100 Great Natural Wines: Spain

This is a series profiling the producers on our list who make natural wines. Within this series we will be highlighting some of the extraordinary and rare bottles and vintages that have helped to shape our appreciation of natural wines over the years. Previous posts from our 100 Great Natural Wines series include Austria, as well as a hefty chunk of France, and can be found here. 

The natural landscape has changed dramatically in Spain over the last ten years or so. Some time ago, conservative winemaking ruled. Many wines seemed to be a vehicle for oak rather than the other way around. High alcohol and extraction were prized. Tastes change. Soon the potential for making interesting and gastronomic wines was being realised. Here, after all, was a country of some thirty regions endowed with superb farming conditions, each with their respective climates and microclimates, growing a wealth of autochthonous grapes.

Rumbo El Norte – Comando G

Rumble in the Rocky Mountain Road

As rare as… wings upon a cat, or flowers of air, a rabbit’s horns, or ropes of tortoise-hair  -Asian proverb

Bodega Comando G is made up of Fernando García and Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi. They met in 2005 while at university where they forged their friendship based on a mutual passion: making first-rate Garnacha wines, which capture and express the terroir of the unique plots where the grapes are grown. Three years later, in 2008, they launched the G (G for Garnacha) business venture. Although there are some who affectionately call them the ‘enochalados’ (‘crazy oenologists’), in reality, this ‘online cooperative bodega’ (as described by El Mundo Vino) is carrying out the very serious task of searching for old-vine vineyards planted with the Garnacha grape variety in the Sierra de Gredos, located between the provinces of Madrid and Ávila. And the truth is that their work represents an authentic breath of fresh air, both in the winemaking process — extracting the personality from each individual plot.

They currently work with around three hectares of old Garnacha vines spread out among the villages of Cadalso de los Vidrios and Rozas de Puerto Real, near the Sierra de Gredos mountains, on granite soil and at an altitude of between 900 and 1,000 metres.

Even by these standards, Rumbo al Norte is at the extreme being a 0.3ha north-facing, plot at 1200 m above sea level of 70-year-old vines of several different old clones, a vineyard of huge granite rocks like a mini natural Stonehenge. For all the power of the wine, there is also transparency and granitic salinity. One of the greatest terroir Garnachas from anywhere.

Vinification is sympatico and exalts even further the exalted aromas and flavours of the grapes which undergo 60-day maceration with gentle extraction followed by fermentation in open top barrels with indigenous yeasts and ageing in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months.

The nose has flinty aromas, notes of pomegranate and fresh watermelon and the palate is surprisingly juicy, but plays on the exchange of minerals salts and red fruit and also an aerial quality.

Why we love this: The expression less is more applies to this wine which is paired down to its essential self. This is pure granite-juice, the grape variety faithfully carrying every last mineral inflection.

If you like this: The Tumba del Rey Moro, also from a small north-facing vineyard, does a similar thing. You can practically suck the salt from the glass.

Finca Capelinos – Adegas Guimaro 

Sheer brilliant folly

The Romans used slave labour to plant terraced vineyards along the Sil and Minho riverbanks. Today, Ribeira Sacra growers still have to work like slaves to prune, tend, and harvest grapes from these improbably situated vines. A few sites, including Cividade, Marcelino, and Viña A Ferreira, are so inaccessible that when the grapes are harvested, they are lowered to boats waiting on the Sil River, brought to landings that can be reached by road, and finally hauled to the wineries. All the vineyards have makeshift rails adapted from mining, with mechanical lifts that are winched up and down, carrying one person at a time, a few tools, and, during harvest, containers of grapes. Ribeira Sacra is where the men (and women) are truly vital, because the cosecheros (those who tend and harvest the vineyards) must also be capable of what is known as heroic viticulture. It is one of only two areas in Spain (Catalunya’s Priorat is the other) that requires this “heroic viticulture”. The region’s steeply-tiered slate bancales, or terraces, have a great deal to do with why the wines of Ribeira Sacra can be so profoundly terroir-driven, intriguing, and delicious, and why this area has the potential to produce wines as great as those from anywhere in Spain.

It may be a region of old vines, but it is a new region in terms of international recognition and respect:

Besides, when the first quality wines started travelling around the world, it was hard to believe that there was no track record and no tradition for such wines in the region. I remember when the name of the region and the spectacular images of the perpendicular vineyards on the steep slopes of the banks of the rivers caught the attention of people, and the zone got more famous than the wines themselves. Because the wines were few and the producers even fewer. The history of quality wine and wine culture in Spain is recent, very recent, and some of these old regions are like emerging regions or more than what we usually refer to as the New World. In a way, Spain is very much New World for fine wines, and we are still finding our roots, regions, landscapes and local varieties. And there’s no better example than Ribeira Sacra. 

 ~ Luis Gutierrez

Guimaro means rebel in local dialect. Cultivated since Roman times, the steep terraced vineyards are some of the most picturesque and treacherous to work in the world of wine – think Douro, Cote Rotie, or Mosel.  Like those most dramatic terruños, winegrowing here is not for the faint of heart; it takes spirited determination, unwieldy optimism, a sense of tradition, and a willingness to collaborate.

