RAÜL BOBET. Castell d’Encús, Talarn, Lleida Spain. “Nessun dorma”.

We return to Spain. Lleida.

Castell d’Encus is an estate, a wooded mass, of about 95 hectares, located at the kilometre 5 of the road from Tremp to Santa Engràcia, that is in the part of Pallars which is called Jussà, existing another one which is Sobirà. The first is below, i.e., the furthest from the Pyrenees, the second is naturally above. I remember the Yuso and Suso that we have in La Rioja and which refer to the Monastery (below) and the Hermitage (above) of San Millán de la Cogolla.

It is a game among monks, and even more so when it comes to wine.

It is part of the D.O. Costers del Segre.

It offers us the panoramic view that opens up to infinity from the place:

“That over there is Aigüestortes, further away is the Besiberri, Ordesa is there, the Aneto…, this opposite is the village of Santa Engracia.”

It seems that Raül Bobet arrived at this enchanted and enchanting setting – after his experience in the Priorat and perhaps tired of it – by mistake or perdition (in the sense of “being lost”), perhaps as if by magic, or perhaps by chance, although it is well known that to encounter chance you have to look for it.

There he was spellbound. 23 hectares of vines of the most diverse varieties (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir, syrah, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, riesling semillon and albariño) were planted on calcareous loamy soils, with low organic matter content, subjected to a continental climate, with high thermal contrast between night and day, cultivated according to the rules of organic agriculture.

A winery of modern design was built, prepared to operate by gravity in all processes, and equipped with the most advanced technology, which includes the use of geothermal energy, reducing energy costs and environmental impact.

 

The same work of art still preserves a hermitage, watchtower and fermentation vats dug out of the rock, which may date back to the 12th century, the work of hospitaller monks of the Order of Malta, whose former use has been restored or given new ones (such as a music room or a meditation centre).

With such a background we are able to glimpse the magic of the place and appreciate the words of Raül Bobet:

“Making wine is not laissez faire. To succeed you have to use your intuition and know how to interpret nature. You are the one who leads the way. And that’s what you put your soul into. Grapes are not natural, as almost nothing else is. It is a human invention derived from mixing the pollen of the Vitis vitaceae. Wine is created, it is not natural, its ‘raison d’être’ is one hundred percent anthropological. All important things are”.

We will understand them better if we accompany them with some of his wines. Very diverse as proof of the “heterogeneity” that he preaches and practices: “in the vineyard…, in the way of making wine…”. The brands sound all like Sanskrit, which is the sacred language: “Ekam”, “Taleia”, “Thalarn”, “Acusp”, “Majjan”, Taïka”. But not all the words sound like that, for instance, “Quest”, which naturally “has to do with asking questions”, and, may I add, multiplying the answers.

I believe that wine has a magical quality: it is preserved. If you go to the countryside and pick a flower, which also has a magical halo, the flower withers. But if you start from a vine and work the vine in a natural way, it absorbs part of that landscape. And this is magical because you can also take it from one place to another and that essence remains”.

We vow once again to try to go where the essence is born. May the wine also be a memory afterwards.

MATÍAS MICHELINI. Zorzal, Passionate Wines, SuperUco. Mendoza. Mendoza. Argentina. “In praise of madness”.

We cross the Atlantic again, although now in the opposite sense and in the opposite direction. Southern Hemisphere. Argentina. Mendoza: “One hundred and ninety thousand hectares of hydroponic vineyards, irrigated by drip or flood, a great peculiarity of Mendoza’s culture unthinkable in Europe”.

Everything here must therefore be big, and not least the Michelini family, which is devoted to winemaking. The reason for the trip could be Matias, who has earned worldwide renown. Once there, we learn that his three brothers, a sister-in-law and even his son since he was five years old are also involved.

And of course, the number of wines he makes is also disproportionate (geometric progression, since he also makes them blended in different family proportions). Twenty-two different wines, he tells us in the book, but today we can be sure that there are many more. As well as other collaborations in other countries, such as the one he maintains here with Zorzal wineries in Navarra, due to the fortuitous coincidence of their names. He can also be found in El Bierzo.

This is how the book defines Matías Michelini:

“His mission is linked to the revolutionary path: to change Argentinian wine through a contemplative look at the living soil and a freedom that he tirelessly proclaims. He seeks energy, water, freshness and the salt of life. He is non-conformist and curious. Although he defines himself as the anti-hero, he is a born leader who stays away from fashions”.

And this is how he defines his wines:

 “They are free, expressive wines, mountain wines, wines that speak of the mountain range. They are wines of altitude, of soil. They are wild wines that speak of the place where we are, where we live; and that convey the passion and energy that we employ to make them”.

The mountain range is obviously the Andes; the altitude of the vineyards is between 600 and 1500 metres, and the place where they live is Tupungato on the slopes of the volcano of the same name, which reaches an altitude of 6750 metres. It is natural that the name was given by the Huarpe ethnic group that lived there in the 16th century, as well as the fact that it means “viewpoint of the stars”.

In such an immense horizontal and vertical space, passion and energy are a must.

Most of the visit is dedicated to the tasting of many of these wines.

Any temptation to make a synthesis or any attempt to classify is impossible. In the most diverse soils, where up to nine different grape varieties can be counted; where fermentation and ageing take place in the most varied of containers – ovens, tanks, barrels – in the most diverse of materials – plastic, steel, cement, wood, clay – and with the most diverse of methods – from carbonic maceration to multi-fermentation. This is produced by successively incorporating into the vat grapes from four different plots harvested separately and progressively (over a period of about forty days), so that the addition of fresh grapes paralyses the fermentation of the previously deposited grapes, until the bubbling starts again…

“Demented” wine, that is how he calls the result of this process, because to conceive it you have to be very insane as well as have a great mind. In other words, a very well thought-out insanity. Like his whole project.

