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Wednesday 16 October 2013

Harvest Report 2013 (Part 2): Yay, Everything is Falling into Place

Following on from my previous (rather pessimistic) harvest report, here is my second more optimistic one:

Well, in the end, everything seems to be working out just fine, though not exactly according to plan, and it's been chaotic, hard work, and extremely satisfying and fun.

But before I start on the nitty-gritty of the harvest itself, I would really like to comment on the following. I've just read a post on Tony Coturri's blog (here) in which he reflects on

" ...the the mindlessness of monoculture. Grapes in trucks, day and night, running here and there. Where’s the rest of the crops? ...   ...  Where’s the organics and biodynamics in all this? Where’s the thoughtfulness in all this? Should there not be trucks of apples, walnuts, pears, peaches, tomatoes, grains, corn and vegetables flying along the roads? ..."

Well, where I am, in central Spain (Sierra de Gredos), it's similar, but different from California, where he's based. In fact, it may well be worse here!  What I've been seeing here is disaster, poverty, generalized depression and economic recession. Vineyards being abandoned or uprooted. I think rural Spain in general, and rural Spain based on grape-growing and wine-making in particular is suffering from a double economic whammy; one is the generalized economic and political crisis here in Spain, which is not showing any signs of ending, and the other is of the specific wine sector which apart from the above is also suffering from its lack of ability to adapt to changing markets and social wine-buying habits. The co-ops and large volume producers are in a hole but they're still digging! They don't seem to realize that the days of producing millions of liters of cheap table wine are gone, in the past, never to return again. Once, a few decades ago, it was a good thriving business to be in, but not any more. This is why so many co-ops have gone bankrupt (and why I've been able to rent such a magnificent building to make my own wine in!). So the result is that these co-ops and volume producers are no longer able to absorb all the grapes produced in the region, because they can't sell so much cheap table wine, especially competing with new world table wines, which are often cheaper and of better quality!! And so they pay less and less, and later and later, for the grapes, forcing many grape-growers to abandon or uproot their vineyards; often ancient vines over 100 years old. A tragedy, imho.

But it seems to be even worse than that. I say that because it's not a mono-culture in Gredos, like Tony Coturri says it's like in California. I see all sorts of orchards and fields and other crops, like olives, tomatoes, figs, prickly pears, even pine-nut bearing pinetrees. But it all seems to be under-utilized or even abandoned altogether. Many vineyards that I've visited actually have olive and fig trees growing in amongst the vines, but the fruit is left to fall and rot. One owner told me that he gives the figs to a neighbour for his pigs! The opportunity do something here is huge, not only with the grapes and wine (which I fully intend to do) but also with other products. The terroir (or potential terroir, I should say) is just tremendous.

Back to the nitty-gritty of my harvest report

This was my favourite day so far, from last Saturday 12th October.

On the day before, I was up before the crack of dawn, and by 8:00 in the morning (dawn) I was in the Malvar vineyard (in Villarejo) with two pickers, a van and 100 small, stackable crates. We picked all day, with a short break for lunch, and by sunset we were done, though we didn't have time to finish; 6 rows of 40 vines were left, as I miscalculated the quantity of grapes, and really needed another picker. So, on the Saturday 12th, again I was up at the crack of dawn to start processing the Malvar. I decided to make 'orange' style with all of it, so I destemmed and crushed it all, and poured it into three amphorae ('tinajas') and one open-top barrel. This also sounds quite straight-forward and easy, but it really is quite hard work - you have to manually lift, move, and tip over a hundred cases of grapes (15-20 kg each) for hours on end...!
Anyway, at last the end was in sight, and the last case of grapes was processed just in time for lunch (it was about 15:30). We all went round to Casa Mariano, which is in fact right next to the bodega, and our patios are separated by a wall! I'd just downed a beer and some aperitivos/taps, and the 1st course had just arrived when my phone rang, and it was a lorry driver who was parked just outside the bodega! My amphoras had arrived!  Great timing!  So I took a final quaff of beer and one more steamed mussel, threw my napkin on the chair and said "I'll be back!".

And there was in fact a lorry loaded with four amphorae waiting there. This was a bit of a surprise for me, and is quite typical of the way things work here in Spain I've found. For a few weeks ago, the possibility of buying these amphorae came up and I said that I 'would' be interested in general, if the price were right, if they were in good condition, and if the transport were included, etc, and that was the last I heard about it.

