Strawberry Fields Forever

red soils

Les Freses de Jesús Pobre.

Spain never lets me down. I love wine from all around the world and am passionate about wines from everywhere and about the countries and regions that spawn them, but I always return to my first love – Spain.

I am only in this business because of my misspent youth in Spain and the healthy relationship – I hope – that gave me to alcohol. It certainly made me like wine, but I am not sure that is entirely the same thing.

Over the years I have seen huge changes in Spanish wine. Once upon a time only the reds were really good and even then only from one or two regions – principally Rioja of course. During my 34 years in the wine business the wine revolution has spread out throughout Spain and produced startlingly good results.

Rioja has got better and better and high quality reds are now made in more and more unlikely places and the reds of the south are now at least as exciting as the more traditional regions of northern Spain. Look out for red wines from Valencia and Utiel Requena made from the Bobal grape and wines from Alicante and Jumilla made from Monastrell – aka Mourvédre and Mataro.

Torres led the way with modern whites in the 1960s and ’70s and today the white wines of Spain are amongst the most exciting of all. Galicia, Rueda and Rioja all make world class white wines today, but so too do some much less well known areas like Terra Alta in Catalunya which produces blindingly good Garnacha Blanca / Garnatxa Blanc / Grenache Blanc. Albillo is making some stunning white wines in Castilla y León, while Merseguera is the white grape to watch in the Comunidad Valenciano, especially Alicante.

One of the really lovely things that I have noticed in Spain in recent years is the way passionate people are training as winemakers, working in the industry for a while to gain experience and then buying or renting small parcels of vines in order to craft very personal wines. These projects are really thrilling and you can see them up and down the country, budding winemakers nurturing forgotten vineyards and coaxing them back to life – or sometimes planting them from scratch – and producing wonderfully expressive wines. The classic examples of course are Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar’s Domaine Lupier in Navarra and Charlotte Allen’s Piritia in DO Arribes on the Western fringes of Castilla y León, but such micro-wineries can be found everywhere and they often give interesting impetus to regions that in the past have often been very over reliant on the local cooperatives. In much of Spain from the 1940s onwards big production was the thing, so the cooperatives churned out huge volumes of palatable – by local standards – wine to slake the thirst of local workers with almost no regard to quality as we would understand it today. All that is changing of course, but anything that can help that is all to the good and the creation of new, quality focused estates even in unlikely corners of Spain can only help.

Casa-T view

The view from the family home, Casa Tranquilla – photo by Hilary Sadler, my brother. That mountain is the Montgó, you will note that we can see the sea between the land and the sky. Las Freses is perhaps half a kilometre round the terraced hill in the foreground, behind and to the left of the tree in the front and centre of the photograph you can just about make out the road that curves around to the crossroads.

I have family in Spain so visit rather a lot. Indeed my family have had a holiday home in the Xàbia, or Jávea, area of the Comunidad Valenciana since 1965, the year I was born and the year that I first went to Spain. Initially we had an apartment on the Arenal, or beach area, and I well remember standing on the balcony and looking out at orange groves and vineyards as far as my eyes could see. Today all you see is more blocks of flats – thankfully for the view they are all low rise. In the early 1970s my father had a villa built near the tiny village of Jesús Pobre some 12 kilometres or so inland and that is where he now lives.

Spain QS Map incl Javea & watermark

Map of Spain’s wine regions. I have marked Javea and Jesús Pobre.

Last week was my father’s 91st birthday and so I popped out to help him celebrate.

Just around the corner from our house – and down a very steep hillside – is a crossroads. When I was a boy that crossroads was in a deep pine forest. As more and more villas were built, more and more land was cleared for more building, so the pine trees were cut down on our side of the road with a view to putting up some villas. Things move slowly in Spain and permission was not forthcoming, so as a stopgap the owner turned the land into a strawberry farm, which it remained for many years.

In the meantime there were quite a lot of vineyards around that grew Moscatel – Muscat – to produce the local Moscatel de la Marina, – also see here – a lightly fortified Muscat made from overripe and partially dried grapes. Slowly people lost the taste for this wine and the vineyards often fell into disuse, almost never grubbed up, but abandoned.

the winery

Les Freses complete with the Montgó and all that remains of the pine trees behind.

A few years ago the land around our village was declared agricultural land and no new building is permitted. The owner could no longer develop it and sold it to Mara Bañó who from 2009 has transformed it into a vineyard. She has also built a beautiful and superbly equipped micro-winery –  I have seen smaller, but not many – that is just full of the most wonderful new equipment and made me itch to have a go at winemaking.

In order to show continuity with the past Mara named her new estate and winery Les Freses de Jesús Pobre. I assume that les freses is the Valenciano word for strawberries, but Valenciano is usually the same or similar to Catalan and I understand that the Catalan word for strawberries is maduixes – so who knows.

I had wanted to try the wines ever since I heard about them, so dropped in and had a chat with Mara and tried all her wines that were available.