 

Temperature:

October has been warm overall, with an average temperature in peninsular Spain of 15.4 ⁰C, a value that is 1.0 ⁰C above the average for this month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the 19th warmest October since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the 10th warmest of the 21st century. However, in the land of the Rioja there was no increase in temperature with respect to the average. However, there were significant fluctuations of cold and warm episodes.

 

Rainfall:

October has been dry in terms of rainfall, with an average rainfall value over peninsular Spain of 57 mm, a value that represents 75 % of the normal value for the month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the 24th driest October since the beginning of the series in 1961, together with 1984, and the sixth driest in the 21st century. In the Rioja region, the drought was more pronounced in the eastern area. The Ebro basin showed a significant decrease in rainfall.

Insolation and other variables:

The accumulated insolation during the month of October exceeded the corresponding normal values (reference period 1981-2010) in almost all of Spain. Only in some areas of Murcia, Alicante, Barcelona, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands were values close to the normal value recorded. In the Rioja region, the excess of average insolation can be estimated at 10%, reaching a maximum of 30% in the far west.  Episodes of strong wind were scarce and insignificant.

Roger Scruton  I Drink Therefore I am.

The randomness of the readings that underpin these letters leads us to deal now with another book written in English, and another posthumous tribute. It is “I Drink Therefore I am”, subtitled “A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine”, by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, first published in 2009. English is reiterated because the author boasted about it, although it has been said that his was nostalgia for an England that never existed, which is certainly possible in the light of what this book offers us. He died in the ill-fated year 2020. A controversial man and a friend of controversy, we are not going to deal with his public figure here; we are only interested in his peculiar opinions on wine -he was a journalist critic for a time-, in the book we are commenting on.

 

 

There is a Spanish translation by Elena Álvarez published in 2017 by RIALP, with the title “Bebo, luego existo”. It does not include the subtitle of the original. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to do so. Every Englishman and, in general, every Monty Python fan, knows -and the author himself tells us so-, that the title of the book copies a refrain from a song by this groundbreaking group called “Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9SqQNgDrgg), which reviews the drunkenness of the great philosophers, be they ethylic or mental, or even flatulent, as in the case of Descartes, the one of “‘I think, therefore I am’…”.

 

Indeed, in the core of the book (Chapter 5), the author analyses the second part of the syllogism: “Therefore I am”. In these three words, he tells us, are concentrated all the concepts that underlie all philosophical reflection: (i) “therefore” is “reason” (or “cause”), (ii) “I” is “consciousness” and (iii) “am” (first person singular of the simple present tense of the verb “to be”, one wonders why English speakers then complain about our irregular verbs) is “to be”. He reflects on these terms with such a profusion of arguments and so many quotations from the classics, with such precision in concepts and words, that it should in no way be taken as a joke that he concludes the following:

“For Schopenhauer, however, the ultimate reality is Will, not Self, (…) 1 have often wondered why he took this unsatisfactory path, and am inclined now to put it down to his fondness for beer. Schopenhauer was not in the habit of steadying before his face each evening the glass in which the 1 confronts its own reflection”.

The first part of the syllogism, i.e. the pure act of “Bebo” (“I Drink”), does not deserve in his view complex philosophical reflections. Drinking is as natural as thinking. He does observe, however, the possible existence of various forms of “drinking”. It seems that the way of drinking has no influence on the inexorable conclusion of “existing”. But perhaps it destroys the assimilation to thinking. There are ways of drinking in which rationality is absent. He literally tells us: “while we are familiar with the adverse effect of drink on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind”.

The book has two clearly differentiated parts, although they are offered intermingled. On the one hand, the philosophical reflections, which are not easy to follow; on the other, the wine-making considerations, which are very stimulating to follow, and which are sprinkled with such culture, clarity of judgement and a sense of humour as serious as it is typically English, that they are pleasantly palatable.

 

 

It begins with the initiatory journey that leads the author to become, according to his trademark sense of humour, a “wino”. Next our wino takes us on a literal Tour de France and then gives us news from other parts of the globe. As is only natural, he dwells particularly on countries in the Commonwealth orbit. His news items do not seem to come from a direct knowledge of the terrain, except in the case of France, although this does not include Burgundy, which he admits he has never visited. They are therefore navel-gazing trips around a glass of wine, around his own ability to inhale vapours and exhale metaphors and finally around his enormous culture; he states unabashedly: “Travel narrows the mind, and the further you go the narrower it gets”. This lack of contact with the land does not prevent him from being a staunch defender of the “terroir”, in which he includes all the culture he holds dear. (The “soil” is not only the physical mixture of limestone, mulch and humus, but as Jean Giono, Giovanni Verga or D.H. Lawrence would describe it: “Nurse of passions, stage of dramas, and habitat of local gods”.

I cannot dwell on such comments; it is enough for us to deal with what he says next about Spain. He devotes about three pages to us, almost two of which are devoted to socio-political questions, on the basis of the reading of Invertebrate Spain, a book published by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1921. We will skip these questions and stick to the wine.

He graciously prides himself on knowing our country as intimately as Debussy – “who went to the Iberian Peninsula once for a weekend, saw his mistake, and fled back to Paris” – because he rode his rickety motorbike for a couple of days through the Pyrenees without finding anything worth mentioning.

So he also turns to his navel. In his imagination, Spain is still unspoilt, and to think of it – even more, to drink it – is a source of uncontaminated joy. “The villages and bodegas, that I visit in my glass are whitewashed, flagstoned, perched on steep inclines, with the parched, mean, gritty, clay-bound soil falling form their tight perimeters like terracotta skirts”.

Thus, the same romantic clichés of Merimée and company that the musician had. Debussy may, however, also have had undoubtedly authentic references to compose Prelude number 3 of Book 2 (between 1912/13) – entitled precisely, and precisely in Spanish, “La puerta del Vino” (The Wine Gate, an inner gate within the Alhambra) – since in it one can perceive something of Granados’s Danzas Españolas or Albéniz’s Iberia, both published a few years earlier, although frenchified with the natural impressionism and rhythm of Ravel’s left hand.

