name="description" content="Terroir-expressing natural wine minimum intervention">

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Parker Points and Natural Wine

The other day the Parker Points for the Sierra de Gredos region in Spain were published in the Wine Advocate. About 25 producers had sent in about 120 different wines to be rated, including myself; I sent in only one bottle of Garnacha 2014.

I was satisfied to see that my quality is remaining constant. My Garnacha 2014 was ranked in position 118 out of 118, with 80 Points!  And last year when I sent in three wines they were ranked in positions 150, 149 and 146 out of 150!  So no change there!

Wonderful! I think this is an excellent example of subjectivity in wine tasting. On the one hand my wines get the worst possible ratings from the Wine Advocate, yet on the other hand, they are sold and appreciated in many top restaurants and winestores all over the world. (Just look here for a list of outlets that carry my wines).

Well, I suppose I could use my horrible score for anti-marketing in the 'natural wine niche/ghetto' if I wanted to; I'm sure it would go down a treat, give rise to some chatter on social media, and some people would love it. But happily, and thankfully, I don't even need to bother doing that; I must be doing something right because my sales are doing very nicely these days! (touch wood!)

I think it's a terrible shame that so many producers, especially small ones, waste so much time and energy on chasing Parker Points. It's really a no-brainer for the vast majority of them. They would be much better off seeking their own markets and clients for their own unique and individual wines; instead of forcing their wines to conform to an international standard taste.

It's a no-brainer because there are literally thousands of producers who are all doing the same thing. The competition is brutal, and probably loss-making! Why not find your own niche? Why not be a big or medium sized fish in a small pond? Where you can actually know and speak to the outlet managers and wine-list curators at restaurants and even with some of the final customers? As opposed to being one minnow among thousands, swimming with the pikes and sharks? Where you are just one ‘account’ among many and the relationship is purely commercial. But, hey, I’m just saying! Each winery is obviously free to choose their own path - in terms of viticulture, winemaking and promotion/sales.

Apart from the above commercial considerations there is also the much more interesting ‘subjectivity’ aspect. It’s all part of the incredibly varied colourful and complex wine world which I’m so happy to be part of. My experience of the wine world over the last decade is that there isn’t just one monolithic wine world, but many different wine worlds (or niches or ghettos!) (or extending the previous metaphor, bodies of water). And each has its own cast of characters, rules of the game, criteria and points systems (though not necessarily numerical ones).

The big difference between Parker’s World and the other worlds is that Parkers’ World is hugely more enormous in all senses: there are thousands of wineries, thousands of intermediaries, thousands of outlets, and probably millions of wine consumers who pay close heed to what thousands of writers, journalists, bloggers, wine critics and sommeliers all have to say. The dominance is such that it’s not surprising that everyone forgets about the existence of the other tiny worlds. Maybe my world is tiny in relative terms, but it’s still big and complex enough to be self-sustaining and independent.

Let me clarify my thoughts here. I have nothing against the Wine Advocate or any of its similar publications with their points systems. I believe they have all done a great job over the last three decades or so, widening the wine base, and bringing many people into the wine universe who otherwise would not have bought wine at all.

They have done away with the snobbery and elitism, and they have simplified what was often an unnecessarily complex and arcane private world, which was intimidating and unwelcoming for new consumers.

But like in all good things there is also the other side of the coin which should be borne in mind. One of them is that people (producers, writers, distributors, outlet managers and the final consumers) all tend to think that Parker’s World is the only game in town, and that its rules and points and criteria are the only valid ones.

Example 1: Cloudiness. The rules in Parker’s World say that all wines must be transparent and not have anything floating in wine in the bottle; while the ‘rules’ of the Natural Wine World say that it doesn’t matter whether a wine is cloudy or not. Fair enough, rules are rules and if you want to play in Parker’s World you have to abide by them (otherwise you get 80 Points or less!).

But what a shame to restrict the enjoyment of looking at a glass of wine to a single dimension. Cloudiness can be beautiful to look at too; especially holding your glass up against the sunset.

Example 2: Sediments. Same as above. Though in this case some wineries apologetically explain on the back label that it’s OK to have sediments at the bottom of the bottle because it’s a ‘natural’ process. Ha!

Example 3: Filtering, clarifying and fining. Again the rules of Parker’s World say that all wines have to be clean and sterilized and stable. Why? Why take out all those ‘bits’ that add delicious flavours and complexity to the wine? And which also help to protect and conserve the wine.

There are several consequences of all the above restrictions:

Firstly there is the question of standardization/globalization/homogenization. The great majority of wines sold these days, are all very similar to each other in style, no matter what part of the world they come from or what grape variety they were made with. On the one hand this is great because millions of consumers can now buy good drinkable wine at a good price without fear. But on the other hand, (1) it’s terribly boring and (2) it’s a sad loss of regional diversity.

