ELISABETTA FORADORI. Azienda Agricola Foradori. Mezzolombardo, Trentino Italy. “In the name of the father”.

The word Dolomites” has mythical resonances for all those who love nature and the mountains, let alone cyclists. The Dolomites are a mountain range with unique rocky towers named after their entirety, located in the north of Italy, bordering on and in communion with Austria, to whose imperial status it has intermittently belonged. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 2009.   It develops in the territories called: Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

dolomitas

Elisabetta Foradori leads us to this area of wonders. And within it to two specific areas that we can locate through the well-known villages of Mezzolombardo and Cognola.

Elizabeth-Foradori

The first area, north of Trento and south of the Tyrol, is an archetypal valley of the region as it is enclosed by a circle of bare stone mountains surrounding it. It is the Campo Rotaliano (or the Piana Rotaliana), a valley of some 400 hectares, formed by the channels of the rivers Noce and Adige, which open laboriously between the vertical walls. In it, the Azienda Foradori produces wines with the characteristic variety of the area, the teraldego, and with pinot grigio.

trentino-alto adigio

piana-rotaliana

The second, east of Trento, is a villa, that is to say a palatial country residence, dating back to the beginning of the 19th century: Fontanasanta, which is located on the banks of the river Salùga (i.e. Santa Agua). In 2007, Elisabetta planted the manzoni and nosiola grape varieties, perfect for her white wines, in her land of white, clayey and calcareous rocks.

fontasana

The latter is made by macerating the must with the grape skins for nine months in earthenware jars: “clay connects the energies of the earth and the sky… The clay allows the maximum possible nuances of the wine to be obtained”… “The jar is a sample of the complementarity of the four elements. The earth becomes fine powder, the air dries the layers of clay, the water allows the clay to be malleable and the fire bakes and hardens with the hand of man accompanying each gesture”. This hand is that of Juan Padilla, one of the very few remaining potters capable of this work. We have already seen his difficult survival in Miravet (Tarragona). In this case they come from the La Mancha village of Villarrobledo (Albacete, Spain).

juan-padilla

I remember seeing many of those jars, or pieces of them, abandoned in the fields of Villarrobledo, where my wife’s in-laws had a house and a wine cellar, and where I spent many good days and my wife almost all the summers of her childhood. I also remember the large jars standing upright, lined up in that cellar. They were not of the amphora type, but had a flat bottom so that they could stand upright, helped by a scaffolding of planks at the height of the mouths, which also made it possible to go from one to another and manoeuvre inside them. My wife has other more vivid memories: the wellington boots they bought to help them tread the grapes, the story of the uncle’s brother who fell into one of the vats and died when he was rescued at the very moment when his breath passed the strip where the carbon dioxide accumulated… Today all those memories, house and cellar are dust, the latter buried under a pile of debts. Praise to the heroic winemakers and jar potters who give shape and life to the four elements with their hands!

tinaja-villarrobledo

Searching the internet for references with which to embellish the commentary, I immediately came across her website: www.agricolaforadori.com.  A first glance at it conveys the same first impression that Elisabetta made on our authors: “passion for authenticity, aesthetics and quality”. It then shows how her role today is that of “constant support” for her children Emilio, Theo and Myrtha, who are in charge of the Azienda. In our book, she had already anticipated that she was thinking of a change, of doing other things related to the land and agriculture:

“Life, like wine, if it is true, involves a continuous transformation”.

What is certain is that this new life will always and in any case be biodynamic. Biodynamics for her is not only a way of thinking and working, it is her way of being in the universe:

“The plant is not just matter; the plant world, the animal world and the human being are connected to an energy that falls on the material but comes from the cosmos, something that science denies.”

tinajas elizabetta foradori

The biodynamic “in” cultivation of vines, as a peculiar expression and militant will of ecological awareness in viniculture/viticulture, is the subject of many appreciations in different parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere more emphatically than in the present case. We find references to Rudolf Steiner‘s “anthroposophy”, to Nicolas Joly‘s winemaking and literary practice, to the relational and deeply rooted intelligence of plants as perceived by Stefano Mancuso….

“Science is very important, but we cannot be only science, there is a spiritual part of the human being that should not be ignored”.

In our case, we have also found in her the Italian translation of Laventura, which we have also undertaken. “Chi non risica non rosica” is equivalent to our, in Spanish, “quién no se aventura no ha ventura”. He who does not venture has no adventure,  that is, he who does not take risks achieves nothing.

JOHN WURDEMAN. Pheasant’s Tears, Kajetia (Georgia). “Georgia, God’s own homeland”

john-wurdeman

 

We reached the last stage of our journey. To the last character. We started in the technoemotion of California and conclude in the visceral, primal emotion of Georgia (nation, not the state that Ray Charles had on his mind). Back to the origins, to Mother Earth. It was naturally inevitable and we remember the various passages of the book as steps in the adventure -Laventura- of retracing our steps back to the essential beginning.

