The Gutiérrez de la Vega family have never adopted the easy way. In spite of being a benchmark for sweet wine production in Spain, the impact of these wines is rather modest. Their unique dry Moscatel whites, a style they also pioneered, deserve greater recognition, as much as the recovery of Giró, an indigenous red variety.
Once Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega and his wife Pilar settled down in the 1970s in Jávea, a coastal Mediterranean village in Alicante, they fully embraced local traditions and the surrounding landscape. Wine comes first, but they also produce olive oil, vinegar and make their own bread. Their legacy is now in the hands of daughters Violeta, a Bordeaux-trained winemaker (she also runs her own project, Curii, with her partner Alberto Redrado, sommelier at L’Escaleta restaurant) and Clara, who takes care of administrative tasks. Striking as it may be, there are no external employees; all the work is done by family members. This can be explained to a large extent by the absence of owned vineyards except for half a hectare which Felipe, 76, still grows himself.
This iconoclastic producer has made good use of his love of music, art and literature to name his wines after several classical pieces. The best way to understand the family's philosophy is to visit the winery in Parcent, a village in the Xaló valley inland, or to enjoy a retrospective tasting like the one we had the chance to attend last Friday at L'Escaleta restaurant in Cocentaina. This was one of the highlights of the second edition of La Odisea, an event focused on Mediterranean wines.
“This is not a vertical tasting, but a tasting of old wines,” Gutiérrez de la Vega explained before we embarked on an extraordinary flight of library wines charting his vinous quests and achievements.
The selection included a dry Moscatel from the 1990s, skin-contact wines, a red wine made with Giró in the 1970s and his particular take on local sweet reds which differs from the fondillón described by the Regulatory Board. This disagreement eventually led to his departure from the Regulatory Board of DO Alicante in 2010. He sees himself as an unorthodox producer. “I don't belong to any school; I make wine by intuition,” he said.
The idea of a fun, “back to front” tasting was inspired by Lewis Carrol’s Alice through the looking glass (“the mirror reflects the reverse of what we are”) and how we see ourselves and the way we are seen by the others as time goes by.
The tasting started with different styles of dry Moscatel to show the diversity of this grape variety, such as a 25-year old white, a barrel-fermented wine and a fortified blend of several vintages. This producer has in fact explored all possible ways with Moscatel: unoaked, oaked, skin-contact and aged under flor.
In 1987 Gutiérrez de la Vega launched the young Moscatel Casta Diva Cosecha Dorada (the name is a tribute to the aria from the opera Norma). It was a fresh, straightforward wine sourced from grapes with bright acidity grown near the sea. Predictably lean, the 1995 vintage still retained the evocative aromas of Mediterranean herbs (lavender).
The barrel-fermented Casta Diva Monte Diva 2011 did not show the slightest hint of tiredness. In fact, it did just the opposite as it challenged preconceived ideas in terms of delicate, aromatic grape varieties seeing oak. All the ingredients that were absent in the previous wine were beautifully present here. A complex nose showing great depth (spices, Mediterranean herbs) was followed by a savoury, firm palate with superb acidity. Readers wanting to buy this wine now should be aware that it is now a skin-contact white dominated by lush herbal aromas.
The third wine, named Tío Raimundo Edición Especial, was a dry Moscatel blend of three vintages (96, 97, 99). The bottles were opened, their contents blended and then aged in barrel for four years awaiting the development of a veil of yeasts (flor). As the veil failed to appear, alcohol was added up to 17% abv. In the glass, it displayed some oxidative notes plus orange blossom, spices (vanilla), pudding and candied fruit aromas. The dry, sapid palate ended on a creamy, comforting finish. Pretty impressive and distinctive, it would be interesting to taste it blind against other fortified wines with similar alcohol content. In contrast, the standard Tío Raimundo is a 100% Moscatel aged under flor for one year and a half and 15% abv. Unlike other Gutiérrez de la Vega wines, all bearing artistic names, Tío Raimundo is a tribute to the uncle of Felipe’s wife (tío means uncle in Spanish).
Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega's love for sweet Moscatel is also a crusade against Mistela, the industrial, uninteresting mixture of unfermented grape juice and alcohol. He feels that his main contribution to the region’s sweet wines was the introduction of partial fermentations arrested with alcohol (this is technically a “vin doux naturel”). “Once Moscatel starts to ferment, it is really difficult to stop it,” he admitted.
In 1981, he made his first sweet Moscatel. It was called Viña Miel, but the name quickly changed to Casta Diva Cosecha Miel. This is probably his best-known wine -it was served at the wedding of King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain in 2004. Made with overripe grapes grown on white, fresh soils, Cosecha Miel develops beautifully over time. It gains complexity on the nose and the texture becomes smoother and velvety. We tasted a 1994 vintage with honey, candied fruit and cinnamon notes and a younger 2002 with peach, toasted aromas. The sugar content in both of them was around 160 grams per litre.
