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Wednesday 17 December 2014

Natural Wine Catastrophe

In contrast to my second-last post (Visits, Tastings, Wine Fairs and Other Jollys), which was all about the good times, this one is about the bad things which have happened to me recently. 

Specifically, it’s about how my wines have turned into vinegar this year! Just a few weeks ago I had yet another lot go bad on me (this time about 2000 liters of Garnacha from Sierra de Gredos), which I poured down the drain.

Needless to say I've been thinking a lot about the possible causes of this series of acetic events. Why so many instances this year (4 different lots) when I've been making wine in the same way for 12 years, and only one lot ever turned into vinegar in all that time (back in 2008 I think)?

Well, I won't bore you with all my thoughts and theories and ramblings over the past few weeks ... I'll just come straight out with what I think has happened:

- (1) The major difference between what I'm doing now, and what I was doing back in the 'old days' is that nowadays I'm making a lot more wine, and a lot more different types of wines. I used to just make about two or three thousand bottles of Airén plus 2 barricas of Tempranillo crianza. But now I'm making about 12,000 bottles of at least 10 different wines plus assorted mini-experiments. This must be a significant factor somehow. I obviously can't just carry on doing the same things as I was doing before

- (2) I don't have so much time to look after each wine and do what has to be done at the right time as I did before, due to a number of different circumstances

- (3) I still don't have airtight pneumatic lids for all my tanks. Maybe if there is a source of contamination somewhere in the bodega, it's easier for the vinegar bacteria ("acetobacter") to get into the tanks if they're not sealed properly?

The fact is that all my containers and assorted equipment and machinery is not the result of careful planning based on expected needs. It is in fact the complete opposite! Everything I own was bought incrementally year after year whenever I happened to have some spare cash available. Thus some years I bought a stainless steel tank, including hermetic seal, and some years I could only afford the tank but not the lid.

- (4) I don’t have enough stainless steel tanks (with or without hermetic lids); I have to use open top plastic containers, open top oak barrels (which I opened up myself), and ceramic amphorae, which are difficult to close off in an airtight manner. So I will have to think about that little problem too.

One thousand liters going down the drain

So, conclusions:

1. I'm going to invest in airtight lids for all my tanks, even though it will be hideously expensive. Though perhaps not as expensive as pouring thousands of litres of vinegary wine down the drain!

2. I'm going to become even cleaner and more hygienic than usual. Not sure how, but I'll think of what can be done in that area, over the course of the year.

C'est la vie. And the bright side?

Well, I can't think of anything positive about this at the moment. I'm really angry and upset and depressed :(   But I'm sure I'll get over it!  Any helpful suggestions would be most welcome.

Actually, there is one thing that is helping to cheer me up, even though it’s got nothing to do with the lessons to be learned from the above. It’s that I’ve just received an order for a mixed pallet of wines (mostly Garnacha) from ... wait for it ... from France! Amazing! I still can’t quite believe it! Coals to Newcastle and Grenache to France, what? :)

The importer is Thierry Puzelat, a well-known winemaker based in the Loire, who has also started to distribute other wines. I can’t wait to find out where my wines end up, hopefully some interesting wine bars in Paris :)

I strongly suspect this will be my last post this year, so on that happy note ... Merry Christmas, everyone, and I hope you all drink some interesting wines over the holidays :)

Monday 6 October 2014

Back-Label Feedback

I got some ‘interesting’ feedback recently from some #winelovers on FaceBook. See this comment thread.

My first reaction to these comments was great surprise and incomprehension, because it wasn't at all what I was expecting. And now that a few days have passed and I’ve had plenty of time to think it over and prepare replies in my mind, etc, … my second reaction is still great surprise and incomprehension!

But first things first. Here’s the offending back-label itself:

Before replying to all the comments in the thread, here are my reasons and motives for designing and using such a label:

1. First and foremost in my mind and overridingly most important to me is the “labelling issue” for wine. As I’m sure you all know, wine (for whatever reason) is exempt from the labelling requirements that all other food and drink products have to comply with. I consider this to be against consumers’ best interests.

I believe that this class of legislation is passed with the consumers interests in mind. In fact, surely it’s the only reason that such legislation exists in the first place? Otherwise we would be back in the nineteenth century where producers could do exactly as they liked with no regard whatsoever to consumers’ health and safety!
Things have moved on a bit since but the same basic principle applies, and consumers now have a right to know what’s in their product, so that they can make an informed choice on whether to purchase it or not.

So I decided to voluntarily publish the list of ingredients in my wines and processing that I subjected them to, and not to wait for the lawmakers to make it obligatory. (I reckon it will be a long time before that happens, given the strength of the industrial lobbies and the weakness of consumer interest lobbies!).

2. Secondly, I was hoping that such a gesture would generate some publicity in a legitimate and productive manner. Productive because it would stimulate some debate and inspire people to think about the labelling issue; and legitimate because I haven’t deceived readers or distorted the truth in any way, I’ve just given bare facts.

So, onto the comments themselves:

Here’s the first one from Magnus Reuterdahl:
“It’s not a label that sells a wine though it could be used for samples!”

Magnus, yes, you are probably right, but my objective in using this label wasn’t to sell wine. I am a very small producer (about 15,000 bottles of about 8 different wines) and so I can easily sell all my production every year, without need of any crazy marketing gimmicks!

Next up was a mini-sub-thread from Suzanne Werth-Rosarius, Sam Jorgensen and Ryan Opaz:

Suzanne: “my translation of the label is: whatever it tastes like, you should drink it because it’s ecologically and morally correct.”