No doubt Scruton also had authentic references in the cups around which he travelled.

In our country, he is mainly concerned with Rioja, which he says is a French invention. It seems to be true that the development of wine in Rioja was linked to the time when the phylloxera epidemic had wiped out the vineyards of Bordeaux. However, he goes on to say: “The Spanish bodega represents a business rather than a place, and is less a vineyard than a factory, often buying in grapes from all over the region”. Here you have to go to the “business” rather than the “terroir”, so the wine will never take you to a small area of given soil as it does in France (although we know that this “given soil” can include Joan of Arc herself).

This being the case, it does not seem to detract from the fact that in the “Rioja winery” grapes from all the land of the designation are blended, as long as the properties of each varietal are not artificially altered. Rioja is also a “terroir” as a whole. We have already talked about this when referring to the biodiversity of the Rioja soil, and there will be an opportunity to expand on this.

The red Rioja, continues the author, is made from Tempranillo, blended with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. It is aged in oak barrels, usually American, which explains its vanilla flavour and long finish. It is officially classified into four types according to its ageing in cask and bottle: plain Rioja, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The latter can only be made in the best vintages, and to drink it at its best one must wait for ten years. He ends up with his customary imagery: A glass of old Gran Reserva is like a vision into a candlelit crypt where gaudy archbishops doze among vessels of gold.

The author concludes all his references to Spanish wines by noting that “the combination of oak and Tempranillo works in the uniquely favoured region of Rioja (favoured in particular by those winemakers from France); but it doesn’t work in the Valdepeñas, where ‘gran reserva’ may often connote an overdose of flakey make-up”. He adds that in other areas Tempranillo is blended with more northerly varieties, or excluded altogether. Among the latter, he highlights as most interesting the Bierzo variety with its ancient vineyards along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, planted with the indigenous variety “mencía”, which “thanks to a poor, sunburnt soil is rich in minerals, with a dark blood colour and a melancholic taste, like a bittersweet love song by Lorca”. However, such vineyards grow on chalky foothills so steep that they must be worked by donkey, so that, in keeping with his poetic licence, he concludes that whenever he has offered “a share of this wine to Sam the Horse he has turned quickly away, as though hearing the last neighs of the many equines who have crashed to their death for the sake of this bloodstained remnant of their labour”.

 

The book then goes into abstract considerations again, such as the meaning of wine, or the meaning of the complaints or reproaches made against it, especially the one about abuse (alcohol, in short). The book is not exactly short, 198 pages in English, which become, as seems inevitable, 295 in its translation in only slightly larger print. It is therefore impossible to summarise it, but three important ideas are worth highlighting: (i) wine intoxication is a sensory rather than an aesthetic experience, (ii) it is easier and more tempting to prohibit than to educate; the tendencies to prohibit result from the puritanism that has been defined (H.L. Mencken) as “the obsessive fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy”, and (iii) wine consumption should be guided, like life, by the sayings written above the door of the temple of Apollo at Delphi:Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”, both naturally related, because practising the latter is a prerequisite for attempting the former.

Finally, he gives us some ideas about food pairing (“maridaje”), a word which, in Spanish, as we know from the previous issue, is reviled by everyone, but for which there is no adequate substitute. What to drink with what? Now, the object of the pairing here is not the material food, but the spiritual food. That is, which wine goes well with which philosopher (or vice versa). Of course, the selection is subjective. A few brief examples: a good Bordeaux is perfect to accompany the reading of Plato’s Republic; no wine, but large quantities of water plus a Spartan austerity will be necessary to swallow Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the driest book ever written; a Burgundy of 1964 is very suitable for reading Sartre, since re-reading will then be as impossible as finding the wine again. He reserves for us the honour of assigning us Leibniz, with a Crianza or a Rioja Reserva, opened an hour or two in advance to allow the archbishop’s flavours to breathe.

I hope I have given you good reasons to read this book, which is as interesting, and even amusing, as it is demanding. I conclude by acknowledging that since I read it, I feel, every time I raise my glass and confront my “I”, more conscious of being, of pleasure and of the pleasure of sharing.

 The time comes to say the word

and you let it flow, help it

to slip between your lips,

already anchored in its time limits.

The word is founded by itself, it sounds

there in the heart of the speaker

and climbs little by little until it is born

and before it is nothing and only a truth

makes it a record of something unique.

“Memories of a short time” 1954

 

This issue of “Wine and Letters” is a tribute to the writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald who passed away on 9 May. He is fully recognised as a writer of poems, novels and memoirs. There is no prestigious literary prize in Spain that he has not won, culminating in his receiving the Cervantes Prize in 2012. In articles and obituaries circulating on the Internet you can read all about it.

We mention him especially here because he was also a wine lover. It is said that the gift he was most excited about when he won the Cervantes Prize was a key that gave him access to an important winery in Jerez, where he could go for a year, as much as he wanted and accompanied by anyone he liked. Lover and connoisseur. The news of his death has accelerated the already foreseen idea of dedicating an issue of these newsletters to him, as his BREVIARIO DEL VINO (Wine Breviary) published by the publisher José Esteban in Madrid in 1980, was on the shelf in the library waiting its turn, dedicated as follows: A mis compañeros de promoción literaria, que han bebido lo suyo. (To the literary companions of my generation who have drunk their share). This is the group of poets known as the generation of the 50s of the last century.

 

 

News published recently has led us to learn that this little book went through several subsequent editions until the last one, which was first published by Seix Barral in October 2006, notably improved in terms of aesthetics. In terms of content, it is basically limited to an update of the figures, and the addition of a nice chapter (III) on “Spanish wines according to European travellers”. The other chapters deal with: (I) “From mythology to history”, (II) “The biblical memory of wine”, (IV) “From the vineyard to the bottle”, (V) “Uses and consumption”, ending with a “Brief wine vocabulary”.

