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  • “Sherry is not as exciting as we are led to believe”
  • “Sherry is not as exciting as we are led to believe”
1. Andrés Conde Laya, in his Bodega Cigaleña in Santander 2. The counter at La Cigaleña Photos: Yolanda Ortiz de Arri

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“Sherry is not as exciting as we are led to believe”

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | September 25th, 2018

Although he graduated in Economics, Andrés Conde Laya knew that his professional future was inevitably linked to wine and to Bodega Cigaleña, the bar-restaurant that his grandparents Mariano and Moisesa opened in Santander in 1949 and that he now manages alongside his brother.

An advocate of simplicity and honesty in the wines he buys and serves —and in life in general— Conde Laya maintains his independence and sticks to his opinions no matter what. He continues searching for producers and wines that captivate him and his clients,  who range from born-and-bred locals to producers, wine lovers and tourists.

Generous and extremely professional, he has wine allocations of admired producers such as Overnoy, Clos Rougeard or Ganevat —he hosts an annual Ganevaton party for his clients. On the counter at La Cigaleña there are always interesting wines by the glass for less than €3 each. His interest now lies on the wines of Eastern Europe: Conde Laya has been —and still is— a pioneer in discovering uncharted wine paths.

How did you get started in wine?
La Cigaleña is a family business and I am the third generation. My grandfather and father ran the business before me and my brother and were real wine connoisseurs. At home, wine was a frequent conversation topic, just like football, bullfighting, etc. I remember we had wine books too. In our circle, drinking wine was totally normal.

In those days, your family must have been far from standard.
In my youth, we used to travel frequently to France and Andorra in search of wines. It was very difficult to get hold of the great wines we have these days, specially cuvées from the 1970s and 1980s not to speak of what it was like before democracy. There were no importers; instead, we bought wines from cavistes, wineries… Back then, nobody travelled to Burgundy. Many of the allocations we have now date back from those years.

Why was it so rare to find wine importers?
Mainly because wines had to be sold and demand was non-existent at the time. I remember paying 35,000 pesetas (€210) for a bottle of Romanée Conti with my father at El Corte Inglés in Bilbao many years ago. It was a considerable sum of money. Twenty years ago, we used to have 10-12 vintages of Salon and at affordable prices —cheaper than Dom Perignon— but it was not understood because there was no wine culture to speak of. The same thing happened with Rhône, Burgundy…

The leading producers in those regions were unknown here?
In 1995, I gave complimentary bottles of Célestins from Henri Bonneau. Many of those who now write about wine had never tried [Réserve des] Célestins before. Although it was on the wine list, people didn’t order it because they didn’t know who he was. The same thing happened with Château Rayas. Renowned brands were known but those small vignerons who are now admired were totally ignored by clients and critics here. Wine consumers are manipulated —there are very few people with sound judgment who are able to explain why a wine is good.

And why is that?
Technology moves very fast nowadays. There is so much information that it’s easily manipulated. In the old days, anyone drinking an iconic wine —an old Vega Sicilia vintage, La Tache or a Lafite— was so concentrated that regardless of the good money they had paid for that bottle, they were able to enjoy every single drop because they were conscious of the effort they had made. Nowadays, people drink some wines just to tick a box and to say they’ve drunk it, but they don’t really enjoy the wine. Many wines are so complex that they need their time to express themselves.

Are you saying that people are easily manipulated?
It’s as if a meteorite had hit the Earth; people seem to be spellbound and believe everything. Everybody used to know that wine quality drops considerably on bad vintages, but anything goes these days. People now talk about lighter vintages; if a vintage is weak, it won’t get better with time. We opened a bottle of La Tache 74 recently; you cannot say it is an outstanding vintage even though it commands an exorbitant price. At La Cigaleña, wines that fail to be on top form as they age are removed from the wine list even though it would be very easy to bring them back to the menu and make good money with them.

In a recent interview with SWL, Eric Asimov said he was surprised at so many producers’ concerns over trends like the pale rosé. Do you think that producers and sommeliers are led by fashions and trends?
It’s understandable in a sommelier because he or she has a job and has to live and develop something but producers working in their own businesses need to have personality, regardless of trends. Our society’s lack of personality is absolutely shocking. Kids dress all the same and think the same but the main drama is that people cannot say why they like or dislike something.

