyards or in the bodega, and the last thing I feel like doing in the evening is to sit in front of a computer! But such is life! Everybody complains about not having enough time these days!

So, here's some pics of the 'project'

Work in progress. Lorry unloading stones and sand
More work in progress
Tapping the stones into place

Pretending to tap a stone into place :)
Almost done
All done, more or less
So that's that! It still needs to be beautified a bit, obviously! Like plants and flowers, maybe lanterns hanging down from the beams? I'll need to plant grass around the edges on the slopes. And lastly, a table and chairs for tastings/lunches/dinners!

It took three days to lay all the stones, after about three years of dilly-dallying and not getting my act together. It just goes to show that if you really want to do something, you should just go and do it, without over-analyzing too much!

I decided not to use cement between the stones. This has its advantages, eg that it will look prettier once the grass/moss grows between the stones. But the possisble disadvantage wmy be that the stones are not so stable and may move as people step on them. But then again, the idea is just to sit down at the table or in loungers, not to pace up and down. So hopefully my decision will be vindicated.

As of today, 24 Jan 2019, the new tasting zone hasn't been inaugurated. Not even a soft inauguration let alone an 'official' one. Another task on my to-do list! :)

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Harvest update and sundry other stuff

Just a quick harvest update here. I've taken a day off today, away from the winery, and am just lounging around at home mostly horizontally resting and recovering! It's been quite hard work so far, especially as I decided to crush and press all the grapes manually this year!

But first some boring technical details:

- The grape harvest is really early this year. Again! I just checked my notes from last year and for example the Doré this year is a whole month early! Climate change? The three heatwaves we had in June? I have no idea.

- We had a huge and horrific hailstorm in July which destroyed 50% of the grapes in Sierra de Gredos. Some unlucky growers lost even more.

- So far I've harvested/crushed/pressed my Albillo, Doré, Tempranillo, Sauvignon blanc and two plots of Garnacha

- Still to be harvested are more Garnacha (3 plots), Chelva, Airén and Malvar.

But I really don't want to write about grapes right now! I even see them when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night!

The manual crushing thing. Well the main reason I decided to try to do this is to see if there's any appreciable difference in quality in the final wines. Especially with the use of motorized pumps for moving wine from one tank to another. I cant help thinking that even the smallest pumps are too fast and can somehow affect the wine. I have no data to back this belief up as yet - I would have to do some due diligence and search for information on the internet. Even the small pump I have moves 2500 liters/hour! I dont need to move that much wine that fast.

The pump I've been using lately is this one:

Built in 1907 in Alcoy (Valencia)

Pumping wine from one tank to another

Unfortunately it broke down a few days ago and has stopped pumping! So I need to get it fixed before the next racking (in a few days) or else I'll have to resort to the electric one. And the guarantee period has expired!

Another thing I hate about electric pumps is the noise! After I while it makes me annoyed and I can't think straight!!! And does noise not affect the quality of wine? That's another topic I'll have do some research on.

The small electric pump in action
Another thing is the appropriate use of technology. To move say 500 l wine, I have no need to use a fast electric motor to do it quickly. I have plenty of time to pump wine slowly. It's not like I have other more interesting or important things to do!!! Electric pumps are obviously useful (essential) to large volume producers who are dealing with millions of liters. Cooperatives typically produce between 10-50 million liters/year! But for a small producer like myself? (around 10000 bottles).

The same applies to electric destemmers/crushers. The throughput is really fast. The machine I share can crush/destem a case of 20 kg as fast as you can tip it in, put the box down and pick up the next box. I really must find out if the speed and violence done to the grapes really affects the quality or if I'm just getting more and more eccentric as time goes by! :)

With the pressing, I'm not so sure. I have two manual presses and a hydraulic press on which I can control the pressure exerted. If I keep the pressure low, the results are very similar to the manual presses. I can tell by the dryness/dampness of the "cake" left in the press when you are done pressing out the juice. But it also makes a horrible noise though!

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we shall just have to wait until the wines are ready and taste them! Hmmm, but then, there are so many other factors involved. It will be difficult to attribute any increase in quality to just the gentle manual processing.

Oh, and a final advantage of doing it manually is all the money saved by not having to pay to go to the gym to attain those bulging and shapely biceps :)

And now for something completely different...

A photo of my "Roman Wine" experiment:

Garnacha on olive

As all of you who have read Pliny the Elder's De Rerum Naturae will know, the ancient Romans had three main systems of growing grapes, only two of which have survived and come down to us in our modern era: bush vines and trellised vines.  The third system the ancient Romans used was arboreal viticulture, ie letting the vines grow up trees. Seriously, Pliny describes it in some detail in Book XIV. He recommends certain varieties are being most appropriate for trees, and even the best species of tree.

Well I have to make do with what I've got, ie Garnacha vines on olive trees. I have about 8 vines growing up three olive trees and I hope to harvest about 50 kg grapes, optimistically. Now that slavery has been abolished, I suppose that I will have to harvest them myself! So with these grapes I will make some 'Roman' wine - in amphora of course :)

I will also be making more "Roman Slave Juice". Last year as an experiment, I made about 50 bottles, and it was a great success - as far as experiments go. Pliny the Elder (what a guy!) gives a recipe for making this 'wine' which was given to the slaves. Here it is:

So this year I plan on making a lot more. Over the course of the the year I took samples to a few wine fairs and it went down a bomb!

