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 www.fluidlondon.co.uk
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 www.maddogtvdinners.wordpress.com
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 :)

Monday, 7 April 2014

Getting ready for REAL Fair 2014

Yay, this Thursday 10th April I’m off to London Town! To the REAL Wine Fair. It will be a nice break for me, as I’ve managed to needlessly stress myself out lately instead of enjoying!

Boring but necessary tasks:

  • Buy return ticket Madrid-London with (Sl)Eazy Jet. Check – Did that a few weeks ago. Printed out the boarding passes already
  • Accommodation. Call friend and ask to sleep on his couch.  Check. Confirmed. Couch available
  • Send wines. Check. Done that already. But boy was it complicated! Now there are new EU-wide online forms to be filled in which are SO USER-UNFRIENLY, that you wouldn’t believe it if I could be bothered going into the grindingly boring details. Just to say that it took me several days, including liaising with the good people from REAL fair, AND their warehouse and shipping people. The forms are diabolically Byzantine, obviously designed just to keep specialist form-designing bureaucrats (un)gainfully employed. Better than having them roaming the streets I suppose! But no, relax, I’m not going to go on a rant here! hahaha :)
  • Pack bag. Nope, haven’t done that yet. But I don’t really need much for 5 days: change of clothes, extra bottles for wine, toothbrush, and not much else. Sandwiches and fruit for the flight, so I don’t need to buy any overpriced industrial sub-products on the plane! 
Some boxes of wine, ready for shipping off to REAL Wine Fair

So that’s that all sorted.

But like I said, I’ve managed to stress myself out lately for no good reason. I managed to finish pruning all my vineyards this weekend, which I think is a record for me. Usually I run very late and don’t finish till May some years! Also I’m in the process of designing new labels, which is proving to be really difficult and stressful! I am in fact all labeled out, and I don’t know what I like or even think any more. I need to get away from it all! These tasks are supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful.

But anyway, once I’m in London, my main goal is to reach an agreement with an importer in the UK and start exporting my wines there. It’s high time! I’ve been wanting to have my wines in the UK for a long time now, but have never got round to doing it.

The reason being that it’s hard being a one-man-band, small-time producer, because there are so many different areas of activity that all have to be dealt with; and each area is a universe in itself! Here’s the way I like to classify all the activities that I feel are necessary:

1. Tending my vineyards (and sourcing grapes)
2. Winemaking
3. Marketing, promotion and sales
4. Admin, paperwork, bureaucracy

Each one of these four main areas is of course incredibly complex and time-consuming, and so really, I only manage to do the absolute minimum necessary, in order to be able to produce quality wines (AND keep working at my day-job AND maintain diplomatic relations with friends and family) hahaha you gotta laugh!

For example, "Tending the Vineyards" includes at least the following:
- Pruning
- Removing canes
- Ploughing
- Cutting back grass
- Manureing
- Thinning
- Harvesting
- Transporting grapes to winery
- Dealing with vineyard owners
- Dealing with harvesters

And all of these sub-areas require time and thought and money; and can themselves be sub-divided into even more specific activities! And the same applies to the other three main areas of activities!

I find that sometimes I get carried away with one activity (for example, pruning) and before you know it weeks have passed and you’re late with some other activity (winemaking in the bodega, for example, or some paperwork deadline, or whatever). Or you take a look at your email in-box, and Oh Woe there are several important and/or interesting emails waiting for a reply. Which is of course rather frustrating because I know that I'm not doing a good job.

Anyway, the important thing for me, as I try to remind myself, is to (try to) relax, make good wine, and enjoy! I don’t even have a boss to deal with. Only me myself, and my own aspirations! I don’t NEED to stress myself out and worry about unimportant trivia!

But I’m not complaining. Far from it. I’d rather be doing this, than being bored, reduced to watching TV, or some such lifestyle! Maybe I need to do some yoga?

So really, what I'm most looking forward to about going to REAL (apart from finding an importer, which is of course really important) is just getting away from the label designing, bottling and corking up and shipping out, and sort of taking a deep breath, before getting back to the real world again in Madrid and getting down to some good productive work :). And of course tasting lots of wines and chatting with lots of people!

So dear readers (all 50 of you!), if you are in London this weekend, do come and visit me at Table 56, and taste my wines.