Secondly there is the question of the restriction or limitation of acceptability of all the characteristics of a wine. All the players in Parker’s World tend to be very intolerant of any characteristic that is out of their narrow range of acceptability.

The most mentioned characteristic in my experience is the volatile acidity content of a wine, ie the ‘vinegariness’. The same applies to other characteristics such as acidity and sweetness. The range of acceptable aromas and flavours is also limited; if a given wine does not conform to certain expected characteristics, then somehow it is deemed not as good as another one. So we have thousands of wineries all striving to attain 100 points, or approach this Platonic ideal of what the wine should conform to! Whatever happened to regional and personal diversity? Uniqueness? Terroir? All gone in the name of standardization and massification.

Oh well! Basically I find these restrictions sad and boring. I mean, what’s wrong with drinking a wine that’s a bit more acidic/sweeter/alcoholic/weaker than usual every so often? Is it not interesting and pleasant? Or is it better to stick to a safe, clean, predictable wine every time? But there’s no accounting for taste. As I said above, I’m happy and honoured to be a part of the tiny natural wine world, providing different and interesting and complex wines to a growing number of winelovers who enjoy them for what they are, without worrying about how many points they scored.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Back Label Information

Back in October 2014, there was a flurry of comments on my FB page about what I had written on my back labels. I replied to all those comments here. Well, it's happened again, though this time it's not a flurry, just one person who's taken umbrage, but nevertheless, this has caused me to think about this matter again, and to write this post.

First, here's the back label in question:

Next, to get things in context, I find it helpful to remember the following:

1. It's only wine! In the great scheme of things which are important and essential to me and to many other people, wine and labels are pretty far down on the list! I'm thinking of things like the Syrian, Palestinian, Kurdish tragedies, the bankers/economists/politicians who are destroying our society and empoverishing millions, the dangers of nuclear power, deforestation, child slavery, the whales, the ozone layer, the Sea of Azov, etc, etc, etc...

2. Even in the trivial world of wine, labels are fairly low down on my list of important things: before labels comes the quality of the wine itself, the quality of the grapes, the environmental impact of growing my grapes and making my wines, etc.

So, having established that, I can now explain my position and thoughts on what I write on my back labels.

My first and main motive for scupulously listing the ingedients and processing (and also what I don't add to the wine, and the processing that I don't subject the wine to) is to inform the consumer, the potential buyer, of what's in my wine and how it was made, so they have as much information as possible available to them to decide if they want to buy it or not.

All the feedback I have recieved so far from consumers has been positive, and they have all been very pleased indeed to have had that information.

The spirit (though not always the letter) of all legislation covering foodstuffs is in fact the 'protection of the consumer'.

As you may or may not know, the wine industry is exempt from the normal labelling requirements, for some reason or other. And I would be very interested to know how this exemption came about, as I have been unable to find out for myself. On the other hand, the legal requirements on what is obligatory and what is forbidden to write on wine labels is extraordinarily detailed and complex. There is obviously something very fishy going on here, and consumers' interests are not being protected. It seems to me that it's the wine industry's interests that are being protected.

The labelling legislation is in fact the root of the problem, and that's my second reason for writing so much information on my back labels, ie to draw attention to the problem, with a view to generating some debate and hopefully a solution.

In keeping with my back label philosophy, I will also explain why I am NOT writing all that information!

I am NOT providing abandant information on my back labels as a publicity stunt or as clever marketing, in order to sell more wine. Thankfully, I am a very small producer (around 12,000 bottles per year) and (again thankfully) I don't have any problems selling my wines. So I don't need to drum up sales. You can believe that or not, as there's no way I can actually prove it. (Philosophically or logically it's actually impossible to prove ANY negative statement!)

I am NOT doing it to denigrate or show up other honest hard-working grape-growers and winemakers. I say this because several fellow grapegrowers, winemakers and other agents in the wine world have taken it personally, and view my back label information as an attack on them or on their agricultural and/or winery practices. Well, I'm sorry they see it that way, but like I said, that's not my intention at all.

Unfortunately, there's little I can do about people taking offense where none is intended, short of not writing all that information I want to convey. 

The little I can do is to try to write clearly and unambiguously so as not to send out the wrong message or unintentionally offend anyone, especally when dealing with a hot topic such as this one. I even keep my sense of humour and irreverent cynicism under control, even though I like to be irreverently humourous!

I think it's ridiculous to suggest that I am out to show anyone up or point an accusing finger at them. I've received comments along the lines of "if you write that, you imply that...."  Well, maybe yes, or maybe no, but how can anyone ever know, unless I, the writer, affirm or deny it. And even then, I could be lying!!!  The same case can be made for any written material at all.

For example, here's a typical phrase often written on back labels "....with carefully selected grapes..."   What? How dare they imply that I don't select my grapes carefully! See what I mean?  

It's a no-brainer to read words on a label and then say that those words 'imply' something other than just what they say.