OK, OK, here's the translation:

These cannot properly be termed wines, which by to the Greeks are known under the name of "deuteria," and to which, in common with Cato, we in Italy give the name of "lora," being made from the husks of grapes steeped in water. Still, however, this beverage is reckoned as making one of the "labourers'" wines. There are three varieties of it: the first is made in the following manner:—After the must is drawn off, one-tenth of its amount in water is added to the husks, which are then left to soak a day and a night, and then are again subjected to pressure. A second kind, that which the Greeks are in the habit of making, is prepared by adding one-third in water of the quantity of must that has been drawn off, and after submitting the pulp to pressure, the result is reduced by boiling to one-third of its original quantity. A third kind, again, is pressed out from the wine-lees; Cato gives it the name of "fæcatum". None of these beverages, however, will keep for more than a single year.

Good night all. Tomorrow is another day :)

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Albillo and Doré Harvests 2017

Well, that’s the Albillo and Doré harvests all done again for this year! Now I have a break of about two weeks until the other varieties kick in (Garnacha, Tempranillo, Airén, Sauv blanc, Malvar, Chelva, Villanueva) and then it’ll be constant harvesting/crushing/pressing for about four weeks.

The harvests were (and will be) pretty bad this year in Sierra de Gredos. There was a massive hailstorm on 8th-9th July which lasted for about 24 hours, and it destroyed at least 50% of the crop over the whole region, and some vineyards even more. Some growers I’ve spoken to have said that they’re not even going to bother harvesting the grapes that are left. I think I’ve been lucky as on average as I’ve ‘only’ lost about 50% ish. My worst affected vineyard was a small Albillo plot, which last year gave me 900 kg, and which this year gave me 6 cases, ie 120 kg!  Instead of just mixing these grapes in with the rest of my Albillo, I kept them separate and am going to make a special carbonic maceration wine with them J

Harvesting Albillo in Sierra de Gredos on 6th August
The rest of my Albillos are fermenting nicely, in stainless steel. I harvested the first plot on 6th August and that one has in fact already finished doing its tumultuous fermentation, ie boiling away violently and making foam. Now it’s probably still fermenting away slowly though there’s no visible or audible activity. It is in fact quite drinkable already! And the other day on 20th August I actually had a tasting of it with a possible new importer! The first tank tasting of the year! Surely that’s a record? Tasting a ‘wine’ only 14 days after its harvest.

Slaves crushing/destemming the master's Albillo

Female slave diligently ensuring that grapes fall into basket
The master himself actually getting his hands dirty, and sticky

Pressing off the Albillo two days later
Albillo fermenting violently and making foam in stainless steel
Albillo fermenting in tinaja
Albillo in the glass on 18th August
But it’s not all doom and gloom on the Albillo front. Happily I managed to buy in 1000 kg to make up for the hail storm losses. I got them from the same grower that I buy my Doré from. So I’ll be able to make my usual 2000 bottles of ‘Alba’ again this year.

The Doré is fermenting nicely too, in stainless steel, after two days maceration on the skins. Production is down about 50% due to hailstorm damage, so there will only be about 1000 bottles of ‘Doris’ this year L

But enough technical details. Time to move on to the interesting anecdotes!

The grower that I habitually buy my Doré from (and also Albillo this year), one José, from El Tiemblo, age 84, is quite a character; and he accompanied me and the pickers as we were harvesting. He didn’t actually cut grapes or haul crates, given his age, but he patrolled up and down keeping a beady eye on us as we worked. He would walk the rows that we had picked and come back with an armful of bunches that we had missed and give us a telling off! As any grapes left of the wine, he wouldn’t get paid for!!! He would also berate us for breaking a cane while trying to access the dfficut hidden bunches, and such! The pickers ended up calling him ‘el policía’ (the policeman) and he called them ‘holgazanes inutiles’ (useless loafers). All good fun stuff to break the monotony of sweating under a hot Castilian sun!

He also accompanied us to the bodega to watch us unloading and weighing the grapes. We stacked the crates on the weighing machine 6 at a time, I read the gauge and noted down the kilos. … remove the 6 crates, stack the next 6, read the gauge, note down kilos, repeat until done. At one point during this process José comes up to me, mumbles something unintelligible to me, shows me a handful of tiny grapes, laughs and walks away again! ??? I’ve always found him difficult to understand even at the best of times, let alone when hot and flustered and sweating after 6 hours of picking and hauling! So I just ignored and carried on stacking and weighing. (Even after +25 years of living in Spain and speaking perfect Spanish, it still happens on occasions that I can’t understand something!).