“Let us beginas Chapter I doesat the beginning, i.e., with the legend, which is not always a distorted version of history. Even supposing it is, it is particularly tempting to attribute the same antiquity to the biography of wine as to the biography of man”. And it is particularly stimulating to feel part of that history. That is what we are trying to make you aware of here.

The chapter then goes on to explain how this fusion of myth and reality develops in the various histories: of Sumerians and Aryans, of Chinese and Egyptians, of Semitic peoples, of Persians and their close relatives, of Greeks and Romans, Iberians, prequels and sequels, Arabs and Christians, and within the latter especially, of course, the monks….

Chapter II takes up the biblical memory of wine. From Genesis, which contemplates its birth (and effects) in the new world, freshly washed, thanks to Noah, the only righteous man of his generation who deserved to be saved from the universal flood, to its literal consecration at the last supper in the New Testament. And, besides, referring to its significance for a people whose greatest sorrow on their pilgrimage to the promised land was the lack of “fig trees” and “vines” (Numbers), and especially through the miracle of the wedding at Cana, the transformation of water into wine, which illustrates the importance of wine in the already established society.

(Forgive me for interrupting the reading to encourage you to look on Youtube for a video that delightfully explains such a miracle through the mouth of a little girl. The little girl says that this is the passage of the Bible that she likes the most, and the tele-preacher (because this is what it is all about), after making an astonished face and starting his fastidious pedagogy, presses the little girl by asking her what lesson she gets from such a story, and it is she who gives us the lesson: “That if you run out of wine, you had better start praying”).

 

 

Chapter III gives us an account of the opinion that European travellers have had of Spanish wines, starting with nothing less than Shakespeare’s complimentary praise of sherry in the mouth of Falstaff (in Henry IV, 2nd part, 1600), for which we can only feel a healthy envy here from the land of Rioja, which went virtually unnoticed by the foreign chroniclers who visited the peninsula, first called by the Empire, then by the desire for enlightenment, and later by the illumination of romanticism. Today “all these travelling experiences now have a decidedly prehistoric aftertaste”, but there is no doubt that the references and quotations encourage our wine tour and our desire to broaden its scope.

 

 

The wine itself begins its journey in chapter IV until it ends in due course in the bottle. The path takes us from “the soil and the vine” – with some of the “environment” provided by the “micro-organisms” and the “climate” – through “the harvest” – at the ideal moment of sugar and acidity -, through “obtaining the must” by pressing or crushing, through “vinification” – that is, the transformation of glucose into alcohol -, through “selection and correction of the musts” with tasks such as ‘punching down’, ‘pumping over’, ‘racking’, ‘sulphuration’, ‘aeration’ and ‘refrigeration’, until the wine is ‘devatted’ and transferred to ‘ageing’ barrels. It remains there for “ageing and conservation”, undergoing constant “analysis” and perhaps due “rectifications” – with special reference, of course, to the Jerez ageing system of “soleras” and “criaderas” – until it culminates in the “bottle”, but its life does not end in this way, as it continues to evolve within the bottle. As for this evolution, he concludes the debate on its duration, as well as the chapter, by observing that “given the uncertainty of the question, it is perhaps preferable to choose to drink a wine before it can cease to be wine. The patience of sight is one thing and the opportunity of taste is another. A carefully stocked private cellar is always a desirable treasure, though it should not be thought that it can be passed down from father to son”.

 

Therefore, let us get down to work, which is what Chapter V “Uses and consumption” helps us to do, in which it tells us when, where, how, in what way and with what to enjoy a drink that, before being “spirited, is a nutritious stimulant of human physiology”. 

There are two things that the reading of this breviary has conveyed to me as a brief conclusion. The pleasure of reading, blessed as the author is with the gift of words. The satisfaction of being part of the history of wine which, as it has been summarised, “practically coincides with the history of humanity over the last ten thousand years. The vine and civilisation have coexisted inseparably, constantly exchanging their respective virtues in a stimulating pact of mutual aid”.

 

Nowadays, sayings are in the doldrums, and no less so the so-called, in Spanish, “refraneros”, understood not in the academic sense of collection of sayings, but in the colloquial sense of people who are prone to foist them upon others without rhyme or reason, that is, a person who uses sayings all the time. The reasons are clear. A good part of the sayings contains stomach-turning moralising, if not outright vomiting, and this is often the purpose of those who preach them. Prosodically speaking, if I my say so, they are like pesky flies or ball-busters.

However, there are sayings that have a pure and suggestive descriptive value, and there are situations in which they fit like a glove. Even the traditional swearword, the old rude word, can have its appropriate and brilliant moment, even for the most squeamish.

A repertoire for such occasions – the wit to introduce them is not something that Salamanca teaches -, in relation to the subject that happily brings us together here, is the book “Refranes y dichos populares en torno a la cultura del vino” (Popular sayings and proverbs about wine culture) by Víctor Jorge Rodríguez, self-edited -which is perhaps a symptom, for the second time, or may be a consolation or perhaps a ‘proverbial’ stumbling over the same stone-, in May 2015.

 

refranes y dichos populares del vino

 

We have here a very extensive repertoire of sayings in successive chapters relating to the exaltation of wine and its health benefits, the way in which it should be drunk, both on its own and with other foods, its physical and mental consequences, both with regard to friendship and “love” (I leave it in inverted commas because most of the sayings here tend to be as sour as vinegar), or marriage. …, as well as other “old sayings”, related to the care of the vineyard and wine production, and to the different geographical areas of production. The fitting conclusion is: “Wine for everyone. Wine always”. It also has a previous introduction in which the nature of the sayings as an element of popular culture is highlighted, and it is recommended to ‘drink’ them in small sips, savouring them, and in good company.

