In summer, there are many reasons to seek mental comfort on this side of the Atlantic. Summer is a season traditionally associated to taking it easy and thinking lightly, or not at all, and Spain is no better location for such activities. On the other hand, we are acutely aware that Europe is heavy with a sense of doom and gloom. Currently straining to catch a mere glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, there’s no better sector to exemplify such frustrations than the wine industry, one of the main sectors leading the “mortuary” mood, save a small bunch of producers who had the foresight to invest their money into the foreign market year’s back when everything was easy and taking that transatlantic leap meant a real challenge and a lot of vision. Hence, with the world being what it is, this past summer made me desire easy, humble pleasures, a path that purposely avoided rock-solid enjoyment (i.e., well-known brands) and those 2 ton bottles that have become famed –and faked, to my view– as a contemporary byproduct of vinous greatness.
That unexpected escape happened during my summer holiday in Montehermoso, a small town in the north of the province of Cáceres, in Extremadura, pretty close to the Portuguese border. As some of you may know, the wines made in this region are broadly known as “pitarra” after the small earthenware vessel it was traditionally made in. But, given that “pitarra” has become synonymous with “home-made wine” for precisely the reason that it’s consumed at home, or locally, it is no wonder we find a myriad of “pitarra” styles, starting from the three basic colour categories: white, red, and rosé, although the latter could better be described as a slightly “tinged” version of the white one. As well as its “bulk-wine” nature, the very essence of “pitarra” lies precisely in its diversity and un-homogenous quality. Take for instance the great number of grapes they have historically resorted to; names long lost in the depths of history like alarije and borba, among better known grapes like pedro ximénez, macabeo, and the red varieties bobal, garnacha or tempranillo (also known in this region as aragonés, in tune with the name their Portuguese neighbours have given it historically), or the diverse winemaking methods, pretty much developed along the centuries in a peculiarly familiar fashion and passed on from generation to generation in that same natural as well as secretive way.
That “homely”, almost familiar aura that surrounds “pitarra” wines makes it improbable for anyone to be invited to the wineries in which they are made (usually no more than a basement in the family house, the kind of place you enter fearing a devil on your back), let alone to be privy to their ancestral winemaking methods, which as I said above are kept as a sort of family secret never to be revealed to strangers. Though a stranger myself, I managed to arrange a visit to one of these wineries, a mere and real “garage” –it used to be a motorbike’s spare parts shop, there’s still a little warehouse in one corner full of that sort of stuff– where I was to marvel, in a matter of minutes, at the unassuming greatness of the only wine they make there.
The producer in question is José Ángel Gordo, who manages around two hectares of a mix of –mainly– macabeo with a smallish percentage of aragonés (tempranillo). He follows year after year the same basic procedure: harvest white and red grapes separately, presses them together, lets them ferment with the skins on PVC containers of around 22 cántaros (some 350 litres) for as long as it naturally takes (around a month and a half, on average), and then usually in the first fortnight of December, always on a “chilly and windless” day, the wine is racked off to earthenware vessels that are immediately closed with kraft paper and huge rubber bands where it remains for months until the wine is sold in bulk to local bars and taverns at around 33€ a cántaro (16 litres). As for the issue of “consistency” between batches, I can only say that there was little or no difference between the bulk wine that I tasted there and the 75 cl. bottle labelled as “Pitarra Montegrón” I took home as a most welcomed present. But the real twist of this narrative came when José Ángel allowed me to peep into one of these earthenware vessels, where I found the real essence of its greatness, flor!! (of which I can assure you he was duly unaware of!!), the same veil of yeast on the surface of the wine that relates that “pitarra” to sherry wines. Of course I don’t expect to find this kind of feature in every “pitarra” wine available, but trust me if I tell you that that easy, humble and natural note changes the whole character of the resulting wine. That simple twist (also known as biological ageing) manages to do the trick and pushes a mere “good wine” over that almost imperceptible border after which we can duly call it “fine”. In my case at least it helped me to shun the depressive feeling attached to this most horrid “summer of our (financial) discontent” and bring me some much sought after as well as well-deserved –I would like to believe– comfort, along with a monumental sense of place, something not at all dissimilar to what the French like to call terroir.
With high yields and those secret century-old practices what one can’t definitely expect is words like “concentration” or “depth”. What one gets, nevertheless, is the sort of sensory comfort one has been searching for –and usually failing to find – in much more expensive and even petulant renderings. Commonly the hot Iberian summer becomes a frantic race to get the most refreshing drink available. In the case of wine, the most popular trick over the years has been to mix cheap red wine with carbonated water (soda) and a slice of lemon, a sort of working man’s long drink known as “tinto de verano” or “summer’s red”. Another popular habit has started to occur some eight years ago with the introduction of cheap sweet Lambrusco wines from Italy, first through Italian restaurants and then making them more broadly and easily available in supermarkets. The also popular reluctance to mixing finer wines with soda has brought overall wine consumption through the summer months to a standstill. In my opinion, the kind of wine that is central to this post fits the bill in terms of the refreshing character the public is (even mutedly) asking for. Just slightly chilled, it shows an amazing lightness even at 14% alcohol content or above. Also its rosé nature, closer to white wine rather than red, accounts for an altogether more approachable character, a more than welcomed feature in this sorrowful piece of Europe.