Guimaro is a small family estate and one of the pioneers in Ribeira Sacra. Five generations of viticultors (colleteiros) have made wine. The property has 9 ha with a further 14 ha contracted; all work in the vineyards done by the Rodríguez family. Pedro took over the winery in 2001, but his parents Carmen and Manuel are still active in the viticulture part. 

All the wines are good, but two are outstanding. Finca Pombeiras, a relatively new wine from Guímaro comes from a single 0.45 ha plot – facing south – of 70-year-old Mencía vines with 15% Galician indigenous varieties – Caiño, Merenzao, Sousón, Mouraton, Garnacha tintorera… planted as high as 450 metres elevation on decomposed slate soils.  This is the adega’s only cuvée fermented entirely with whole grape clusters (in foudre). Having undergone fifty days of maceration, it then sees 8-10 months in used 500-litre French oak barrels.  This cuvee is markedly more umami, savoury, and earthy in comparison to the other single vineyard cuvées.  It is worth comparing to the Finca Capeliños, another field blend also majoring in Mencia, this time from a 100-year-old 0.6 ha plot of vines on south-west facing slatey soils. 65% whole bunches are used, the wine is macerated for a long time on its skins in an open wooden conical tank, ferments naturally, is lightly pressed and then matured for 12 months in used 225-litre French oak barrels and for a further period in bottle. Bright cherry colour in the glass, the nose is very complex with red fruits and mineral, almost graphite aromas. On the palate there are nuances reminiscent of wild blackberries and rose petals on a mineral background and a delicious sapidity. Utterly superb!

Why we love this: When you taste the wine tastes you feel like you are letting your tongue run up and down the vertiginous stone terraces.

If you like this: Snappers-up of unconsidered trifles might be vaguely aware of the existence of the wines of remote Asturias, where the vineyards are carved into the canyon-like valley walls not unlike Ribeira Sacra. Dominio de Urogallo’s Fran Asencio is striving to create a forum for the voice of Cangas to speak. This means using the local varieties, fermenting with indigenous yeasts, and making the wine with as little manipulation and intervention as possible. 14-hectares of biodynamically-farmed vines from various parcels near Cangas del Narcea planted on the geological scrapyard of slate, quartz and anthracite on often insanely-steep slopes, produce Mencía, Albarín Tinto, Albarín Blanco, Carrasquín, Verdejo Negro (Trousseau) and a host of autochthonous varieties. The wines have a breezy maritime quality – pure fruit, an earthy-herbal quality and cooling acidity. Pésico is the name of a tribe which inhabited the Cangas valley in early Christian times and gives its name to a red and a white wine. The Pésico Tinto would normally have a touch of whole cluster fruit in the mix, and in previous vintages has been fermented in 2000-litre chestnut containers, before maturing for 18 months in used 225-litre barrels. This red is a blend of Albarin Tinto, Mencia, Carrasquin and Verdejo Negro and oozes forest fruit flavours with secondary notes of slate and cool earth. The tannins are very fine as the wine contains fruit from the oldest single vineyard plots called La Zorrina, Cadario and Retortoiro; the wine has the sapidity one expects of the best reds from Green Spain.

Turo d’En Mota – Recaredo

Don’t mention the cava

For almost a century, Recaredo has maintained a firm commitment: to produce terroir wines that reflect the landscapes of the Alt Penedès as honestly and transparently as possible. They make only vintage brut nature “cavas” (we’ll go there later) with a distinctive character marked by long ageing and over the last few years embarked on a project to make still wines that truly reflect the particularity of Xarel.lo (especially) on different soils and made in different way.

Recaredo seek to ensure the natural balance of the vine in the vineyard, aiming to achieve the best expression of every individual vintage. Therefore, the viticulture is based on dry farming with grapes harvested by hand. They prioritise respect for biodiversity and the environment by cultivating vines without using herbicides or insecticides and only employing natural organic fertilisers. When ripening begins, the grapes are analysed vine by vine, plot by plot, the goal being to harvest the grapes at their optimum point of ripening, to obtain the most balanced musts and the very finest wines. The entire harvesting process is carried out by hand, since it is only in this way that proper care for the grape until pressing can be guaranteed and premature oxidation (a characteristic of so many cheap sparkling wines) can be avoided. All these vines are close to the cellars and transportation of the grapes is carried out using small trailers. The grape must is obtained by gently pressing the grapes, thereby obtaining the highest-quality part of the must. Debourbage follows and then the first fermentation where the yeasts transform the sugars to produce the base wine. Over the winter, the wine remains in contact with its finest lees, giving it volume and body and becomes naturally clarified. The grape juice from the oldest Xarel·lo vines ferment in oak barrels yielding structure and greater complexity for longer-aged sparklers. Some of the base wine is aged in oak barrels for some months. This wine will be used to add greater finesse and structure to the final blending.

The secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, with the yeasts transforming the sugar to produce the cava’s bubbles and foam. The subsequent interaction of the yeasts or the lees and the wine during the in-bottle ageing will give more complex flavours and aromas. The riddling process, a gentle, precise daily movement, always carried out by hand in the classic, traditional racks, allows the lees to descend to the bottle’s cork and prepares the bottle for the expulsion of the lees: the disgorging which consists in the expulsion of the lees accumulated during the ageing process. At Recaredo, this is carried out on an exclusively manual basis, at the cellars’ natural temperature, without freezing the necks of the bottles.

The hillsides around the Bitlles River are home to a mosaic of vineyards, a total of 50 hectares in the easternmost part of the Penedès region. The Bitlles runs through a terrain broken by ravines, forests and hills. The mainly calcareous terrain is characterised by disjointed landscapes, dominated by the imposing presence of the mountain of Montserrat. The production volumes obtained from these soils are quite low, but of high quality. The soils are loamy: a balanced mix of sands and clays that facilitates drainage when there’s heavy rain and water retention during periods of drought. Those of Turo d’en Mota, for example, have a very low percentage of organic matter and a high active lime content – the vines here being pure Xarel.lo, planted in 1940. 

Biodynamics has become an essential part of the discovering the true identity of the vineyard and Recaredo’s mission is to maintain the constant pursuit of balance in the ecosystem, and a respect for biodiversity. As they say: “To move forward, we take a few steps back, observing and listening to nature to find answers. Without chemical fertilisers, without herbicides, without fungicides – only elements of natural origin. Because there can be no wines that capture the essence of the landscape unless we care for and respect the land itself.”

They treat the vines with medicinal plants, use extracts made mainly from horsetail, nettles and chamomile, whilst infusions, decoctions and macerations are applied to control the presence of mould and strengthen the vine’s natural defences. Vegetation cover is allowed to grow spontaneously between the vines, loosening the soil, regulating water retention and drainage (very important in the dry farming system), and fostering biodiversity of the vineyard ecosystem. The cover is also a perfect ally in efforts to prevent soil erosion.

Recaredo is now a member of Corpinnat, an organisation comprising nine leading wineries in the region, set up with the aim of distinguishing great sparkling wines made in the heart of the Penedès from 100% organic grapes harvested by hand and entirely vinified on the premises of the winery.

All the sparkling wines are effectively gran reserva, but Turo d’en Mota is in a class of its own, always displaying fantastic concentration and great purity. Sourced from a single vineyard less than one-hectare in size (named after a local hill) situated perhaps in the most elite section of the domaine in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, the vines, originally planted in 1940 on calcareous soils, are very old. The grapes are crushed and then the juice is fermented in oak casks where it remained for 45 days with lees stirring and undergoes. The bouquet is more like a dry white Burgundy with hints of honeysuckle, fresh-baked brioche, dried apricot, lemon peel and a touch of jasmine.

The 1999 vintage of Turó d’en Mota, which would first see the light in the autumn of 2008, marks a new chapter in Recaredo’s history. Turó d’en Mota became the first cava made using a single variety of grape (100% Xarel·lo) harvested from a single vineyard. It is also their longest-aged cava, having spent over a hundred months in contact with the lees. Turó d’en Mota is a terroir wine in the broadest sense of the term: the expression of a land characterised by highly calcareous soil and a Mediterranean microclimate, with the Xarel·lo grape variety as the undisputed protagonist, and an approach to viticulture that stresses observation over intervention. It is beautifully defined and very complex. The palate is very well-balanced with superb delineation and focus, drawing you in with subtle notes of orange peel, tangerine, beeswax and honeycomb. Long in the mouth and utterly harmonious. Forget the bubbles; this is a wine that expresses the full “tilth and husbandry of the soil”, the fabulous calcium-rich terroir and the particular climate.

Why we love this: You may feel inclined to reach for the champagne comparison, but although the method may be similarly traditional, the wine is from the terroir and the particular vineyard. Being brut nature (i.e. made without dosage) the quality of the fruit has to be very ripe and concentrated and it is this mouth-coating intensity that marks Turo d’en Mota out.

If you like this: Loxarel takes its name from the queen of Penedès grape varieties, the Xarel.lo, vilified a few years back but then acclaimed once more to be the best expression of local terroir. This bodega has always practiced environmentally-friendly viticulture and for the past eight years its methodology has been governed by biodynamic rhythms, thus closing a virtuous circle in its own 22-hectare estate. 109 Brut Vintage Nature is another one of those late-released sparkling wines that arrives fully-formed. G0lden-yellow colour with very small bubbles and a touch cloudy. Some autolytic notes of pastry, straw and hazelnut, but also ripe fruit such as apricot and dried pears. Lots of vigour here and intensity and a really snappy satisfying finish. which takes its name from the 109 months it rested before its release on to the market. It is a sparkling wine which has not been “made up” or “disgorged” i.e. it remains in contact with its lees. The result is a marvel of simplicity made art. A defiant product which may not suit the classic consumer little interested in going beyond the label. A treat for those who want to experiment, sip and muse.


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