So there, they remain at the disposal of your wit. (When these lines were well-advanced, I became aware of the self-editing. The book may not be easy to find, but there are plenty of collections of sayings *). I’m afraid I did not heed the advice, and its massive ingestion has generated a certain heaviness. For a moment I thought that, to add a touch of humour to the string of sententious phrases, I might try to offer their literal translation into Spanish. Also, the other way round. It is good fun. Besides, this could contribute to broadening Shakespeare’s language, since in England, logically, wine lacks a popular breeding ground, and the countryside is a field for the expansion of noble animals, the protagonists of many English sayings, particularly the horse, but also cats and dogs, which apparently fall from the sky in torrents[i]. A couple of trials made me give up the idea, there were no sparks.

In any case, and taken with a pinch of salt – I’m afraid I keep using idioms, surely it is like the biblical teaching of the beam and the mote – a good proverb can have its moments. Making categories about what is good is always subjective. I like the old and metaphorical ones: “subirse a la parra”[ii], “caerse de la parra”[iii] , “salir a por uvas”[iv], “nos dieron las uvas”[v], etc. Real and not metaphorical must have been the above-mentioned “te la han dado con queso”[vi]. (An infallible and universal trick because, as our book tells us, that “wine with cheese tastes like a kiss” is almost literal in at least seven languages; in any case, it is not advisable to abuse the cliché, the best way to destroy a magnificent wine is to drink it with a magnificent and inadequate cheese).

[i] The famous English saying: “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

[ii] It means “to get high and mighty”, but literally translated it means ‘to climb up the vine’.

[iii] It means to suddenly become aware of something, but literally translated it means ‘to fall off the vine’.

[iv] It means “to be with the head in the clouds”, distracted or absent-minded, but literally translated it means to go out to get some grapes’. Today it is widely used in football when the goalkeeper goes for the ball inappropriately leaving the goal unprotected.

[v] It means something like we’ll be here all day or “until the cows come home”, but literally translated it means ‘they gave us the grapes’.

[vi] It means to be fooled, “to be taken for a ride”, but literally translated it means ‘you have been given the wine] with cheese’. When the old winemakers wanted to sell a poor-quality wine, they offered it with a portion of strong cheese that limited the ability to taste other flavours.

 

 

I try to avoid the phrase “al pan, pan y al vino, vino” which, behind its innocence, often hides, or so I thought, a belligerent pretension. English speakers make it clear in their way of saying it: “to call a spade, a spade”. I stood by the belligerence, as I wrongly identified “spade” with the Spanish “espada”, that is, “sword”, falling into the trap of the false friend. You can check it at:

http://falsosamigos.com/2012/07/spade%E2%89%A0espada/

“Spade” therefore comes from the Germanic “spate”, which is a non-belligerent spade – it seems to have been particularly used by beer brewers, as the brand name of one of them attests – or also a fork. However, let it be said that in a Latin dictionary I found “spatha” referring precisely to the swords used by the barbarian peoples of the north, because the Roman sword was called “gladius”, hence gladiators. It should also be noted in my defence that the English call “spade” the suit of “espadas” (swords) in the Spanish deck of cards and its equivalent (?) “pique” in the French deck.

In short, writing is always making mistakes. If you are interested in further muddling up the issue, you can check Wikipedia, and even the following page which blames the muddle on none other than Erasmus of Rotterdam’s translation of Plutarch’s Apothegmae:

https://wordhistories.net/2018/07/21/call-spade-spade/

Since this is getting too long, as is my nature, it does not seem appropriate to make a further selection from among the hundreds of proverbs that exist. For that reason, I am only going to dwell on two (already mentioned) because of their relevance in the context of MacRobert & Canals: “El pan cambiado y el vino acostumbrado”[i] and “Donde buenamente quepa, viñador, planta una cepa”[ii].

The former is to say that when it comes to bread, we like to try new things, but when it comes to wine, once the taste is established, there is no one who wants to change it. This is, of course, what we young wineries complain about, the difficulty of changing the habits of wine consumers. As we know, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”, so we have friends who own century-old wineries who complain that today their customers, like society itself, are only looking for the latest novelty. The big wineries do not complain about anything, but rather about the nuisance that the small ones are.

The latter saying, of course, dates from before the mechanisation of the countryside. Yields were those natural to the land, and not those forced by artificial means. Proof of the truth of the saying are the plantations in our vineyards of “El Barranco del San Ginés”, in Laguardia, and El paraje de la Virgen, in Lanciego, the former declared a singular vineyard, the latter in the process of being declared one.

It seems to be a scientifically proven fact that the size of the butts of draught and pack animals has been the most accurate yardstick for measuring widths throughout history. It determined in its time – the sum of two butts – the width of the carts and carriages pulled by them, from there it went on to railway wagons, and consequently to the width of roads and railways, then tunnels, and naturally to the objects transported, even war rockets themselves. We can only add the Italian saying: “sè non è vero, è ben trovato” (if it is not true, it is well found).

[i] Change the bread, but drink the customary wine.

[ii] Where it fits, vinedresser, plant a vine.

 

There is no doubt that this size determined the way the vines were planted when horses and mules were essential working tools; respecting the necessary distance and the distance derived from their inevitable contortions and turns, the vines were planted where they would fit. The square was used rather than the row, because the plough passes thus left less space to complete the work by hand with the hoe. Yields were obtained by the accumulation of vines – rainfall was the other variable to be taken into consideration – and there was no question of chemically forcing the production of individual vines. To a certain extent, the slopes were not bothersome, as there was no way of levelling them.  In El Barranco we have found that the width is 1.40 metres, while in Lanciego it is 1.60 metres, not all the butts are of the same size as we know, although on the other hand it could also happen that it was a lake or tank already built -the capacity of these was usually adapted to the land owned-, which determined the quantity of grapes that could be produced and therefore the number of vines that had to be planted.