Sam: “Is natural wine intrinsically more “moral” than other wine? Highly doubtful, if you ask me.”

Suzanne: “I guess that’s what he wants to make us believe.”

Sam: “Moreover, drinking only natural wine is as bloody-minded a philosophy as the concept that all natural wine is bad.”

Ryan: “... I would have to say I think it’s pretty silly too, but there is a demand for it.”

Sam: “It’s certainly what he wants us to believe. It’s still a ridiculous assertion."

Suzanne: “Sam, or the other way around, that all ‘non-natural’ wine is bad.  Btw, is there any wine that is not natural? Grapes are natural products. Full stop.”

Sam: “Exactly. The militancy some people have means they miss out on some incredible wine, which is a massive price to pay.”

What? I beg your pardon? Where on earth does it say that I want you all to believe that natural wine is more moral? I have never said any such thing, anywhere, anytime, let alone on this back-label, which after all is just a list of bullet points!

As the sensible and rational #winelover that I like to think I am, I obviously agree that it is silly and bloody-minded to hold such radical philosophies, but my question remains: “Why this leap of logic from an information-loaded back-label, which can only be of benefit to consumers, to questions of morality, radical philosophies and militancy? (which are of course extremely interesting topics - but I didn't mention them on the label!)

Susan Hadbled:
"It certainly is a statement. A niche would like to see detailed labelling. Think it’s gone too far.”

Yup, it’s a statement alright! But you think “it’s gone too far”?  It hasn’t even started going anywhere yet! At the moment winemakers are totally except from listing the ingredients they put into their wines, unlike producers of any other food or drink product. Consumers just do not have the information they need in order to choose if they want to buy or not.

Perhaps I have gone too far with this particular back-label, in that I’ve also listed what I didn’t put in. But that was just to make my point! If winemakers were required to list their ingredients, then they would have to expressly list all those substances (that I haven’t used). And then, with that information, consumers could decide whether to buy or not.

Sarah May Grunwald:
"If you have to spend the money on a label like this maybe the wine ain’t so good. I only drink natural wine but this is kind of douche”

Sarah, I hardly spent any money at all on this label! I wrote it myself on a Word file and the printer is a friend who gave me a very good rate. In any case I don’t see any connection between the cost of a label (pretty or awful) with the wine inside. What’s one thing got to do with the other?

“I totally believe in ingredient labeling on wine, consumers should know what is IN the wine but not what is NOT”

Couldn’t agree more. This is the whole point of the label! :)  Perhaps you’re right, in that it may be excessive to list what’s NOT in my wine, but no harm done I think. If and when the legislation forces winemakers to list the ingredients in their wines, then it will certainly no longer be necessary.

Mafalda Bahía Machado:
“The most important question is: Is the wine good? “Natural” wines are a good concept, and also good marketing, but if it is not good, then for me it does not matter if it is “natural”!

Yup, I agree 100%.  By my book, ‘natural’, ‘organic’ ‘sustainable’ or any concept, philosophy or process you care to mention is no excuse for bad wine.

Alfonso Fernandes Marques:
“ridiculous stuff ... typical wine wacko...”

I’m sorry Alfonso, but I’m anything but a wine wacko. Just read my blog posts, or any third-party interview with me, and you’ll see what a normal, reasonable, unradical, person I am!

Jonathan Hesford:
 “It’s what I would call over-egging the cake”

Yes, you’re right, but until the legislation changes and makes ingredient listing obligatory, then there’s no harm in exaggerating, is there.  It’s a bit like the “Critical Bike” people who demand more facilities for cycling in cities, by riding through town naked!  There’s no actual need to go naked, but it helps draw attention to the problem they’re trying to solve! :)

Jai Arya:
“...Borders on militant differentiated marketing..!”  

I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I’ll take it as a compliment :)

Daniele Endrici:
” Who knows if it is drinkable...”

Who knows indeed? You personally may or may not like it, obviously. But even if my wines may not be to everybody’s taste, they are certainly acceptable to many people to the tune of about 15,000 bottles/year, which I regularly sell year after year. I’ve even had good reviews from conventional wine critics (for example, Luis Gutiérrez, from El Mundo newspaper, and Andrew Jefford, from Decanter magazine, who are hardly natural wine fanatics). And if you look at pictures of the inside of my bodega you’ll see lots of empty spaces, ie not piled up with unsold pallets of wine!

Marco Montez:
 “In processing, was electricity used for crushing, racking or pressing? That would certainly disqualify it from being 100% natural, right?”

Marco, I use electricity to power a hydraulic press and a motorized crusher, when I am processing big lots of the same grapes, ie over 2,000 kg. For racking all wines, even large lots, and for crushing and pressing small lots (less than 2,000 kg) I use manual non-electric machines. And I use electric lightbulbs so I can work when the sun is below the horizon! This post here, which I wrote back in March 2013 covers precisely this question.

Yes, depending on your definition of natural wine (because as we all know, there is no ‘official’ definition) no wines are 100% natural.  I have this fascinating theory/opinion about the “scale of naturalness” which you can read all about in this other post  :)

Dan Pastore:
“Geez...stop. Reminded me of something Einstein wrote “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” – Albert Einstein

You mean it’s meaningless to try to define natural wine ‘scientifically’? I think probably you are right. If ‘natural wine’ were ever to be legally defined, it would not be to everybody’s liking, taste or advantage, and you can be sure that within 2 days of that law being passed, a group of disgruntled winemakers, distributors and drinkers would some invent a new category for themselves using some other word.