Georgia is in that undefined region where Europe and Asia blend together, as if it were a coupage.

Georgia

The Italians say, at least I read it from one of them, that God created the most beautiful country on earth in Italy, and to compensate for such beauty he created the Italians. The Georgians say, at least I read it in this book, that they arrived late to the sharing out of the newly created world because they had been too busy drinking wine in honour of God the Creator, so that when they showed up it was all allocated. Then God, upon learning the reason for their delay, entrusted them with the piece of land He had reserved for Himself.

It can also be a matter of cunning. The cunning that comes from experience, and they certainly have plenty of it. John Wurdeman tells us that one day, without much ado, an unknown Georgian countryman offered him the gift of some vineyards and the teaching of wine making. Stunned, he turned down the Trojan-looking gift, until he realised that it was more of a barter. The countryman was asking him that in return he, who was a man of the world, should spread the wonders of Georgian wine throughout his area. No doubt he gave the gift to all of us.

This John Wurdeman is our latest winemaker. In one of the photos in the book he has too much shirt to be an isolated survivor of a remote shipwreck, in others he has too much shirt to be a bearded, trendy, postmodern hipster. I read printed on one of them: “You gotta fight for your wine” and continue writing more in tune.

One fine day, this film star-looking Virginian turned up in Georgia in pursuit of the Georgian songs that chance had placed in his adolescent hands. A copy of an edition of 300 CDs released in Germany, dedicated to such songs, mysteriously found its way to Richmond, where he grew up, and even more randomly to the shop where he bought them. Surely it was no longer chance but the song of the sirens that led him to his destiny of being something like the revealer of natural wine.

Enjoy a Georgian song from the very cellar. It is a pity that the pleasure and praise have to be imagined in the case of the lyrics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciH7a_1k3Bk

Let’s see how this wine is made by following our book:

“Every Georgian farmer follows the wine-growing tradition by keeping indigenous vine varieties (520 are mentioned), as well as a home cellar for the preservation and fermentation of the wine called <marani>.

In autumn, the farmers put the trodden grapes into <kvevris>, cone-shaped earthenware jars with a capacity of up to 3,000 litres. All of them are buried up to the rim in the clay soil of this region, so that the numerous veins of groundwater cool them even more.

The wine ferments and macerates there until spring. Then the broth is extracted and transferred to other <kvevris>, which have been previously cleaned with pine branches and closed with a wooden lid. They are then sealed with mud. The wine still slumbers in the cool earth of the dark cellar. Some families own <kvevris> more than fifty years old.”

“When such a treasure is uncovered, the ritual begins…”.

John Wurdeman avoids the limelight even though it naturally exists:

“If the hand of man does not intervene, it leaves more room for nature”.

What nature brings to wine is life, so the more life there is in the vineyard, the richer the wine will be. But the terroir also brings spiritual life, the intangible: “the collective knowledge of its existence, the collective experience of a place, the tears, the laughter, the love and the fear”.

It reminds us of someone as far away as Scruton who, as we already know, perceived in the “terroir” of Burgundy Joan of Arc or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Perhaps they are not so far apart: spirituality is as much in the way wine is made as in the way it is drunk: “to have a spiritual wine, there must first be a spiritual culture”. Culture is always a product of human beings, it is their form of redemption.

This concludes our review of the book. Our review of its more than 380 pages has naturally been brief. I trust it has served to encourage you to read it. If so, you will conclude it like us with the same emotion with which Inma Puig concludes it in her epilogue:

“If it happens to you as it did to me, from now on you will not only appreciate the flavours, but you will also be able to sense the emotions. There is a story resting inside each bottle, and it needs to be tasted so that it can be told”.

Forgive us therefore the vanity of feeling in writing these letters that we are part of that story in an infinitesimally minimal but no less authentic way, as well as the audacity of adding to the book a coda dedicated to the winemaker who is “behind our vines”: Bryan MacRobert. We believe that his words can be on the same level, although time will be the judge of that. Of course, this should be the subject of another chapter.

MARÍA JOSÉ LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA – Viña Tondonia. Haro, La Rioja (Spain) “The eternal return”.

Thus we return to Spain, now to “The land of Rioja”. One might think that this is a place and a winery the proximity and admiration of which would make us suspect of subjectivity, were it not for the fact that objectivity is guaranteed by the unanimous universal recognition.

Listening to María José López de Heredia in her long interview -there is more conversation in this chapter of the book than in any other, undoubtedly due to the magnetism that emanates from her person and the way of expressing herself-, it occurs to me that to explain Viña Tondonia would be to explain the life of a family, (including ‘their pets’), over four generations, who in a specific environment (the winery and vineyards), work together to achieve an immutable and universal goal (the personality and quality of their wines).

