I met Fernando Mora at several tastings at the end of 2015. He was a young, enthusiastic man who was making wine in Valdejalón, an obscure IGT in Aragón that lies just in the middle of the triangle drawn by three larger appellations: Campo de Borja, Calatayud and Cariñena. Mora, who had recently started his Master of Wine studies, was eager to learn more and move forward as a wine producer.
Although wine is a slow business, the restless, almost hyperactive Fernando Mora MW (1982 vintage) and his partners at Frontonio, winemaker Mario López (1978) and lawyer Francisco Latasa (1982), have worked at a frantic pace over the past six years. There is a clear correlation between this rapid progression and the “learning roller coaster” that led Mora to obtain his Master of Wine degree in just two years after passing all the exams on the first attempt.
In February 2016 I visited Frontonio in Épila, some 30 kilometres west of Zaragoza. Wines were being produced in a modest winery owned by Mario López's parents; his mother used to sell -and still does- bulk wine in a small shop at the entrance of the cellar.
Fernando met Mario at a tasting in 2008. He liked his wines and tried to buy some grapes from him to have a go at fermenting the fruit in his home’s bathtub. For his part Mario, who at the time worked as winemaker for Bodegas Borsao in Campo de Borja, suggested Fernando joined him at his parents’ property and Latidos de Vino was born. The following year, Francisco Latasa, a business lawyer willing to specialize in international trade, attended a presentation of the wines and offered to introduce them in foreign markets. In 2013 the three of them got together to set up Bodegas Frontonio. In Latasa's words, “all previous experiences were a useful trial and error process since none of us lived off making wine.”
The most interesting samples I tasted that day were either in tanks or barrels. Most of them were juicy, expressive Garnachas in need of further ageing but you could see that they had benefited from some changes in the winemaking process -now large open fermentation vats and concrete tanks for malolactic fermentation and ageing were being used.
The trio also showed me the new labels they were working on (see the slider above to notice the significative changes). The former Frontonio label had a sort of naif, almost gothic style and had been named after Épila’s patron saint. Legend has it that St. Frontonio was beheaded by the Romans and his head thrown into the river Ebro, yet it appeared upstream. Going against the current was a particularly inspiring idea for the energetic trio.
Mario López believes that the profound knowledge of the wines of the world acquired by Fernando during his Master of Wine studies has allowed them to adjust the style of their wines. “We had to go beyond the dominant trend of ripe, alcoholic and powerful reds in Campo de Borja,” he explains. “We wanted to make fresher wines, with less extraction, less oak and lighter in colour.”
Totalling around 500Ha, average elevation in the little known Valdejalón IGP is lower than in Campo de Borja, but given its proximity to the Iberian System it has its own share of old goblet-trained Garnacha grown on hilly areas. The motto in Cuevas de Arom, the project started by this young trio in Campo de Borja in the 2015 harvest, is “high elevation Garnachas aged underground”. They evoke the tradition of ageing in caves while adopting a refined style in sharp contrast with the powerful Garnachas usually found in the area.
Today, most of the work in the vineyard is aimed at anticipating the harvesting. They try to delay the cycle by pruning late and shading the bunches during the ripening stage. Bush vines are green-pruned to clear the central area of the canopy whereas new plantings are trained on vertical stakes. “We started to farm some plots organically in 2018 but all the vineyards will be organic by the end of 2019 in order to obtain the certification in 2021,” Mario López explains.
“Once picked, grapes spend a couple of days in cooling chambers, devatting is made immediately after the end of fermentation and we are reducing pumping in favour of punch downs,” he adds. Varying amounts of stems are usually added during fermentation and temperatures are kept at relatively low levels, between 22ºC and 24ºC, in order to preserve the aromas.
Past experiences are proving highly useful at El Jardín de las Iguales, Frontonio’s new single vineyard in Aragón. According to the three partners, this is a truly outstanding terroir which they discover as recently as 2016.