A step up, Casta Diva Cosecha Real comes from a Solera started in 2002 after he set aside three barrels of the wine served at the royal wedding. Only six sacas have been drawn out so far. The wine we tasted from the sixth saca was complex, concentrated and very long, marked by a delicious almond character.
The third wine had a character of its own. Casta Diva La Diva 2003 is a late-harvest Moscatel made with dehydrated grapes and some raisined grown on red clay soils. They work with whole clusters since the late 1990s. Despite its ripeness, the wine is strikingly fresh (a sort of herbal explosion combined with petrol notes) and feels less sweet. There is a clear aromatic connection between this wine and the dry Casta Diva Monte Diva which is made as a skin-contact white since the 2014 vintage.
Red wines have changed over time, often due to the loss or switch of purveyors. Felipe acknowledges that the high cost of storing bottles meant that reds were usually released well ahead of their optimal drinking dates, hence they went unnoticed compared with the whites and sweet ranges. Current production (including sweet wines) stands at 60% for whites, 40% for reds.
Despite working regularly with Monastrell, the current star is Giró with daughter Violeta favouring a less-structured approach. DNA analysis has confirmed that Giró is not Garnacha, even though both of them are planted together and are often mistaken. “Giró is an early ripening variety with distinctive indentations in the leaves which do not appear in Garnacha,” Felipe explained. In the Marina Alta region, Giró is planted at sea level up to an elevation of 600 metres in Sierra de Bernia.
We started with Príncipe de Salinas 2010 (a tribute to the main character in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard), a Monastrell displaying meaty and leathery aromas against a background of dark fruit reminiscent of Mourvedre from Bandol in French Provence. Polished tannins created a smooth texture on the palate. Grapes for this wine were sourced from an old, ungrafted vineyard in Sierra de Salinas, a favourite area for Monastrell for Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega, which was eventually uprooted.
Giró ages in a completely different way. As Rojo y Negro 1987 (a tribute to Stendhal) showed, the style was closer to Burgundy and Rioja: subtle, silky, less structured and with plenty of vanilla aromas. Grapes for this wine were sourced from red clay, stony soils in the Xaló valley. It was fermented in concrete vats and aged for two years in oak barrels. On the label it reads “Reserva de Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega”. A younger fresher Giró, Imagine 2011 (a nod to John Lennon’s famous song) had leather and licorice aromas but was also elegant and smooth. Grapes for this wine were sourced from limestone soils on a mountain area.
“In 1969, I was a lieutenant on the ship Juan de la Cosa travelling from Cape Gata to Cape Huertas, near Alicante. There I met an Irish navy inspector called O'Connor. His family had a villa in Alicante where they made a famous wine.” Thus, Felipe Gutiérrez recalls his first contact with a “dense, black sweet wine but fresh and not too alcoholic which they called Alicante or Gran Alicante.”
Since then he has tried to replicate what he tasted, but he usually finds that his wines lack density. He has come to the conclusion that the key was the very old Soleras owned by families like the O’Connor or the Maisonave, some of which ended up in Jerez. In this article, published in Spanish on the Vila Viniteca blog, Gutiérrez provides historical evidence to prove the difference between the traditonal Alicante he is trying to recover and the Fondillón made in inland villages which is the style endorsed by the DO.
Gutiérrez de la Vega's sweet reds are also unfortified Monastrell wines, but show deeper colour, more density, higher sugar content and lower alcohol than Fondillón as described by the Regulatory Board. He tries to pick raisined grapes and often favours grapes being dehydrated on covered facilities. In his opinion, the biggest challenge is to balance alcohol, sugar and acidity so that the wine “is not as alcoholic as Port, as bitter as Valpolicella or as sweet as Monastrell”. He prefers to have wine rather than spirit in his glass.
The Recóndita Armonía brand includes two sweet red wines. A vintage wine in the style of Port LBV (late bottled vintage) and a Solera. The first one is aged in Bordelaise barrels in a six-metre-high cellar carved in the rock at a constant temperature of 14-15ºC. He started the Solera when his children were born; the first one was Felipe in 1978, who does not work in the winery; then came Violeta and Clara. The barrels, marked with their names and dates of birth, include now two granddaughters (see photo above). These wines are stored at ground level, thus are exposed to temperature variations ranging from 10 ºC to 25ºC, resulting in an oxidative style.
We compared a 1991 aged for 10 years in barrel with a sample from the 1978 Solera. The first one was velvety-textured and nicely balanced showing the distinctive, Mediterranean character of Monastrell (salty notes, black olives, prunes). The second was far more complex (nutmeg, caramel, dried fruits) and concentrated, yet elegant and harmonious. Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega acknowledged that his dream Alicante would be halfway between the two of them: “the character of 1991 with the density of the Solera.”