It is this aim that unifies all the lives into a coherent story. In fact, I do not think María José would agree very much with the subtitle of the chapter “The eternal return”, even if it is fair with each generational change. In her household, nothing has gone and nothing has come back, lives and principles link up endlessly.

“Now they say that the classics are coming back, but I don’t think the classics have ever been away for them to come back”.

The family story begins with the great-grandfather, Rafael López de Heredia, who after various vicissitudes worthy of a novel by Baroja or an episode by Galdós, settles in Haro, where he builds the winery in 1877, in what is now the mythical “Barrio de la Estación”, the Station district.

He started making wine in 1900, although he had to “replant, perhaps because of phylloxera, all the land between 1901 and 1907, so that in 2001 some of the vines were one hundred years old. Others are seventy years old because they were again attacked by phylloxera”.

The basis is thus established: the patriarch is followed by the grandfather, who lived through very difficult war times; then the father, Don Pedro, who has the honour of having made the project universal thanks to an overwhelming personality and firm convictions that led him to remain in the tradition and flee from modern typifications that proved to be ephemeral. Unfortunately, he did not get to know the book, which dedicates a moving In memoriam to him, as he died while still in the galley proofs.

Now the three siblings, Julio César, María José and Mercedes, maintain the same initial “aspiration to make Viña Tondonia a legend”, and they are indeed succeeding.

The family relies on the invaluable and indispensable help of those who are already ‘their pets’. An infinite number of living creatures have entered the winery and its history by different means: on the skins of the grapes or lodged in the rough poplar wood harvesting tubs –comportas, in Rioja- in which they are transported, through doors and windows opened in north-south west-east cross ventilation or by sporulation and spontaneous generation… Fungi, spores, yeasts, microorganisms, moulds, mites, bats… have settled there and collaborated for generations and generations side by side with the human family to give the wine the category of myth.

A complex universe:

“The wine depends on the vine, the winery, the facilities in which it is worked, the microflora, the hand that works it, (which is what marks a style…)”.

The environment in which this life in symbiosis develops is therefore the vineyards and the winery that looks out over them. Vineyards with mythical names that coincide with the wines: Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia, Cubillo… Two hundred hectares of goblet-trained vines in the meanders of the Ebro, “which girdles and ungirdles”, as we have already said elsewhere, the best wines in the world.

A winery designed from its birth for “bio-mimesis”, that is, the reproduction of living nature in an enclosed space. Natural ventilation and natural selection of very wild microbial flora that is able to ferment at high temperatures…

No need for artificial additives to the process.

This is aided by another material of enormous vitality: wood. But wood does not impose itself. Its personality must be adapted to the common purpose. To ensure its integration into the environment, a cooperage is set up in the winery itself. It is in any case a ‘hotel’ for the life and work of ‘the pets’: “the immense vats of hundred-year-old oak trees are encrusted with fossil life, grapes, grains, pips, tartaric crystals and yeast spores. Few wineries will have the same certainty about the natural onset of fermentation as Viña Tondonia. A great and inviolable microbial activity welcomes the new must to become broth”. Vats filled more than 10,000 times. There is a record of it all. It would be impolite not to mention the person who is giving anthropological meaning to all the documents. All the more so when we are talking of Luis Vicente Elías Pastor.

Nature and time simply go hand in hand to stabilise the wines physically and microbiologically: “micro-oxygenation” is a long process.

“Their wines sleep and, through the staves soaked and blackened by the humid environment, they transpire. When they come on the market, they will not have the reductions that are present in other wines. There in the underground cellars, they spend a minimum of six years in these ten, twenty or twenty five year old barrels. With hardly any racking and natural filtration cycles, they flow into the homogenisation vats, and from there, once in the bottle, they rest peacefully in natural stone niches, knowing how to slowly, peacefully, buy time for life. The mould becomes a shield, embedding itself in each bottle like a particular bodyguard and creating stalactites and stalagmites of tight dust”.

All in the service of the same goal: fine, personal, unique wines:

“Immortal gilded (white) wines, which tenderly soften where the light takes root, stubbornly aged rosés that inspire talented French vignerons, and reds adored by famed gourmets around the world, who idolise their fine, smooth rigidity.”

Bryan tells me that he does not think there is any similar winery in the world. None like this one that, by dint of maintaining its principles, has been able to create this microcosm in which the wines feel so comfortable that they withstand ageing, maintaining their vigour and fullness, inconceivable in any other environment. Obviously, the exquisite care of the vineyard goes without saying. Over a hundred years of doing things in the same way brings with it a unique personality, a personality that is naturally transferred to the wines.