Suzanne Werth-Rosarius (again):
“I drank a lot of non-sulphured wines which turned out to be completely undrinkable after only a couple of months. Do get me right: I think detailed labelling is absolutely important. What i find kind of absurd here is the wording.”

Sarah May Grunwald (again):
“Sarah, that is another topic. I have had many non-sulfured wines that last weeks after opening. Like conventional wine, there are great wines and awful wines”.

You said it, Sarah, and I agree “Like conventional wine, there are great wines and awful wines”, and it’s kinda really pointless to generalize individual wines that one has tasted to a whole category.

Suzanne Werth-Rosarius: 
“ ... talking wine is not for sissies!”

Right! I am so glad that I’m thousands of miles from you all, well protected by distance and behind a computer! I’m having to deal with a really awesome quantity of flak – just for printing lots of information on a label! Only joking! :)

Sjoerd de Jong:
 “Don’t take this too seriously. It’s a joke...”

Not a joke, I’m afraid!

Denis Andolfo:
“No mention on how they farm their vineyards...”

Alfonso, I follow organic practices in my vineyards, ie no chemicals.

 “no pesticides, no insecticides, etc. What I would also like to know is whether they treat their workers fairly.”

Suzanne, I don’t have any workers, except for myself, and I exploit myself brutally and mercilessly. I often force myself to work 12 or 14 hours/day and don’t pay myself any overtime. I regularly make myself work on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and over vacations, again with no overtime. In fact I don’t even pay myself regular wages, though I do faithfully pay my social security contributions to the Spanish government. But, seriously, I do manage about 3 ha of vineyards all by myself, and in addition I buy in grapes from local organic growers.

Dominic Lombard:
“Looks like a label sample or something that has a shitload of ingredients if you don’t read it.”

Yes, I suppose it does look crap. But I’m not a designer, or artist or marketing guru, and I also have really bad taste in clothes and art, so that’s that!

Philippe Joulkes:
“Love it!”

Hooray, at last, somebody likes my label! :)

Elisabetta Tosi:
“Well, at least you have something to read when you’re drinking it!”

Absolutely! Another positive aspect! :)

Markus Hammer:
“I’ve had so many non-sulfured wines that just tasted like oxydized crap that I really feel sorry for the grapes that ended up just becoming hipster vinegar. It’s not like adding 30 ppm SO2 suddenly kills any expression of terroir and I am really really getting tired of this merry jerry ride along the non-sulfur train.”

Yes, heard that one before, but as I answered to Sarah Grunwald above, some wines are good, and some are bad, no matter what category they are in. It’s should be patently obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that not ALL non-sulfered wines are neither awful nor awesome, and that we will find examples of awful and awesome wines across all categories. I absolutely agree that a touch of sulphites does no harm whatsoever.

As I said on the original comment-thread on FaceBook, I never release wines that show any signs of turning into vinegar. I would just die of embarrassment! I usually just pour such failed lots down the drain, but this year I decided to keep two small lots and really make some real vinegar! Watch this space! :)

Dominc Lombard (again):
"I might try and Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. I understand what you want to do but you have to present it in a simpler friendlier way. Fabio, are you going to the Peñín tasting on the 16th?” “Like a natural wine, less is more, at times”

Dominic, thanks for the advice, but I don’t need to or want to keep it simple. The reason for this horrible, ugly, oversized and outrageous label is to draw attention to the labeling problem, not to promote sales.
Yes, I hope to go to the Peñín tasting, if I can find a ticket for free! You going? You wouldn’t have a ticket for me, would you? :)

Mark Perlaki:
Regrdless of info, or contents of bottle, it looks like a wrinkly plaster. I applaud low-budget solutions and home labelling and it must survive refrigeration intact, but...

Yes OK, it’s horrible. In fact, it’s even worse that it should have been due to a last minute decision (after the labels had been printed) to use a Burgundy bottle for my Airén instead of a Bordeaux bottle. So, of course there is less flat space on a burgundy bottle on which to stick said massive label, and it didn’t quite fit! Not even after I’d manually chopped a few millimetres of top and bottom off of each and every labels using a paper guillotine. Live and learn. No more Burgundy bottles!

I have no idea if it can survive refrigeration in an ice bucket. I haven’t received any feedback on that point. (I dread to think!)

Rob Hansult:
“This “natural” irrational abhorance to technology (especially the rejection of 2000+ year-old use of sulphur) makes me sad.
BTW, in what desert are vinifer grapes grown with no fungacides? Characterising yeasts and bacteria as “industrial” is also a misnomer."

Rob, just for the record, I have no abhorrence of technology. In fact I quite like it! You may have noticed that I’m regular user of FaceBook, Twitter, email, I own a mobile phone, and watch TV sometimes. I have a car with an internal combustion engine, and I regularly ride on buses and trains.

Sulfur. I have been known to use sulphur in my vineyards, and even in my wines: see these posts if you don’t believe me: here and here. But the reason I don’t use sulphur by default, is not because I irrationally abhor it, but simply because my vineyards are blessed by such a benign climate that I don’t need to use any. And I generally don’t need to use any in my wines because I’ve found by experience over the past 10 years, that it’s enough to use top quality grapes and to keep all my equipment scrupulously clean.