If I say that "I don't add oak chips", it means that I don't add oak chips. It doesn't imply that I'm accusing other winemakers of adding oak chips. There can be no fruitful or useful outcome to an argument based on what my words supposedly 'imply'.

Another criticism I've recieved (again from people in the trade, not consumers) is that I'm trying to occupy the moral high ground, being holier-than-thou, being a hipster-cool ultra-fashion eco-warrior, etc. Again nothing could be further from my mind.

I do what I do (ie, organic agriculture, no chemicals, no unnecessary substances or processing) because I believe that it's better to make wine that way. That way I don't pollute the environment and I don't put consumers health at risk. I have decided that that's the way I want to work, but I have nothing to say about how other people have decided to work. Especially not on my back labels. This is a totally personal decision which of course I believe is "right". It's my tiny contribution to making the world a better place.

In a private conversation, or at a public event where I've been invited to speak, I will certainly express my opinions about polluting the environment and adding chemicals and substances to wine and other foodstuffs, and people who know me or have heard or read me, know what I think about that.

Now, does that imply that other grapegrowers and winemakers do pollute the environment and put their consumers' health at risk? No it doesn't. (See above)  Common sense would suggest that some of them do, though.

I like to think that I'm a pragmatic sort of person, and I much prefer to actually do something or take action, rather than waste my time blowing hot air and complaining. That's why I actually practice organic no-chemical agriculture and actually make no-additive wines. I believe it's a complete waste of my time to argue or try to convince others to be like me! Therefore I don't. I obviously believe that I'm in the right, but I also believe that no good can come out of me trying to make others "right" too.

Perhaps if all wineries were used a similar back label to mine (either legally or voluntarily) and described what they do and don't do to their wine, then their consumers could also decide, with all the facts at hand, whether to buy their product or not. I don't understand why they don't. Surely they're not doing anything illegal? Or are they doing something that they don't want the public to know about? I don't know, and "Frankly, my dears,..."!

Cheers! Here's to what's inside the bottle, not outside :)

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Sheep in the Garnacha Vineyard

Well, for this post I have some interesting anecdotes about sheep in my Garnacha vineyard in El Tiemblo (Sierra de Gredos).
A flock of sheep entering the vineyard
But first...

This is the same vineyard that I wrote about in my previous post (here), when I discovered that ‘someone’ had pruned my ‘Roman’ vines which I had trained up the olive trees, without asking me first. So the other day I had a meeting with the owners of the vineyard and asked them if it was them who had dunnit – and indeed it was! I’m glad that I didn’t speak to them immediately on discovering the unauthorized pruning, because I was upset and angry and would probably have said things that I would have regretted later! But with the passage of time I had calmed down, and now of course it doesn’t seem so important. They were quite amazed when I explained the Roman thing to them, but they were willing to cooperate. Now I just have to wait another year for the vines to grow and try again.
Anyway, I was in this vineyard again the other day, doing more of the same – raking up last year’s dead grass into piles, pruning and hoeing up around the pruned vines. I alternated these three activities so that the same muscles wouldn’t get sore! The method seems to work J
And an ‘interesting thought’ came to me while I was raking up the dead leaves. At first, I had started raking up dead leaves and grass and tidying ‘just for fun’ and to do a bit of gardening and to make the vineyard look beautiful (and alternating tasks so my back muscles wouldn’t suffer so much). But now I’ve discovered a valid agricultural reason for doing this! By raking up the last year’s dead leaves, it makes it easier for the new grass and plants to come up, as there is no physical obstacle stopping their growth, more sunlight hits the earth and little leaves making germination and photosynthesis more efficient, and also the action of the rake on the ground probably helps stir things up and speed them along! I was actually a bit worried that maybe the grass, and plants and flowers would grow too much, to the detriment of the vines, perhaps. But the perfect solution presented itself spontaneously. Sometimes the universe works in your favour, and “they’re not really all out to get you”!
The perfect solution, of course, consisted of a flock of sheep! As I was working, a man called out to me from over the wall of the vineyard. He was a shepherd and he wanted to ask if he could let his sheep graze in my vineyard. I agreed immediately and off he went to get his sheep, which were grazing in a neighbouring vineyard just down the road.
Sheep grazing in the vineyard

Sheep and lambs

Panoramic view

The deal is that I get free manure and short grass and the shepherd gets free grass for his sheep.

Close-up of my free manure

And also, according to my friend and fellow grapegrower Mario Siragusa (who grows grapes in Barolo country near Turin), the sheep also impart positive electro-magnetic energy to the vines from their wool. Interesting theory - I will have to look into it when I have some free time.
This deal only works until about March, when the vines start to sprout. Otherwise the sheep would eat the young leaves.