SARA PÉREZ. La Universal. Partida Bellvisos Mas Martinet. Priorat-Montsant. Tarragona. Tarragona. Spain. The Venus of the vineyards.

We return to the Priorat, this time by the hand of a lady. The Priorat has a harsh and extreme beauty. “The Priorat,” she (Sara) tells us, “is like a circus of small hills and, orographically speaking, it is very dramatic. It has many slopes and, depending on where you are, the panoramic view is very different if you look up, down or both sides”.

We learn in the book that it was Sara Pérez’s drive, independence and vitality that led to the regeneration of the region’s wine, and therefore that of the whole region, from the 1990s onwards. They were supported, of course, by the efforts that the previous generation, her father Josep Lluis and a few others, had made a decade earlier.

Porrera, with its Cims de Porrera, was the starting point. Other villages followed: Torroja, Poboleda, Gratallops, Vilella Alta, Vilella Baixa, La Morera del Montsant, La Conreria d’Scala Dei, El Lloar, Bellmunt… Names that have in me the special resonance of what I experienced there (which was described in a previous letter).

I must mention one in particular where the regeneration was also collateral, as it not only affected the wine, but also its industry. I am referring to Miravet, a village bordering the Ebro from the shallows of its banks to the top of a ravine cut to the edge that looks down on it with fascination. A village where I spent many happy days with good friends and good wines of the area and some magical nights in its Templar castle. In this village Sara achieved the regeneration of the profession of “cantarero”, and had the jars – “amphorae”- made in which to apply all her inner vital energy to the wine with “botijo” kinetics, according to which the more external heat there is the cooler the interior is preserved.

The village of Miravet on the banks of the Ebro.

We learn other things from her.

For example, in the Priorat region, Garnacha suffered from the problems of its fragility, so that it was replaced by Carignan -like in the Rioja region, where Tempranillo was introduced massively-, although there, perhaps fortunately as we can see now, the lack of resources prevented the substitution from being as massive as it has been in this region. In addition, other varieties also entered: cabernet, syrah, merlot…

Sara tells us: “I want to make wines in which the first thing you say is that it is a Priorat and then you wonder what variety it is made from. It doesn’t matter if it has syrah or garnacha. If it’s a Priorat, it’s a Priorat”. And in the Priorat, (I naturally use Spanish when I speak and write but I reproduce her words as she naturally pronounced them), she wants to “make stone wines, because this region is made of stone”. Granite and charred slate (“sablón”) sustain some of her vines. And it seems that the cold weather comes to their aid.

Again, also ecological or preservation awareness. According to Lovelock, “as long as we do not intuitively perceive the Earth as a living system and realise that we are part of it, we will not be able to react in favour of its protection and, ultimately, our own”. In it, each generation leaves a legacy that is a point of reference on which the next must reaffirm its own and leave it improved for the next generation.

And many other things that are related in the book. I felt the impulse to return to the Priorat with nostalgia and a tango grip.

PIERRE OVERNOY. Maison Overnoy-Houillon. Pupillin, Jura, France. “The discreet visionary.”

Pierre Overnoy tasting with Emmanuel Houillon.

We are in France again: Jura. As this is a lesser-known region, it is perhaps appropriate to make a preliminary location. To the east, just beyond the Burgundy area, the Jura mountains form the region, which stretches to the Swiss border. Several villages punctuate its beauty and its appellations: Salin-les Bains, Arbois, Pupillin – where we will meet our protagonist -, Château Chalon, L’Etoile… A mountainous and isolated area where the vineyards are once again tied to the human will. They occupy the lower slopes (between 250 and 500 metres above sea level).

Jura Mountains, France.

Wines can therefore not be easy, just as life was not traditionally easy. The most characteristic grapes are the red Trousseau, sullen and difficult, the Poulsard, with a paler colour and less personality, and the white Savagnin, described as cruel and fascinating. The latter is used to make a very peculiar wine, the so-called “vin jaune”, which is very similar to sherry, as it must be aged for a legal minimum of six years and three months in casks, during which time it develops a film of yeast on the surface, resulting in a bright, acidic and matured white wine. The big difference with sherry is that it always remains in the same cask and is not made using the solera system.

It is the natural and coherent space for a personality as close to nature as Pierre Overnoy to emerge.

According to his own confession, Pierre should be around 84 years old today, so it is foreseeable that the vineyards and the winery will be managed entirely by Emmanuel and his wife Anne. The book also tells the story of Emmanuel, who started working the vineyards as a teenager and ended up being made an adopted son. The spirit of the father in the wines remains guaranteed.

Emmanuel with Pierre in the vineyard.

Here we are particularly interested in the personality of Pierre Overnoy. A surname which, by the way, is the frenchification of the original Irish O’Vernoy; I am intrigued to know how the Scottish MacRobert will eventually become Riojanised’.

