Barely a drop in the ocean of wine of Castilla-La Mancha, Bodegas Gratias nevertheless stands out as a contemporary, 21st century wine business model for the originality of the wines, their commitment to indigenous grapes and effective crowdfunding campaigns to rescue old vineyards from being uprooted.
Behind Gratias are two husband-and-wife couples of agronomists: Ana and Iván, and José and Silvia. Ana and José are also siblings. They all live in Valencia and have additional training in oenology except for the ever-smiling Silvia, who is in charge of social media and wine tourism.
Ana and Iván, in fact, have extensive experience as winemakers and consultants in southeast Spain and doing harvests in Chile. Iván fell in love with wine during the three years he worked for Pepe Mendoza in Alicante; he later joined Celler del Roure, a leading producer in Valencia. Ana experienced her very own wine epiphany in Capçanes (Priorat), worked at Heretat de Taverners in Valencia and finally set up her own wine consultancy working with clients like Lavia in Bullas or the Moixent cooperative in Valencia.
Gratias wines are sold without geographic designations, yet grapes are sourced from Manchuela, a region nestled between the Júcar and Cabriel rivers, in the eastern end of Castilla-La Mancha. Iván has family ties with the area. His father inherited a tiny Bobal vineyard in the village of Alborea which was the birth in 2009 of the first Gratias wine. Other neighbouring vineyards were progressively added as the two couples found working space in wineries owned by friends in Fontanars and Utiel, in Valencia. By 2015, they were producing around 8,000 bottles but Ana and Iván still devoted 80% of their time to wine consultancy. At this point, they decided to change their work load and focus on the development of Gratias.
Now they have a place for themselves in an industrial estate in Casas Ibáñez (Albacete), next door to a carpentry workshop and opposite a livestock feed plant. Although by no means a cosy place, they have managed to create a welcoming atmosphere at the entrance thanks to the colourful wine labels and the paper flowers made by Ana's mother. The bodega consists of a single building where stainless steel tanks stand side by side with plastic vats, barrels, vats of different sizes and a tasting area. Wine tours, now limited by the pandemic, include tastings and outdoor picnics aimed at wine enthusiasts as well as visitors who travel to the area to practice adventure sports in Hoces del Cabriel Natural Park nearby.
The Cabriel river, which forms a natural border with the region of Valencia, shapes the landscape into two distinct parts. The high plateau, at some 800 metres above sea level, fits the traditional idea of Manchuela as an elevated area. The depression created by the river, where altitude drops sharply down to 400 metres, features smaller plots adapted to a rugged terrain. Here, in Villatoya, conditions are ideal for late ripening grapes like Tardana. Given the age and state of abandon of some vineyards, recovery includes grafting cuttings into the American rootstocks whose roots have already colonised the soil.
According to Iván, the river connects rather than divides, especially as far as varieties and soils are concerned. “The area is mostly clay-limestone, but limestone soils are dominant in the proximity of the river; as you move further away, the soils turn reddish, with a higher iron content,” he points out.
Used in the past to produce Mistela and known also as Planta Nova, Tardana is a neutral variety with restrained aromas. Its main appeal in the past had to do with its dual nature as wine and table grape. Growers picked Tardana in late November or even early December and made a profit selling it as table grape at a time when Moscatel was not available in the market. However, the risk of frost, the effects of the cold drop (heavy rains) from Levante and the loss of the table grape market meant Tardana lost ground against Macabeo.
Gratias has managed to farm four out of five Tardana old vineyards remaining in Villatoya —two are owned by them, the others rented. They also rent a three-hectare vineyard in the plateau, a cooler area where reaching full ripeness is challenging so they make a pet-nat with these grapes. Two more Tardana wines are produced from plots located on the lower area close to the river. Sol (8,000 bottles, €9, the first vintage was 2013) captures the expression of a limestone soil: it’s all about stones and chalk. Grapes for Terra (€20) are sourced from Los Bancales, a sun-drenched plot that is less exposed to fog and is usually harvested one or to weeks later, provided it survives the voracious appetite of the goats. The skins’ aromas are greater when they get fully ripe grapes, a fact that is reinforced by skin-contact fermentation in clay vessel —this is an orange wine proper. At Gratias, they have undoubtedly made the most of Tardana, managing to obtain a diverse range of styles.