* In fact, having finished these lines, rummaging through old books, I came across “Los refranes de Baco” (Bacchus’ Sayings), a splendid and well-ordered collection by Luis Hermógenes Álvarez del Castaño, published by Libros.com, in its second edition of March 2014.

 

Temperature:

June has been on the whole normal, with an average temperature in peninsular Spain of 19.9 ⁰C, a value that is 0.1 ⁰C above the average for this month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the 22nd warmest June since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the 14th warmest (eighth coldest) of the 21st century.

Once again this month, with respect to the land of Rioja, the further west we look, the greater the increase in temperature compared to the average, but without exceeding the 20% margin of the warmest years. In any case, with large differences between the first half of the month, which was very warm, especially between the 6th and 16th, and the second half, with very low temperatures for the average.

Rainfall:

June has been very wet, with an average rainfall value over peninsular Spain of 49.8 mm, representing 147 % of the normal value for the month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the fourteenth wettest June since the beginning of the series in 1961, and the second wettest in the 21st century.

In the land of Rioja, the greatest increase was recorded in the western area, even reaching 200% of the average, while in the eastern part it remained at around 125%, being lower in the Ebro plain than in the mountainous area.

In the Ebro basin, the average rainfall for the reference period was 42.1 l/m, reaching a figure of 68.4 l/m, i.e. a percentage of 162%.

Insolation and other variables

The accumulated insolation throughout the month of June remained around normal values (reference period 1981-2010) in most of Spain.

As for the wind, in June there were few and insignificant situations of strong winds, especially on 12 and 13 June, which affected mountainous areas in the province of Ourense.

Nothing of particular note in the land of Rioja.

In June, our vines are in the seventh to tenth week of their growth phase. After the “espergura” (suckering or disbudding) process that we carried out in May to encourage the best formation of the buds that will eventually become shoots, we now had to take care of the side shoots that form along the vertical shoots; we proceeded to remove, as is normally done, two or three of these side shoots that come out at the base of the vertical shoot, which is called the basal zone, so that the clusters that form in this zone can develop freely, with good ventilation and sunlight. Above this basal zone, the development of the lateral shoots is maintained, with a view to the future formation of leaves.

This is because vine leaves have a very short active life span of about forty to sixty days. During this period, they are very active in photosynthesis and metabolization. After this period, their work begins to decline and photosynthetic activity decreases, to the point where it can be said that their usefulness is reduced to providing shade. We therefore rely precisely on those tall lateral shoots of our goblet vines for the development of young leaves in June and July, as these are the ones that will contribute to their final phase of growth and to the ripening of the grape clusters at the end of August and September. The clusters require these healthy, vigorous leaves for optimal acid and sugar production.

During the month of June the weeds began to grow again so the vineyards had to be ploughed once more, this time working from the centre of the rows (or “renques”) towards the plant, the work being completed around the plant with the hand hoe. Naturally this is always best done shortly after a small amount of rain has fallen, as it softens the soil, making this manual work much less cumbersome.

 

 

The book we are dealing with in this issue of Wine and Letters is entitled: “FALSE MYTHS AND TRUE LEGENDS OF THE WORLD OF WINE”. Its author is Antonio Tomás Palacios García, Winemaker and Doctor in Biology, published by AMV Ediciones, in its second edition of 2018.

 

 

The book we are dealing with in this issue of Wine and Letters is entitled: “FALSE MYTHS AND TRUE LEGENDS OF THE WORLD OF WINE”. Its author is Antonio Tomás Palacios García, Winemaker and Doctor in Biology, published by AMV Ediciones, in its second edition of 2018.

The author is very well known in the wine world, not for nothing. Apart from the studies mentioned in the preceding paragraph, he is well versed in all areas, from winemaking by land and its air, by sea and its sea bed (sic, just as it sounds), through research, chemical and microbiological analysis, to teaching both as a university lecturer and as a trainer in private companies. And although it is not mentioned on the back cover of the book, he is very much at ease, perhaps I should say experienced, in the field of marketing.

The book is aimed, as the subtitle indicates, at “consumers and professionals”. And indeed, the former will find in it the ‘affective’ chemistry that will help them learn to enjoy themselves more, and the latter the scientific chemistry that will help them in their decision making.

It contains forty-one points, and a “bonus track”, which is a love story between the beautiful Berry, the grape, and the heroic Saccharo, the mushroom, of whose mutual fruition wine is the glorious son, a love and erotic relationship which, like all self-respecting mythical relationships, needs its Cupid, a god, in this case in the form of a human being, who brings these two protagonists into relationship, controls and enriches their productive relationship.

 

 

Obviously, we cannot pretend here to summarise the content of each of these forty-one points, however succinctly. The issues dealt with in them will be of interest to all wine lovers. Nature and man in winemaking, sediments and filtration, oxygenation, ageing, smell and tasting, definition and verbiage, ecology and fraud, enjoyment of wine and “superfluities” (as Manolito, Mafalda’s friend, would say), winemaking science and homeopathy, healthy and dreamed-of effects of wine, price and value, “terroir” and mineral perception, pairings, ageing…

 

 

The author delivers what he promises: he debunks myths and affirms truths with scientific belligerence and unbridled passion for his work and its results. Some of that passion rubs off on us – long live wine! Although he warns us against romanticism. The market is the market, and if it does not enter the market, the winery is not a winery, or will soon cease to be one.

The book’s teachings could be condensed into the following axiom: respect man as much as you respect nature. He finds profound incongruity in asserting that the more nature acts and the less man works the better the wine, whereas the natural destiny of grapes without human intervention is to die in the form of vinegar.