The best way to do this is to transcribe what the authors observed about him:

“Pierre Overnoy follows an accessible philosophy that starts from simplicity as a rule, understood as respect for the life cycles of the soil and the plant, and the rule of being absolutely impeccable in the processes that take place from vinification to bottling, seeking freedom of expression in each of his wines, without added protection, authentic nudity; without heeding established codes, without waiting for the approval of the press or prescribers, searching in unexplored and at the same time ancestral paths. He seduces with his generosity, his character, with the strength of his resolve and his inspiring determination”.

Reading these lines, I could not help thinking of the infinite number of heroic “hidden lives” that perhaps only chance will make public. I was seized by images of one of them that took place in other Alpine mountains in terrible circumstances, which Pierre had also witnessed, according to what he tells us. It was precisely with that title –“A Hidden Life”-  that Terence Mallick portrayed it in a film in which the most rapturous beauty contrasted with the most chilling ugliness.

Pierre Overnoy has thus become, probably unwittingly, the myth of a new category of wines: “natural wines”. This question deserves the most profound reflection, which cannot be done here, although it is worth trying to define the terms.

When we jump from people to categorisations, we start to tread on slippery ground. The creation of the category of natural wine can be used to indicate that wines that do not fit this category are no longer natural, but artificial, an adjective that carries a negative connotation. Our authors try to defend them: “Are non-natural wines artificial wines? Certainly not”.

However, in all honesty, and with the DRAE (The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy) in hand, the problem is not in the word, but in the prejudice. There are two definitions of “artificial” in the DRAE: 1st: “Made by the hand or art of man”. There is no doubt that this definition applies to wine, to all wine, even if it is described as natural. Previously, even Vitis viniferae itself is a human artifice created by the science that prehistoric man possessed. Wine is art, and therefore always human. 2nd: “Not natural, false”, (this is where the prejudice may lie, causing an inaccurate generalisation). All wines are artificial by humans, some people are artificial in themselves, because they do not respect the natural, and their wines will be fake.

On the other hand, it is also clear that the addition of any chemical product does not make the wine lose its “natural” category. Thus, as we read on, purists accept sulphites of around 25 mg/l and other winegrowers belonging to the movement go as high as 50 mg/l, although preferably not at the time of production. As soon as this approach is accepted for strictly sanitary reasons, doubts arise as to the non-acceptance of other products, when the reasons are strictly the same. The words attributed to Paracelsus, so often repeated here, always come to mind: “the poison is in the dose”.

Pierre himself rescues us from fundamentalist attitudes: “[Wine] is more than a drink and even more than a food. But above all it is a pleasure”.

So let us always come back to the person. As the book justifiably stresses:

“If the rise of the natural movement has served any purpose, it has been to raise awareness of the extent to which man is involved in the making of wine.”

In our Decalogue, which can be read elsewhere on this page, we said as a final point that we are not (we do not want to be) either “terroirists” or “marketeers”, but humanists. It is man – “and his circumstance”, attention must be paid to this – who is behind the vines. Today, in ecologism, in the pretence of naturalness, there can be as much marketing as in the adaptation to the fashion of consumers or prescribers.

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.

 

We continue our journey on the trail of vineyards, “Tras las viñas”, the book by Josep Roca and Inma Puig. Two new chapters for three great oenologists and winegrowers -how scarce and imprecise the Spanish language is to define their work-. The former is very close to our hearts. As always, what we are able to describe here is a small and pale expression of what the book has to offer.

ÁLVARO PALACIOS & RICARDO PÉREZ PALACIOS Álvaro Palacios winery (Priorat), descendants of J. Palacios (Bierzo), Palacios Remondo winery (La Rioja). Spain. “The mystery of wine”.

 

This time there are two regions of Spain being visited: Priorat and Bierzo.

There is also mention of a winery in the land of Rioja, but there is no visit to the vineyards here, so the reference to this region will have to remain in these letters for later.

As for Priorat, I cannot help but start recalling my own memories. Way back in the early eighties of the last century, I must have travelled to Falset every week for a few months, for work reasons far removed from the world of wine (which must have had a reasonable impact on my eyes). I used to go through the interior from Tarragona via Reus.

It was a myriad of curves, of hills that followed one another as far as the eye could see, whose hidden beauty could be guessed, intuited, but I never had the time to linger on it. Many years later, but years before Laventura even existed as a possibility, I went to meet Bryan MacRobert there; it must have been in 2010 or 2011. And there I met him in a village winery in the village. It was “Terroir al limit”, a name that puzzled me at the time. The first time I saw him, he was pumping up the must in a tank, portable but large, low and wide, with his hands and arms reaching well above his elbows into the must, embracing it and stirring it at the same time.

