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  • Beauty and then vines
  • Beauty and then vines
  • Beauty and then vines
  • Beauty and then vines
  • Beauty and then vines
1. Wines age under the frescoes. 2. The beauty of the landscape. 3. From left to right: Flavio Salesi, Vicente Inat and Paco Retamero. 4. The 16th century convent. 5. Pedro Ballestero’s favourite wines. Photo credits: Descalzos Viejos.

Spanish terroirs

Beauty and then vines

Pedro Ballesteros MW | December 13th, 2016

The good memories of visiting classic wine regions raise in our souls the beauty of landscapes and buildings, as much as the pleasures of wines and food. It is almost automatic to think that vineyards and wine bring beauty to the land. Sometimes we even tend to name the whole region as if it were just vineyards. Wine is often too good an ambassador of its land, assuming its whole image. 

This is a logic way of thinking. We visit those regions because the vineyards and the wineries are there. We would not be so enticed to visit them if wine were not the most visible produce of those lands. Then, the producers make money with their wines, so that they can afford investing in embellishing their regions and making them more easily accessible. 

Thinking more carefully, we might be in front of a typical chicken and egg situation. What came first, the beauty of the landscape or the production of fine wine? We know that in some cases the people turned useless marshlands into vineyards, as for instance in Médoc or Bolgheri. In other cases men worked for decades building terraces in steep slopes, building a lovely landscape out of something that should have been, in any case, very impressive to see. There is no doubt that good wines bring with them an impression of beauty and nobility, so that they enhance natural values.

The original role of vineyards and wineries is to provide value for human settlements. With time, some of those wines were so good and widely appreciated that they became even more important than the land that cradled them. We got to know them when they were already the owners of the place, thinking that the beauty was given by the wine, instead of usurped by it.

A 16th century convent

All of this is useless digression if we do not have a place to demonstrate it. I found that place in Ronda, Málaga. A place where beauty comes first, where wines are produced to sustain beauty. I would not be surprised if one day those wines will, once again, take over the image of the place in such a way that visitors think that the place is so nice because gorgeous wines are produced there.   

Imagine derelict ruins of a 16th century convent, placed on Ronda’s lower slopes, with a large abandoned garden. Imagine two architects, who are foreign to the world of wine, and decide to dedicate their lives to recover that magic place, to re-interpret it, to bring back its splendour. They have clear ideas on what to do with the buildings and the site. They also know that buildings are not self-sustainable. Somebody has to do something in those buildings to keep them alive. Tourism is an obvious choice, but tourist buildings are kind of zombies, they are alive because people visit them, but they lack a purpose of their own. 

A convent is a place where a group of human beings developed their whole lives, with the purpose of preparing eternity. Convents are places where people devote their long lifetime philosophy, poetry, agriculture and so many other things. They should not become objects of a visit, but subjects of an activity.

The place is called Descalzos Viejos (Old Barefoot People), in memory of its last active inhabitants, a group of Trinitarian monks who stayed there until their death. I imagine that in 1998, when the present owners Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi bought the place, it was difficult to see much beauty in the place, other than the romantic charm of relics. Now it is one of the most impressive visits in Ronda. The restoration works resulted in a unique mix of old and new in a context of mutual enhancement, which results in sheer beauty. Not only architectural beauty. The old water circuits communicate calmness, the whole view is a pleasure for the eyes. The highlight of the visit is, in my opinion, the orchard, where fruit hanging from centenary mandarine, avocado, lemon and kakhi trees offer a unique aromatic experience. 

The renovated convent is full of life. The owners’ families host music and literary festivals and other social activities, and they welcome many visitors. But those activities are not enough to pay for the huge works needed. Descalzos Viejos needs to produce value out of its blood to keep itself alive. That value comes from the vineyards planted in the property. 

In search of lost time

Ronda has a long winegrowing tradition. Their wines were well known until the late 19th century when vineyards all but disappeared with the arrival of phylloxera. Then, eight decades of oblivion passed by until the 1980s, when a bunch of foreigners fell in love with the land and Ronda went through a renaissance. Prince Hohenlohe, a nobleman with a property in the region, Frederic Schatz, from Süd Tirol, (later) Kieninger from Austria… Each one of them implemented their own approach to plant grapes and make wines, with good success, but an amazing disparity of styles. 