Sheep leaving the vineyard

Luis the shepherd says that he only drinks wine from the vineyards where his sheep have been grazing! Because his sheep don’t like the grass from chemically farmed vineyards and because the wine tastes crap! Natural wine drinkers are everywhere these days J.
Other vineyard news
There is still a lot of pruning to be done, some of which I will do myself and some of which I will outsource to neighbours. Then there are other assorted tasks to be done too: removing canes, hoeing up around the vines, fixing fences, and general tidying up. I won’t bore you all too much with the details! Yet!
Bodega news
There are lots of tasks I have to be getting on with in the bodega too. Most urgent is the bottling up. I got off to a good start this year but last week I ran out of corks AND bottles! Duh! So now I have to wait for delivery, which takes about 7-10 days. Which is OK really, as I can now concentrate on the vineyards. I also have to fill two barrels with white wine. It took me about a year, but at last I managed to get my hands on two second-hand white wine barrels. They are incredibly difficult to find, for some reason. More about this later. I also have to thoroughly scrub and clean and disinfect two amphorae, which contained wine and which I have already bottled up. Then I have to press off a tank of Garnacha which is still on the skins! And a tinaja of SB and one of Doré. And lastly I have to tidy up the patio and finish building my pergola. Oh, where is all the free labour?
Other news
In about three weeks I’m going to a natural wine fair in Piacenza, Italy: Sorgente del Vino LIVE 2016. It will be my first time at a wine fair in Italy, so am especially looking forward to it. Attenzione importatori italiani J
And in about one month I’ll be going to another natural wine fair in Barcelona: Vins Nus (which means Naked Wines in Catalan). This is one of two natural wine fairs organized in Spain, which is pretty underwhelming really, considering the numbers for France and Italy.
Enough for now. “Salud y buen vino”. (that means ‘Health and good wine’, in Spanish)

Monday, 18 January 2016

In the Vineyard

January is already drawing to a close, and I'm focusing on three different aspects of my mini-wine-business: in the vineyards, pruning, removing the canes, hoeing up around the vines, and other miscellaneous activites like cutting grass, fixings drainage channels, and fences, and generally tidying up; in the bodega, bottling up older vintages from barrels, and filling said barrels with new vintages; and on the home front, writing a HACCP (pronounced "HAZOP"), ie a food safety management plan! Amongst other things. But enough of that! Here's my latest news from the mountains:

In the Vineyard

The other day I was in my other Garnacha vineyard in El Tiemblo (Sierra de Gredos), having completely finished pruning the first (rock rose infested) Granacha vineyard that I wrote about in my previous post. Actually, I still have to finish raking up pine needles and checking and fixing the perimiter fence, but those tasks I have relegated to a lower priority, to be done 'some other time'!

So I spent the whole day here in this vineyard, but in a terribly inefficient manner - I only did 5 rows of about 10 vines. But I did them absolutely beautifully! More like gardening, rather than agricultural labour! I did it this way for a few reasons:
1. The vineyard now looks really beautiful as seen from the gate, so that keeps the owner and neighbours off my back - no more comments on how bad the vineyard look, etc, etc!  I'm used to it by now and I pay no attention, but it's still annoying!
2. A whole day's exclusive pruning is sore on the back muscles, so it's better to do a whole range of different activities that use different muscles
3. It was great fun and immensely satisfying to make such a beautiful 'garden' in the vineyard!

Here's some photos:

Natural State
The photo above (Natural State) shows the vineyard in, errrm, its natural state at this time of year; except for the near foreground, the vines are unpruned and there's lots of dead grass from last year between the rows; and there's new grass growing already, which is quite strange, but not surprising given climate change and generally increasing temperatures. I've even heard news of grapevines budding already - but not in Gredos.

 First Rows
The photo above is of the first few rows of the vineyard as seen from the road. After pruning the vines, I then cut the long grass with a sickle, and then hoed up around around them. I think this is a good idea, as the vines will be able to benefit from 100% of the rain that falls on them, with no competition from the grass and plants. They don't actually need all that water to survive, as their roots are very deep and can find water that the short-rooted plant cannot; and they are hardy drought-resistant varieties anyway. But even so, a little extra competitive advantage won't do them any harm, what?

Then I even raked up all the dead grass between the rows! I don't think there's any good agricultural reason for doing that, but what the hell? I felt like doing it, and the result look quite nice, no? It will be interesting to see if there are any consequences. For example, all the new grass might grow better now that there are no dead leaves and grass in their way. Maybe this spring these first few rows will be overwhelmed by new grass? Has my intervention upset the balance? 

Above is a close-up of a pruned vine and its immediate surroundings.

Above is a lovely worm, evidence of a living healthy and balanced soil. Worms aerate the soil via the tunnels they make, thus helping to protect it from erosion; and they also improve its quality by eating, digesting and exceting it! Go figure!

Healthy balanced soil is very important, because vines can extract from it all the nutrients they need, neither too much not too little, but the perfect amount of each nutrient and micro-nutrient. Industrial-chemically farmed vines produce unbalanced faulty grapes because the soil they live in is biologically dead - it's just a substance that holds the vines upright, and which has an excessive over-abundance of some nutrients and a complete lack of others. There's no way possible to make a complex, interesting, terroir-expressing wine with grapes from that quality of soil. (Enough ranting already - Ed.)