Anyway, after we’d finished (and José had left with his receipt) I invited the pickers to a beer and of course we started gossiping about him! “Did you see how the old bugger took a grape from each case?” one picker asked me. “Yeah, he showed me. What was that all about?” I replied. The picker laughed “Ha ha, he was checking that you didn’t try to cheat him!” What? How? The picker explained: he would take a grape from each case that went onto the weighing machine and then at the end he would count them to see that the number of grapes was the same as the number of cases I wrote on his receipt! What! No way! Surely not! What a mistrustful old coot! Even after me regularly buying and faithfully paying for his Doré year after year! Well, there you go, it takes all sorts, I suppose!

And to think that really could have cheated him really easily. All I had to do was to note down a few kilos less for each case, and there was no way he could have checked because his eyesight is not so good and he couldn’t read the gauge directly himself!

Anyways, more good clean harmless stuff I suppose. I have no hard feeling on account of his mistrust of me. He’s probably had a hard life and no doubt really has been cheated on many occasions!

We ended up having quite a few beers that day J

So, summing up the state of play after the Albillo and Doré harvests, I would say “So far so good.” No major or minor mishaps, I haven’t made any silly mistakes, the wines are doing fine, so I’m well pleased really. And that’s about it.

The weighing machine

Wednesday 17 May 2017

La Gatta Mormigliana and other Wines

Cera na volta … La Gatta Mormigliana, coi denti de ferro ei baffi d’acciaio
Viveva in una grotta profonda e diceva: “Chi vien giù lo mangio”

Once upon a time there was La Gatta Mormigliana, with iron teeth and steel whiskers
She lived in a deep cave and said: “If you come in I’ll eat you”

So begins the tale of the Gatta Mormigliana. And pretty scary it is too, especially for the children of Barga and Sommocolonia! Including me!

I was surprised that a search in Google for La Gatta Mormigliana brings up zero results (except for my own label), - not a single entry about the tale itself. I guess I’ll just have to write it up myself and upload it. Maybe this summer, I’ll get my Dad to recite it to me like he did all those years ago when I was little J

Well, this is the label:

I’ll be using it for all my Tempranillo wines, all vintages. The vintage itself will be on the back-label. That way I don’t need to print different versions of the front label showing a different year. In fact it would be illegal for me to do so! The law says that if you are not a paid up member of a Denominacion de Origen (Appellation) then you are not allowed to write the year of the vintage. Neither are you allowed to write the grape variety or the name of the village/region you made the wine in. Go figure!

So the year and the grape variety are “encoded” or “hidden” in the lot number on the back-label. Eg,”Lot Number: L-Temperanillo16”.  Spot the deliberate spelling mistake so as to comply with the legislation!

Apart from the Gatta Mormigliana for the Tempranillo, I also have Doris for my ChasselasDoré wines:
This variety is originally from Switzerland and somehow got established in Sierra de Gredos a few hundred years ago. That makes it native or autochthonous I reckon. Locally it’s called just Doré (without the Chasselas), hence Doris J

There are not many vineyards of Doré left, and they are mostly around Cebreros, as opposed to El Tiemblo. I know of only one other producer who makes wine with Doré, and that’s Ruben Diaz who makes a wine called “Chass!” (Geddit? Chasselas?). All the other grapegrowers just send their Doré to the local co-op or bulk wine producer where it gets mixed in with everything else.

And my third nice label is Alba:

No prizes for guessing that Alba is for my Albillo Real wines!

Albillo real is used by quite a few local producers. After Garnacha, it is in fact the insignia grape variety of Sierra de Gredos. Even so it is quite difficult to get hold of. Firstly it is also used as a table grape as it’s sweet and aromatic and very nice to eat. It’s an early ripening variety (early to mid August) so there’s even more incentive to sell it for eating as opposed to selling it for winemaking). And it’s the preferred variety that  birds like to eat! All this adds up to it being an expensive grape.
But it’s worth the effort and expense. 

The resulting wines are generally interesting, complex and delicious. 

Not to be confused with Albillo Mayor, which is a completely different grape and not nearly so interesting or aromatic (apologies to any Albillo Mayor producers, mais c’est la vie!).

A few centuries ago, they used to make a sweet wine with Albillo Real, and it was called ‘vino precioso’. The only producer that I know of who makes this style of wine is Daniel Ramos, in El Tiemblo.

And so, slowly but surely over the coming years, I’ll be replacing all my remaining labels, one for each grape variety. I’ve been advised that I should pick a ‘theme’ and create a consistent, coherent and recognizable Vinos Ambiz brand, with minor variations to distinguish the different wines and grape varieties. But I don’t think I’m going to do that. I’m going to do totally separate styles for each wine. Probably a bad idea marketing-wise, but who knows?

I’ll probably do a few more Art Nouveau labels, just because I like that style so much. And maybe something Gothic and something ‘punky’, because I like that too. But also other styles too, maybe even some serious ones, which I haven’t even got round to thinking about yet. Time will tell. I have so much other stuff to be getting on with, that I’ll be happy if I can do 1 or 2 labels a year J


Artist who did the Gatta Mormigliana and Alba: Francesco de Aguilar Milanese

Artist who did Doris: Mattia de Iulis

Aspiring artists who may be interested in doing a future wine label, feel free to contact me.

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.

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