It is located in Alpartir, a village in the right bank of the Jalón river with vineyards stretching across the hills of Sierra de Algairén just in the border between the Valdejalón IGP and the DO Cariñena. The area is full of meaningful signs: the virtually derelict monastery of San Cristóbal, ancient silver mines (mining is always linked to distinctive soils and according to Mora, “a crack in the mountain caused an interesting mix of slate and clay in the soil”) and a long-standing winemaking tradition with locals making their own wines in the village’s old bodega district.
Even more interesting for Fernando is the compass-like shape of the mountains which naturally protect some vineyards from the sun. “We needed high altitude and a different exposure to progress in our goal of making great Garnachas,” he says. In Alpartir, Fernando says, ripeness is kept under check, they have a wealth of aromas (herbal and citrus notes) and finer tannins with pH levels around 3.3.
They own 10Ha of old vines in the village including a plot planted with Garnacha Peluda (downy Garnacha) and also some plants of Vidadillo, an indigenous variety that they like to call wild Garnacha. But their Grand Cru is El Jardín de las Iguales, a remote, rugged, isolated vineyard tucked in the mountains. Its two hectares include a very old Macabeo planted around 1890 and some very old vine Garnacha.
Located at an elevation of 700 metres, most vines face northeast and avoid the afternoon heat as the sun sets behind the mountains. Two wines, a red and a white, will be released by the end of the year under the name El Jardín de las Iguales. While the Macabeo has an amazing depth, the red Garnacha is perfumed and shows a particularly vibrant palate.
A huge amount of work has been done to recover this place. Five new hectares have been planted partly with plant material from the old vines, partly with a multiclonal selection of 240 biotypes of red, grey and white Garnacha. The area with the greatest solar exposure will be destined for Cariñena. Traditional stone walls have been painstakingly restored and a large stone cross has been erected to mark the magic of the place.
A winery featuring old underground cellars is being revamped and restored in Alpartir where they expect to bring in the grapes of the 2019 harvest and make their wines. Frontonio’s mid- and high-end range starting from Microcósmico will be made here too.
Francisco Latasa must be credited for the speed and skill of their settling in the area. As a lawyer, he helped to solve inheritance issues so that vineyards and land could be bought from their rightful owners. He sought funds, requested planting rights and asked for permissions to clear land.
Fernando Mora MW often talks about how hard it was to get Frontonio started. He and his business partners knew very little at the time but learnt a great deal during the whole process. For Mario López, the key to their rapid progression resides in “the team and the fact that each of us has a different task and we don't step on each other’s responsibilities.” Francisco adds that all of them have different profiles and their own networks and contacts.
The Master of Wine studies included many trips to wine-growing areas that inspired Mora to follow his own path. “I basically understood that special wines come from special vineyards,” he explains. Now he knows that his message has to be powerful: unique vineyards, old vines, high-altitude areas and a distinctive style.
“My generation must prove that Spain is much more than cheap wine,” he says vehemently. Mora also told SWL who in the wine sector has left a strong mark on him and what he has learnt from each of them.
María José López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia (Rioja). “She taught me that beyond winemaking, tradition and culture must also be part of any wine project.”
Álvaro Palacios (Priorat, Bierzo, Rioja). “He helped me to understand the importance of specific facts, the permanent search for excellence in the best sites and also to revive the pride of the people in their land and their wines.”
Ricard Rofes, Scala Dei (Priorat). “Both of us share a passion for Garnacha. I did a harvest at Scala Dei and learnt how to fine-tune my work with this grape variety.” Rofes also made Fernando taste his first Château Rayas thus making him discover that “a fine, precise, energetic Garnacha could be made.”
Marcelo Retamal (Chile). “From him I learnt the right time to pick grapes.”
Giuseppe Rinaldi (Barolo, Italia). “He used to say that wines don’t age, they just refine themselves. It made me think that we should make fine wines instead of old wines.”
Josep Pitu Roca, Celler de Can Roca. “Pitu told me that El Jardín de las Iguales was a really outstanding vineyard and advised us not to rush”.
It might be too early to know whether Fernando Mora MW will be the new Álvaro Palacios of Spanish wine, but what we are certain of is that both of them share their love for Garnacha and for unique vineyards.