I realize that a bit of SO2 also stabilizes wines so they don’t evolve over time, but I don’t mind that – in fact I like it! And I’ve had no complaints from my happy customers! And in addition, it’s like having two wines for the price of one: because it’s a totally different wine in June than it is in January! :)

Technology. I believe that we humans should use the technology that is most appropriate to the intended use. I think it’s irrational to use the latest technology just because it’s the latest. Is it inherently ‘better’ just because it’s the latest? For example, I’ve recently started using a hand-operated pump to rack my wines, instead of an electric motor. Why? Because it’s more appropriate and much more convenient for me. See this entire post which is all about my reasons for using this pump and my criteria for selecting the appropriate level of technology. Technology is mankind’s slave, not the other way around! See this post for some thoughts on technology and a nice pic of that pump!

Deserts. Vitis vinifera has grown in the wild in the north and south temperate zones of the planet for over 200 million years; that’s about 198 million years longer than homo sapiens has existed. Then it grew for another 2 million years without assistance from homo sapiens till about 8,000 years ago. Then it grew for about another 7,800 years without the use of fungicides produced in factories. Are you telling me that Vitis vinifera suddenly now needs homo sapiens’ chemicals?

I suppose one way to produce millions of litres of table wine is via intensive chemical viticulture, but it doesn’t seem like a very clean, efficient or sustainable way of going about things to me.

Industrial. It’s not really a misnomer, as the types of yeast and bacteria I’m referring to were created and packaged in a factory, ie an industry. True, these packages originally came from some particular strain from some particular location in nature, at some time or other in the past. But which strain? Which location? How long ago? I bet it doesn’t say on the label! I can be almost 100% certain that the strains in an industrial package of yeast were not local ones from Sierra de Gredos in Spain. So why should I use a strain from a distant unknown location? What’s wrong with the local strains anyway?

Sorry for such a long answer – nothing personal. It’s just that you managed to bring up four highly interesting topics in two short sentences! :)

Jan Kiegeland:
” Fabio, the label in the end does not tell anything about the wine. It does tell me a lot about you, which is fine. But: where does the wine come from? How do you work in the vineyard? What is your type of trellis? Type of soil? Don’t you have anything to say about the terroir, which makes the wine so special? Instead you blame other producers making industrial crap. I find it sad that some natural wine producers create their image by talking bad about others instead of pointing out their own strengths and USP.

Jeez! You mean you want me to put even more information on the label? I will have to sell my wines exclusively in magnums or bigger! The type of information you ask for is well covered in the Pages sections of my blog, at the top just under the header: here.

Actually, I don’t blame industrial producers of commodity table wines. I think that the wine world is big enough to accommodate all types of wines, including the niche natural wine sub-sub-category! I understand what you’re getting at, but it’s very difficult to walk that walk. Sometimes it’s easier to explain yourself in contrast to the mainstream, as opposed to just describing yourself in a vacuum as it were. This point is closely related to the labeling problem, as I think that most consumers believe that wine really is a natural product with no added ingredients - precisely because there is no information on the label!

Leah De Felice Renton:
"Why have the QR code if you’re going to squish it all on the bottle anyway? This looks terrible. And the wine looks like cider."

Yes, There was absolutely no point in including a QR code. It’s just that I still think that they look kind of cool! Like I said above I have really bad taste in clothes and art and stuff (so people tell me) so I just stuck it in!  Also, even worse, I believe that now you can just scan a label directly with your mobile and there’s an app that recognizes labels and takes you straight to the appropriate page! RIP QR Codes I suppose :)

And yes, I know it looks terrible - see my other responses above.

The wine looks like cider? And so...? Are you saying that I should filter it and/or clarify and attempt to imitate 99.9% of all other wines in the market? Surely there's nothing wrong with a bit of diversity? Many people are intrigued by the cloudiness and sediment and end up not bothering so much about the appearance. If you filter and/or clarify you remove interesting and 'good' aromas and tastes.


In conclusion, thank you all for your responses. I think I learnt more about other issues than about the labelling issue itself, which is what I was most concerned about. Still, all such knowledge is both interesting and welcome.

I wish I could send you all a bottle of wine, but I think it’s a bit impractical, especially for those of you living in the USA and other restrictive market countries. The bottles would just get confiscated by the Customs authorities. But if you ever come to Spain, you are all hereby invited to a comprehensive wine-tasting at my bodega :)

And please feel free to comment here below. I know it’s difficult to have in-depth complex debates online, but at least here on a blog, it’s better than a comment thread on FaceBook!

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Visits, Tastings, Wine Fairs and Other Jollys

Life as a small-time artisan winemaker is not all hard work and suffering. I hope I haven’t been giving that impression in all my posts here in this blog, and in all the stuff I post on FB and Twitter. It is of course hard going sometimes, and I do ask myself why I bother sometimes, but I suppose it’s compensated for by the good times, which I’m going to write about in this post!

Firstly I have to say that I enjoy meeting interesting and knowledgeable people in the wine world, and I believe that there are a lot of them about, and that I would meet even more if I got out and about more! But then maybe that’s why I enjoy the few occasions per year that I do get out and about. Maybe if I did it more I would get bored and blasé about it all! Who knows?

On the other hand I’ve never met any of those fabled wine-bores or wine-snobs. Do they really exist? Or are they just a sort of stereotyped urban-legend Jungian persona?

Anyway, getting to the point of this post, here’s Jolly #1:

H2O Vegetal, a natural wine fair held in the village of Pinell de Brai (Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain) back in July 2014.

