A great part of our job, maybe the best part, is going out into the fields and taking a look at the vineyards. There is something special about heading into the countryside, smelling the soil, looking at the clear blue sky and walking through the vines. It doesn't matter what time of year, whether it's the lush green during the summer when the grape bunches are growing, the beautiful changing colours of autumn or the bare gnarly trunks and branches during the winter months...the ever changing vines will always surprise you.
After visiting a number of vineyards we have become increasingly aware of the differences in the way the vines look, the way they are planted and the various treatments that are applied to solve the problems that the seasons bring (such as plagues, fungi, too much or too little rain, too hot or too cold…). It has become more and more apparent that wine growers are concerned with the environment and it's effect on the final product they are offering. At the end of the day, the purer the work in the field, the more refined the final product.
Here is where it can get confusing for the general consumer as wines are then labelled with the words 'Organic', 'Natural', 'Biodynamic', 'Integrated winemaking', 'Traditional method'…
All of these relate to different levels of care and are based on the winemaker's acceptance of chemical treatments in the field.
We visited two distinctive bodegas recently, each using very different methods of wine growing:
Our first trip took us to the Gaintza Txakolina winery in Getaria, in the northern region of the Basque Country. They practice the integrated wine making method. This means that due to the conditions of the climate and their proximity to the sea, the vines have to be protected from a high level of humidity. They achieve this by raising the productive part of the vines about 1,6 to 1,8 metres above the soil. Some soft chemicals are used to eradicate any fungi but then nature is allowed to do the rest. Of course, working with plants so high does mean that the manual work is very slow and uncomfortable.
The reward however is a very dry, citrusy, mineral wine with a naturally light sparkle and a lot of character. The winery has done an amazing job retaining the traditional methods of a family business as well as bringing it into a more modern era. They now use 100% recycled cardboard boxes, a biodegradable capsule and a type of mineral paper for their labels, which uses no trees in the process. As a result of doing all of this they are just one step below the Organic certification.
For our second bodega visit we drove two hours south of Getaria, to the Maisulan winery in Rioja Alavesa, the most northern part of this incredibly renowned region. This part of the world is controlled in great measure by prodigious bodegas belonging to large corporations or sizeable investment groups. However, there are still some small-scale groups of hard working individuals like Eva and Luis who will shake your knowledge of what you think a Rioja should be.
They work with the biodynamic method, which essentially means: respect for the seasons and consideration of the plant cycles with no chemical treatments used. They only intervene if absolutely necessary. By doing this they are not forcing the vines to do what they would prefer through the aid of chemical treatments, but rather, concentrate on helping the plants to flourish throughout their seasonal cycles. All of this is more obvious when you walk amongst their vines. The plants look lush, green, bushy and so much healthier than those next to them adopting different methods.
We have found that the biodynamic method produces wines that are quite unique. It is hard to describe, but they are more pleasing to the palette and somehow more flavoursome. In the case of Maisulan, the wines are more fruit based, leaving the influence of the oak to take a secondary role.
El Hondon, which has a blend of Tempranillo and a large percentage of Viura is our favourite. This is a red wine that is difficult to catalogue but contains a silky and warming sensation that will seduce you for life. All in all, Maisulan is a project driven by the love and respect for the land that Eva and Luis have worked on since a young age.
If you get the opportunity to visit a vineyard or two, talk to the hard working winemakers and hear their stories. We are sure that you will learn a lot and you will look at wine in a different way.
GAINTZA: particularly their Txakoli Roses as it is a rarity.
MAISULAN: we already mentioned their El Hondon, but their “12” blend of Tempranillo and Graciano is also delightful!