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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.

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