This was a natural wine fair, which means that all the wines poured there were made with as little intervention as possible both in the vineyard and in the winery. In the vineyard, this means growing grapes with respect for the soil, water, environment, flora and fauna around the vineyard, via organic or biodynamic viticulture, or permaculture or any other system, or just simply not using pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and other chemicals which poison and kill life and soil and which endangers the health of workers and consumers, and degrades the fertility of the land due to the use of unsustainable practices and products.

In the winery it means not adding substances and chemicals to the must or wine in order to be able to produce industrial quantities of an alcoholic liquid known as ‘wine’ but which bears little resemblance to real, authentic, genuine, natural, terroir-expressing wine.

The above sounds pretty radical and I get a lot of aggro from many people in the wine world who think that I’m some sort of Taliban nutcase. But really, if you take a few minutes to think about it, all it boils down to, is making wine the way it’s been made for the last 8,000 years or so. Except for the last 150 years, since the industrial revolution, which is when wine started to get commoditized and produced industrially, just like many other food products. Like bread, for example.

Ever since a critical mass of people started living in cities and lost contact with direct production of their own food, the quality of the food produced for them by ‘industry’ has been much worse than the food they used to produce themselves locally. This process (the ‘industrial revolution’) started in England at the end of the 18th century and spread rapidly to the rest of Europe and the Americas (and Japan) during the 19th century.
One of the first cases of adulteration of food was in England in the 1790's when industrial bakers and distributors started adding alum and other ‘ingredients’ to the bread which they supplied to the mass market in London, to make it look whiter and to last longer in the supply chain. Its nutritional value was also greatly reduced as they promoted white bread (after removing the healthy nutritional germ and bran) because in that way they could store it for longer and transport it over greater distances.

The same sort of thing is happening with wine these days. One thing is ‘commodity’, ‘supermarket’ ‘industrial’ wine (about 90% of all the wine produced in the world) which is just an industrial product, churned out in factories run by process engineers and chemists and flavourologists and marketing managers. They make perfectly legal products most of the time except for when a minority of them get too greedy for profits and break the rules. In fact most of the time the product is perfectly drinkable and even delicious, because those flavourologists have been to university and they know exactly what chemicals to use to stimulate the taste buds on human tongues.

But as I was saying (before I got carried away there!), I was on my way to this natural wine jolly, where I was fully expecting to have a great time, to meet other like-minded producers, to drink lots of interesting terror-expressing wine from all over (not the world in this case) but just France, Italy and Catalonia!

So, on the morning of the 4th July I set off for El Pinell de Brai, a distance of 487 km from Madrid, according to Google Maps. My first stop was for a hearty breakfast at the local bar in my barrio, about 350 m from my house:

My favourite breakfast, and map

Mmmmm, this is my favourite breakfast:  coffee (café con leche) with toast + olive oil + tomato.

Note the printout, efficiently printed out the day before :)

Then it was a long boring drive for 300 km along the A-2 Barcelona highway. I reckon one highway is pretty much the same as any other highway anywhere in the world, so I’ll just skip over that bit!

Then at Zaragoza, turn right for another 200 km of secondary roads which were much more interesting.

This is the Monegros in Aragon:

This surely must have been an old Roman road, as they were notorious for building long straight roads. I swear this stretch was at least 30 km long without once crossing a village or anything else!

So I arrived in the evening at about 6 o’clock and of course the first thing one does when one arrives at a wine fair, is to ... have a beer!

It’s very important to do this as you have to calibrate your palate before all that wine tasting that you’re going to be doing over the next few days. In fact, it’s important to do it often, because if you are not a professional taster then you palate becomes uncalibrated very easily!

Below is a snapshot taken sometime during the next day, with Dutch importer Jan Borms and Spanish underwater wine producer Tom ???(surname?). I have to confess that I inveigled my way in to their tasting as Tom’s wines sell for over €50/bottle and so it was going to be the only way I’d ever get to taste it! :) That’s his ceramic bottle on the table – next to my own humble glass bottle :).

The spirit of the fair was just my cup of tea, as it were. Not a single corporate suit ‘n’ tie nor miniskirt ‘n’ high heels in sight. The ‘wine business’ was not here! Just small producers whose only ambition is to make honest, clean, unadulterated terroir-expressing wine, and importers and distributors who like to work with that kind of wine, and most important of all, normal people who love to drink that kind of wine.

I poured loads of wines and met lots of interesting people and tasted loads of interesting wines. What more can one ask for? Well, actually, despite having such a great time I even managed to sell some wine!!!! Firstly to the UK, via importer Tom Craven, who is just starting out, and who is a great guy and I believe he’ll promote my wines really well even though he can only order small quantities at the moment. And also to France, no less, via natural wine producer and distributor Thierry Puzelat, who came to taste through my wines and ordered a few hundred bottles of my Garnacha 2013 (from Sotillo, Sierra de Gredos). Coals to Newcastle, and Grenache to France, what? :) Also, more locally, I hope to be selling to Bar Brutal in Barcelona, and to distributors Cuvée 3000. We shall see!

So that was that. On Sunday 6th July I had to drive back to Madrid, and it was awful. I was extremely tired as I had only slept a few hours the previous two nights, and I had to keep stopping for caffeine and naps :(

Anyway, it was well worth the effort :)

Jolly #2 – Visit by Japanese Photographer

I was honoured to be called a few weeks ago by Keiko Kato and Maika Masuko asking if they could come and visit and take photos of me with my amphoras.