A piece of bad news and really annoying too, is that 'someone' (I'm guessing the owner) took it upon themselves to prune the vines that I had deliberately allowed to climb up the various trees growning in the vineyard. This was so I could make a tiny experimental batch of 'Roman' wine. I haven't spoken to the owner about it yet - I'm letting time pass so I won't be so upset and angry when I do bring the subject up.

The Romans had three systems of grapegrowing: trellised and bush vines which we inherited from them, and also a third method which consisted of letting the vines grow up trees, which we have lost today. Pliny and Columella write about it at length here and here, respectively.

I hope to finish pruning this vineyard soon and make a start on my third, newly acquired, Chelva vineyard here in El Tiemblo.

That just leaves the Carabaña (Airén/Tempranillo) and Villarejo (Malvar) vineyards, but they have interesting issues/complications, ... which is another story!

I've also done some work in the bodega and at my computer, but I'll leave that for another post and another day.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Attack of the Rock Roses (Part 2)

(continuation of Part 1 of the Attack of the Rock Roses)

So I did some physical exercises for a few days, in preparation for my counter-attack against the rock roses; a few press-ups and some abominable crunches in the morning, and some hand, finger, ankle exercises whenever I remembered during the day.

I had intended to start at the crack of dawn, but no plan ever survives contact with real life and my morning ended up full of distractions and complications. It was only after lunch that I was able to get out to the vineyard.

The was no way I was going to tackle the main 'briar patch' on the first day! It was far too daunting. I started with an easy part, working my way down the nearside boundary, where there weren't so many rock roses to uproot, only two or three every row. The going was good, and I even managed to work my way along the bottom boundary for a few meters. But the days are short at this time of year so it soon got dark and I had to stop.

The densely populated main 'briar patch'

Next day I was back, this time bright and early in the morning. But I still didn't feel like starting on the 'briar patch' so I just continued what I was doing - working my way along the bottom boundary, uprooting the sparcely spaced rock roses. Crouch down, grab the stalk near the ground, pull out, put in a pile; repeat all day long!

The sparsely populated bottom boudary

I finished the bottom boundary and started working my way up the far boundary towards the main rock rose patch. When I got to the edge, I stopped, and I went to to the top of the far boundary and started working my way down until I reached the other edge of the main patch. Then it was time for lunch. Perfect timing. I would do the final assault after lunch!

The southern edge of the briar patch

So after lunch (short) I dove straight in to work. I was bearing up well, physically, nothing was too sore. Yet! It was tremendously boring work, as it took me ages to clear each square meter. I seemed to be constantly in the same place and not making any progress at all. There were hundreds of little rock roses in each square meter, and medium sized ones, and large ones too. The tiny little ones were the easiest to pull out, obviously, but they were also the most boring. They were infinite!

so many rock roses

Now everything was starting to get sore, just like I had anticipated: quadriceps, back and fingers mostly. I would alternate squatting down on my haunches (that way my back wouldn't hurt) and when my quads complained I would stand up straight and bend over to grasp and pull (that way my quads wouldn't hurt). In the end though both back and quads hurt like hell! There was nothing I could do about the fingers though, I just had to keep grasping and pulling.

It was now a race against time. I really wanted to finish the uprooting before sunset, otherwise I could have to come back another day to mop up. Not only are the days short in January, but the vineyard is in a valley surrounded by high mountains, so the sun actually 'sets' earlier than usual.

In the end, I managed to uproot all the rock roses before dark.

neat piles of uprooted rock roses

But I had to go back another day after all - to remove all those piles of uprooted rock roses that I had neatly piled up.

more neat piles 

So on the third day, with great satisfaction I threw all the piles of rock roses over the vineyard boundary into the neighbouring pine forest where they would decompose.

But another unexpected task came up which took me the rest of the day to deal with: there was quite an extensive area of the vineyard that was covered with pine needles, fallen from some neighbouring pine trees. I don't think that an excess of pine needles can be good for a vineyard's soil. Nothing much can grow in a pine forest becuse the pine needles are very acidic and don't allow other plants to thrive.

Piles of pine needles, and pine trees at the vineyard boundaries

I spent the rest of the day raking up pine needles and returning them to the forest. But again darkness fell and I had to stop before I could finish properly. I don't know when I'll be able to finish that task.

That was an extra, unscheduled and unexpected three days spent in this vineyard. Other tasks now beckon. At the top of my list of priorities, I have to bottle up ten barrels of red wine. This has to be done soon, because 1) the wine has been in the barrels long enough, and if it stays too long it will taste too much of oak, 2) the wine has to age a while in bottles before I can sell it, and 3) I have to free up the barrels so I can put new wine into them. Next on the list is the pruning - and I have five vineyards now to manage: Airén/Tempranillo in Carabaña, Malvar in Villarejo, Garnacha I and Garnacha II in El Tiemblo, and now Chelva in El Tiemblo too. So the sooner I start, the sooner I will finish, hopefully by March/April. Further down my list of priorities, are a whole load of other tasks and activities, some more fun than others, which I'll deal with too, when the time comes.