Here are some pics of the possible labels I’ve been playing around with:

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I really wonder where all the time goes?

Here we are at the end of March almost what have I achieved?  Winter is gone, and Spring is springing here in Spain, the weeds are sprouting, the early bloomers are blooming (almonds, cherries, etc) and more to the point the sap is starting to circulate in the vines.


Bitter Almond tree in Carabaña, next to the vineyard

As usual I haven't finished pruning, and in fact I’m am running even later than usual!  Day and night temperatures are rising fast.  That's the thing with central Spain - there's no time to acclimatize from cold, dark harsh winter, to blisteringly hot arid summer! It takes about a week/ten days.  We are having lunch outside on the pavement terrazas of restaurants already!

And here I am just the week before, all wrapped up against the cold:


However, there's been a sudden cold snap over the past few days and temperatures have dropped again.

On the other hand, even though I complain about not pruning in time, I really have achieved quite a lot so far this year, even it’s already a quarter gone!. I've started writing down all the things I actually do get done, so that I can remember them can feel good about it! Otherwise one just gets depressed because the to-do list is never-ending and in fact seems to get longer!

The most important thing that I've achieved this year is getting all my legal licenses and permits and basically complying with all the local, regional, national and EU bureaucracy. One would really need an entire human resource department to deal with all that paperwork, but hey ho, what can one do? I risked the fines for ten years, which is a good stretch I think, so I decided it was time to get as legal as possible. It's taken me about 4 months so far and I've managed to get lots of numbers and certificates and other bits of paper from the Local Authorities (El Tiemblo), the Provincial Authorities (Avila), the Regional Authorities (Valladolid) and the national Authorities (Madrid). I didn't actually have to deal with Brussels (EU) directly!  Compliance with all the legal requirements here in Spain is so complex that you are obliged to hire an accountant to deal with it all, and so I have to now pay €100/month just to have someone keep books and fill in forms for me. Is this normal? Does this happen in other countries?  Maybe I'm living in my own private fantasy world.

What else? Well, I've managed to expand and consolidate at the same time! On the one hand, I've reached agreements with local grape-growers to buy their grapes. The deal is that they don't use any chemicals, and I pay them over the going rate for grapes in the area. Also, I get to select the date of harvest, and the grapes have to be harvested in small crates (as opposed to in a trailer). On the other hand, I've also managed to reach agreements with vineyard owners; in this case I get to manage the vineyard directly in return for an annual rent.

So now I manage the following vineyards:

- Carabaña, 1 ha (Tempranillo/Airén field blend), 11 years
- Villarejo, 1 ha (Malvar), 4 years
- El Tiemblo - La Dehesa, 0.5 ha (Garnacha), < 1 year
- El Tiemblo - Castañar, 0.5 ha (Garnacha), < 1 year
- Cebreros - Santa Maria 1 ha (Garnacha), < 1 year
- Navas del Rey, 4 tiny plots x  0.25 ha, (Garnacha), < 1 year

Here are some pics of these vineyards:

Old vine Garnacha vineyard in Cebreros.
The top third are about 100 yrs old, and the bottom two/thirds about 40 yrs old

Garnacha vineyard in El Tiemblo

Another Garnacha vineyard - in Navas del Rey this time

Same Garnacha vineyard in Cebreros, but looking downhill

Apart from the grapes from the above vineyards, I also buy in grapes from local grapegrowers:

- Morata de Tajuña, Airén
- El Tiemblo, Garnacha
- El Tiemblo, Albillo
- El Tiemblo, Chelva
- El Tiemblo, Doré
- El Tiemblo, Tempranillo
- Cebreros, Sauvignon Blanc

Phew! It's starting to get complicated!

In addition to all that, I'm working with a graphic designer on the production of some proper labels!  Here’s a preliminary selection of what we’re cooking up:

photos labels

I've always been ambivalent about getting round to producing 'proper' labels. On the one hand I like the idea of just printing off my own, as it goes with the idea of artisan wine, ie my whole winemaking operation is artisan and so, the labels should be too, no?

Here’s one of my own old ‘home-made’ labels:

Airén 2010
100% Airén (from Carabaña, Madrid)
Unfiltered, unclarified, no added sulfites.
13% vol. Bottles produced: 1200 750 ml

But on the other hand, they su**!   I've never seen such cr**py labels anywhere, not even at the natural wine fairs I go to, nor at conventional wine fairs, nor even on the internet on the webpages of artisan producers! Everybody all has nice, proper professionally designed and printed labels!