Lorry loaded with 'tinajas' (amphorae)

Unloading one of the big amphorae

Me, posing and pretending to hold up an extremely heavy amphora!!!

I don't know if buying these amphorae was a wise decision or not. Due to their size, they are going to be difficult to work with and to clean. We shall see.

Two big and two little tinajas
In the photo above you can see the two big ones alongside the little ones to the right, which are already full of crushed Malvar destined to become 'orange' wine if all goes well.

Anyway I did get back to the restaurant after about three hours. Everyone was already on the coffee and post-prandial liqueurs (orujo), but the staff had kindly kept my 'merluza con patatas', and they reheated it for me, so at least I got to eat something!

'Fixing' the bung-hole
The photo above is actually from more recently but I think it fits in nicely here. After pumping in some water to check the leaktightness of the cork which I inserted and banged in hard with a piece of wood, I could see that in fact it leaked! Over the years, the edges of the bung-hole had eroded or chipped away and the cork didn't make a perfect seal, and there was a slight but steady drip, drip drip clearly visible. What to do? I had no idea how to repair a degraded seal on an old amphora!!!

The following anecdote is amazing! The man you see in the photo (setting fire to my amphora!) is Antonio, and he's a local grape-grower. That day he was delivering some Tempranillo, and I mentioned my problem to him. He thought for a few seconds and said "Let me just call my Dad  - he'll know what to do".  It turns out that his Dad, now over 80 years old and retired, used to work as the 'bodeguero' (cellar manager) for the very bodega that I'm now renting!!!!

After chatting to his Dad for a few minutes he said "OK, no problem, I'll just nip home to pick up some 'tea'". What?  Well it turns out that 'tea' (pronounced Tay-Ah) is a special piece of resinous wood that gives off loads of smoke when burnt. I still don't understand how it worked, but after burning a piece of 'tea' under the cork, it stopped leaking! Anyone know anything about this?

Apart from all that ...

Not all days are so interesting, obviously, and in fact most of them were just getting up early, harvesting or processing grapes all day, and going to bed late;  with nothing interesting whatsoever to write about!!!

This is what I've managed to process so far (either dry, or still fermenting, or awaiting further processing):

- Albillo, from El Tiemblo
- Tempranillo, from Carabaña
- Chelva (A and B), from El Tiemblo
- Garnacha, from Sotillo
- Sauvignon Blanc, from Cebreros
- Malvar, from Villarejo
- Garnacha, from El Tiemblo

Still pending are two harvests: my own Airén from Carabaña, and a plot of some quite organic Tempranillo from El Tiemblo.

In the end, I'm happy with the results of the year so far. Even though all the grapes are not yet harvested, I think I'll have made about 10,000 bottles of wine by the time it's all over. I hope.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Harvest Report 2013: Dammit, Everything is Going Wrong this Year!

Well, not everything, but it's hard to be objective when all sorts of sh** happens every day!

I really shouldn't complain, because, despite everything, I've managed to find an awesomely beautiful and spacious bodega (winery) which has infinite possibilities, and which only requires a bit of time, thinking, and planning to make a go of. In the meantime, though, short term, many things are going pear-shaped, and my wine plans (such as they are) seem to be changing every other day. I've made a big effort this year to be rigorous and systematic, and to actually write things down on paper, but I wonder why I bother, as every day brings an new 'event', phone call, circumstance or whatever, that radically changes all my previous plans.

My awesomely beautiful and spacious bodega!
 Anyway, whatever. Here's my latest status, as of today:

Grapes in, wines made, wines being made:

1. Albillo. This year, I made my first ever lot of Albillo. Seeing I've just moved into my new bodega in El Tiemblo, in the Gredos mountain range, I just had to make some Albillo. It seems that this is a variety that is in danger of extinction, as only a few winemakers use it. The problem is that it's also used as a table grape, and is very expensive and difficult to find. I was only able to find a small lot of about 400 kg at the last minute (see this previous post of mine). The wine I made is now practically dry, or perhaps still fermenting very slowly, as I can get a slight whiff of CO2 when I stick my nose into the tank. I don't know what it's going to be like, but I think it will be OK and will only get better after the cold of winter. The fermentation was fast and hot, as I wasn't able to keep it cool, due to 'circumstances'. Next year I will definitely do at least two different experiments. Live and learn. And enjoy!

