When they made the decision to return to their land at the beginning of the past decade, Beatriz Pérez and Pepe Flórez were well aware of the challenge and difficulties of leaving their careers as researchers to become wine growers and producers in Cangas del Narcea, in Asturias (northern Spain).
With PhDs in physics and chemistry respectively, Pepe still works as a scientific advisor but helps Beatriz in the vineyards and winery every afternoon and at weekends. "As our family hails from here, Cangas wine has always been present in our lives, but we decided that we wanted to delve deeper into the area and make our own wines," explains the couple, who founded Bodega Vidas (the initials of Vino de Asturias and a Spanish word that means lives) in 2012.
With just 50 hectares under vine and seven wineries, Cangas del Narcea is the smallest appellation in Spain and arguably the least known. Unlike the rest of Asturias, cider has never been the dominant local drink in this mountainous area bordering Lugo (Galicia) and León, which is less rainy and sunnier than the rest of the province. There is indeed a winemaking tradition, as old as it is largely forgotten, that dates back to the 9th century, when the first monasteries were founded, and especially to the Benedictine monks who founded the Monastery of San Juan Bautista de Corias —nowadays a Parador Nacional hotel— in the 11th century.
Until well into the 20th century, timber and particularly wine production were the main business activities in Cangas. The town boasted a vine nursery and it was the first region in Spain to have trellised vineyards (since the end of the 19th century, so old vines are trained on wires). However, as Pedro Ballesteros MW explained in this interesting article, the rapid expansion of coal mining from the 1950s onwards and the abandonment of rural areas resulted in the virtual disappearance of the Cangas vineyards, which dropped from 1,500 hectares in 1956 to the current 60.
Nowadays, a handful of producers like Vidas are trying to revive this tradition through hard work and perseverance. The small size of the plots and the orography of the area, with slope gradients of more than 30%, mean that all the work in the vines has to be done by hand. In fact, as Beatriz says, clad in hiking boots whenever she heads up to the vineyards, Cangas del Narcea is acknowledged with the international seal of Heroic Viticulture. In addition to the physical difficulties, the producers also have to compete with birds and wild boars, who claim their share of the crops. "In that old vineyard," says Beatriz, pointing to the opposite slope, "I packed 30 boxes for the harvest but I only filled six."
Beatriz, who was president of the Vino de Cangas appellation from 2016 to mid-2019, farms 16 plots with her husband distributed over five hectares of old leased vineyards and one of their own in the vicinity of Cangas del Narcea. Although the appellation authorises up to 15 varieties, including some foreign ones such as Syrah or Gewürztraminer that were already planted when the DO was founded in 2008, Vidas only works with four native grapes —Albarín Blanco (Blanco Lexítimo), Albarín Negro (Baboso), Carrasquín and Verdejo Negro (Trousseau). They also grow some Mencía, a variety which, as Beatriz says, "is not completely adapted and doesn't ripen well" but which was planted in the past due to the proximity to Bierzo, which is only 120km away.
In Castro de Limés, a hamlet to the south-east of Cangas, Beatriz and Pepe rent three plots with a field blend of varieties on an open slope with slate soils and steep slopes. The new vines are planted on terraces, but here, in the Cabanés formal (the local word for a site), there are no such luxuries and strong knees and legs are needed to withstand a day of pruning, treatments or harvesting. Beatriz doesn't really know the age of the vineyards but she says that at almost 80 years old, Mateo, one of the owners, always tells them that when he was a child he used to walk up to this vineyard with his grandfather.
On the opposite slope, across the river Naviego, they tend the Vila de Moral vineyard, in the village of the same name. Like the plots in Cabanés, it is on a slope with no terraces but Beatriz confesses that she is particularly fond of Moral. "It is surrounded by forests and prairies. During the summer the temperature in Cangas can easily reach 35ºC, but there is always a breeze in Moral.”
