Yesterday, I went down to [La Mancha->http://www.lamanchado.es/index_en.html] with a close friend of mine from Madrid. His goals were twofold: first, to pick up his kids from his parents, and second to introduce me to some winemakers and their vineyards. Obviously, I was game. Since my arrival in Spain, I’ve been very interested in this enormous DO. In fact, it is not only the largest DO in Spain, but also one of the least known. This is mainly due to the fact that until recently this region was only known for producing large quantities of Cencibel (Tempranillo) and Aíren for bulk wine. In fact, at one time, to quell protests from the peasants, [Franco->http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Franco] offered to buy and distill any wine not sold. Not a bad deal for the peasants, but the security Franco offered led to over planting and a major decline in quality wine. Today, this is changing with more wine makers striving to create quality wines that can stand up on the international market.
Our first stop was in Quero, where we met Julián Ruiz Villanueva of Bodega Ecológica Bruno Ruiz. Created four years ago, it is a relatively new winery located in the town of Quero in the province of Toledo, one hour south of Madrid. Historically, Julián’s family had grown and sold grapes to a local cooperative where they disappeared into blended vats of drinkable though uninspired table wine. That was until Julián, who had worked in the vineyards for as long as he can remember, decided to take a more active role in wine making. After learning a bit about the viticulture trade at a College in Valencia, Julián returned to Quero to pursue a new direction with his family’s grapes.
The new direction was founded on the basics – a good solid product. Using strictly organic wine making ([click here to see the regulations pertaining to organic wine making->http://www.ecovinum.com/popupOrganicWine.php?lang=1]) Julián has struggled over the past four years to produce a good quality product. In a climate as hot and dry as LaMancha, organic farming can both be a blessing and a curse. For instance, the extreme heat and constant wind make bugs and mildew a minor issue, while overly ripe grapes and intense heat can make stabilizing a wine for bottling an incredible challenge.
When we arrived, Julián was in the middle of cleaning up after the first shipment of [Chardonnay->http://twis.info/grape.php?ID=14&select=c] was harvested, while a large truck piled high with lush round grapes sat patiently outside for processing. The smell was incredible – fresh fruit and wet stone mingled in the air, so strong and palpable that my senses were continually bombarded, making feel a bit like a kid in a candy store. After the normal introductions and small talk, Julián offered us a deal – he would take us on a private tour of the vineyard if we would agree to help him unload and destem the grapes stacked outside before the noonday sun became too hot. Eager to get my hands dirty, we spent a solid half an hour repairing the plug of the destemmer, while Julián slowly backed up the truck into the garage for unloading.
A quick aside; I assume most of you who are reading this have drank a glass or two of wine in your day. I also assume that you are aware that wine is created from grapes. But how many of you have actually tasted the grapes before the wine is made? Me neither. This was my first time tasting chardonnay straight from the vine. And although the grapes were smaller than usual, light green with a hint of pink, it didn’t inhibit my excitement to take my first bite. As the juices flowed across my palate, I tried to make the connection between the flavors in my mouth and the dry table wine it will become. My first impression: overwhelming sweetness and flavors of peach, honey and a light nuttiness. Wow, why bother making wine when the intensity of the flavor they are treats in and of themselves? It was as if nature had given me a piece of liquid candy. Whereas I savored each individual grape, my friend had gripped and bit into an entire bunch of grapes as if possessed by the [god Bacchus->http://www.pantheon.org/articles/b/bacchus.html] himself! As juice dripped from his lips, a satisfied smile spread across his face. It wasn’t until later in the day that I found out that the sugar levels in these grapes would yield, after fermentation, a wine of approximately 14Ã‚Âº of alcohol and result in a chardonnay dry as a bone.
Yet while I was enjoying this sweet natural candy one question kept coming to my mind, where was that crisp acidity that makes chardonnay come alive? The answer was given to me by Julián later in the day, you see LaMancha is a desert. Which is obvious when you consider the scenery driving down from Madrid – treeless, bone-dry scrub-brush. However, this is a relatively new development. My friend explained that until the discovery of America, much, if not all, of the Iberian Peninsula was covered in a dense forest of hardwood trees. Once the “new land” was discovered, these ancient trees became a prized commodity to wealthy individuals who rushed to build the needed boats for sailing to the new world. With a vast barren dry landscape remaining years later, the grapes have little to protect them from the blaring sun. In these harsh conditions, grapes have little chance to mature slowly, creating a delicate balance of acid and sugar they need to produce outstanding wine. On the other hand, with new wine making techniques and more attention to canopy (the leaves that cover the grapes) management, man can at times “artificially” boost the acid content, whereby developing a more stable balanced wine.