2. Tempranillo from Carabaña. I harvested it a few weeks ago, last Sunday 22 September. Lovely bunches, totally healthy, not a single symptom of mildew or anything else. I was well pleased. I destemmed and crushed the bunches by hand, and the wine is still fermenting slowly on its skins. The last reading I took a few days ago showed a density of 1020, so almost finished. I've been punching the cap down once a day (and sometimes no times at all). That's not a lot by present day standards, but I don't really want to extract it to death. Nice and easy does it :)  I think I'll press it off over the next few days, before the weekend, maybe. There's only enough to make one barrica (225 liters, or 300 bottles) of Crianza.

3. Chelva. This is a local white variety that grows mostly in Extremadura, but which is found around El Tiemblo too. It's a variety that is looked down upon and frowned upon. It's used for table grapes and has a very negative cultural and vinous reputation. But hey, so does Airén, and I've managed to make a pretty mean and interesting Airén over the past 10 years, which sells very well and generates positive feedback for me, so who's to say I can't do the same with Chelva? There's only one way to find out, isn't there? So I'm doing several different experimental lots this year:

- Chelva Experiment #1. Carbonic Maceration. On Wed 18th September I sealed up a 300 liter tank with selected whole bunches of Chelva. It's still sealed as I write today. Soon, I'll check it out and decide what to do.

- Chelva Experiment #2. Frutteto style. Acting on the good advice of fellow winemaker Daniel Ramos (with whom I'm sharing the new bodega), I laid out about 500 kg of bunches upstairs on the 1st floor of the bodega, in order to dry them out a bit and increase the sugar concentration. They lay there for about two weeks and the other day I also crushed and pressed them, and they had indeed increased in sugar concentration. The reading I got showed 12.5% of probable alcohol; which seems rather a big increase, so I'm suspecting that one of the two reading may have been a bit off.

- Chelva Experiment #3. Crushed and left soaking on the skins, 'orange wine' style. That's about two weeks skin-contact time. This could well be one of the experiments that go wrong. The sugar content was very low and hence the probable alcohol level - only about 10.5%. This could well be lost to acetic acid. I did in fact have a close shave, as the other day when I opened the lid to check the cap, I got a huge whiff of vinegar. To be expected I suppose, with no added SO2, and such low level of alcohol. But all was not lost, it was only in the cap, as the wine I tasted from the tap at the bottom of the tank was OK. So I separated the cap, threw it out, and pressed the rest of rest of the skins.

After all that, I decided to blend the 'frutteto' and the 'carbonic maceration'). The regular vinegary lot, I doused with metabisulfite (about 40 mg/l), and sealed the tank hermetically. I don't know what will happen, maybe it'll turn to vinegar after all, or maybe it will survive. I'll check it every couple of days. Maybe I`ll blend it in turn with the other already blended lot of Chelva.

I was going to do more experiments with Chelva but I won't be able to now. This is because the grapegrower I bought the grapes from is completely unreliable and I couldn't get him to harvest on the dates I wanted.  For some reason or another he unilaterally decided to harvest one day (19th September) and appeared at the door of the winery with almost 1000 kg of grapes. Now if I had been a hard-nosed business-first type of person I would have told him to get lost and sell his grapes to someone else, and that I didn't want grapes with a probable alcohol level of 10.5%; but I don't know why, I took his grapes!

Actually, I'm even more pissed off with that grower because there was another 1000 kg left in the vineyard, which I intended to harvest this weekend, but which now I can't, because he's gone back on his word and he's decided to use it to make some wine himself!  What a disaster! Basically I end up with 1000 kg of grapes that I didn't want, and I don't get the 1000 kg of the grapes I did want!

All I can say is that I won't be buying any grapes off him next year. In fact, I'm even more pissed off, if possible, because I turned down another local Chelva grower who offered to sell me his grapes! Grrrrrrr.