It also was their very first vineyard, initially buying the grapes and then leasing the property. "When we first started, nobody wanted to rent out their vineyards to us. We are now contacted by a lot of people, mostly local elders, because they can't handle all the land by themselves," adds Pepe. Although neither of them wants this legacy to be abandoned, they cannot take care of so many vineyards. "As all the tasks are performed by hand, working the vine here is very time-consuming, so we only keep the ones we like best. Even so, sometimes it doesn't pay off financially," says the couple, who farm without herbicides and try to apply only organic treatments once the vines have flowered.
As they work mainly with old vines, the varieties are mixed, so they harvest at different stages based on the grapes' maturity, but the first ones are always the Albarín Blanco and Verdejo Negro, a variety that must be picked at the right time to retain its acidity. Late ripening Carrasquín is usually picked a month later. The latter, together with Albarín Negro, are the most common varieties found in the Vidas vineyards.
Vidas is one of the first bodegas to harvest the grapes in Cangas, an area generally more inspired by Ribera del Duero or Rioja than Galicia or Bierzo, but the 2020 vintage will be remembered not only for the pandemic, but also as one of the earliest and shortest in the region's recent history. "We started on 14 September and finished on 1 October," explains Beatriz. "It was an odd year in every way. All the varieties matured early and very quickly on the last stage and the acidity of the wines, which is usually around 7g/l, has not exceeded 5 g/l.”
When they first started in 2012, Beatriz and Pepe decided to make their wines by variety in order to understand their qualities and behaviour in their different plots and orientations. After seven harvests, in 2020 they finally decided to make their first single vineyard wine but an accident forced them to postpone the idea for the next harvest. "It was almost the end of the harvest. We were about to leave the vineyard for the winery with 1,500 kg of grapes loaded in boxes, but suddenly the tractor flipped upside down the slope. Luckily the lad who helps us in the vineyards, who was driving the tractor at that moment, had the reflexes to jump out of the cockpit and he was fine," says a relieved Beatriz. "The grapes, however, were lost."
For now Vidas, which are advised by winemaker Luis Buitrón, has two ranges featuring eight wines totalling some 20,000 bottles. Siete Vidas includes two young wines —an Albarín Blanco and a red wine made from a blend of native varieties and Mencía, a blend known in the area as mezcla canguesa— as well as Siete Vidas Roble, which blends Albarín Negro, Carrasquín and Verdejo Negro, fermented and aged in a 3,000-litre French oak vat. The red Viva la Vida, on the other hand, is a mezcla canguesa that is aged for 10 months in a 500 litre barrel.
In honour of the local Cangas anthem Vidas has the Cien Montañas range, with four wines that seek to showcase the region's indigenous varieties. The Cien Montañas Albarín Negro is a fresh red with firm but fine tannins; the Carrasquín offers structure and volume, and the third red is a Verdejo Negro whose first vintage was 2016. The only white is a Albarín Blanco aged on its lees in barrels. Only 600 bottles of the white wine are produced —Cangas is an eminently red wine area— but soon they hope to have more grapes from the one hectare of vineyard they planted at 600 meters in Santana, where the Flórez family has its home. The reds are fermented in open barrels, partly with stems, and in the case of Carrasquín, the most distinctive and structured variety, it is fermented in large oak vats. None of Vidas' wines cost more than €20, and except for a couple of importers in the UK and California, the wines are mainly sold in Spain.
Focused as they are on the vineyard, the winery where they work right now is a rented warehouse on the basement of El Carrascal bar in Oubanca, on the hillside opposite Cangas. If things go well, their idea is to build their own bodega in Santana, next to the new white plot. For now, they are happy to take it slowly but surely and do their bit in a territory where they believe there is great potential. "It would be a turning point if a established producer decided to settle here and make terroir-focused wines," confesses Beatriz, who regrets that the plan for Raúl Pérez to make wine in partnership with a local winery, now outside the appellation, failed to materialise a few years ago. "Someone with his talent and charisma would help us a great deal to bring notoriety to the area”.