Do you see that lack of personality among distributors and restaurateurs in Spain?
There are good people in both sectors.  It’s true that distributors sometimes lag behind in the sense that no-one takes risks and says 'I’m going to see what I find in Romania, Serbia or Montenegro”, three countries where good wines are being made. I get it, though; people don’t want to take risks and selling unknown wines requires a great deal of effort. 

But you take risks.
It’s easy for me because I meet the producer, buy his wine, open the bottle in front of the clients and explain the wine to them. It’s no big deal if they don’t like it, but they have no doubts about the personality of the wine and of the producer. These are great times to discover amazing wines from other countries.

Can you not find amazing wines in Spain?
We have very good producers here too but we often fail to know them and the public avoids them. Think of Quinta da Muradella, who is an extraordinary producer. His Garnacha Tintorera is astonishing. If he were foreign, people would pay €300 for one of those bottles. I sold it for €30 on my wine list, but it was a tough sell. The same thing goes for the wines of Raúl Pérez or the whites of Abel Mendoza, which are absolutely extraordinary when they are seven-eight years old… I would love to see many more artisan producers in Spain who were acclaimed for their work.

Do we still believe that foreign wines have better quality?
This snobbery really started in 2000, when demand for French wine spiked. Until then, clients who wanted to learn and try wines were few and far between. It’s a shame to see how people try wines made by good Spanish producers whose wines just once. They tick their wines on a list and never drink them again. It’s much harder to sell Spanish wines than foreign wines and that’s terrible.

And what’s the reason behind that snobbery?
I don’t know. Maybe we are also guilty of it.

How do you see La Cigaleña 23 years after you started to work here?
I remember the days when we had two wine lists: the standard list and the really large list of old wines. I opened lots of them: we had 80 bottles of Marqués de Riscal 1925, 700 bottles of old Vega Sicilia vintages and countless amounts of Tondonias and “wild” Castillo de Ygay —we called it like that because it was so acid that it needed 40 years’ rest in the bottle. That period lasted around eight years, up until 2001 more or less. We later auctioned many bottles, when that was unheard of here, and sent a lot of bottles abroad.

Why did you get rid of the old wines?
Because there was a generational change in our clients. Our wine list was very classical until the early 21st century —my dad’s heritage. Back then, having Tondonia or other classic brands meant stocking seven or eight vintages. I remember stocking no less than 40 vintages of Vega Sicilia; it was mad but I am grateful for it because I got to know those wines very well —both the good and the bad vintages because I tasted them close to a dozen times. I get really mad When I see people singing the praises of those bad vintages.

Any examples?
Valbuena 1994. We knew from day one that something was wrong with that vintage —Vega Sicilia acknowledged that later. I sold it at cost to get rid of it. There was a weird damp character in the wine. We weren’t professional tasters but we as we opened so many bottles of Vega Sicilia, we were experienced and could tell the good from the bad. We sold the entire stock except for six bottles that we kept for ourselves.

And how would you describe your wine list now?
We aim for variety. We sell a lot of natural wine but it was never a planned decision. We simply had allocations of natural wines like Overnoy, even though we never bought them because they were natural. We bought them because we like that style of wines, but we never say on the wine list that they are natural. 

Do your clients like natural wines?
We stocked them because we liked them; clients didn’t really like them. It was tough at first —we had to fight for something that nobody believed in. People used to say that we had lost our minds going to Jura, but I always thought to myself 'one day you will all search for these wines'. We believed in producers like Overnoy, Gerhard Schueller or Julien Meyer in Alsace, even though sometimes we failed to understand their wines because they were not stable when they got here. 

You nevertheless continued buying these wines. 
Trial and error taught us that we had to cellar them. We have also grown with these producers; they have made mistakes in the past or bottled wines that were too radical but time helps you realise that maturity brings stability to wines. If I get a shipment of brown wine, I now know that it will be stable with time; in the early days, that would make me nervous.
Back then, I could sell those wines after 20 years’ cellaring so everyone could taste how good they were. Nowadays they are an easy sell regardless of the wines being tired or unstable. 

Do clients ask for your advice when choosing their wine?
Yes, they look at the wine list and ask me. I’ve managed to create a very personal list; I don’t know whether it’s right or not, but what I like is what you’ll find on the wine list. I also stock conventional wines —I cannot force anyone to drink something they don’t like. Sometimes I tempt them with something different but always being very sure that they will enjoy the wine because it’s stable.