But I'm not happy about those pine needles. I wonder if they've even been raked up and removed before. The poor vines affected (around 50-60) must have been suffering for years if not decades. I really ought to give them some lovely manure this winter. We shall see. But other urgent tasks beckon too. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Attack of the Rock Roses (Part 1)

Not so long ago in a vineyard not so far far away, all was in harmony and equilibrium. The dominant life-form (Garnacha vines)  were busy producing beautiful, aromatic, complex and well-balanced must, in collaboration with all the other minor life-forms who also lived in the vineyard. All lived together, the many species of grasses, plants, flowers and thistles and the many species of insects and assorted beasties, all the way down to microscopic size and even the invisible yet important unicellular life-forms like bacteria and yeasts; and also the occasional macro life-form which either lived in or just passed through the vineyard, like spiders, worms, birds, goats, sheep, cows, all the way up to the vigneron himself!

Old vine Garnacha vineyard, in El Tiemblo (Sierra de Gredos) Spain:
Harmony in the vineyard
But then, one day when the vigneron went to the vineyard to start on the annual pruning, he found that the balance and the harmony had been lost; for one of the minor life-forms (the Rock Roses) had invaded the vineyard and were starting to dominate it, to the detriment of the rightful species, the Garnachas.

Invasion of Rock Roses
Most of the rock roses were concentrated in a patch at the bottom of the vineyards out of sight of the top gate, hidden by a dip in the land.

Rock Rose patch at bottom of vineyard

What had happened? How had this come to pass? Was this a case of too little intervention by the vigneron? Perhaps. Some of those rock roses were quite tall and must have been there for at least two years. Others were small, less than one year old.

A tall deep-rooted 2-yr old rock rose
Rock roses are OK 'near' and 'around' the vineyard as they provide a habitat and biodiversity, and they look nice and smell good, and make a positive contribution to the quality of the grapes and must and wine. But no way can they be allowed to grow 'in' the vineyard among the vines. This is because rock roses and actually bushes and can even turn into small trees if the conditions are right for them. They are perennials, have long deep roots and would directly compete with the vines for water and nutrients.

Too many rock roses in the vineyard

This is totally different from life-forms such as grasses, plants, flowers or thistles, which are annuals (ie die off and decompose within the year), have short roots and don't directly compete with the vines.

So, there's no doubt about it in my mind. They have to go! But how? Having renounced the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction, I will just have to uproot them all by hand! By crouching down and/or bending over, then grabbing and pulling.

I can feel the pain already - all those muscles that I don't normally use, in my feet, bum, back, hands and fingers!!!

So the plan of action is one or two days of mobilization of muscle power (situps, pressups, toestands, ankle rotations, hand and finger exercises, etc) then launch a counter-attack on the rock roses.

They're everywhere

Rock Roses invading Garnacha vineyard

I hope to be done in one or two days!

Happy New Year, btw :)

Friday, 6 November 2015

Wine Woes, or post-harvest f***ups!

I was really looking forwards to a period of rest and relaxation after the harvesting and winemaking, which is of course the most stressful time of year for a small grape-grower and winemaker like myself. This is because you have to get everything right first time! If you do something wrong, you don’t get a second chance. You have to wait till next year! But I have to say that everything actually went very well this year – all my harvests went smoothly and according to plan, at the optimum dates, the fermentations all went well, and the resulting wines are coming along nicely, touch wood!

So what happened? Why can’t I rest and relax yet? Well, basically because I messed up three different orders for wines that I exported recently – at the same time as the harvesting and winemaking in fact! And not just one order, but three! So now I have to sort out the messes and placate my angry importers.

With the first pallet, which went to London, I mixed up the Sauvignon Blanc with the Airen, and I sent double quantity of SB and no Airen.

With the second pallet, which went to NY, I mislabelled the wines and used labels with the wrong vintage. Now I have to print new labels, send them over, and this angry importer will have to open all the boxes and stick the good labels over the bad ones – about 500 bottles!

And with the third pallet, which is on its way to California right now, not only did I mislabel the wines (same problem/solution as above) but I also unwitting sold to someone else, the 300 bottles of SB that this angry importer had reserved months ago. So this importer is doubly angry with me, as he has half a pallet of mislabelled wines and the other half missing entirely.

Oh woe! How embarrassing! How stupid! I'm angry at myself too! Well, everything is in the process of being sorted out. But what can I do now? I suppose that I shall just have to be much more careful in the future, ie triple-check everything, write proper lists down on paper, etc.  Maybe try not to do more than one order at a time, maybe try not to ship out during harvesting and winemaking?