Now, Ronda is recognised for its red wines, less so for whites. There is a good local market, since the many restaurants and hotels in the city highlight their local wines, and Ronda receives millions of tourists. 

Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi are part of this boiling wine scene. They hired a highly competent young winemaker, Vicente Inat, with a clear aim of experimenting, of finding the best possible wines without having any prejudices or early assumptions to start with.

This freedom of expression, this quest for quality, was all evident during my visit. Instead of the classic approach ‘everything goes well in my property’, Paco and Vicente told us that they intend to replace part of the vineyards with other varieties, that they had discovered that this technique or that style suit the place better… A creative approach with no fear of errors.

The most amazing proof of the freedom of spirit and the owners’ quest for beauty is the very winery. The wine is made in the central nave and side chapels of the former church. In the background, where the altar was, two holy ladies protect the wine barrels. They are Saints Iusta and Rufina (the patrons of Seville), two 15th century frescoes which were discovered during the renovation works. The architectural ensemble is outstandingly beautiful.

The basis of their work is clear: organic viticulture, native yeasts and vinification of small plots individually. The context is also quite constraining. Ronda is at a crossroads between Atlantic and Mediterranean climatic influences, with varying weather depending on the dominant winds, but overall Ronda is a hot place, particularly during the long summer. This, and the lack of rain during most of the vegetative cycle, are the main challenges.

As phylloxera left no genetic material available for replanting, producers decided to grow a wide number of commercial varieties. In barely 10 hectares, the vineyards of Descalzos Viejos are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Garnacha, Syrah and Chardonnay. Vicente is now funnelling choices, and the wines to produce in the near future are likely to come from a more limited number of varieties.

I had an interesting discussion with Vicente concerning winemaking. The major problem his wines face is probably their natural potential for high alcohol and low acidity, due to the climate. Vicente is convinced that confected approaches such as adding acidity to the musts or eliminating the alcohol are not good solutions for those problems, at least not when quality is the main motivation. As well as managing the plants’ low vigour and harvesting early, Vicente is becoming an expert in dealing with stems. Instead of destemming the grapes, as most producers do, Vicente makes use of their precious acidity and capacity to absorb alcohol. He masters partial stem maceration to avoid the release of green harsh tannins and vegetal aromas in the wine, while keeping the role of the stems as wine “fresheners”.

The wines

They produce seven wines, which are well made, clean, professional, good. Three of those wines are very good. The DV Aires 2009, a blend of 80% Petit Verdot and 20% Garnacha, is a powerful and warm style of wine, with a round texture and good freshness. The Petit Verdot/Garnacha blend is quite original and accomplished. PV’s elegant concentration finds the right counterweight in Garnacha’s joyful fruity expression and lightness of tannins. I would have never guessed in a blind tasting that this wine is a 2009. It is really youthful, and worth keeping.

Descalzos Viejos’ top wines are two single-vineyard single-grape wines, named after the saints who take care of the wine in the winery. Iusta is a pure Garnacha. I tried the 2013, very ‘garnacho’ (something like intense aromas of blackberry with some liquorice and lavanda tones that then it is not like this, but once you try an aromatic pure garnacha, it is much easier to remember the aroma as garnacho). The barrel ageing is still evident, but by no means dominant. Despite its high alcohol, the wine passes with elegance and airiness, in a style that is more charming than consistent. Nice.

DV Rufina is my favourite. I tried the 2011. It is a pure Syrah, very intense blackberry and blueberry notes, with obvious toasted aromas from the oak, again well integrated. In the mouth it is rich and outspoken, but also very refined and with lingering freshness.  

These three wines are, in my opinion, good pillars to make Paco and Flavio’s dream a reality: to produce wines that can sustain beauty, wines that take within themselves part of that beauty giving back the means to keep it developing. Descalzos Viejos is a young 16th century entity, with plenty of life and future, and well worth a visit. Even if you do not like wine….         

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