Decisions, decisions!  “No rest for the wicked” is my phrase of the month!

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Force is with me. And so is Robert Parker Jr, Promoter of Natural Wines

Wow! the Universe really is Infinite and Abundant, and it seems to be looking out for me. This time it's delivered a huge helping hand to me (and other 'naturalistas') via Robert Parker's latest pronouncement on natural wine. Here. Basically, he predicted (along with 14 other predictions for the wine world in 2014) that natural wine would be exposed as fraud. Extraordinary! At first I couldn't believe that he, obviously a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, could say such a thing. But then I just couldn't believe my luck. Publicizing the existence of a category of wines called 'natural wine' to all his followers and subscribers! An advertising campaign with a similar outreach would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars - certainly beyond the marketing budgets of any natural wine producer, distributor, outlet or association. All I can say is "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!"

Now there will be thousands and thousands of wine consumers who have been exposed to the phrase 'natural wine' and some of them will be curious to find out exactly what it's all about. And some will actually go out and taste some. And some will like it and become customers!

I feel that I should also address RP's claim that 'natural wine is a fraud', but I'm at a loss as to how to do it! I am in fact having difficulty understanding how he can possibly be serious. I mean, there are thousands of genuine, hard-working, sincere producers, distributor and retailers out there, and possibly tens of thousands of consumers who genuinely enjoy natural wines for many valid reasons. Are all these people members of some giant conspiracy to hoodwink the unsuspecting public? Obviously not. Are they all being brainwashed into admiring the emperor's new clothes? Obviously not.

But maybe RP was just referring to some silly claim possibly made by some individual natural wine proponent at some time in the past? I don't know. The quote in the post doesn't go into details.

Or maybe he was referring to the semantics of the word 'natural', along the lines of Tom Warks's numerous posts on that topic? Again, I don't know. But if this is the case, then I've already addressed the semantic question in some of my own previous posts here and here.

The most puzzling thing for me though, is why do intelligent and knowledgeable men like RP and TW make these absurd claims? My latest theory is that they in fact really know nothing at all about the reality of making natural wine, or about the reasons that it's made, or the reasons why so many consumers like to drink it; I believe that they've just synthesized a whole complete natural wine fantasy world in their own imaginations from out of nothing (or maybe from out of a few scraps and anecdotes); and they now really believe that there really is a natural wine movement out there, with its leaders, champions, dogmas, beliefs, and of course a team of evil marketers, constantly scheming to deceive the public. A great fantasy for sure, but nothing to do with the real world!

Another theory I have, (or rather, a related theory) is that the Infinite and All-Powerful Universe is using all the means at its disposal to promote natural wines, and therefore environmentally friendly viticulture and chemical-free products for human consumption. And that includes using the words of supposed adversaries, who are in fact helping us! One thing that's clear, though, is that the Universe works in mysterious ways! Who would have thought that the world's most influential wine critic would actually help the people he most disparages.

Another thing that has become clear to me is that at last I've found my place, direction and mission in this life; and it's also become clear that critics like RP or TW, far from being adversaries and enemies, are in fact allies who are helping me and others all the way.

My mission, I now know, is to make as much and as many wines as possible, from native grape variety vineyards, from as many different places as possible; to save, preserve and give productive, and profitable and sustainable use to these vineyards, to keep alive and thriving as many grape-growing and wine-making and cultural practices as possible, all this by means of partnerships and agreements with local grape-growers; by means of making many, different, beautiful, delicious, complex, terroir-expressing, minimum intervention, comment-worthy, natural wines; by means of promoting, marketing and selling all these wines honestly and transparently to people who appreciate such wines and efforts; and all this by means of sustainable, non-polluting, environmentally beneficial viticulture.

I just need to carry on doing what I've been doing all these years; just keep going with the flow; now I just need to find a model that will allow me to produce more wines from more vineyards, but without losing the quality, genuineness and singularity that I've attained and maintained so far over the last 11 years. Now I need to somehow expand my one-man-band operation and make arrangements with local grape-growers, and other players to make all this happen.