4. Garnacha from Sotillo de la Adrada. Last week, Sat 28th and Sun 29th September, I harvested three different plots of Garnacha. It was hairy. The weather here in Spain that weekend was weird. They were calling for rain, but not too much. To harvest or not to harvest? In the end I decided to harvest, because 2 of the plots were ripe and had to be harvested, and if we got wet, well, we got wet! In the end we were very lucky, because we only got rained on a little on Saturday morning, and not at all after that. So I took in about 2000 kg, all of which I've decided to ferment whole-bunch carbonic maceration. And there they lie, fermenting carbonically, as I write.

Harvests Pending

1. My own Airén, in Carabaña. I checked it out the other day and it's showing just over 11% probable alcohol, which is not a lot really, cansidering the time of year. I'm going to leave it for another week to see how it goes. It was lloking really good, totally healthy, no signs of any rot or mildew or anything. Touch wood!

2. My own Malvar, in Villarejo. It was showing 12% probable le alcohol, so I'm going to leave it for another 10 days / two weeks too. In contrast to the Airén, the Malvar was rather uneven. There were lots of vines that had ripe or ripening bunches and at the same time bunches with tiny immature berries. Very irregular.

3. Tempranillo, El Tiemblo. A nice plot of organic Tempranillo (officially uncertified but grown by a trustworthy grower), which was at a probable 13% last week, but still unripe.

4. Garnacha, from El Tiemblo. Also uncertified organic. Only showing 12% last week, so probably another 2 weeks to go.

5. Maybe an extra surprise that I'm not expecting? I wouldn't be surprised :)

Apart from all that

Now apart from all the above unknowns, I also have other complications or "challenges" to deal with over the next few days or weeks.

Firstly, adding up all the kilos of grapes that will be coming in, I don't currently have enough storage capacity to process them all! This is incredible and/or ironic, but true, as I'm installed in bodega with a theoretical capcity of 1.2 million liters of wine, in the form of concrete tanks (of 16,000 liters each). The problem is that I can't really use them, as I don't have enough grapes/wine to fill even one of them, and it's very risky to only partially use a tank (especially a concrete one). Because of the oxygen contact and possible contamination from the walls of the unused part. So basically I have to buy a few thousand liters of capacity in the form of bins, containers, tanks, whatever. And my only practical option is plastic, because of the price. I would prefer stainless steel, or clay pots, but the cost would be prohibitive for me. I'm almost tempted to do a crowd-sourcing thing, to finance the purchase of say, 4 or 5 1000 liter stainless steel tanks or clay amphorae, but I just couldn't deal with that now. Maybe next year.

Secondly, I don't own a van, so I either have to borrow one from a friend, or rent one. Or not, depending on whether the grapes are ripe or not!

Thirdly, I don't own any cases for harvesting the grapes! I've always borrowed them. This is ridiculous really, and I ought to just go and buy some; there're not even that expensive! So it depends on whether my friends/acquainances are using their cases or not.

- Fourthly, labour!  Whether to hire a few professionals for the day, or to invite friends and family? That is the question.

So, all things considered...

Writing a post like this is very therapeutic for me, because it actually really does put things into perspective. It's very easy, in the middle of the harvesting season, to lose sight of the bigger picture, and small insignificant details can take on utterly ridiculous proportions and make you lose the plot and/or obsess about trivialities! I think it's important to maintain your grace under pressure. It doesn't matter if it all doesn't go 100% according to plan. Like someone once said "No plan ever survives contact with the enemy". And anyway, it's not like this is making war, it's just making wine! Though it is a bit like being a general, or a film director at times, because you are the person who's ultimately responsible for everything, and you're surrounded by people (be they friends/family, be thsy hired help) who are constantly looking to you for decisions, orders and answers to their questions. If you happen to be a general or a film director and you do this kind of thing every day, then I suppose it's easy, but if you only do it once a year, then it's hard to keep on the straight and narrow, to keep that grace under pressure.

Also, I think wine is a slow business, and I don't want to over-expand too fast. I'd rather go slowly and keep the same level of quality that I've been keeping over the years, than throw it all overboard in a year. I think this will be a good year for me, no matter what happens with the rest of the harvests. I have an awesome bodega in the middle of an undiscovered, traditional, wine-producing, terroir-rich, mountain range! It's all up to me to make the most of it now. Who cares if if I got a hair in my soup, or got 1000 kg of Chelva that I didn't really need?

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