A late October autumnal morning, with that cool freshness in every shadow that makes you walk on the other side of the road just to briefly catch and wear the sun’s rays as a cloak, had my wife Nadine and I destined for San Vicente de la Sonsierra in central Rioja, sheltered by the Cantabrian mountains to the north-east. We had arranged an appointment over emails with Maite Fernandez, winemaker, partner and wife of Abel Mendoza at their bodega. We were warmly greeted at the door by Maite who lead us into the bodega’s complete kitchen (modern touches of double refrigerator and dishwasher melded perfectly to rustic counterpoints such as large wooden dining table and an open fireplace big enough for a boar or two), and at the far end of the kitchen a blackboard with “cheers” written in the many languages of visitors. There we are introduced to Abel, brewing his mid-morning coffee. A warm handshake from hands that live to work with soil and a modest smile with a rough-English hello typify Abel’s quiet but caring nature. Maite sincerely apologises for Abel’s lack of English and her need to answer a ringing administrative telephone leaves us together in the quiet kitchen. We manage enough broken Spanish to gratefully accept Abel’s offer of coffee and a biscuit. To start, our conversation involves a lot of slow, small words; each of us probing and testing the limits of our languages until Nadine admits to speaking Italian, even if she is somewhat quite rusty. Abel’s eyes light up with the opening of this communication avenue. Abel starts asking questions to Nadine in Italian and when her recall starts to fail and she nervously laughs, Abel with his cheeky smile encourages her in Italian to go on, to find the right words with no fear of judgement or failure like a patient schoolmaster. The air is far more relaxed when Maite returns, apologising again for not being there to help translate as we smile like conspirators with a shared secret and let her know we’d got along just fine.
The conversation shifts to where we’ve traveled from: Tasmania, the little island at the bottom of Australia. Mobile telephone based internet provides immediate graphical context of over 17,500km of travel. The closest Abel’s been to Australia is Hong Kong. I point out the main grape growing regions, explain some of the geography and give him a quantum of how small Tasmania is in the overall Australian production. Abel asks if it gets hot, applying general climatic knowledge to Australia. I reply that while Tasmania rarely gets ‘hot’ our sunshine can be intense, with long ripening hours. A quick run down of our main grapes and wine styles leaves me silently kicking myself for not having a bottle of Arras with me to let him taste and understand for himself.
We then move to the history of their bodega, and how Abel has had several passionate discussions with the Rioja’s Consejo Regulador as to what can appear on their labels. It is clear that Abel isn’t a lawbreaker at heart but a man who simply wants to have wines represent the soil where they are grown rather than any “required” mentions of maturation. With some of their grape plots from pre-phylloxera times, these predate many of the regions’ re-grown vineyards which have contributed to the DOC rules. They talk through their current vineyards totaling around 20 hectares made up of 42 plots. They stretch up to 17 kilometres apart in distance and 200 metres in elevation. Abel loves the challenge of recuperating older, traditional vineyards (think ‘bush’ vines) and doesn’t necessarily agree with trellis systems. Whilst he doesn’t seek organic or biodynamic accreditation, he practices “common sense” viticulture ensuring optimum soil health and absolutely lives to produce the best grapes possible.
The bodega was established in 1988 and 1992 saw their first commercial release. Initially there were more white wines than red with the indigenous Malvasia and Torrentes making the bulk of the first wines. The 2017 vintage unfortunately saw hardships arrive right across the region with production around 35% lower than ‘normal’ due to powerful, damaging frosts experienced at the end of April.
With the arrival of Maite’s niece, a political journalism student in Paris, the conversation becomes more social and turns to the current political climate where Catalonia (was/is) in the middle of the independence movement: the votes had been cast and the large rallies were occurring on the streets of Barcelona right where we had lain our heads a mere 5 days previously. It is also the cue to open some of the wines as Maite’s family tend not to drink, but she loves when her niece returns from studies as undergraduates tend to have a thirst. This is truly the moment when wine becomes the ‘social lubricant’: once were strangers, yet now sitting around a table, with conversation flowing and a cheerful glass in hand.
We work through the current bottled wines available starting with the white blend which changes year to year and then into the ‘Jarrate’ range that sustained the early days of production. Finally moving into the serious ‘Selección Personal’ and the ‘Grano a Grano.’ The Grano a Grano (literally grape by grape) is completely hand harvested and the berries hand de-stemmed by the extended picking family.
Abel and Maite then invite us down into the bodega to taste some of the 2017 vintage in barrels. As we descend the staircase down the three storeys, a typical vintage lifecycle is represented with precise and evocative photography. Starting with the dirt (if indeed there is any actual starting point in this constant cycle), then moving through the vines to pruning to harvesting (including wonderful circular action shots of the Grano a Grano destemming) and as the staircase finishes in the winery, the pictures lead aptly to the vinification. Abel then presents us with glasses as he reaches for the wine thief to show us some of the new vintage. While the quantity of 2017 is down, quality still abounds as white blends out of barrel show rich and textured flavours.
More visitors arrive as the morning has melted away and the hungry stomachs declare lunchtime, so we warmly bid farewell and with the suggestion from Abel and Maite to visit the ruins of the Castillo, high above the township to gain an appreciation of the dirt that Abel will passionately continue to work for many years.
Abel Mendoza, Blanco, 5 V, Rioja, 2016
Made from Viura (30%), Tempranillo Blanco (25%), Garnacha Blanco (20%), Malvasia (15%) and Torrontés (10%). A complex white wine with many layers of fruit salad, lemon pith, green apple and a dry finish. Tight, fresh acidity balances the wine wonderfully. Alc: 14%
Abel Mendoza, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja, 2016
5 months in oak. Herby aromas with green apple skin, a drying saline character before soft waxy notes. Full palate with tutti frutti and more of the slightly waxy feel but again balanced by tight lines and crisp fresh acidity. Alc: 14%
Abel Mendoza, Jarrarte, Rioja, 2016
100% Tempranillo. Made by carbonic maceration which is evident with telltale “bubblegum” aromas. There’s also blueberry, plum, white pepper and soft charcuterie. Delightfully fresh and vibrant with bright plummy and blackberry flavours and easy tannins. A wine that simply bounces along with ease and a zest for life. Alc: 14.5%
Abel Mendoza, Jarrarte, Rioja, 2014
100% Tempranillo. Stainless steel fermentation followed by 12 months in oak. Soft meaty pan juices, cedar oak with a vanilla kiss. The fruit profile leads to a mixed berry melange, plum, blackberry and raspberry. Medium bodied, square shouldered with a whisker of age bringing lingering coffee flavours and still beset with a long tail of fine tannins. Alc: 14.5%
Abel Mendoza, Selección Personal, Rioja, 2014
100% Tempranillo. New French oak. Muli faceted aroma with rose petals, ironstone, lipstick, deep cherry and blackberry. Alive with light black fruit and herby hints. A fine and persuasive tannin structure supplemented with fresh acidity. Many years ahead for this wine. Alc: 14.5%
Abel Mendoza, Grano a Grano, Rioja, 2015
100% Graciano. Abel and Maite also produce a Tempranillo Grano a Grano. Stainless steel ferment followed by 18 months of new French oak. Opens with a clove spice, orange peel, coffee grounds, soft rubber, red and blue fruits. The palate has a lifted, elegant structure full of blue plum, blueberry and pepper. The tannins are soft and again, the wine finishes with the signature fresh, vibrant acidity. Alc: 14%
Visit coordinated with introductory assistance from Abel’s distributor in Australia: Neville Yates of Eurocentric Wine