They had prepared (he and my daughter, the cause of all the ensuing commotion) an outing, so off we went in an all-terrain vehicle, up and down hills, along paths on the verge of extinction, endless twists and turns, until we reached the top of a vineyard that gave me a complex feeling of compassion and admiration. It is called Les Tesses. There they had prepared a snack for us while we watched the sun go down. There I grasped all the beauty and mystery of the Priorat.

I was thinking about all this while reading the words of Álvaro Palacios, his search for a fragmented territory with a multitude of plots of old vines of monastic origin, the importance of geology and geo-climatic conditions, the “here ends the good and there begins the less good”, the names of the vineyards: Dofí, Les Terrasses, L’Ermita; the affinity of the plants with the environment, the magical mystery of this special wine…

And he tells us more things the story of which I try to apply to myself: the predilection for Garnacha, with a touch of Carignan, the goblet-trained vines that protect the clusters, the ecological care, the expensive wine, because without money there is no great wine, the paradoxical difficulties of the famous Rioja to sell expensive wine…

 

But it is not true that the best wine is made by nature. The best of all possible natures without the care of man does not produce even the worst of wines. Nature provides the sustenance, man provides the responsibility, the duty to perceive, respect and bring out all the greatness found in it.

Ricardo Palacios, Álvaro’s nephew, takes us on a visit to Bierzo. Here, we are told, buying a vineyard means buying both a mosaic of cultivated vegetation and a part of the forest; it means respecting an ancestral reality. The land and the cultivation are organised according to the characteristics of the soil, and governed by “permaculture”, which organises the vineyards according to the use of the crops and the proximity of the house. The vineyards are dry-farmed and not close to the house because it is not a garden product for daily consumption.

Varieties, mainly mencía, but also other minority varieties with some particularly suggestive names: alicante bouschet, panicarne, estaladiña, caiño, negreda, and even some old tempranillo among the reds; palomino, valenciana and godello among the whites.

Evidently, when it comes to the care of his vineyards: Las Lamas, Moncerbal, La Faraona… – the latter is named after the traditional Rioja name of the vat in the winery that contained the best wine – Ricardo honours his family lineage.

“The vineyard, the variety, the vintage and the hand of man”. That is the order of factors in the making of a good wine.

REINHARD LÖWENSTEIN Winery Heymann-Löwenstein, Winningen, Moselle. Germany. “The wines of heaven”.

Winningen is located in the area known as the Lower Moselle, in the last meanders of the river before it reaches Koblenz and therefore its final tributary destination which is to enlarge the Rhine.

It is an area of slate, scarce sunshine and humidity in which practically only white grapes thrive, particularly Riesling, which produces the most famous white wines in the world – one of my great weaknesses, less practised than it should be. On reading I find reasons to justify it; grapes and physical space transmit mineral and fruity aromas and flavours like no other, the former coming from the slate soil, the latter from the golden skin of the grapes, whose waxy prune is charged with richness by the double lateral sun from the west and the reflection in the river.

Reinhard Löwenstein considers himself a modest winegrower, but he has a mystical sense of his work. This mysticism goes back four hundred million years to the Devonian period, when the shales of his land were formed. And the sense of taste was also formed, which mankind, he tells us, inherited from the fish, since it was also in that period when the fish came out of the sea to settle on land as reptiles, guided precisely by the mouth to adapt to the new environment.

In a more recent chronology, some three hundred years ago, the mystical sense links with the ancestors. Twelve previous generations contemplate it, all of whom built the terraces and terraces inserted in the almost vertical wall that ascends from the river, some one hundred and fifty metres of unevenness, which obliges the use of ropes and rails to make cultivation possible, and to look for alternatives for tourists who do not dare to go down where they have dared to go up without looking back.

That is why wine is civilisation, to make wine is to be part of a cycle, of a chain that is longer than your own life. To drink wine is to feel our own being, because when we drink, what we drink is already part of our body. Do not look for perfection, which is always false because it is artificial, but for the harmony of humanity, which in itself is imperfect.

I promise myself that as soon as I can I must visit his cellar, where Neruda’s poem “Ode to Wine” is written on glass walls, a tribute to culture and wine as the taming of something wild. I had no intention of reading it – nor could I, since it is in German – but only of appreciating the spirit of the winemaker and the taste of the calligraphy. I wonder what it would sound like in Teutonic:

                        “… Wine

                        stirs the spring,

                        joy grows like a plant,

                        walls fall,

                        rocks fall,

                        chasms close,

                        singing is born…”

 

We continue reading Josep Roca and Inma Puig’s book, Tras las viñas. We return to the old continent. And to the regions where wine became mythical: Bordeaux and Burgundy (always in order of appearance). The names of the people interviewed may not ring a bell, but the wineries they represent will undoubtedly be familiar to us.