Maika’s webpage is here.

Here are some photos that I took of them!


And here's one Maika took of me:

It was a flying visit as they had a tight schedule. They were travelling all over Spain, interviewing and photographing winemakers who use amphorae (or ‘tinajas’ in Spanish), with a view to writing a book. So we met in the afternoon (they had another appointment in the morning) and went to see one of my vineyards near El Tiemblo. Then we went to the bodega to do a tasting.

Communication was difficult at first as we had no lingua franca that we were all comfortable in. I could do English, Italian and Spanish, and they could do Japanese and French. I could also do a bit of schoolboy French and they could do a bit of schoolgirl Italian and Spanish, so in the end we used a mish-mash of those three languages!

We tasted through quite a lot of my wines, and they could fair knock them back! They were just back from Georgia, so we moved on to Georgian too: ‘Gaumarjos’ which is ‘Cheers’ in Georgian . Yes, communication gradually became more fluid.

So we did a photo shoot with my amphorae and I answered questions about wine.

After dinner, in a lovely restaurant in El Tiemblo which I discovered by chance that very day, as the usual place I take visitors to was closed (La Bodeguita de Pilar), we went our separate ways.

We exchanged presents, I gave them a few bottles of my natural tinaja wines and they gave me a lovely book “Georgian Wine” which they had done the photography for. Here’s a picture of it that I took myself, because I can’t find any reference to it in the internet:

Jolly #3 - The Peñín Tasting

On Thursday 16th October last, I skived off my day job at the office (translating) and went to the annual Peñín tasting, which this year was held at the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. This is actually one of the most important tastings in all of Spain, and anyone who is anyone has a table there. I like it because it's the only way I ever get to taste Vega Sicilia and the like for free! But the main reason I like is that I can meet up with people that I never get to see as much as I would like, and we can talk and gossip and plan etc :)

On the other hand, it was a pretty poor show compared with other tasting that I've been to, in terms of size and numbers (not that I go to many) For example, wine fairs like RAW and REAL in London are easily bigger, more crowded, and have more wines available for tasting! and they're both 'minority' 'niche' market type fairs for natural wines. I can only assume that this reflects Spaniards' general inability to add value to and market and sell their own products.

So I did that, and in the evening did I not have another tasting to go to!  It never rains but pours. This time it was a tasting of the wines of Juan Carlos Sancha. He is based in Rioja and is working on recovering grape varieties that are in danger of extinction and/or being consigned to viticultural institutes, as opposed to being used to make wine! So we tasted wine made from 'Maturana', 'Monastel' and 'Tempranillo Blanco'. It tasting was delivered by Alejandro Gomez, who at the moment is responsible for the commercial distribution of Juan Carlos' wines, but whose passion clearly lies in the vineyards and in the winery, as opposed to in his car and in buyers' offices. I give him another year or so before we welcome a new winemaker to the world of wine :)

And that was that. Enough. Publish and be damned!