More bad news: the other day, I was informed by the transport company that my California pallet had been opened in transit and 9 cases of wine stolen! I don’t know the details, but I imagine that the lorry was parked somewhere (driver having lunch?), then thieves broke into it, slashed open the plastic film wrap around the pallet, and made off with what they could.

So now I have to write a new invoice and re-do the Customs and Excise documents, which are a nightmare at the best of times. I don’t want to think about the amount of time and mental energy I’ll have to waste on this.

Even worse is the fact that 5 of the cases were a special order for a specific winestore for a specific wine that I don’t normally sell abroad, as there’s so few bottles left (Airen 2012). (Sorry JD, we’ll have to try again next year!)

Moving on to the next item in my list of f***ups:

In an attempt to compensate my UK importers for the inconvenience I caused them, I decided to come over to London and pack in a whole load of promotional events, tastings, etc to help them move my wines. So I booked my flights (yesterday Thurs 5th to Tues 10th) and here I am, writing this!  But little did I know that weekends are the worst possible time to organize tastings in restaurants or winebars – because they are all very busy at weekends obviously! Duh! How totally stupid of me! Again!

But I last I now have time to write this post, ha ha! And in fact we have managed to organize two events:

1.     Tasting (and aperitivos) at Eliott’s, at 19:00, tomorrow on Sat 7th. See details on FB.

2.     Screening of the short documentary “Spanish Grapes”, by Zev Robinson, in which I feature slightly along with other Spanish wineries (from the real wine world – not the natural wine ghetto! Ha ha)
Followed by a question and answer session with personalities from the Spanish wine world (don’t know if I'm included in that!)
Followed by a tasting of the wines featured in the documentary (including mine)
This is all happening at the Copa de Cava, starting at 18:30.

You are all invited to come to both events (if you are in London this weekend obviously). The screening is free and on me. I’m not sure if you have to pay anything for the tasting at Eliott’s – you’ll have to check the webpage.

And that’s about it. Cheers, and hope to see you soon!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Harvesting and winemaking 2015 – so far so good!

Most of my grapes are in! I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! It’s been a very intense, and tiring, and stressful experience, but in the end, of course an enjoyable one! So far I’ve harvested: Albillo, Garnacha, Doré, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Airén, and Malvar. The only one left is the Chelva, which I should be taking in this week or maybe next.

This year I’ve managed to be sensible and I’m only going to be making about 10,000 bottles of wine in total. Not like last year, when due to irrational exuberance and not knowing how to say “No” I attempted to make 15,000 bottles, but had to pour about 5,000 down the drain (see this old post)! Yes, this year I decided to run a ‘tighter ship’ as it were, ie to consolidate on the same quantity (10,000) and make them better, as opposed to trying to do more.

So I’ve more or less made (am making, rather) the same style of wines as usual - plus the odd experiment of course J.

Basically this is what there’s going to be:

  • Airén. No skin contact, just crushed, pressed, and racked once. All in stainless steel
  • Doré. Just a wee bit of skin contact, 8 days this time, which is slightly longer than last year. In stainless steel, with an experimental lot in a baby amphora (which I lined myself with beeswax by copying a YouTube video from Georgia)

Unlined leaky baby amphora

Lump of beeswax and mop

Melting the beeswax

Lining the tinaja with melted beeswax using mop

Baby tinaja with Doré

Stainless steel with Doré

  •  Albillo. Lot  #1 is my usual Albillo, ie 2 days maceration and then pressed and into a large tinaja. Lot #2 is a smaller lot (experiment), in stainless steel but with the grapes crushed underfoot, as opposed to using a manual crusher. Lot #3 is also small, 300 litres stainless steel, and with this I’m going to make an orange wine, so it’s been crushed but I’m going to leave the skins and stems in there for a few months and see what happens.

Albillo (Lot 2) in stainless steel

  • Sauvignon Blanc, same procedure as last year, ie 10 days skin contact and then into tinajas
SB in large tinaja

SB in small tinaja

  • Malvar. At the moment I’ve got some Malvar (still with skins and stems) in open top barrels and some in stainless steel, but I would like to get it all into tinajas, sometime and somehow! This will involve a bit of racking off and movement of liquids form one place to another, and some transdimensional winemaking, ie putting larger volumes into smaller volumes!
  • Garnacha. For the first time I’m going to make a Garnacha in tinaja. This is Lot #1 which is quite big, in this large tinaja. Lot #2 is in stainless steel at the moment, and I’ll be pressing it off soon, into a big 500 or 600 litres oak barrel. Old barrels of course, because I don’t want the wine to taste of oak!
  • Tempranillo. This will also soon be pressed into a 500 or 600 litre old oak barrel for aging.
And that’s about it, except for the Chelva, of which i hope to do about 2 or 3 different lots!