The destemming process consisted of a small assembly line where Julián dumped the grapes into the destemmer while we moved and stacked the empty crates. Doesn’t sound like much fun, but to me it was incredible fun! Hands sticky with the syrup that clung to each box, we occasionally grabbed at a bunch of grapes leftover in the crates, savoring each and every mouthful. I hate to report that Bodega Ecológica Bruno Ruiz this year will be short one bottle of their chardonnay, but it was worth it. The entire process took approximately a half hour and resulted in around 3,000 Kg.of processed grapes.
The pictures show both the whole grapes being pumped into a large stainless steel fermentation vessel and the result of the destemming. Surprisingly, these stems which amounted to a 4 foot square pile only consisted of 8% of the total weight. Another interesting fact, offered by Julián, is that the stems decay slower than bone. For this reason, they are added to garbage to provide air pockets in the refuse allowing for faster decomposition.
After hosing ourselves down, Julián took us up to his lab to look at some [Merlot->http://twis.info/grape.php?ID=5&select=m] and [Syrah->http://twis.info/grape.php?ID=10&select=s] grapes brought in earlier that day for analysis. He picked a few grapes off of both bunches and mashed them in separate containers to release the juices. Swirling the juice, he stuck his nose inside and declared the Merlot almost ready, while the Syrah needed a few more weeks. This was not the method he usually employed to analyze grapes though he did feel that you could get a good picture of where the maturation process was at simply by tasting and smelling. What I found particularly interesting was the color. If you have studied wine at all, you will know that with only a few exceptions, all grapes produce clear juice. To produce a bottle of inky red wine you need to let the grapes sit with the skins for an extended period of time allowing the color in the skins to be extracted into the wine. Holding a jar in my hand, I swirled it watching the juice become darker and darker red. Right before my eyes, I saw the process of extraction at work. It’s amazing how you can study something for a large part of your life and never get to experience it first hand. Finishing our tour of the lab, Julian suggested that we head out into the field to observe the vines.
At this point deep inside the DO of LaMancha, we were completely surrounded by grapes. Looking out you could see [vines pruned->http://www.thewinedoctor.com/advisory/technicaltraining.shtml] in both goblets and trellises forms. For those that don’t know about the natural order of vines, if given their druthers, vines would happily crawl across the land, up buildings, around trees and potentially stopped only by the salinity of the sea. For this reason, viticulturists must intervene, carefully pruning each vine depending on the type of grape and wine they hope to produce. Traditionally in LaMancha, people have chosen the goblet form – a technique where the vine trunk is kept short, while foliage arcs over the top like a bad perm. In this way, the leaves can help protect the vines against the constant beating of the sun’s rays. In fact, this is so effective that there can be a 5 degree Celsius (almost 9 degrees F) difference between the outside air and the grapes underneath! The other style of training vines is more commonly known in the wine world is trellising. Trellises stretch out in never-ending rows, carefully training the vines. Each year in the fall the vines are pruned back and in some cases one tendril is left tied to the narrow wires that layout the rows. In the spring this buds that sprout up from this tendril reach out and pull themselves upwards slowly, ready to produce more grapes. While effective for harvesting, it doesn’t necessarily protect the grapes from the natural elements. It does, however, allow more air to circulate which prevents [various diseases and funguses->http://www.ippc.orst.edu/cicp/fruit/grape.html] from destroying the grapes.
Generally, Juliáns vines are a mix of both goblet trained and trellising. As we get out of car to see them the beauty of the vineyard spreads out before us. Workers diligently picking grapes against the sky’s various shades of blue – deep blue at the horizon with a smear of the suns radiation staining the landscape with heat. Lining each row were empty crates waiting to be filled by the five workers armed with small clippers – one being Julián’s own father. In Spain, hand harvesting is not unique. LaMancha, and in many other parts of Spain, the preferred method of goblet training makes harvesting by hand the only option, straining both your back and knees under the intense desert sun. Like wise the rocky soil and density of the trellises makes machine harvesting these a nearly impossible task. Needless to say, I have learned to say a little thank you to all those people who help make each bottle of wine possible, every time I open a bottle.
After the tour, we left Julián back at the Bodega and headed to my friend’s parents house for a family dinner accompanied by 2 wines from Bodega Ecológica Bruno Ruiz. Seeing that it was a family affair with new people to talk to, I set aside my note pad and enjoyed the food, company and wine the way they were meant to be. I will say this though, the bottle of wine made by carbonic maceration was a rich fruit driven wine that would make any first date a success. Nothing too complex or overly profound, just an enjoyable, fun well-made wine for drinking. We followed this up with his Crianza made from tempranillo- soft on the palate and lacking some of the acidity this grape normally shows, the richness of the fruit mixed with the soft vanilla/oak backbone none-the-less made it a great pairing with our beef and potatoes.
After a brief cat nap, more sightseeing, and a few cafés, we rendezvoused with Julián for a drink and a chance to ask a few more detailed questions. Stay tuned next week I hope to post a short interview with some of Julián’s thoughts about the DO of LaMancha and oraganic grape growing.
Till soon, Ryan