So if someone asks for Verdejo, you serve them one of Ismael Gozalo’s.
I sell the wines of Ismael Gozalo, Esmeralda García… I don’t serve Correcaminos to older clients —I’d serve them Microbio because it’s more stable. It’s fine if they don’t like the wine; I just change it and that’s fine. I don’t want to be a taste dictator.

Would you like to see a separate category for natural wines? 
No, they are just wine producers. We get people here saying they only drink natural wines. And my question is: And what do you eat? Everything we eat has sulphites. Joselito could say they make the only natural Iberico ham in the world because they cure them with salt and no sulphites. It could be their marketing strategy, but it’s not. At the end of the day, the main thing is to enjoy a good bottle of wines. The rest is empty talk.

You have worked with the same producers for years. Do you think it’s easy to let oneself get carried away with an honest story or with the personality of a producer you know well?
Yes, it can happen. But that problem is easily fixed when you taste the wine away from the producer. We’ve just started working with Cotar, from Slovenia. I thought they were extraordinary wines when I tasted them at the winery but I bring samples here and taste them away from the winery. I need to know whether the wine will work here and whether my clients will like it.

What percentage of your wine list comes from Spain?
Around 30% although I would love to work with more Spaniards. There are no language barriers, you understand how they think… It would be much easier for me but I just don’t find enough producers. I always say that we Spaniards have a character problem: things start well but then we relax and let ourselves go. I know many producers who started well but they soon relax and raise prices. Many producers are moved by money rather than passion, unfortunately.

How do you see Rioja now?
It’s one of the great wine regions in the world and comparable to Burgundy, Barolo or Bordeaux. There are small producers there that I like but Rioja is also a great money-making machine, with four or five wineries controlling the business. That’s a problem.

What do you think of the new wine categories in Rioja?
I am not really familiar with that. These new rules are made by bureaucrats who push for changes that favour the large producers who have all the power in the control boards of the appellations. I believe in the producer.

What about sherry and Jerez?
It’s an area with a great history, but I see little change. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to try wines made before 1800 and I don’t get this myth thing. I do like the new breed of young producers working in the region now but we must give them time because these are long-term wines. And let’s not forget one thing: grape growing is totally neglected there.

But these young producers are not neglecting grape growing. 
You are right, but I don’t see as much excitement in the region as we are made to believe. We all know what old Sherry wines are like. 

What are they like?
Through an act of faith they can be whatever we want, but for me, old sherries lack emotion. At La Cigaleña we used to have lots of old sherry bottles but most of the wines were precipitated and disjointed.
 
Are there enough cult wines in Spain?
Cult wines in this country mean high prices but we should talk about cult producers who believe in what they do. I don’t really know any cult wines in Spain —those that are being sold as such are just extremely expensive wines that nobody drinks. Actually, people drink them once and they then feel disappointed after that; they say they like them but they don’t try them again. 

Don't you think Vega Sicilia is a cult producer?
Yes, in the great vintages. 62 is extraordinary as well as 42, 48, 70 or 53 which are all fantastic wines. They are five super vintages on a par with any other cult producer worldwide. Vega Sicilia is a business and money needs to be made. The owner is not a grape grower who works in the vineyard but someone who makes a wine in a certain style because management dictates such style. The same thing applies to Cvne, they are large financial conglomerates that make a product called wine. We may like it or not, but they are designer wines. 

Old-style wines were also designer wines?
Take the old Olarra wines and they are the same as Viña Real wines. Both were made by Ezequiel El Brujo (the wizard), winemaker at Cvne who then went to work for Olarra. It’s the same formula. Olarra was a cheap wine, but it has evolved well. And many old wines resemble each other because they are made following the same style. Let's not kid ourselves; grape growing, low yields or painstaking viticulture ways were not a real concern back then.

So it was the winemaker’s hand that made the wine.
Yes, because they were excellent winemakers. They mastered the entire process but they didn’t really pay much attention to the vineyards.

Which wines give you great pleasure?
My weakness is Schueller. He’s just stratospheric. Bruno plays on a different league. Every single cuvée he makes is astounding, be it a wine that he’s just released or one that has been cellared. He is already a cult producer, but will people go crazy about his wines? I think so. I have clients who only come here to drink Schueller. We have a large allocation, so right now clients can drink all of his wines. 

Why do you find Schueller so exciting?
His wines, his personality. Bruno pioneered low sulphites at the end of the 1980s. It was financially damaging for him as he lost many clients in France, but he was lucky to get Japan on board and he managed to survive. Some producers make wine out of conviction because they believe in them and that’s important to me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I will like the wines. There’s no accounting for tastes.