All of the above I’ve been doing more or less constantly since the 9th August (first Albillo harvest). There have been a few peaks of intensity, ie of getting up at 5:00 in the morning and going to bed at 1.00 in the morning, but of course not all days were like that. Not quite like warfare (as described by ‘who was it?’ as periods of intense boredom punctuated by instants of intense fear) – harvesting and crushing/pressing is more like periods of intense stress/tiredness combined with periods of worry and doubt (about what I did with the grapes already and what I’ll going to do with the ones about to come in).

I think this is because winemakers only get one chance per year to make their wines, and you have to get it right (or at least not too wrong!). I suppose that if you’re making beer, or bread, or cheese, or whatever, if you get one lot wrong, it doesn’t really matter very much, because you can just try again next day/week/month. Also, in my own case, even though I generally try to more or less make the same wines each year (“if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”) I don’t actually follow set formulas and procedures (and my note-taking is terrible anyway!).

On the other hand, I’m not in the least bit worried about fermentation not starting or getting stuck. Fermentation has always started for me and has never stuck. Nor am I worried about “nasty” bacteria or “strange” yeast strains “infecting” my must or wine. I think that these are irrational fears drummed into oenology students by over-technical and control-freak oriented wineschools, who fight against Nature instead of working with Her.

"S cerevisiae under DIC microscopy" by Masur - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 

As you (readers) probably already know, for fermentation to happen, I rely exclusively on the natural yeasts floating around in the environment. I don’t purchase or use any manufactured packets of yeast from a factory or laboratory.

The over-scientific anti-Nature approach to fermentation is to first of all to sterilize the must and kill all living creatures in it (bacteria, yeasts, etc) using sulphites and then to inoculate with a manufactured strain of the “good” yeast Sacchoramyces Cervisiae according to whatever flavour, style, mouthfeel, etc they want their wine to have. This is OK (in fact it’s probably the ONLY way) to produce great quantities of commercial wines that are pleasing to great quantities of consumers who don’t really care very much about the niceties of wine (eg, terroir, complexity, interesting characteristics etc).

But I don’t want to make that kind of wine – there are millions of bottles of that, in thousands of brands, available already in the supermarkets, all with pretty labels and at appropriate price points! What I’m trying to do is to express the terroir, the variety, the year, the climate, the sense of place, the tipicity, etc of each wine that I make. And to do that, it’s essential to use all the yeasts and bacteria and other micro-organisms that happen to live in your winery, on your equipment and in and around your vineyards. And NOT exclusively use a strain of Sacchoramyces Cerevisiae extracted and propagated in a laboratory from a distant strain from some other part of the world.

It’s my understanding that it takes a few days for good old Sacchoramyces Cerevisiae to establish a foothold, reproduce itself and then to totally dominate the fermentation process to the end, to the exclusion of all other species, because (a bit like myself) it has a very high tolerance for alcohol, as opposed to other species of yeast. When the grapes come in, and for a few days afterwards, there is hardly any Sacchoramyces Cerevisiae yeast present at all. The yeast population at this point is almost 100% non-Sacchoramyces species. So, statistically it does seem like a huge risk to rely on this natural or spontaneous type of fermentation. But like I said above, after a few days of fermentation when the alcohol level reaches around 5%, all these non- Sacchoramyces species can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, and they die off because they have a very low tolerance to alcohol. Now is the moment that the high alcohol-tolerant Sacchoramyces Cerevisiae takes over and ferments the remaining sugar up to 15%.

I also believe that it’s during these first few days, when Sacchoramyces Cerevisiae is not present in significant quantities, and when those other ‘nasties’ are working, that the interesting, local and unique aromas, tastes and flavours are created that give the wine its tipicity and a good, faithful and interesting expression of terroir.

I’m not saying that this is not risky. It is risky! If one of those ‘nasties’ (like the black, hairy, spiky cartoon creatures used to sell toilet-cleaning products on TV! hahaha!) manages to reproduce itself too much, then of course you’ll get a pretty weird and probably not very nice wine – and certainly not expressive of the terroir or anything else! But if you just take a few simple countermeasures, the risk is practically reduced to zero: 1. Keep everything super-clean (tanks, presses, equipment, floor, hoses, scissors, buckets, absolutely everything you use). 2. Just bring in healthy, top quality grapes from healthy vines growing in healthy, living, complex soils. Et voilá – no problemo!

And lastly...

And lastly, an update on my sparkling wine experiments! Not much to report since my last post on that. Basically what I’ve discovered so far is that I have to bottle up much later than I expected. I was thinking that around a density of 1015 or 1010 would be a good range, ie fizzy enough to be sparlkling but not too much to erupt volcanically on opening the bottle. But no! I think I need to wait till about 1005 or even 1000. I opened up a bottle recently that was bottles at 1007, and it too erupted volcanically. See this video. I’ll be bottling up more soon. Stay posted.

And even more lastly, ... no, I’ll save my other news/gossip/rants for a separate post next week J

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.