What I found amazed me. This area has no real tradition of producing quality wines at all and almost no tradition of producing dry wine, yet here were world class wines being made in a place that is never mentioned in any of the wine books.

As you might expect from a small estate made in a dry place by a young and passionate wine maker, these are “natural wines grown organically, fermented spontaneously with the wild yeast and have as little intervention as possible and as little sulphur used as is possible.

Mara does grow some black grapes and so a red wine and a rosé are in the pipeline, but the focus is the whites for the moment, which I think suits the region, its food and climate.

Given their diet – this near the coast anyway – it is strange how resistant the Spanish have always been to white wines. They even have a saying “si no es tinto, no es vino“, which means if it isn’t red then it isn’t wine and until very recently they lived by that. Nowadays the sheer quality of Spanish white wines seems to have broken that down somewhat and they are beginning to stock pretty good ranges of white in the shops and supermarkets. Even my favourite restaurant in Valencia, which used to only list 1 white wine, compared to 25 reds, has now greatly expanded its offering.

Les Freses

Young wire trained vines at Les Freses with the Montgó behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

Mara only grows one white grape at the moment, the traditional Moscatel de Alejandría – Muscat of Alexandria –  but she makes three very different wines from it. The estate forms a single, triangular shaped block on the lower, very gentle slopes of the iconic Montgó mountain which rears up very near our house like a huge squatting elephant. It rises to 753 metres above sea level and dominates the area. It runs west to east, so vines on its south face sit in a perfect sun trap. The soils are pretty rocky limestone with rich red clay too.

The wines

the bottles

2017 Les Freses Blanc Moscatell Sec

100% Moscatel, harvested by hand and sent to the sorting table for a rigorous selection and manual destemming. Spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel, with its own yeasts and then aged for 4 months on the lees in 54 litre glass demijohns – that is very traditionally Spanish but usually only seen for rancio wines and dessert wines.

This is the standard wine from the estate and it is very appealing, lively with lifted notes of peach, peach skin, almonds and sea salt.

The palate is pristine, salty, mineral and ever so slightly smoky – those lees? – with a silky texture, taut peach and succulent grape flavours, enough acidity and freshness to balance it and that saline touch on the finish. Perfect with sea bass and much else I am sure – 90/100 points.

€10 per bottle locally.

It is at this point that I should admit that I generally avoid dry Muscat wines. I do not like it as a grape generally, finding it cloying, flowery and low in acidity. That being said I loved this, it really worked and I drank it all up!

Bush vines

Bush vines at Les Freses.

2017 Les Freses Àmfora Blanc Sec

This is the top dry white from the estate with a careful selection of the best fruit and then fermented in a big tinaja, which is like a big earthenware pot like a Qvervi in Georgia. They are very traditional in Spain and were widely used up until the 1970s/1980s. In those days they were usually buried in the ground and fell out of favour because they were usually very old and hard to clean so spoiled the wine in many cases. Nowadays they are much better made and easier to clean.

The nose is less vivacious and more dense but with lovely notes of almond and delicate orange.

This wine is much more about the palate and is more concentrated with a gorgeous silky texture that flows very attractively across your senses. There is dense stone fruit, the acidity feels more vibrant, there is a twist of orange peel, those almonds are toasted this time. It has that salinity and a tangy, vibrant feel that balances the viscosity and richness. This wine is amazingly intense and fundamentally dry, but the intensity of the fruit almost makes you think it is slightly sweet – so it feels sort of sweet and sour. A great wine – 92/100 points.

€20 per bottle locally.

2017 Les Freses Dolç

I actually do not know how this wine is made. It is not fortified, or doesn’t taste it anyway, so I think the grapes are late harvested and slightly dried.

It has a lovely golden caramel colour with aromas of light raisins, dates and figs, rich nuts, buttery caramel and orange peel.

The palate is sweet without being cloying. Caramel, creamy orange, fig, cinder toffee, intensely ripe apricots and fleshy peaches all swirl around the palate. A touch of bitterness and sweet spice keeps it balanced and accentuates the complexity. A stunning dessert wine of great class and complexity – 93/100 points.

€17 per bottle locally.

Carob tart

The carob tart that I enjoyed with the Les Freses Dolç in Pedro’s, the main bar and restaurant in the small village of Jesús Pobre. I had never tasted carob before, except for nibbling on the beans plucked from the trees growing around our house when I was a boy, it was very good and perfect with the wine.

These are wines of the highest order, yet made quite casually by a single passionate person. They are produced in a place long written off by the great and the good of wine production and because they come from my spiritual home I was pretty emotional about them and more delighted to taste them than you can imagine. Do try them if you get the area – and I know lots of people do – you can buy them at the winery and in the local wineshops – such as this one: Vins i Mes, but not supermarkets. Many of the local restaurants – including Pedro’s – have them too.

I was put in mind of this quote by Matt Kramer the American wine writer: “The greatest wines today are not, paradoxical as this may sound, the so-called great wines”. The wines that excite me most and give me the most pleasure often come from the unlikely corners and forgotten places.

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