The male mid-life crisis has been known to lead to dodgy tattoos, questionable hobbies that involve wearing Lycra, and even voluntary redundancy, but have you heard about the guy who poured his life savings into a vineyard in the middle of nowhere? With winters that can reach minus twenty and located in one of the most sparsely populated regions on the continent, you’d have to be pretty reckless to build a winery in Cogolludo, wouldn’t you? Mind you, first, you’d have to be able to find it.
Guadalajara is not a region that is known for wine. To be honest, it’s hard to think what it is known for these days. History students might have heard the name in reference to a battle in which the Republic won its only real victory of the civil war, routing the interfering Italians. Or else, more commonly, it is often confused with its Mexican namesake. So, I’d forgive you if you were surprised to learn that five hundred years ago things couldn’t have been more different. Back then, the original Guadalajara wasn’t just well-known, it was positively one of the most famous regions in all of Christendom.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, under the patronage of the Mendoza dynasty, the region boasted an illustrious array of palaces, monasteries, and academies, including what was said to be Europe’s largest library of Greek and Latin philosophy. In fact, the capital (also called Guadalajara) was so bustling with writers, poets and intellectuals that it acquired the moniker of The Alcarrian Athens. Sadly, it was almost all destined to be brutally demolished in a series of wars over the following centuries. But truth be told, the decline had started long before.
It’s usually hard to identify the exact moment when the rot set in, but not here. 1592: that was the year that Ana de Mendoza, the last in the dynasty’s line, died, and the fickle nobility upped sticks to Madrid, taking all of the money with them. Things would never be as good again. Sacked by an Austrian army during the War of the Spanish Succession, a hundred years later a vindictive French garrison blew up many of the capital’s finest buildings. However, as the writer Arturo Peréz-Reverte once said: ‘Nobody knows how to fuck Spain like the Spanish themselves’, and as if to prove the point, the civil war contrived to finish off the places that the foreign invaders had left standing. It was another blow in what would seem to be a long and terminal decline. Today, with an average population of just 1.8 inhabitants per square kilometer, you’d have more chance of bumping into your neighbours in Siberia.
It seems fitting, or at least poetic, that it was a love of history that led José Manuel Fuentes, founder of Finca Rio Negro, to the small town of Cogolludo in Guadalajara. Having spent years scouring the breadth of Spain for a terrain to establish his own winery, the self-made businessman stumbled upon the name of the town, not on a surveyor’s map but buried in one of his many books: correspondence from the Cortes of Joanna I of Castile (1479 – 1555) contained a mysterious reference to the ‘magnificent wines of Cogolludo’. It may have been no more than a small footnote in a vast tome, but for José Manuel it would mark the end of the quest, and the beginning of an adventure.
After an hour of driving across a barren landscape of rolling red hills, I’m relieved to finally get to the town and pull into its charming little square. If it wasn’t for the cars parked around the perimeter, one could easily think that they had gone through a portal to the distant past, so quaint are the mixture of rustic facades and cobbled streets. Indeed, the sound of water trickling from a central fountain induces images of travellers of yore pulling up to quench their thirst and rest weary limbs in the midday sun. I’ve been told that the columns around the entrance to the austere looking Palacio de Los Duques de Medinaceli, that dominates the far end of the square, contain evidence that the ‘magnificent wines of Cogolludo’ are more than mere legend. Sure enough, after a bit of searching I finally find ornately carved bunches of grapes intricately woven into the Gothic decoration. Seeing my interest, a local tells me that in one of the town’s churches a statue of the Virgin Mary is also tenderly nurturing grapes. It may not seem like much, but if it’s true, as one writer claims, that the best wine is made in holy places then it’s a promising sign, and at the very least it shows that wine was clearly a big deal here at some time in the past.
In fact, Cogolludo’s bodegas had limped on all the way up to the late eighteen hundreds when, so ravaged by hunger and poverty, the growers stopped believing, most of the population left, and no one bothered to close the door on the way out. Years passed, memories became hazy, and although the population of the town would slowly recover, nobody bothered to replant the withered vines.
The vineyard I’ve come to visit today is a short drive down the road where we’re greeted by José Manuel himself. Dressed in a sharp blue shirt with white hair, he cuts an elegant figure. A self-assured manner combined with an easy charm means that despite the countless times that he must have told the story of how he stumbled upon Cogolludo’s past, he is still able to make it sound like a fresh adventure full of intrigue and risk.
Born near Palencia, he says that much of his childhood was spent in and around vines. A family legend has it that his first tentative steps were taken treading his grandparents’ grapes. But legends aside, as he reminisces about the village fetes, dances and follies of his youth, wine is never far from the heart of the tale.
“The older I got, the greater the need I felt to recreate those times… my whole adult life has to some extent been about trying to get back,” he says wistfully, whilst showing us around the fruit of his labour. After purchasing the land in 1998 José Manuel set about what, at the time, he considered no more than an experiment.
“If they had made great wine here in the past, I thought, why couldn’t we do so now?” he reasons.
And listening to him talk he makes it all sound quite reasonable. But here’s the thing: the nearest appellation to Cogolludo is Mondéjar, which lies some 80 kilometers to the south and has a questionable reputation to put it mildly. Furthermore, aside from the challenge of the harsh winters, how on earth do you go about marketing wine from a town in the middle of nowhere? I suppose the simple answer is that you make it excellent, but of course that is easier said than done, so it is just as well that José Manuel was able to find a winemaker up to the task.
Apparently, the finca lies on a limestone bedrock covered with an acidic topsoil. This, combined with an altitude of a thousand meters above sea level and its own microclimate, results in grapes with a distinctive identity that doesn’t suffer from the lack of acidity which is the usual bane of wine from central Spain.
“And on this plot,” Mariano tells us, signalling some newly planted rows of vines, “we are going to grow the finest Syrah in Europe… in Europe!” he repeats for added emphasis.
I laugh, but the look I get back suggests that on this occasion he is not joking… in the intention at least. The winemakers of the Northern Rhône might not be losing any sleep just yet, but in many ways such bravado sums up Finca Rio Negro’s ethos – there are no half-measures here. The bodega is a pago, meaning they only produce wine from their own grapes. The vines are tended and picked by hand, before being taken to the state-of-the-art winery. The American and French oak barrels are emptied, cleaned and refilled every four months to prevent sediment from blocking the pores (not many wineries go to these lengths). In short, attention to detail is given in every area in order to extract the best possible result. This is the apogee of wine-making in my opinion: a labour of love, dedication and craftsmanship.
The results speak for themselves. Shortly after the first wines went on sale in 2009, they received instant acclaim, with the national wine guide Guía Peñín awarding them 90+ points. Not bad for an ‘experiment‘. Today, the winery produces a range of four – from a Gewürtraminer to a limited edition tempranillo/cabernet blend made from the finest selected grapes. My personal favourite is the lighter ‘992’ so-called because it marks the altitude of a plot growing the very Syrah that Mariano has such high hopes for. In this case, it is blended with tempranillo to create a wonderfully balanced wine that would go perfectly with almost any tapas, and exhibits a class belying its modest price.
We can only guess what Cogolludo’s wines might have tasted like five hundred years ago, but we shouldn’t dwell too much on that; because it seems to me that in attempting to recreate his past, José Manuel has inadvertently fashioned a future – and I for one think it looks rather exciting.