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Albillo 2014 Harvest

This is the story, so far, of my Albillo 2014.
I think that (the story of) any good wine starts, or ought to start, here, in the vineyard:
The Albillo vineyard, about 2 km from El Tiemblo, right next to the Charco del Cura, a mini-reservoir on the River Alberche
Without good grapes, without good, clean, healthy, balanced, and complex grape juice, I don't think you can make a good, clean, healthful, balanced and complex, terroir-expressing wine!
Albillo vineyard
There are lots of large rocks scattered all over the vineyard (and over many other vineyards in the area). I assume that they were left there when the ice-caps retreated at the end of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, but I haven’t actually checked this theory out.
Sampling and Tasting
On the 14th August I went to take samples for the last time. Apart from looking at the must through the refractometer (which gives you a predicted possible alcohol level) I also taste the grapes. I don't quite know how to explain this but I think what I look for is to ensure that the grapes are actually ripe - otherwise you get 'green' vegetable, grassy tastes and aromas from the wine. And also I try to ensure that there's still a good level of acidity, otherwise the wine will be over-alcoholic, and unbalanced. So based on that, I decide on the date for harvest! I think that subconsciously I also take other factors into account too, like the weather over the course of the year, the general state of the vineyard and surrounding countryside, what the neighbours are saying, etc!
Refractometer and sample grapes
Above: a sample of grapes taken at random, more or less, from all over the vineyard, a refractometer, and a thick-bottomed glass which I used to crush the grapes.
Above: grapes duly crushed.
Above: A close up of the refractometer with a drop of must on it.
On the 16th August we harvested.
Each one of us had a small bucket, which held about 10 or 12 kg, which we then tipped into bigger crates, which held about 25 kg. This way is much easier to manage than hauling and carrying a 25 kg load around from vine to vine.
Above: Here’s yours truly with his bucket
Above: Harvesting among the rocks.
Above: A panoramic view, looking in the other direction, away from the reservoir
Above: another panoramic view
Above: more harvesting among the rocks
Above: the large 25 kg cases
These larger crates were then loaded onto a mini-trailer behind a mini-tractor, which took them, 4 crates at a time, to a spot a few hundred meters away from where they could be loaded into the back of a van. Then, when the van was full, with about 30 crates, we would take them to the bodega, about 10 minutes away, in the centre of the village (El Tiemblo). There we would unload them, weigh all the crates, and then stack them on pallets, so they can be moved around easily when required.
Above: the mini-tractor with its mini-trailer
Above: crates ready to be loaded into the van
Above: here is Daniel helping me load and stack the crates
Extra Harvesting
We were planning to harvest that vineyard over 2 days, ie at a rate of about 1,000 kg per day, with 4 or 5 pickers. But for some reason, we ended up with 8 pickers, so a decision had to be made. Normally we would have picked 1,000 kg between 7:30 in the morning (dawn) and lunchtime (around 1 o'clock-ish), and we would have stopped and gone for lunch!  But with eight of us picking, by 1 o'clock we were about 3/4 done, so we just decided to go for it and finish off. And by 4 o'clock we were done.
It was too late now to process the grapes in the bodega, as I was too tired. And too hungry, as we only had a wee snack at 11:00. So I decided to leave the grapes overnight and process them in the morning, when they would be cooler (and I not tired!)
So next morning,17th August, bright and early, we crushed the grapes.
I used this machine in the photo below. It's a simple roller-crusher (the grapes fall between two cylinders) driven by an electric motor. Placed directly on top of the tank where the grapes fall into.
Above: crates of Albillo stacked on a pallet. Note the lovely old weighing machine in the background.
Above: the crushed grapes.
There was exactly 2,000 kg of grapes (well, it was 1,993 kg!)
I crushed them into three tanks (above). The two plastic tanks hold 1,000 kg each and the stainless steel one 700 kg.
Pressing Off (19th August)
So I let the skins, pips and stems all soak together with the must for 48 hrs, by which time the must was just starting to ferment very slightly.
I used this hydraulic press:
To load the press I had to actually get into the tanks and scoop the grapes/must out and into the press using a bucket.
Press, tank and bucket.
Above: the free-run must coming out of the press.
For the fermentation I used three 700-litre stainless steel tanks.
I didn't use any temperature control, though I could have done if I had wanted to. I figured that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and as I was really happy with my 2013 Albillo without temperature control, then I thought that I would just do the same again this year.
Above: fermentation happening at 30ºC!!!  Hmmm, that’s a bit much, maybe next year I’ll try to keep it a bit cooler
One of the tanks overflowed again this year. Oh well! I thought I'd left enough room, but obviously it wasn't enough!
Above: Note the remains of the violently hot fermentation on the inside walls of the tank!
And now listen to this video-audio of full fermentation on 21st August:
The last task was to throw out the skins and pips.
On Friday 29th August, with fermentation almost finished, or at least proceeding very slowly, I pumped all three lots of wine from the stainless steel tanks into a large clay amphora ('tinaja' in Spanish) where it will stay until I bottle it sometime next year. With this I hope to obtain some nice slow oxygenization (through the semi-porous clay walls) and also perhaps a nice hint of amphora in the aroma and taste.
I called it ‘racking’ which is usually taken to mean pumping off the clear liquid and leaving the lees and sediments behind. But I didn’t do that – instead I ensured that everything, lees, sediments and all at the bottom of the three tanks also went into the amphora.
Large amphora containing Albillo
Albillo Experiment #2
This is 80 kg of Albillo from a different plot, but still from El Tiemblo, on the 19th August.
I've laid it out to dry out a little so the must becomes more concentrated due to evaporation, and hopefully I will make a sort of sweet wine with higher alcohol.
I hope that the cardboard doesn't impart a carboardy taste to the wine! But it's only 80 kg, and if the experiment works out, then next year I'll do it better!
On the 4th September (16 days later) I crushed the bunches by stomping on them in my bare feet. And then I removed the stems by hand, and poured everything (must+pips+skins) into a tiny little container.
I will leave it to macerate and ferment for a while, then press it off. Somehow. I don’t know how to press off such a small quantity!!!

And that's the end of that story. I hope you enjoyed it.

Friday 18 April 2014

The REAL Wine Fair 2014

I’m just back in Madrid after an intense 4 days in London, 2 days of which were taken up by the REAL Wine Fair itself, and 2 days of which were for me!

My main mission: to boldly seek out an importer for my wines in the UK

Secondary mission: to relax, enjoy, rest, drink wines, chat, get a change of scenery, etc. And I did!

I flew in to Gatwick with EasyJet on the Thursday evening after working at the office for a half-day; it’s close to the airport so it seemed like a good idea. I went straight to my friend’s house (in Battersea, see below) and dumped my suitcase, which only contained 6 bottles of wine sadly! Actually I was over-weight – 29 kg – but the young lady at the EasyJet check-in didn’t say anything. And neither did I!

Home Base in London Battersea
So it was straight to the pub, as I had a meeting arranged with the husband of the artist who did the artwork for my new labels (Jane Frere).

We went to the Prince Albert, just by Chelsea Bridge:

The Prince Albert - Image courtesy of
We had some nice wine and nice food at a reasonable price!!! I was surprised, as my past experience of London has been of bad and expensive wine and food!

Lovely oysters at the pub
The next day, Friday, I had absolutely nothing to do! No-one to meet, no convenient access to my emails, no task or no deadline for anything! It was great, even if kind of unsettling!

I woke up at my usual time, around 7:00, even though I didn’t set an alarm. So I lazed around a bit, made a coffee, and went back to bed and fell asleep till about 11:00!  Lunch was actually a full English breakfast, which I like to do once a year :)

photo english breakfast

Then I went for a wee lie down, with the intention of doing some reading, but I fell asleep – till 7:00 in the evening!  I think this was my body catching up on lack of sleep during the year of my (ab)normal lifestyle!

