Alberto Redrado is the kind of sommelier who transcends the duties of serving and handling wine. In 2001, he left his surveying studies in Valencia to join the Michelin starred restaurant opened by his parents and uncle in the early 1980s in Cocentaina (Alicante). Working alongside his cousin, chef Kiko Moya, the second star arrived in 2017. By then, L'Escaleta was widely respected and known for its Mediterranean cuisine.
Despite this firmly established culinary reality, Redrado felt that the notion of a Mediterranean wine identity suffered from shortcomings and blanks. "The problem is that we are more acquainted with Burgundy, Langhe or Mosel than with our own land," he wrote in April 2020 in an insightful article published on Vila Viniteca's blog under the title El despertar de los vinos del sol ("The awakening of the wines of the sun".)
With his partner Violeta Gutiérrez de la Vega, Redrado makes wines in the Xaló valley (Alicante) under the brand Curii. It is likely that this new role as a producer spurred a desire to shine a light on the wines of the Mediterranean. In 2018 he organised La Odisea, a celebration of Homeric wines, an event that brought together producers from different Mediterranean wine regions. In spite of the disruption caused by the pandemic, La Odisea held its third edition last November.
What's the reason behind this gathering of Mediterranean wines?
La Odisea is the result of a sort of tantrum. Small fairs and tastings of artisan wines from southern regions are common in France and Italy, but there was nothing like that in Spain. I wanted to create a forum for local and international wine professionals to discuss the current state of affairs and showcase different realities under a common theme. The idea was that this gathering could also contribute to overcome certain inhibitions and hang-ups.
Do we have an inferiority complex?
There are many weaknesses in terms of identity. The future of Mediterranean wines is yet to be written. We have been driven by market demands but we have ignored who we are. The volume-based structure of cooperatives has driven us to the current situation: wines with little ambition that will jeopardize future generations.
In many Spanish regions, the practical knowledge that used to exist among growers was diluted by the cooperatives. And this has brought great disparities in the wine industry. In Alicante, for example, well over half of the producers are cooperatives. Small players are needed to emphasise the distinctive features of our terroirs. This is not something that can be transmitted by producers churning out millions of litres of wine because they do not separate lots.
In Italy, Bucci [a producer of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi who was present at the last edition of La Odisea] was inspired to push for better quality because Valentini had done so previously in Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. Until then, both areas were producing poor white wines. Here we are more hesitant. The idea of pleasing others is deeply rooted in our minds, and this is part of a self-imposed glass ceiling. As soon as people see that something is successful, they tend to imitate it.
Is it perhaps because when styles are not firmly established, wines are subject to fashions and trends?
Our perception of what the market demands is distorted. The problem is oversimplification. Thirty years ago, the goal was to make wines with concentration. Local producers like Pepe Mendoza or Toni Sarrión were brave enough to break away from low-priced markets. Both have spent the past 25 years trying to develop their own identities, forgetting about what was there before.
Is there too much hype in the pursuit of freshness in the new Mediterranean wines?
To some extent, yes; trends are cyclical and we often sway from one extreme to another. There has been a shift towards thinner, higher acidity wines, but I have the feeling that those who truly understand the area have manage to make ripe but also fresh and juicy wines in a cool vintage like 2020.
When it comes to trends, there are always latecomers; by the time they jump in, the trendsetters have moved on to something else. Trends also tend to standardise. I think the key is to make fresh wines rather than wines with high acidity at the expense of harvesting early. Gone are the days of international grape varieties, extraction and excess of oak; we should not succumb once again. The trend for fresh wines is global, but some areas are more suited than others and it is important that we do not lose our identity. Some of the first young producers to venture down this road are already thinking in a different way.
Are more renowned producers needed to raise the perception of Mediterranean wines?
Yes, it is the only way. In the hospitality business 30 years ago, no one wanted to be a chef; the dining room was the place to be at that time. Now we are experiencing just the opposite -kitchens are more glamorous, artisanal and imaginative.
