Restlessness and coincidence have been the major forces behind Celler del Roure’s steady progression. The project was set up is Valencia in the late 1990s just when Spanish wine was experiencing a great boom, but the quest for ancient grape varieties and the recovery of traditional winemaking techniques brought a U change in the way things were conceived.
Pablo Calatayud knew very little about wine when he tried his hand in this world after he completed his agronomist studies in Valencia. His family was in the furniture business and their sole connection to wine was local producer Daniel Belda from whom they regularly purchased wine to give to their clients as a gift. Belda himself encouraged the family to plant the grape varieties that were fashionable at the time (Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot) and to start making their own wines.
Pablo recalls wine overflowing the fermentation tanks in their first harvest —they didn’t know that vats couldn’t be filled to the top. As soon as he started visiting renowned wine producing regions like Bordeaux or Priorat and getting in touch with prominent winemakers, he realized that they had got grape varieties completely wrong even if he was not alone in this: in the region of Valencia, Tempranillo skyrocketed from 106 hectares in 1975 to 8,070 in 2004.
The advice from Priorat producer Sara Pérez was a real eye-opener for him. They turned to the indigenous Monastrell variety and started researching the region’s vine heritage; one day they came across a local winegrower who grew Mandó vines to make his everyday wine. “Mandó is a delicate, thin-skinned variety which is very sensitive to botrytis,” Calatayud explains. It happens to be Garró, an ancient variety recovered by Bodegas Torres in Catalonia and included under this name in Spain’s Register of Commercial Vine Varieties in 2011.
The first red wines, released in the early 2000s, were quite powerful and tannic with international grape varieties playing a leading role in the blend. They were successful both in the international and local markets as they offered a good-quality alternative to Valencia’s quantity-driven wine players. “In Valencia people serve Alcusses on their wedding day and turn to Maduresa when they have to make a gift,” says Calatayud. The label of Maduresa, which has always been blended with Mandó, stands out for its strikingly beautiful but simple design. It is the work of Daniel Nebot and it features a bunch made by simply puncturing a pristine white label; the dark glass shapes the grapes.
Local varieties were gradually regrafted mostly onto Celler del Roure’s Tempranillo and Merlot vines. They were Monastrell, Mandó —even if it didn’t work well at the beginning because “it wasn’t suited for barrel ageing so we blended it with Syrah”, recalls Pablo— and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), which is now limited to entry-level reds. “For Garnacha Tintorera to thrive, we would need to be 100 or 200 metres higher than we are”, explains Calatayud. In fact, Clariano's inner area, where Celler del Roure is located, is actually lower than Spain’s central plateau. Altitude drops sharply from Almansa, Garnacha Tintorera’s reign at over 700m of altitude, to the province of Valencia; as you drive your car across the boundaries, the changes are also evident in terms of the landscape and climate.
The Calatayuds were successful right from the start. In 2006 they saw the need to expand and decided to look for 10 additional hectares but instead they came across a 40-hectare estate with great potential in Moixent, their hometown, and purchased it. Unfortunately, soon after this huge investment, recession hit Spain.
In 2010 Celler del Roure released 16 Gallets (€5), a blend of local (Monastrell, Alicante Bouschet) and international grapes (Cabernet, Merlot) —“the crisis wine”, as Pablo calls it. Uncertainty loomed over their business, so they started to explore all possibilities, including using the amphorae in the old underground cellar which was part of their recently acquired estate.
According to Pablo Calatayud, most of the farmers in the area made their own wines and had their own amphorae (“tinajas” as they are called in Spain) until the beginning of Spain’s Civil War. “If one considers the size of the cellars, it seems obvious that vines were not the only crop,” he says. “Mandó must have been a valued but delicate grape. It wasn’t suited to be grown on fertile soils because it resulted in very compact clusters,” Pablo explains. “In fact, we didn’t realized how good it could be until we started using amphorae.”
The underground cellar contains 100 amphorae embedded into the earth. Celler del Roure only uses 20 of the better-conserved, larger clay jars, with capacity for 2,800 litres. “Amphorae allow us to keep the grapes’ natural freshness, which makes a lot of sense in hot southern regions,” Pablo points out. In fact, temperatures can reach 40ºC during the summer but only long-cycle grape varieties (Monastrell, Mandó and others in the process of being recovered like Miguel de Arcos) benefit from temperature fluctuations between night and day during late August and early September.
“Mandó is the only variety capable of withstanding early-picking and give 12% vol. low alcohol wines”, he adds. This is quite a discovery in what it would be considered a V area, the hottest level within the Winkler climatic scale. The proof is already available on the market starting in the 2015 vintage. Safrà, named after saffron, a spice highly appreciate in Valencia, is the latest release within the Parotet (“dragonfly”) range of wines, all of which mature in amphorae and are Mandó blends. 15,000 bottles have been produced of this affordable (€10.90 at Lavinia in Spain) red wine: a blend of early-picked and fully mature Mandó grapes with 10% Alicante Bouschet y 5% Monastrell. It boasts the highest percentage of Mandó in the range and offers fresh, distinctive thyme and red fruit notes.
The amphora range actually started in the 2010 vintage with the white wine Cullerot (it means “tadpole” in Valencian, €9.40 at Lavinia; other options via Wine Searcher 50,000 bottles). A complex blend of grapes sourced from local winegrowers (Pedro Ximénez, Verdil, Macabeo, Malvasía, Tortosí, Chardonnau and occasionally also Merseguera), it ferments in stainless steel vats and matures six months in amphorae. The original layout of the cellar with canals made to carry the must to the amphorae proves that skins where not used in the winemaking process of white wines. “Cullerot was the wine that opened our eyes to the possibility of making a red wine following this style,” Pablo reckons.
While the entry-level Vermell (70,000 bottles, €8.90 at Lavinia; other options via Wine Searcher Wine Searcher) is mainly based on Alicante Bouschet with some Monastrell and just 10% of Mandó in the blend, Parotet (15,000 bottles, €16.90 at Lavinia; other options via Wine Searcher) brings back Mandó in a deeper, more serious version together with roughly 35% Monastrell. Unlike Safrà, all grapes are picked at full maturity but grapes are sourced from the highest, fresher plots at around 550m above sea level.
Wines destined to the amphora range ferment in stainless steel tanks, but in 2015 some of the old stone lakes have been recovered to this purpose. In this case around 30% whole bunches are added and grapes are trod under foot. Amphorae are uncoated; all they do is to add a layer of tartaric acid. During the maturing process they protect the wines with a plate of metabisulphite and try to cover the amphorae tightly using a rubber inflatable tube as a vacuum seal as seen in this video we recorded during our visit.
Natural yeasts are the norm, as it has always been from the start. Organic farming is certified even if they don’t show it on their labels. And once again the label design comes from Daniel Nebot who boasts simplicity and a direct, conceptual visual language as his particular trade-marks.
The Parotet range has also made an impact on the winery’s early wines Les Alcusses (€8.90 at Lavinia; other options vía Wine Searcher, 100,000 bottles) and Maduresa (€16.90 at Lavinia, 20,000 bottles). Despite the international grapes remaining in the blend (currently Syrah, Cabernet and Petit Verdot), the style of the wines has shifted towards fresher, less heavy or alcoholic reds with definitely softer levels of extraction.
Now that Celler del Roure is expanding its facilities and creating new underground spaces to accommodate more amphorae, it looks like they are heading towards a streak of good years.