Next up was dinner, and we went to Soif, which is within walking distance of my friend’s house. It was really nice: a great wine-list of course, great food, friendly knowledgeable staff and again reasonably priced! What more can one ask for :)  Then, to bed early as I was a bit tired after such a hard day of doing nothing!

The next day, Saturday, was my last day of freedom, as it were, so we did some wandering around, just seeing what was to be seen.  We walked across Chelsea Bridge, through Eton Square and down to Buckingham Palace and Pall Mall and St. James’ Park.  A bit disneyfied and touristy I found, but hey, the weather was beautiful. Then we went into China Town for lunch (at the Beijing Dumpling) where I met up with fellow winemaker Alfredo Maestro.  After lunch more wandering around and we then went to Bar Italia in Soho, for a post-prandial coffee:

Bar Italia 1

Bar Italia 2
Then even more wandering around and we ended up at Gordon’s wine-bar, by Embankment. Great place; inside, a dark and low-ceiling dungeon like locale,  it was full up and there were no tables so we sat outside round a wine barrel for a while.

photo gordons

Now it was coming up for dinner time; and the Caves de Pyrene had kindly organized dinner for all the Spanish growers at Brawn, another awesome restaurant with a brilliant wine-list and equally brilliant food.

So I hooked up with Daniel Ramos, another Spanish grower (with whom I share a bodega in El Tiemblo), who had just arrived at Stanstead, and we walked all the way to Brawn; which was quite a hike, but the weather was nice and we felt like some fresh air. We got there about an hour early, so we sat at the bar and had a couple of wines! And tried some 'brawn'! I had no idea that such a think actually existed. I had always thought that ‘brawn’ was just the opposite of ‘brain’! I’d heard of ‘potted heid’ in Scotland, but never made the connection!

Brawn - image courtesy of
Then, after dinner, back to the house for a good night’s sleep, prior to the first big day at the fair.

Sunday was the day the fair was open to the public, and the forecast was that it would be busy.  And it was! I have to say that I’ve never had to work so hard at a fair in all the years I’ve been exhibiting at wine fairs.

My table at REAL

Cutting out and sticking on my labeles
The time just flew from 10:00 to 18:00. I did nothing but speak and pour wine, and I had sore feet and a sore throat! Usually, at wine fairs, I prepare a sign that says “I`ll be back!” and I go off and taste as many wines as I can and chat about wine stuff! But this time… I didn’t even have time to prepare the sign!

I suspect that something viral or ‘word-of-mouth’ happened, as the first thing that many people said to me was “I’ve been recommended to come taste your wines by….”.  It was awesome, thinking about it. It’s really the best and most sincere compliment that can be given to a wine producer. It has encouraged me no end, and has reconfirmed my belief that I should listen to myself, my heart and my intuition. I generally do, but there are moments when I’m assailed by doubts. The memory of that day will help to keep me on the right path. The path of low-intervention, terroir-expressing wines!  :)

The next day, the Monday, was a trade day, and I was also quite busy, though not as much as the Sunday. And in fact I had a volunteer helper:

Me and my helper
This is Leila, a friend who I was out with the day before, and she asked me directly “Can I be you wine bitch tomorrow?”  I was shocked and speechless for a few seconds! Because, not living in the UK, I’m not really sure these days what’s politically correct or socially acceptable to say or not anymore, but if she said it then I guess it must be OK!

So, thanks to her, I was able to escape from my table a few times and taste some other wines, but not nearly as much as I would have liked to. Apart from restaurant and wine shop people, I also got some growers coming round to taste my wines, which is quite unusual for me (unless they knew me previously from some other occasion). I could tell they were growers because they were silent and didn’t ask any of the usual questions. They would just hold out their glasses, sniff, taste and look each other in the eye silently, and then go away!

So I don’t know what to think about that! But I think I’m going to take it as a compliment, because they must have had some kind of recommendation from someone, and they actually took the time to get away from their table. Unfortunately I don’t actually know what they thought of my wines, as they were so taciturn!

And then lastly, to round it all off, was the Georgian banquet, or Georgian supra, as it’s called. This is a wonderful way of having a dinner or banquet. Basically, instead of just one or two main courses, there was a constant flow of small dishes of different things.


But the main distinguishing element of a Georgian dinner, is the custom of giving toasts to all the guests. Every so often during the meal, you hear the ting, ting, ting of a knife on a glass and that’s the signal that the toastmaster is about to give a toast. I think this is a great custom, and we should adopt it here in Western Europe too. It has the effect of bringing all the guests at the different tables, together and of uniting everybody in a way. I found, at any rate.

Yet another distinguishing feature of Georgian banquets, is the singing. This time there is no ting ting ting on the glass, but every so often you hear the melancholic, minor key, sad, sad singing of two or more voices. You may or may not like it, but I’m a sucker for it, and it actually really did bring a tear to my eye. What with all that Georgian wine flowing too, and me being like the way I am! Of course I have no idea what the words in Georgian mean, but I’m imagining deep tragedies and laments, and yearnings; maybe from the Persian invasions of a few thousand years ago! I don’t know.

The next day, I was to fly back to Madrid – but in the afternoon. I decided a few years ago, that life was too short, not only to drink bad wine, but also to take early morning (or even morning) flights!

Which gave me time to go to the Doodle Bar, in the TestBed1 space/project/thing, which is in danger of being “redeveloped”. I hope my little contribution helps.


And then it really was time to go home. But wow, what a weekend, what a refreshing, illuminating, and encouraging few days. Just what body and soul needs, maybe just a few times a year :)

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