About to start his 26th harvest, Pepe Mendoza has a few clear ideas: “We have been told that our wines should smell of figs and black olives, but that is just a style and not the real expression of our terroir and grape varieties.”
He recalls the words of Jorge Ordóñez, a staunch advocate of ultra ripe Mediterranean reds, at the last Monastrell conference which took place in Alicante. Ordóñez said that he had never tried a good Monastrell below 15% vol.
Pepe feels like he has been “fighting against the stigma of warm, heavy wines for 25 years. People expect to find heavy, alcoholic, overripe reds in our region, but it is important to understand that when cooperatives pick all the grapes together, most of the nuances are lost and overripeness takes over. But if you harvest at the right time, select your grapes and protect the fruit, the outcome is very different,” he explains.
He has been proving his point for quite some time at E. Mendoza, the family winery founded by his father in the 1980s. The house’s reputation was built on international blends with some indigenous varieties added in, but Monastrell has gained ground in recent years, particularly in the lovely single-vineyard reds Estrecho and Las Quebradas. However, all procedures must be perfectly in place at a wine company producing around 800,000 to 900,000 bottles per year, 60% of which are exported to 30 different countries. There is not much room left for dreaming.
This is why the size and the approach of Casa Agrícola, Pepe’s new project in Alicante, is very different: “I wanted to make premium wines with a delicate, low-intervention approach using some whole bunches and taking some risks. These wines are destined to consumers who do not panic if they find sediments or slightly cloudy wines,” he explains. The project, which started with 60,000 bottles, is not meant to go beyond 80,000 bottles.
In the end, Casa Agrícola is the result of Pepe’s ample experience and self-confidence combined with a serene and sensible reflection about the wines of Alicante and the Mediterranean. For his most personal project to date, Pepe has partnered with his wife Pepa, who handles the admin. They both hope to eventually pass the baton to their children Andrea, 19, who studies tourism; Ana, 14, "the artist of the house”, according to her father, and Pepe, 10, who often goes with Pepe to the vineyards and the winery. Accordingly, the company’s logo was jointly approved by the whole family. Although Ana initially voted for her hamster, it was Lola, the family’s female teckel, who became the image of this intimate project.
Casa Agrícola has a strong focus on local and Mediterranean grape varieties (Syrah is part of one of the blends) sourced from their own vineyards (only 5% of the grapes are bought). They lie mostly in the inner Alto Vinalopó region near Villena, where they grow 10 hectares of Monastrell, Syrah and Macabeo; and the sea-influenced Marina Alta, where the dominant grapes are Moscatel and Giró (this one has traditionally been considered to be the same as Garnacha but some producers now claim that it might be a particular clon or an altogether new variety).
In his late forties, Pepe enjoys making wine in the most simple, make-up free, natural fashion. He uses small vats where he infuses the skins in the must with his own hands, but he also loves to work neatly and rejects flaws. Protecting the wines after fermentation is a permanent concern. “In order to preserve the fruit I refill barrels every 10 days from November to May; then I leave them untouched to prevent any contact with oxygen. When temperature increases, wines become more reactive,” he points out.
The range of wines is already defined. It starts with two entry-level wines offering terrific value which Pepe refers to as “landscape wines”. The white (21,000 bottles, €11.5 in Spain) blends Macabeo and Airén from Alto Vinalopó with Moscatel from Marina Alta, whereas the red (30,000 bottles, €11,5) includes 80% Monastrell and equal parts of Syrah and Garnacha Tintorera (aka Alicante Bouschet), all grown in Alto Vinalopó. Next comes Pureza (4,000 bottles, around €16 in Spain), kept in contact with the Moscatel skins for six days and fermented in amphorae. Made in a delicate way, the skins nuance the grape’s intrusive aromas and the wine feels deep and complex (citrus and herbal notes with orange blossom water).