Priorat is where it is thanks to Álvaro Palacios. You may or may not like his wines, but successful models encourage young people to follow suit. In the southeast, unfortunately, there are not as many top producers as there should be. Most Spanish wine regions have similar problems: elderly grape growers, lack of generational change... The fact that these regions have potential doesn't mean they will develop it. Change occurs when someone is capable of revitalising the surrounding area.
Is it also a problem of lack of ambassadors, for example in English-speaking markets?
The UK is a historic market for sherry and accepts wines with high alcohol. The problems lie rather on our side. Mediterranean regions still struggle with an inferiority complex inherited from bulk wines; it’s a psychological ceiling that makes us self-conscious. There are major shortcomings in terms of communication, too. Despite all the criticism against French chauvinism and the innate ability of Italians for sales, their wines are certainly strong, both in terms of quality and communication.
And how are we doing in comparison?
In Italy, the second generations are beginning to refine the styles, just like in Priorat or Galicia. The second generation kills the father and embarks on a process of developing an identity. France is well ahead, busy refining their regions’ individual personalities. This means fine-tuning any shortcomings and reinforcing the strong points. It is not by chance that élevage, the French word for wine ageing, also refers to children’s education. In the Marina Alta region of Alicante, we are still in the first generation stage: understanding the vineyards and their potential.
For the last 40 years, Italy has had movements like the Barolo boys or the Super Tuscans. In the Mediterranean, however, the problem is the temptation to follow those trends that prevent us from generating classic role models worth of imitation. The more we drift, the further we move away from finding an identity of our own. Perhaps we are too cynical, but searching for our identity is also a process of personal growth; and to get there, one must understand reality first. For example: finding a way to preserve dry farmed vineyards in Alicante or Jumilla.
The prestige of a region is determined by the diversity of its wines and the business models within its boundaries. Adding value to our regions is the only way forward and that responsibility lies on us. In Fontanars (Valencia), old vines of the local Arcos variety continue to be uprooted because international grapes are exported successfully.
There is a great deal of talk in restaurants about food proximity, but not so much about wine. How do you tackle this? How much space do you devote to Mediterranean wines on your Michelin-starred menu?
In Alicante we welcome many international visitors who want to try a good local white, but if I suggest a €12 bottle at L'Escaleta, my clients ask for Burgundy instead. Alicante is a city with its own airport, but with deplorable average prices for its wines. The €3 segment will vanish when growers tire of getting so little for their grapes and grub up the vines. Vineyards intended to produce light wines may be good for higher yields, but trends that come and go will eventually impoverish a reality that could be much more diverse.
After three editions of La Odisea, can you give a definition of Mediterranean wine?
We cannot have a single narrative because Mediterranean wine is totally diverse. Within a relatively small area conditions may change greatly in terms of soils, grape varieties... You can't compare Etna with Amalfi. We could talk about ripe wines, sweet fruit or ripe acidity, but the moment you are in Greece that concept disappears.
The WSET studies, which are extremely analytical, would never place Greece's Assyrtiko or Arcos, a high acidity grape from Valencia, where they actually are in the map, because their wines escape theorical patterns. Such enormous diversity plays against us. Perhaps that’s why we have adopted the identities of others or have just blurred ours to keep things simple and easy. Unfortunately, we will not overcome this situation until we discover our true identities. A monolithic identity cannot bring any prestige.
Has your perspective changed after becoming a producer yourself?
It has, in a way, because I look at things from a different point of view now. Nevertheless, I hope I can keep a critical eye on our work and an open-minded attitude to the wines I taste. Now that I have a broader perspective of winemaking, I’ve realised that we tend to oversimplify all the details.
What has been accomplished with La Odisea so far?
We have created a great wine event and a sense of community. I am happy when people tell me that it is giving them food for thought. Earning money was never my goal. La Odisea is a place to share and to put people in contact with each other.
Do you think that the event would have a greater impact if it were held in Madrid, Barcelona or Montpellier?
I suppose it could be exported, but the truth is that we put it together with very few resources, mainly relying on friends and contacts. Eighty per cent of the participants are wine professionals. I want sommeliers attending the event to realise that Mediterranean wines can be really interesting; in the case of local producers, La Odisea is a space to discover new paths.