The plateau is the natural habitat of Bobal, the dominant red variety in Manchuela. Dotted with small hills and undulations, the orography is more favourable to trellising and mechanisation. However, Gratias is focused on goblet-trained vineyards.
The Bobal vineyard that was the seed for Gratias is still vinified separately under the name Soy. It is part of a range they call "singular wines”: very limited quantities of wines without added sulphites and symbols (infinite, in this case) instead of labels. The site’s deep, ferrous soils result in a ripe, earthy, yet finely textured red. Fermented in plastic vats, the wine later undergoes malolactic fermentation and six months of ageing in seasoned oak.
Two new wines were added to this range in the 2019 vintage: a carbonic maceration Macabeo and a very interesting Bobal from sandy soils called Arenas (sands in Spanish) and featuring the letter “A” on the bottle. It’s an unusual Bobal, completely opposite to Soy despite both having the same alcohol content (14.5% abv.). Arenas is a medium-bodied, almost aerial red with fine tannins, lovely juicy acidity and with a savoury finish.
Other Bobal wines include Got (6,000 bottles), a fruit-driven red aged in tinaja and a rosé briefly aged in oak. Another original approach to the variety is a fresh, fruity, lively pet-nat, which is both delicious and easy to drink (we love bubblies made from tannic grapes like Bobal or Sumoll). Lastly, Tinaja Bobal, aged in clay jars and with no added sulphites, is surprisingly herbal (thyme, rosemary, liquorice) and exotic.
According to Ana, uncoated, porous clay vessels work very well with Bobal, as this variety benefits from some extra oxygenation. In terms of whites, it is best adapted to skin-contact orange wines like Tierra. In the case of Sol, clay is used very briefly to finish fermentation and to achieve a slight micro-oxygenation.
In 2016, the Gratias team came up with an idea to save an old vineyard from being uprooted: they would launch a crowdfunding campaign. Owned by Pepe, one of the growers they work with, the property had around 20 different grape varieties, including the Pintaíllo plants that Gratias had used to make a few hundred bottles of their Arroba red wine.
The initiative, which worked surprisingly well and gave them exposure on social media, resulted in a red wine called ¿Y tú de quién eres? that is made in a very traditional way. Plastic fermentation vats are taken to the vineyard itself, where they tread a first layer of grapes to release the must that triggers fermentation and add the rest of the whole bunches. "It's the wine that used to be made in the old days in most villages in this area", Ana points out. A honest wine with all its rusticity.
¿Y tú de quién eres? is now in its fifth edition —in the 2020 vintage, five vineyards were blended. Bobal, which makes up 60% of the blend, is usually taken as the reference to decide when to harvest, although ensuring that white grapes are healthy is also important. The range was subsequently expanded with a white sold under the same brand.
The most exciting side effect of having been able to preserve these old vineyards is that this year the Gratias team has selected some pruning wood to plant a small plot of Pintaíllo as a means to continue with its recovery. Easily recognisable thanks to its mottled skin (the meaning of this variety in Spanish), Pintaíllo ripens later than Bobal, produces a light coloured wine with good acidity, light structure and abundant herbal aromas. These features are in line with the current trend towards light, but expressive, aromatic reds.
The pandemic has disrupted Gratias's plans to identify the plant material in these old vineyards, but they expect to resume this work shortly. Some of their wines will also soon be organically certified.
At Gratias, 50,000 bottles are enough to offer great diversity. The bulk of the wines (80%) are sold abroad with the US, UK and Brazil as leading markets. In Spain, distribution is largely reduced to the southeast, although the wines can also be found in Catalonia and in Madrid at Reserva y Cata wine store.