El Veneno (€29), the first single-vineyard wine in the range, was first released in the 2017 vintage. Grapes are sourced from the highest plot in a vineyard with eight hectares in Alto Vinalopó. Mendoza claims it is “the freshest Monastrell ever made in Spain” but what stroke me most was the purity and clarity of the style which felt indisputably Mediterranean. “We used to arm the wines with structure; now we use freshness. Where there is fruit, there is life,” Pepe concludes.
There is a second single-vineyard red made with Giró (4,000 bottles) set to debut in the 2018 vintage. Grapes are sourced from Abargues, a vineyard located in the village of Llíber, in the heart of the Xaló (also known as Pop valley).
The estate has its own winemaking facilities, which are being refurbished right now and two riuraus or constructions built to dry and protect raisins from rain and humidity. The oldest one has traditional arches to improve ventilation with different inscriptions on them, some of which seem to be written with Arabic letters. All these buildings were abandoned after phylloxera and the crash of the raisins market, but they are still part of the landscape in this Mediterranean region.
Abargues is one of the biggest properties remaining in an area under intense urban development pressure. Locally known as “La Viña” (the vineyard), vines were consecutively planted in 1923, 1940 and 1960. Pepe discovered it two years ago, bought it and is already adapting it to organic farming. He has also set up a small farming school with the help of the local authorities in Llíber so that grape growers in the valley can learn about sustainability and share information about trunk diseases.
The Giró or Gironet grape which is described as Garnacha by the Consejo Regulador, is fully adapted to this area. Given that it was traditionally used by farmers to make their own wine, Giró has survived what Pepe Mendoza calls “Alicante’s two major monopolies”: Monastrell and Moscatel. While Monastrell relegated other indigenous varieties like Planta Fina, Merseguera, Forcayat or Verdil in the Alto Vinalopó, Moscatel has traditionally been the dominant grape in the Marina Alta region.
Compared with Garnacha, Giró displays a distinctive meaty character over a wild, herbal background. Mendoza associates the grape’s remarkable structure on the palate to the high concentration of stones found on his reddish soils made up from oxidated sand. As in most of his reds, fermentation includes around 30% of whole bunches and alcohol is kept below 14% vol.
Pequeñas Producciones (small productions) is the name of his experimental range. “I allow myself to make mistakes and explore with total freedom; although production is limited to 1,000 or 2,000 bottles, I want to release them onto the market to see how they develop,” Pepe explains. These wines, therefore, will not be produced on a regular basis.
As an example, he works with yeasts that are usually kept under control. “Apiculates for instance usually result in high levels of volatile acidity, but they can also add other nuances,” he explains. From his point of view, “Alicante is rich in bold yeasts, used as they are to convert high levels of sugar into alcohol; and the best example is our historic sweet wine Fondillón.”
So far he has made a rosé set to be released later this year. The Ser-roSé Clásico 2016 (1,500 bottles, €24) comes from bleeding a 10,000-litre vat and then ageing the wine in 225-litre Allier oak barrels for 14 months. The lovely, subtle nose displays dried flowers, orange zest, thyme and spicy aromas followed by a savoury palate marked by the limestone soils. There is also a white blend of Macabeo, Merseguera and a small amount of Moscatel aged in amphorae under flor (€16). The flor character is really subtle; there’s more citrus fruit and herbal tea with a similar savoury palate with an earthy finish.
Casa Agrícola’s greatest contribution is their quest to prove that a different style of Mediterranean wines can be produced; wines which can be fully true to their origin without being overripe. After all, are not thyme, dried herbs and citrus fruit distinctive features of the landscape in Alicante? Secondly, the project proves that fresh wines can also be made in a context of climate change.
“Our grape varieties have fully adapted to our current climate,” says Pepe Mendoza. “Suffering is part of their DNA. In fact they have changed the way they get their water; they are not necessarily using roots; instead, they have learnt to get dew from the epidermis by developing a hairy texture on the underside of their leaves. Growing practices can also help: low density allows plants to have large root systems. In 2011 and 2013 our vines withstood 11 months of drought. Where else does this happen?”t