It all started with lunch at Vinoteca Moratín in the heart of the city. Having ordered sardines as a starter, the waitress suggested that we should pair them with a white wine from Madrid. While I may not have replied, ‘Do we have to?’ I definitely put up some stiff resistance. However, her unswaying confidence and my ignorance about its grape variety – Albillo Real – meant that I acquiesced to the wine and begrudgingly handed back the menu, waving goodbye to what I was certain was a lengthy list of better and more glamorous alternatives. Reader, I was wrong.
In my defence I should say that my prejudice was not without grounds. ‘Madrid’ and ‘white wine’ are not traditionally words that you really wanted to hear in the same sentence. If the regions’ reds were often considered to be acceptable but dull, the whites didn’t even make it that far. Whether it is because of the hot summers or the varieties themselves, the consensus held that it was best to stay clear. So, it would be fair to say that my expectations were not particularly high before taking my first sip of Picarana 2017 from Bodegas Marañones. As I raised the glass to my lips, the waitress stood back and watched as my expression changed from one of slight concern to a smile, and finally bewilderment. “You were absolutely right,” I said, with the tone of a man who was happy to admit that he had been proven wrong.
Embarrassed that I knew virtually nothing about this grape, I decided to do some research, which as it turned out, took me all of two minutes: after a brief mention in the Oxford Companion to Wine (not very complimentary), the only other reference I could find amongst a dozen or so wine-books was in Oz Clarke’s usually infallible Grapes and Wine, where it is dedicated a miserly twenty six words, the sum of which was; ‘Spanish White grape, low in acidity’. So, there was nothing for it but to conduct my own investigation and visit the one area where it seems to be making a bit of a comeback.
Madrid’s ring roads in rush-hour can be hairy on a good day, but throw a heavy downpour into the mix and you get the kind of carnage usually reserved for a wet Formula One race. Unfortunately, the day I have organised to visit San Martín de Valdeiglesias is such a day. A series of accidents have caused lengthy traffic jams, but that doesn’t stop the young lady behind me from sitting on my bumper and aggressively flashing her headlights, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I have nowhere to go. My blood pressure rises, my muscles tense and I indulge in some mild, road rage fantasies… but just then, dreamlike, the seething mass of bumper to bumper hell suddenly gives way to an open road. Soon, in every direction the landscape is unspoilt and beautiful. A mountain appears in the distance like a vision, and little by little the anger and the stress of only moments before begin to ebb away. Finally, a dirt track leads to a place of peace and tranquility at the top of a hill. Getting out of the car, I wonder if I haven’t taken a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled upon Shangri-La.
In fact, I am in the Gredos Mountains nestled between the province of Ávila to the north and Toledo to the south, but still very much Madrid. It was first cultivated in the twelfth century by monks from the nearby monastery of Santa María La Real (now abandoned), when it was common practice to plant vines on land recaptured from the Moors. In 1999, a new winery bought up the small privately owned plots with the intention of reviving the areas viticultural tradition. It took the name ‘Las Moradas’ (which could be translated as ‘The Inner Castle’) from the last book that Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote in the year 1577. Based on her visions, the text was conceived as a spiritual guide to finding union with God, but wasn’t published until more than a decade later for fear that the Inquisition would view such mystic experiences as heresy.
Assistant winemaker Alejandro Carreras has kindly accepted my request for help on the subject of the little-known Albillo. Despite his youthfulness and ponytail, he reminds me of the kind of teacher that you’d have been pleased to have had at school. Passionate about his subject, he occasionally pauses, eyes visibly widening from behind glasses, as he suddenly recalls something else that will be fundamental to pass the exam, before stopping himself again as if concerned that the slower students in the class, (which today is just me), might not be keeping up. He does all of this with an air of serenity that seems to be a reflection of the very place itself, and I wonder if he has always had this disposition or if the ancient vines have had an effect on him too.
We take a stroll out to the vineyards, and I’m instantly struck by the unusual soil underfoot, which is composed of granite sand, the by-product of centuries of erosion, and no doubt responsible for a light mineral tinge to the regions’ wines. I learn that Las Moradas is an ecological winery. They follow a philosophy of minimal intervention, using only naturally occurring yeasts, and choose to bottle without clarifying or filtering. Frankly, I’m baffled as to why more wineries don’t use the same approach. Isn’t this how it should be done? I must confess that I am already a believer; last year I found a bottle of Las Moradas Initio (Garnacha) captivating and ever since I’ve been itching to know how they do it.
But today it is Albillo Real that I have come to see, and on a plateau at the top of a valley there are vines that are more than eighty years old, sprawled out like drunken spiders trying to sleep it off in the midday sun. As Alejandro explains the difficulties of cultivation, it becomes clear that they have a tempestuous relationship: this is a grape that refuses to be told what to do. It likes sun, but unfortunately is also early budding which makes it prone to spring frosts and low yields. Another complication is that it is highly oxidative. Furthermore, if perspective growers haven’t been put off already, to retain any kind of acidity it has to be harvested unbelievably early; this year it was the seventh of August! In short, it’s not hard to understand how it ended up so bereft of friends.
However, it wasn’t always that way. During the Siglo de Oro (Spanish Golden Age) the Albillo wines of San Martín were highly prized, and are even on record as having fetched some of the highest prices of the era. Indeed, the variety actually used to be fairly widely extended across the peninsula. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that it started to develop its troublesome reputation, when man’s propensity to look for an easier life led to the grape’s rapid retreat before making a defiant stand at its spiritual home – Madrid.
At Las Moradas they give their Albillo six months on its lees, and blend in small percentages that have undergone malolactic fermentation and hyperoxidization. After only a month in the barrel, it offers an instant hit of pear and red apple followed by a distinctive bitter note in the finish, which is rather pleasant. The acidity is not as low as I am expecting. Don’t get me wrong, if a mouth puckering Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is your thing, then this will never be a wine for you, but many would enjoy its simple country charms.
Five months on, and the fruit gives way to sweeter aromas of honey, almonds, and brioche, whilst gaining in body and weight. It is a different style to the Picarana that I had had at the restaurant, and a matter of personal taste as to which you would prefer. Perhaps the former is easier to pair, whilst Las Moradas Albillo is better suited to sitting back and contemplating life’s great improbables, one of which is that Madrid can finally produce a white wine that is worthy of a place on the wine lists of the city’s best restaurants.
As I walk back to the car, I realise that I am completely relaxed, and it is with great regret that I have to leave. The regret is, however, assuaged by the knowledge that I can return to this haven every time I open a bottle from the winery. Unlike Saint Teresa, I may not have communed with god, but I have almost certainly communed with the earth, and to tell the truth, the effect seems to me at least to be more or less the same.