Anyway. Enough. here's to the future! :)

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Long Live Natural Wine - in this Infinite and Holistically All-powerful Universe! Vive le vin Naturel!

Thank you, Oh Infinite Universe, for putting Tom Wark in my path!

I've learnt a lot from him over the years, though it's taken me years to realize it. Over the years of interaction with him (always on the topic of natural wine, in the form of comments to his posts) I think I've gone through all the emotional phases, starting with anger, hate, resignation, frustration, pity and finally now, acceptance and gratitude.

His latest post on natural wine, here, just brought it all home to me. I now realize that we humans are just extraordinary in our diversity, and that all our diverse points of view represent richness and complexity and wondrously different ways of seeing the same world in which we live. This applies at all levels of philosophy, not just the limited and trivial world of wine which we wine geeks think represents the entire universe!

But anyway, even though I disagreed completely with everything he wrote, here's what I enjoyed about Tom's latest post on natural wine, which could be seen as yet another rant in a series of over 20 similar posts, but which I believe is not:

The first thing that struck me was his extraordinary tenacity in clinging to the primary dictionary definition of the word 'natural, despite the fact that native English speakers (and proficient foreigners) are perfectly aware that words in the English language can have many, many different meanings, and sometimes even apparently contradictory meanings too. Tenacity is a quality to be admired, IMO, and success is often built on it. I like to think that I have my fair share of it too.

Allow me to be really boring for a few paragraphs here and actually provide the links to several reliable, recognized and respected linguistic sources, just to prove what I said above, ie that the word 'natural' really does have multiple meanings, including the one used by people talking or writing about natural wine, and that it wasn't just invented a few years ago by the evil scheming marketers in the employ of some natural wine producers:

- Mirriam Websters (Definition 2: not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial)

- FDA ("...the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.")

- Oxford English Dictionary (1991 edition) (subscription only) gives as part of meaning 7a: 
manufactured using only simple or minimal processes; ”
- Encyclopedia Brittanica (1888) edition). (That's eighteen eighty-eight). A long article on wine in general, where 'natural wine' is discussed in the same sense as we do today.

- Do bianchi. An interesting post with explanations and links to an Italian text from 1896 on natural wines.

- French Wikipedia article on the uprisings and riots in Languedoc in 1907 where the slogan "Vive le vin naturel. A bas les empoisonneurs" was used.  (Translation; "Long live natural wine. Down with the poisoners!"  Can you imagine anyone using that slogan today? ha ha!)

Text of the speech given by Marcellin Albert on 9th June 1907 in Montpellier during a demonstration of around 500,000 protesters, during which he uses the phrase "natural wine".

To summarize: the main primary meaning of 'natural' is "existing in nature; not man-made" (eg, an ocean, a mountain), the meaning that Mr Wark believes is the only one; but other meanings exist, have been around for a long time, and are used by many, many English speakers in a perfectly natural way.

Basically, what I'm saying here, by providing all this evidence, is that the use of the word 'natural' is more than justified and legitimized by these authorities and by the length of time that the term has been used.

But in addition to that (as if it weren't enough), sheer common sense and intuition should be enough for any native English-speaker to realize that words have more than one meaning. Just think of the word 'organic'. The primary dictionary meaning is 'containing carbon atoms', or 'applying to living things'; historically the word has been used in phrases like 'organic chemistry', 'organic compounds', 'organic growth', 'organic waste', 'organic history', 'organic molecules', 'organic synthesis';

Then at some point in history (1970's?) the word started to be applied to agricultural products made in a certain way, and we got 'organic farming', 'organic fruit', 'organic vegetables', 'organic wine', 'organic soil', 'organic agriculture', etc.  Wow! A new meaning for the word 'organic'! Now it means, not only 'containing carbon atoms', but ALSO the meaning we all know and love and accept today, ie "grown without the use of synthetic chemicals". I wonder if there were people back then who fulminated against the 'organic' movement and accused the marketers of organic fruit and veg of deceit?

The second thing that struck me was the wonderful and amazing leap of logic that formed the basis of his latest post, showing incredible ingenuity and creativity:

1. Take a set phrase in the English language ("as nature intended")
2. Interpret the words separately and literally
3. Provide a long list of links to blog posts that used this phrase in connection to wine
4. Allow something wondrous to happen in the language processing centers of your brain
5. Lo and behold: the conclusion is that the "natural wine movement" believes that Nature has consciousness and intentionality!