CHRISTIAN MOUEIX: Jean-Pierre Moueix Cellars, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France. “A walk in the clouds”.

The leap from California to Bordeaux is astronomical in terms of concept, but it is a go and return trip.

 

We are talking about none other than Pétrus, the quintessential Pomerol, on the “right bank” of Bordeaux. We are referring to the second generation of a family winery, to Christian Moueix, in charge of the cellars founded by his father, Jean-Pierre. (You know the cliché about family wineries, the second generation is the one of consolidation, the third the one of liquidation. Businesses cannot stand family joint ventures. The Napoleonic Code and its system of the legitimate, i.e., compulsory quotas in favour of certain heirs, has a lot to do with it).

 

In addition to Château Pétrus, the book also contains stories of the second brands: Château Lafleur Pétrus, Trotanoy and Château Hosanna; as well as the journey back to the Dominus Estate that Christian Moueix founded in 1982 precisely in Oakville and precisely also under the guidance of Robert Mondavi, but let us remain here with the old tradition.

Pomerol is essentially clay plus Merlot.

Let us pay attention to the words of “winemaking” – more a winegrower than an oenologist by vocation -, which tie in very well with the last words of our previous instalment:

“Wine is a message. That’s why I don’t look for perfection but for harmony. Perfection is something abstract, and harmony is something concrete”.

Most definitely, harmony:

“Harmony is the key to obtain quality, it is something very difficult to achieve in life. It requires a lot of wisdom to achieve it. It goes beyond the balance between the parts.

«Harmony implies elegance», that would be my definition”.

Ah, perfection! That aspiration that is so destructive of what is intrinsically human, however human its aspiration may be. A legitimate aspiration, perhaps even inevitable, but also inevitably disruptive of the harmony of the cosmos. Can human imperfection appreciate the perfection of wine?

Harmony puts man above technique, and attaches him to the ground:

“…it is a search for harmony between quantity and quality potential”, “proportion between the volume of the harvest and the heat of the summer.”

In this respect, there is a beautiful story of how in 1973 he began to cut grapes at an early stage of ripening, fearing that the amount of grapes he was harvesting would make it impossible for them to ripen properly. He earned widespread reproach, and in particular the angry and excommunicatory condemnation of the parish priest “for throwing God’s work to the ground”, although perhaps also the recognition of the future as “green pruning”.

 

Wine is the perfect marriage (here, indeed) between man and nature.

 “I attach much less importance to an oenologist than to a winegrower… The winegrower is the creator, and the oenologist is the midwife”.

“A cloud that passes at harvest time, a little rain at harvest time and the quality decreases”.

The technique must help, not interfere. Another famous anecdote is that to avoid this loss of quality, he would hover over the vines with his helicopter to dry them after the downpour, although he later resorted to air blowers, when he realised that the water that the helicopter propellers removed from the leaves with their vertical blow came to fall on the bunches of grapes.

And a lot more to enjoy reading: questions about biodynamics, about viruses, about value and price, about drainage wells to avoid waterlogging…

And we continue with the essence of Burgundy:

LALOU BIZE-LEROY Domaine Leroy. Domaine d’Auvenay. Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy. France “The happy vineyards”.

Burgundy is the sum of terroirs.

We go hand in hand with a woman who is already a myth. Madame Marcelle Bize-Leroy. In the last words of the interview, she authorised the authors to call her Lalou, thus here we take the same liberty (it is no longer a name, it is a category). She was a Burgundian wine blood of many generations, négociante and wine distributor, co-manager of the mythical Domaine de la Romanée-Conti which she officially left in 1991, to devote herself to her Domaine which she had acquired a few years before.

Three hundred and fifty hectares of land between the two “Domaine”, of which one hundred and eighty are cultivated and the rest woodland; and of those, one hundred and fifty hectares of vineyard, spread over 46 plots, with 26 appellation d’origine; moreover, in Auvenay, in only five hectares, 16 of the 26 aforementioned designations are produced.

The sublimation of Pinot noir.

“Biodynamic” estates. Although it is well specified:

“Biodynamics as a concept means nothing. Biodynamics implies respect for nature and living with the vine, knowing what it needs, trying to understand it and put yourself in its place”.

And give it what it needs, it can be infusions or decoctions, or even “essential oils” (“oregano, cinnamon…”), even “homeopathy”. But without falling into “mysticism”, without refusing to recognise that “medicine”, which in humans is also chemistry, is no less necessary in wines:

“I love wines too much to make them take any kind of risk. But it is true that with wines we can have the feeling that, if there is no sulphur in them, they are like an unvaccinated child”; he does not shy away from sulphur in wine: “a five percent solution in racking and two or three percent in bottling is not much, but it is something. It is necessary, it is as if a surgeon were to operate without washing his hands with alcohol”.