 

 

From the very first pages, it is argued that it is “human intervention” in the vineyard and later in the winemaking process (winery) that determines the quality, personality and differentiation of the final result. In this effort, it must meet the demands of consumers, and therefore the fashions dictated by prescribers, which only technology and scientific innovation are capable of following. We can perhaps here raise our eyebrows in a questioning gesture. Pages later, after addressing the issues of decanting, sediment and filtration, he concludes that the winery’s technical decisions to maintain the sensory integrity of the wine should not depend on fashions or trends, but on the chemical and microbiological knowledge of the product. Contradiction? I don’t think so, I would rather say balance, proportion, fair measure, respect… (One reads about practices such as this kind of molecular deconstruction/reconstruction of the must through a process of reverse osmosis, and one cannot help thinking once again that nothing good can come out of “perfectionism”, no matter how many points it gets).

 

 

This same scientific vocation is reaffirmed later on; a firm commitment to environmentalism should not exclude technological modernity, rejecting what he describes as ravings, such as homeopathy in winemaking, or the use of cosmic energy or esotericism; we will not enter into the debate here and now, we limit ourselves to sharing the assumption that the fact that a wine is defined as natural does not imply that it is good. It also combines “terroir” with winemaking technique, and tradition with technological innovation…

In short, three hundred and thirty-one pages of love for a job well done and well founded, which will contribute to increase your winemaking culture, therefore your resources to appreciate the “nature” of wines, and ultimately your desire to put that culture into practice, which is what really matters: to drink wine always in a balanced way and in the best of company (both personal and nutritional).

TEMPERATURE

The month of May was warm overall, with an average temperature in peninsular Spain of 15.7 ºC, which is 0.6 ºC above the average for this month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the 22nd warmest May since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the 11th warmest of the 21st century.

However, with respect to the land of Rioja, it can be said that temperatures were around average in almost all areas, with the exception of the westernmost area, i.e. the Oja-Tirón basin, especially in the Montes Obarenes area, where they were slightly warmer. In any case, there was a notable alternation of cold and warm days.

RAINFALL

May was very dry in terms of rainfall, with an average over peninsular Spain of 34.0 mm, which represents 57% of the normal value for the month (reference period: 1981-2010). This was the twelfth driest month of May since the beginning of the series in 1961, and the sixth in the 21st century.

In the land of Rioja, the drought was most notable in the western area (around 60% of the average), becoming less severe as we move eastwards, until reaching practically normal parameters in the lower or eastern Rioja.

The Ebro basin recorded an average rainfall of 40 l/m, which represents 60% of the 1981 – 2010 average, a period which was therefore undoubtedly very dry.

INSOLATION AND OTHER VARIABLES

Accumulated insolation throughout May was practically normal throughout the Rioja region, except in the Sonsierra area, which recorded an increase of 105%, which coincides with the general situation on the peninsula. As for the wind, in May there were few and insignificant situations of strong winds, with the following being of particular note: on 8 and 9 May, which affected mountainous areas of the Cantabrian coast and the Pyrenees, and on 11 and 12 May, which affected some areas of the northwest of the peninsula.

At the end of April and during the first weeks of May the vines were growing very actively, so we had to start the treatment programme to avoid the possible development of fungal diseases. Since, as you know, most of our vineyards were planted before mechanisation, they are very dense and the space between the rows (the so-called renques) is very narrow, so it is impossible to carry out such vineyard treatments with a machine, and we have to carry them out on foot, carrying backpacks.

It is exhausting work, but we prefer to keep the vineyards in their original state rather than removing rows of vines to make it possible for the motorised vehicles to pass through. It also has its advantages, as we can do it even just after the rains, when the soil is still waterlogged, because our feet (our weight) do not compact the soil. The tractor loaded with the sprayer can weigh up to four tons, and compacts the root zone of the vines as it passes through, precisely the area most in need of sponginess and water assimilation capacity.

In May, the canopy of the goblet vines also begins to be managed. The vines are checked vine by vine to eliminate those shoots that are of no interest to the proper development of the plant. This work is known as “espergurar” (debudding or disbudding). It allows us to manage the number of shoots, their load, and the space between them, trying to improve the aeration and sunshine of the vine. In this way we help the fertility of the shoots and the reduction of the possible appearance of diseases, and we even facilitate the pruning work after the following winter as the vine is better formed.

Finally, we also start another process known as tipping. This is carried out on shoots that have grown so vigorously that they are in danger of breaking under their own weight. We stop the elongation of the shoot, which has a positive effect in that it helps to strengthen its base, preventing it from breaking under the force of the wind. In some grape varieties, a third effect is produced, as it encourages the development of lateral shoots that must then be eliminated in June.

 

According to the AEMET (Spanish State Metereological Agency), April 2021 was, on the whole, a normal month in terms of both rainfall and temperature. The tenth warmest April of the 21st century, the twenty-ninth driest April since 1961, and the eleventh of the 21st century.

The average temperature in peninsular Spain was 12.0 ºC, which is 0.6 ºC above the average for this month (reference period: 1981-2010). The temperature anomaly in La Rioja was almost negligible.

In terms of rainfall, the average rainfall over peninsular Spain was 63.4 mm, which represents 99% of the normal value for the month (reference period: 1981-2010). Although it should be noted that it was very dry on the Cantabrian coast and Navarre and disproportionately wet in the Valencian Community and Murcia region. Consequently, it was also dry in the Rioja region, with the percentage of rainfall standing at approximately 75% of the average for that period.

 

 

(Although it is also noted in the report that the change in measurement methodology initiated in September 2020 may imply significant differences in the results with respect to those obtained with the previous method).

It is obvious that when we divide the year into months to tell you about the work we do in the vineyards during those months, we are not setting peremptory and inexcusable dates. It is nature that sets the calendar to which we must adapt.

Once the vines have been prepared by pruning and the land has been cleared and cleaned, which as you know has kept us busy for the past few months, it is time to wait for life (the vineyard) to mysteriously make its way once again. This is our essential work for the month of April.