I think that all native speakers of English understand what 'set phrases' are, and use them accordingly in everyday speech and writing. Just look up a dictionary to see what "as nature intended" really means; as you can see, the phrase just doesn't mean that nature actually intends anything, like Mr Wark suggests. It's just a set phrase that has the general meaning of "not interfering too much in a process or situation".

Here are some more set phases:

Let nature take its course, Nature abhors a vacuum, To answer the call of nature, Mother Nature, The call of the wild, Silence is golden, Money talks, As chance would have it, Put your cards on the table,...

There are thousands of them in English, and not one of them means what the individual words mean literally. It's quite intuitive really, and actually more difficult to explain than it really is!

Thirdly, I was saddened to read that Mr Wark is continuing with his personal crusade against Isabelle Legeron MW. Very saddened. At least there were no direct personal insults, like in this previous post of his; this time he just used some indirect denigration by associating her name with Wiccans, Pantheists and Druids, and April Fool's Day. Not much good karma there.

Fourthly, there's the question of setting up straw men (that's another set phrase, not men made of straw!!!) so as to proceed to knock them down. I think it's rather pointless and silly of Mr Wark to do this, because attacking distorted or fictitious aspects of natural wine does not really address the actual real position at all, let alone engage in a constructive dialogue.

But getting back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, I believe that at last I've found peace with myself, and with this whole 'natural wine' thing, thanks in part to Tom Wark's posts over the years. Basically, I think that the semantics and history of the word 'natural' is irrelevant (even though it's interesting in its own right, especially to people with an interest in linguistics and etymology. Like me!). No, the important aspect for me is the qualities and characteristics of the wines that are made in a "natural" way, and which for me boil down to three aspects:

1. Can natural wines express their terroirs better?

2. Are natural wines safer and/or healthier?

3. Are natural wines better for the environment?

Obviously, I believe that the answer to all three of those questions is YES. That's why I find myself in the natural wine camp, not because I think it's a great marketing idea. I was in fact making wines for 7 years in this way with no contact with the outside wine world, until I "discovered" blogging, and social media etc in 2009, at which point I also "discovered" natural wine! And the rest is history! Was I happier in those days? Was I making better wines? No, I don't think so. I think I was probably making worse wines, and that I've become a lot stricter with myself and more demanding, especially over the last 3 or 4 years.

Am I going to promote and market my wines as 'natural wines'? Yes, but not exclusively. There are several inconveniences about using the term natural wines to market my wines, that I have to bear in mind. The main one is that most consumers don't know what it means! Because there is no official or legal definition. Another inconvenience is that there are a lot of bad, faulty and extreme wines out there that I don't want to be associated with. I want to produce interesting, complex, terroir-expressing, comment-worthy wines, not wines that can just be slotted into a marketing category. I want to make wines that smell good and taste delicious! Just like the majority of natural winemakers.

Since my family hasn't been making wine for generations, and customers aren't beating a path to my cellar door, I have to promote and market my wines somehow or other. The use of the category of 'natural wines' may or may not be good for me: I will have to decide. Not only do I have to be a good winemaker, but I also have to be an astute marketer! I will just go with the flow and try to keep some grace while under pressure :)

The obvious advantage for me in marketing my wines as 'natural wines' is that ALL my customers, and contacts in the trade, know exactly what is meant by 'natural wine', and the quality and characteristics of my wines can speak for themselves. This is because my production is so small, that all my sales are within the 'natural wine community' or wine-lovers who already know what natural wine is all about. If and when I ever significantly increase my production and have to reach out to the wider wine-loving community, then I will have to think about it. A problem of plenty, really!

Interesting times we're living in!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Tasting and Pruning With Gabriel

I spent the other day (Sun 2nd Feb) pruning with Gabriel, my first ever "intern" who spontaneously volunteered to work for free in return for whatever I could teach him! Wow! I was honoured that anyone would want to do that. Lots of people have helped me in the vineyards for free over the years of course, but they were always people I already knew - family, friends, regular consumers of my wine, etc.