Do you read much about wine?
I buy and read wine books, but I encourage people to travel because you get to meet the person who makes the wine, you see the place and you can have your own opinion.

You’ve made it clear in the past that you are not a great fan of wine writers or bloggers. Why is that?
The question is not whether I like or dislike them. Journalists transmit a piece of information and are not necessarily specialists. There are good professionals but other write about wine because they had to, without too much conviction. 
I think we need more people with personality; people who call a spade a spade and defend their point of view. You cannot say that a bottle is extraordinary if you don’t believe it is; if you do, you are betraying yourself. It’s a different story if you are getting paid to say that a wine is good; that’s another matter. 

What would you recommend to someone who wants to get into wine?
Taste and drink lots of wines, take notes, have fun. And let yourself go. Cheap wines —even industrial wines— can be fun. Certain styles of wines are not suitable for everybody; there has to be wine for all tastes. 
The key thing is to be passionate; it’s fine to purchase three bottles of Verdejo, regardless of it being a mass-market wine, and decide whether you like it or not. I encourage people to study, to learn and travel as much as possible but always with passion.

Do you ever take part as a judge in competitions or tasting panels? 
No, I don’t have the time or the interest. I like to taste on my own and reflect on the wines I taste. I never take notes if I’m tasting with a group because there’s always a dominant opinion that influences the rest; in those moments, I just go with the flow. 

What are your main interests now?
Spend time with my family, listen to music and relax and the cultural side of wine. I like to discover why people make wine, their personal stories, their surroundings. I’m really into Eastern Europe now; it’s very different from our Latin world. They behave in a different way to us and I think that’s reflected in their wines.

You signed the Club Matador Manifesto. Do you think the initiative is being effective?
I haven’t really seen many changes. I see small groups of producers who stand up a little against the system but they are too small to change anything. Unfortunately, I see the same paralysis as years ago. Something is moving but only at the small scale; the large mass remains the same. 

What can be done to reverse that situation?
You cannot fight against the system. You and I may have an idea and implement it in a small community but fighting a global system is impossible.

So how do you carry on, then?
You build your own space and surroundings. I just do my own thing. 

How important is wine pairing for you?
It used to be one dish one wine but now I go for versatile wines that go well with the dish. I like wines with zest, wines that adapt well and that’s one of the virtues of wines with low sulphites. I don’t like wines that are static on the nose and the palate; I like wines that move. I’m not interested in dogmas like fish and white wine; I do confess that I was at one point, but not anymore. It’s fine if a diner asks for a pairing with whites or reds only. I don’t go over it or try to convince anybody against that. 

Are young people scared of wine? 
They are when it comes to drinking it. It’s sad because we are one of the largest producers in the world but we scare young people off wine. It’s a real buzz when French people visit La Cigaleña; they drink wine with dinner and they carry on drinking wine on the counter instead of ordering a gin & tonic. We haven’t succeeded in that regard. Perhaps is the style of wine that we have here or our climate; maybe these big-bodied wines are just harder to drink. 

Do you think calimocho (wine & Coca-Cola) or other wine cocktails are a good gateway for young people to get started in the world of wine?
No, no, no. It makes no sense to add a sugary, industrial and poisonous drink to wine. I rather see it as an exit door with the hangovers it provokes; they stop drinking wine for good. Trying to promote wine consumption in this way is baffling. 

What would you suggest to promote wine among the young?
We must remove the barriers that make wine seem as elitist. Young people are curious to discover and learn new things but they won’t drink it if they are told that good wine costs €200; they rather go on a weekend getaway with their partner or friends. 
In our wine list, great wines are priced between €20-€30 but people still think that great wines must be expensive. No, an expensive wine has a history or comes from a region where land prices are high or it might be just pure speculation but there are outstanding wines at moderate prices. It’s really sad to have people ordering super-premium wines to then see that they don’t drink it because they haven’t enjoyed it. 

Do you get punters who come here to taste rather than to drink?
No, we try to encourage people to drink wine. Something is wrong if you don’t finish the wine. Wine is meant to be drunk, to quench your thirst or to enjoy it. That’s it. It’s crazy to come to La Cigaleña to be tense just because you want to taste a lot of wines to take their pictures and send them to your friends. If you do that instead of enjoying the wine, you have a problem.

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