The first Saturday in October starts with some rain on the Sonsierra foothills in Rioja, but harvest is under way in some of the plots along the road that joins Labastida and Logroño, with the Sierra Cantabria on the background.
A cool spring followed by extreme heat and drought in August and early September had many local winegrowers worried about the quality of the harvest. Abel Mendoza was one of them, but the rain at the end of September accompanied by sunshine and moderate temperatures have turned prospects for this 2016 vintage. “The white grapes I’ve picked so far and this Tempranillo are top quality”, remarks Abel while he lends a hand to unload onto the reception area the grape baskets brought earlier by the team of pickers.
It is October 1st, a special day in this small winery at the entrance of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. The first bunches set to go for Abel’s Tempranillo Grano a Grano wine have been harvested earlier this morning; these grapes, along with those set to for his Graciano Grano a Grano, are painstakingly taken care of. Their names follow a simple logic: every single bunch is destemmed grain by grain and by hand. “There are people who still fail to believe that we separate every single berry. A couple of years ago Rioja’s Regulatory Body sent an inspector to check. He stood by the gate for two days. I guess that by the time he left, he was convinced that there is no marketing behind this; it’s just work”, explains Abel.
He launched both wines in 2003 along with his wife Maite Fernández, who is the winemaker, but they made their first wine, Jarrarte joven, in 1989. This carbonic maceration wine is now a benchmark of this style in Rioja.
Abel and Maite usually select grapes from various vineyards, but this year’s Tempranillo Grano a Grano will be entirely sourced from Mendoate, one of their plots in Labastida. “It is one of Rioja's best areas; the diversity of soils you find there is impressive, but of course, they need to be worked properly to get the best out of them”, says Abel, who grows 20 hectares of his own in 35 different plots in this Alavesa village as well as in nearby San Vicente and Ábalos.
For Abel, quality, sustainability and connection to the territory are non negotiable and he vehemently defends the idea that environmental protection is compatible with making a decent living. “There are moves to make Rioja a World Heritage Site but at the same time, we are unable to respect our very own landscape and history!, he says. “It is the people who shape a territory. The better we work all together, the more we will all benefit. We put a price on bottles but in order to sell our territory, we must also give them value.”
That is what Abel and Maite are trying to do. For them, intervention in the winery is important to make the wine, but the character of the land and its climate must be reflected on the 80,000 bottles and a dozen wines they produce annually, including their very personal and sought-after whites. The last one to join the range is Guardaviñas, a red Tempranillo with no added sulphites (he doesn’t like to call it natural). The first vintage was 2014 but Abel and Maite have been doing trials since 2012. “This style of wines are only viable in small productions because the work in the vineyard is intensive and frequent,” explains Abel, who thoroughly knows his plots. “You cannot grow grapes in an airport checking everything with a webcam.”
Preparing the Grano a Grano grapes involves intensive work. While Abel and his two winery workers unload the Tempranillo baskets, plus a few kilos of Garnacha which are also planted in this plot, his sisters-in-law Lourdes and Charo are busy at work in the grape reception area starting to destem the 2,000 kilos of grapes that are due to arrive at the winery between today and tomorrow.
“Pull the berry gently, without crushing it and then place it in your basket. The stems go onto this other basket. Nothing goes to waste here, love”, explains Lourdes while we are joined by the Portuguese pickers and some more relatives of Abel and Maite who are here today to lend a hand.
Some of the stems are placed on the base of a small stainless steel tank. They are used as a filter with the rest going back to the vineyard, as a natural fertilizer. Once the pot —as they affectionally call the little tank— is full, grapes are fermented for 10 to 12 days before transferring the wine onto new oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and 18 months aging.
By midday, the pot is half full thanks to the skill and the speedy hands of women like Juli, Abel’s mother. She is 87 years old but has plenty of energy —you can tell she knows what hard work means. “Kill that bug that has sneaked into the basket”, says Juli. “No, mother, it might have brought yeasts from the vineyard”, jokes Abel, in a cheerful atmosphere.
Everyone agrees on the quality of the grapes this year. “Look at the colour of the stem; this reddish tone means it has ripen well,” explains Víctor, friend and distributor of Abel Mendoza wines in Logroño. We are finishing the last bunches before tucking into the excellent paella prepared by Carlos, Abel’s brother, in the txoko —a pretty tasting room-cum-kitchen with a large board toasting to the “health” of everyone who enters this recently renovated space.
“Our visitors are asked to write the word down in their language,” explains Maite. There are already over a dozen languages —this couple has a network of admirers around the world who trust the honesty of their wines despite not having a web page or being usually absent from trade fairs and press events. Abel made a recent exception when he attended the Viticulture Encounter, a meeting of independent producers organized by Telmo Rodríguez in his nearby Remelluri estate.
“This gathering in Labastida was fantastic; well organized and planned with taste. I enjoyed the chance to talk with producers from the Canary Islands, Valladolid and other regions across Spain… very diverse people form different places and a great chance to exchange opinions. Signing the Matador Manifesto doesn’t mean I am against García Carrión [with capacity to produce 50m bottles a year in Rioja] or other big players; we have different business models and both must be respected. Change is necessary; I don’t know whether I’ll witness it or not, but it is essential,” adds Abel, who thinks this call for action was only listened after outsiders intervened.
“Thanks to the classification of Rioja's producers published by Tim Atkin, the foundations of the big players started to shake. First they criticized it but after stirring up trouble, the same who had condemned it started to say that it might not be that bad after all. What’s important here is that the tune starts to change; the lyrics will be written little by little.”
You can tell that this is an important issue for him. Abel calls for honesty, common sense and a joint effort to chart the path of change. “We are in a very privileged area and we should all work thinking in the territory instead of throwing stones at each other,” he says adding that he doesn't understand the thinking behind the 42 bodegas which want to break away from Rioja and set up a new Viñedos de Álava appellation in the Basque province.
I don’t know whether they are talking about plots, villages or what, but I have vineyards in both sides so we need a solution that leaves us moderately satisfied. I don’t want to be caught between two sides; I don’t think that benefits anybody. It’s obvious that there are two business models and both of them must be made to fit; how they do it involves sitting together and discuss the options. What are the differences between Samaniego, Labastida [both in Rioja Alavesa, in the Basque Country] or San Vicente [in the autonomous community of La Rioja]? I go to Labastida to have a cup of coffee every day, but I don’t go to Briones [in La Rioja]. They want to sow conflict between us and that is totally absurd”.
He also dislikes the financial aid policy in the world of wine. “Listen, I am in favour of lending money to young producers launching a new project but I think they should return the funds so that others can benefit from that same money. I would also like to see less red tape and more flexibility and if these young people make a mistake, they should not be penalised. Why do we all have to pay for a €100,000 tractor to drive on the vineyard? It is not necessary and whoever wants to have one should pay it from his own pocket but it is hard to stop such deep-rooted habits. When I started I couldn't even afford a new pair of shoes; what you see now is the final part of the journey.”
By six in the evening, most of the berries are resting in the pot. The next day, a new load will arrive bringing in the baskets from Mendoate and Abel and Maite’s helpers will be sitting at the winery’s reception area destemming a tiny bit of Rioja. Lunch will be prepared by his friend Juan Carlos, but for Abel the whole experience is summarized in one word: “The only recipe I have is work and more work.”