Love of nature and common sense.

Now it is the authors who do the talking:

“Their whites are opulent, good-natured, sumptuous, with precise acidity and energy, while the reds are wrapped in viscous density, grippy nerve and fruity exuberance like few others.”

Let us stick to these references -half a loaf is better than none-, as they are exclusive wines and, because of their price, often unaffordable.

 “The price is a way of showing respect for the wine. These wines deserve it. Each one has its own personality”.

Beata illa, who can put it into practice.

The book that will occupy our next literary instalments is a book that is not only attractive in terms of its content, the text as such – and especially as regards “attracting” people to its objective, namely wine, as I hope all the books reviewed to date are – but also in terms of its beautiful and impressive design. It is one of those books that is a pleasure to look at, to touch, to smell… Contributing to this is a very careful edition with magnificent paper, beautiful lithography and very clear lettering, in which precious images and portraits are interspersed with black and white photographs, which, as every average wine lover knows, are usually much more suggestive than life in colour.

It is not just me saying it, but the many awards it has won testify to it.

We are talking about “Tras las viñas. Un viaje al alma de los vinos”, (On the trail of vineyards. A journey into the soul of wine), written jointly by Josep Roca, the wine brother of the trio that has built the marvel of gastronomic art that is El Celler de Can Roca, and Imma Puig, a psychologist and therefore a person who knows how to look deep inside. The photographs are mostly by Josep Oliva. Published by Penguin in September 2016.

The book gathers twelve conversations with people who in one way or another make wine, mainly while walking through their vineyards and occasionally also by visiting their wineries.

First things first and second things must come second. There is no explanation for the choice of the favoured ones, which would of course be unnecessary as it is obvious, nor of the excluded, which for some would be rather complicated, and would certainly require very laborious and painful explanations. It is undoubtedly the dream book in which anyone who is engaged in one way or another in the same field would like to have appeared.

It is therefore not appropriate to make any kind of comparisons with our minimal project, nor do we make them, we only intend to learn from them. Reading also teaches you about wine.

The people selected -which are all those who are there, although naturally not all those who could have been for a simple reason of space, as only the twelve chosen occupy 380 pages- are the following in order of appearance, but without any kind of ranking:

WILLIAM HARLAN. Harlan Estate. California USA. “Napa Valley, the forge of dreams”.

 

 

We are located in the State of California, in order to practise chauvinism from the outset and without blushing. It was the Spanish Franciscan friar Junipero Serra who introduced vineyards there in the same year that the French were staging their famous revolution (1789).

Two realities coexist in Napa: on the one hand, the big three wineries – Gallo, The Wine Group and Constellation Wines – which account for two thirds of the wine market; on the other, those who aspire to find their space, either through the ritual of excellence at (comparatively) moderate prices, or through the self-affirmation of rustic authenticity. On both gravitate, on the one hand, the University of Davis -which means that science and technology are at the service of winemaking to an extent that sometimes frightens the practitioners themselves, as is the case-; on the other hand, the points of the Parker Guide, so decisive in terms of sales figures and, consequently, of the type of wine itself.

Among those “small” wineries that have found their niche, and in a big way, is Harlan Estate. It is a family winery, young as it is still in its first generation. With certain doubts, it can be dated back to 1985. The vineyard occupies about seventeen hectares (distributed approximately in: 70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 8% cabernet franc and 2% petit verdot), which were obtained by clearing an estate of about one hundred hectares, purchased the previous year in the small valley of Oakville, thus following in the footsteps of the mythical Robert Mondavi. The project was consolidated in 1990 with the addition to the team of the no less legendary Michel Rolland, and was consecrated with the 98 points awarded by Parker for the 1991 vintage, and crossed borders thanks to the recognition of its 1994 vintage by Vega Sicilia, during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of its foundation.

The vineyards…

There are many reasons to empathise with many of the words expressed in the interview by founder William Harlan, a builder turned winemaker (rara avis?), of whom the only thing to be envied is his good taste when it comes to investing his money (having it is just an assumption)

“…in a glass of wine there is so much history, so many values…”,

“…the role of wine is to create a moment, an atmosphere, not to be the main actor…”,

“… some people make wine thinking about recovering their investment, we feel that wine gives us life, it gives us life back, it gives us more than what we have invested”.

Our project -no doubt about it- does not wish to fully participate in the type of wine he makes, according to Josep Roca’s definition of it: “Harlan was and is body, eclecticism, technology, science, innovation, brilliant perfection, aromatic cleanliness, tactile sweetness, harmony, technoemotion and rationality”. There are at least a couple of extra “technos” and a pinch too much perfectionism to achieve the harmony of human spirituality.

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.