Gabriel tries his hand at pruning

On this occasion it was different, as I'd only met Gabriel (Sánchez Blocona) about 2 weeks ago at a tasting that we were at. As it happened, it was a tasting of the wines of Basilio Izquierdo, which would merit a whole post to itself, as there were some really incredible wines there. Including some really old ones (for me!) like a CVNE 1948 which is the oldest everest wine I've ever tasted in my life. But I won't go on about that - I've been getting paranoid lately about turning into a wine-bore! I think that's what happens when you read the Hosemaster of Wine!

Anyway, that was in the morning. After lunch (here) (which, btw, was the most expensive lunch I've ever paid for in my life, and where I witnessed for the first time a bottle of wine being opened with a pair of heated tongs!) we (Gabriel and I) decided to gate-crash another tasting in the evening.

This one was one of these wine-tasting clubs of friends who get together regularly to taste and comment on interesting wines. I knew a few of these friends (including Alfredo Maestro) so I figured that they wouldn't mind. As luck would have it they were doing a blind tasting, which I love, even though I never identify any of the wines.

The only clue we had was that all 6 bottles were non-Spanish. Incredibly, I was the only one who identified the country of provenance of 4 of them (Georgia)!  I think this was because no-one else there had tasted Georgian wines before, while I had - once, two years ago in London at RAW fair. Amazing! Then of course I had to explain that I'm not an expert or even experienced taster and that it was just luck that I remembered those wines. This is true, I'm a very inexperienced wine-taster, as the only tasting I ever do is of my own wines, and even then just checking for faults/off-tastes/strangeness/etc. I'm practicing though, and I try to get to whatever tastings I get invited to, time and tasks permitting!

Gabriel on the other hand is a wine-geek, an experienced taster, and collector of old rare wines. But he doesn't know much about grape-growing, vineyard work, pruning, etc. So, there was a win-win situation if ever there was one.

Now pruning is quite a skilled task, it's not just manual labour; so it's a bit of risk to just let anyone loose in your vineyard with a pair of pruning sheers! :)  A bit of a risk only in the sense that he/she might snip off a bit too much, or the wrong canes, and hence reduce the production of a few 'mutilated' vines!  I mean to say, it's not a catastrophy or a disaster. Vines can survive a lot worse than a crazy pruner :)  But in any case, why do it wrong, when it's so easy to do it right?

Here's me pruning a vine

So this is what we did: First he just followed me and watched, while I pruned and explained. But that gets boring after a while and the 'student' doesn't really learn anything new, after so much theory. So I sent him a vine ahead of me to do some pre-pruning. This entails snipping off all the obviously unwanted little canes, the canes growing from obviously wrong places and those growing in obviously wrong directions (all of which I explained beforehand).

Nice ladybird. Super-predator. Eats up all those nasty aphids

Contemplating ladybirds :)
I also got him to snip back all the remaining major canes but leaving 5 or 6 buttons. Then I myself would either prune these canes right back to the wood, or prune it to 1 or 2 buttons, as appropriate.

Those tasks that I set Gabriel to are very useful for getting to know those obviously useless canes, which can then just be snipped off without a second thought, and also for learning to handle the pruning shears, getting to know their weight and balance, how far they open, possible angles of entry, etc.

Nice earthworm. Sign of healthy living soil

His final task was to pick up all the snipped canes from where they fell and to put them in little piles in the middle of the lanes. Now that really is pure manual labour, but it saved me a lot of time :)  Come on, I had to do SOME brutal exploitation!  :)

Vine and thistle

The next time he comes out to help me, I'll teach him how to actually choose which canes to prune and keep, and which ones to prune right back to the wood. That is of course the most important piece of knowledge in pruning. How well you do that impacts not only the quantity of grapes that the vine will give you that year, but also long-term it will affect the health, vigour and longevity of that vine.

Ready, steady, prune!
Gabriel is also an awesome photographer, and he took all the photos in this post (except for the one of himself, obviously!).

His camara has also got this function that makes speedy videos. (For UK reader: think Benny Hill!) Check it out:

I'd be happy to teach anyone who wants to learn what I know. It's just a question of arranging to meet. Which is actually more difficult than it sounds because I usually don't know when I'm going to prune until a few days before! Anyway, feel free to contact me if you're interested.

Another really useful thing to do when short of time and you have thousands of vines to prune, is simply to temporarily duplicate yourself:

Me and my double ready to go
 After a hard day's work, our just reward:

In a bar, back in Madrid

Very pretty, but is it art?  ha ha!

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