Autumn and winter leave the vines in an initial state of dormancy. This is known as endo-dormancy. Shorter days and colder temperatures inhibit bud growth, ensuring a hormonal balance. The buds become dormant. But internally they prepare for what is called “bud break”, which is essentially the swelling of the buds, preluding the return of life and the annual repetition of the whole vegetative cycle that will culminate in the bunches. When the bud has acquired this faculty, it enters the second period, which is called eco-dormancy; the vines are now ready to bud. Whether this budding occurs depends on the activity of the roots, which in turn depends on the air and soil temperatures, as well as on the water present.

 

 

In the end, it is the heat or rather, not to exaggerate, the absence of cold what brings the vine back to life. And like all life, this is a risky business. Basically, in these early stages, the risk lies in the possibility of frost, so much so that naturally the earlier the “bud break” takes place, the greater the risk of low temperatures.

This year, with the warm temperatures in February, the vines came out of eco-dormancy earlier than usual, the roots started to activate earlier than usual, taking up water and nutrients which then led to an increase in turgor pressure in the buds, resulting in earlier bud break. These tender shoots are very sensitive to freezing water temperatures, below which (that is, zero degrees Celsius), they will die, and with it obviously whatever fruit there might have been.  It is not uncommon for a vineyard that has suffered frost to produce only 10-15% of its expected production, which is a major economic risk.

 

Thus, during April we kept a constant eye on the temperatures, and we were aware of the need to take measures to reduce the risk of frost. Fortunately, this did not occur. However, our work was not only about our inner suffering, we also began the so-called work of espergura, a special type of pruning. The DRAE attributes the Spanish verb espergurar to Rioja and defines it as follows: To clean the vine of all the stems and shoots that it puts out on the trunk and wood, which are not from the previous year, so that they do not suck the sap from those that come out of the buds of the new vine shoot, which are the fruit-bearing ones.

This marks the beginning of the so-called “green work”, which will keep us busy for the next few months as long as the grapes do not change colour. We will keep you updated.

According to the usual summary of the month’s weather published by the AEMET, (State Meteorological Agency), March 2021 was the fourth driest March since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the driest of the 21st century, with the aggravating factor that the month was wet or very wet in the southeast of the peninsula and in the Balearic Islands, so that the dryness was proportionally more intense in the rest of the peninsular territory and in the Canary Islands. In the Rioja region, the average rainfall was 50% higher than in the reference period 1981 – 2010.

AEMET MARZO

In terms of temperatures, March was on the whole a normal month, with an average temperature in mainland Spain of 9.9 degrees Celsius, 0.1 above the average for the month for that period. From the 23rd to the end of the month a particularly warm spell was observed with temperatures well above normal, reaching, on the last day of the month, over 30 degrees Celsius in areas of Extremadura and Andalusia and in some parts of the Cantabrian Sea. Overall, this was the 22nd warmest March since the series began in 1961 and the 11th warmest of the 21st century. However, except for this final period, it was cold or very cold in the southeast quadrant of the peninsula, and normal or warm in the rest of the Spanish peninsula. In the Rioja region, depending on the area, it could even reach an increase of 0.2 degrees Celsius.

In March we completed the work we had started in previous months.

 

 

On the one hand, once the vine shoots had been saved for gastronomic use, we proceeded to burn the remains of the wood left by the winter pruning. This is the most effective way to disinfect the vineyards and reduce (drastically) the number of spores of various micro-organisms that live in the dead wood and can infect the vines during the growing season. We like to do this work towards the end of winter and just before spring, when the days have already started to warm up and dry out the wood. (This work is also subject to administrative control).

The second major task to be completed was the clearing of weeds and weed control. You already know that we opt for exclusively mechanical means for this work in our vineyards, without the use of herbicides, and you know the advantages of all kinds that this entails, both from a health and ecological point of view and in terms of improving the quality of the vine and its product.

Since most of the work was done in February, we can now complete the information with data that may be of interest to you.

First of all, a plough called a “forcate” in the land of the Rioja is used, which is recognised as such in the DRAE (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary): “A plough with two shafts to be pulled by a single horse”. By means of this plough, which contains a pointed plane about 30 cm long and 15 cm wide capable of greater pressure when introduced into the soil, we make criss-cross furrows in the soil, to eliminate weeds and facilitate water penetration with minimum erosion.

 

Arado llamado forcate

 

This prepares the soil for the subsequent use of a special mouldboard plough. A mouldboard plough is any plough that allows the furrowed soil to be turned over by “pouring” it to one side or the other. This peculiar plough, known as “borracho” (drunkard) in the land of the Rioja, has a sort of step on one side or the other that allows the operator to wind between the vines, moving towards and away from them, uncovering the base of the soil and throwing it towards the centre of the so-called renque, i.e. the space between the rows. Bryan suggests that its name comes from the zigzagging movement that the plough has to make around the vines. Then we see that WikiRioja defines it as follows: “Two-handled mouldboard plough with a guide wheel, which was used to dig around (“desacollar”) the vines without damaging the trunk, the name comes from the difficulty the vine grower has in handling it, as it goes all over the place, like a drunkard, and can break many vines”.

 

Arado vertedera

 

(“Desacollar”, in case you are fond of the Alphabet Game –TV contest known as Pasapalabra, in Spain-, is also a local word accepted by the DRAE: “To dig around the vines, leaving them a hole in which the water stops”).

And so the soil is finally prepared for what has been the real work of March. The cleaning around the trunk of the vine, which the ‘borracho’ obviously cannot complete with total cleanliness. For this purpose, the hoe that everyone knows is used, obviously a small hoe adapted to the task. Hoeing is a manual job that few farmers do, as it is exhausting; one person can cover little more than 1000 m2 of vineyard in a day. Another advantage of clearing the trunk of soil and preventing water from reaching it is that it stops the formation of fine hairy roots at the junction of the graft and the base of the vine. In this way the vine is forced to send its roots downwards in search of water and nutrients. We are now entering spring, therefore in the phase of root growth, and it is very beneficial for the roots to go deeper, considering the time when, due to the lack of rain, there is a shortage of surface water resources.