For some time now there has been a buzz on the wine scene emanating from the west of Madrid. Boutique producers of old-vine garnachas have been making waves ever since two young pioneers scooped the coveted 100 points from Robert Parker in 2016. The award sparked something akin to a gold rush in ‘the new Gredos’, as established wineries, investors and chancers alike all set out for the west with dreams of making it big. For one man though, whose family had worked these lands for decades before all the fuss, it simply presented an opportunity to do what he had always believed was possible: to make good wine.
Everybody, it seems, is fond of Juan. I had spent the morning at Las Moradas with Alejandro, whose parting parting words had been, “You’ll like Juan… he’s charming.” Ten minutes down the road, and his remark is endorsed by the wide smile of an American who is just leaving as I pull up at Bernabeleva: “Oh you’re meeting Juan?” she enquires. “You’re going to have a wonderful time, he’s lovely!” So as the man himself comes out, I wonder if he isn’t an authority on How to Win Friends and Influence People as well as wine.
Dressed in some worn trousers and an old jumper, with a beard and ruffled hair, it’s hard to put an age on him. I’m immediately struck by his aura of calm, and he addresses me in such hushed tones that I initially have to lean forward to catch what he says, but before I know it I’m being led over to a parked Land Rover.
The Origins of Bernabeleva
We set-off up a dirt track and Juan begins telling me the history of the small winery. His grandparents bought the land and planted the first vines in the 1920’s, but after the civil war they were forced to sell every harvest to a local cooperative, which was by all accounts a bit of a mafia: a couple of families dictated the terms by which the rest had to abide, and a rather foul wine was produced in the process; the kick of sulfur dioxide was so big, he says, that it would literally knock you backwards when you pulled the cork.
Juan’s family always dreamed of vinifying their own grapes, however, an aunt’s first efforts had comical results. “She produced 60,000 litres of vinegar,” he wryly admits. The incident (which nearly ruined them at the time) passed into folklore and is retold at family gatherings to this day. It also explains why when, years later, Juan wanted to take up the challenge himself, his mother placed an important condition: that the wine must be worthy of the land.
Back to the wild
Whilst he tells me the story he interrupts himself several times; to my surprise it turns out that there are two things that can briefly disrupt his tranquil demeanour. The first is rabbits. This year has brought a plague of the little critters and he points out the edges of several plots where they have stripped the vines bare. But if he is annoyed about the rabbits, it is nothing as compared to the effect that the sight of litter has. A group of hunters were out at the weekend, and empty beer cans have been discarded at regular intervals like a trail of breadcrumbs. At one point, we stop alongside an offending can and Juan takes a deep breath to compose himself. “You’d think being hunters that they would have some respect for nature,” he says with quiet indignation. I suspect that if he had a gun himself, the hunters would be at greater risk than the rabbits.
His concern for the environment and it’s maintenance is genuine, and it saddens him to see much of the land next to his own abandoned and overrun with weeds. But success has come with a downside. Once word spread and the ‘gold rush’ started, efforts to expand were met by neighbours asking for absurd amounts of money. Or, more commonly, refusing to sell just because they could, even when they had no intention of cultivating the land themselves. “There are rivalries here that go back decades, and if you say black, they will say white. It’s just the way it is,” he adds with resignation.
Stories from the barrel
In the tidy winery, things are done the old-fashioned way and, aside from some wooden fermentation tanks, there is little equipment to be seen. In the cellar, however, it is hard to move. Stacked barrels, which bear amusing names scrawled in white chalk, occupy every available space: ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Kung-Fu’, and even ‘God’ makes an appearance. As we taste the Albillo Real and Garnacha Blanca that they contain, Juan narrates a series of endearing tales behind each, and in doing so reaffirms what it is that I find so lacking in large corporate wineries – there are seldom stories to be heard in their cavernous halls.
Then, at the end of the first row we come to an oddity – a barrel of dry Moscatel. Apparently, some visitors have refused to even try it claiming it’s what their grandparents drank. “Their grandparents obviously knew more about wine than they do, but of course I don’t say that!” he laughs. A whiff of its wonderful aroma confirms that they would have done well to have listened to their elders: the delicate floral scent is enchanting. The first year it was made it sat in the corner like an unwelcome guest at a party. But fate came to the rescue when some visiting Germans took a sip, made a few calls, and promptly bought the entire vintage. I can’t say that I’m surprised; if anyone can recognise a decent white wine when they taste it, it’s the Germans.
It’s a funny thing, fashion, isn’t it? The endless demand for the new inevitably means that what’s already known becomes old and frowned upon. Back in 2003 when the Bernabeleva project was in its infancy, Juan contacted a leading consultant to discuss how best to proceed and, as incredible as it now seems, the advice he was given was to grub up the ancient garnacha vines and plant international varieties like Cabernet and Syrah. Fortunately, he had the good sense to realise that that would be madness. Nearly two decades later, and Garnacha is back in vogue (I wouldn’t be surprised if Moscatel follows suit). But I don’t get the sense that he cares too much about the fickle nature of fads – this was his inheritance after all – and to treat it with such scant regard would have been scandalous. Anyway, he just wants to make good wine.
Now, keen to share the riches of his cellar, I find him literally clambering over barrels to draw wine from the darkest corners, and I’m starting to get that guilty feeling that can arise when a host goes beyond the call. If you’re not a believer in the concept of terroir, a visit to Gredos should help to remedy your viewpoint. Bernabeleva make three Garnachas from three different plots; they are vinified separately but elaborated in a similar way, and yet they are three very different wines.
When wine has something to say, and this certainly does, it seems almost disrespectful to skip from barrel to barrel. These are wines that you should take your time over (dare I say they deserve to be listened to). The perfume of thyme and wild berries that radiates from a glass of the ethereal Carril Del Rey, for example, imparts a quiet homily on the importance of the countryside and our duty to preserve it. Lost in this thought, I forget to ask if his mother had deemed his efforts worthy, but I suspect I already know the answer.
Yet despite the buzz and the big awards, another local winemaker had confided that it was easier to sell her wine in the U.S.A than it was in Spain. Similarly, Alejandro had earlier pointed out that in almost every other part of the country, the local people are loyal to their region’s wine, but madrileños are more inclined to buy Rioja or Ribera. “If just 1% of the population of Madrid bought one bottle of our wine a year, then we wouldn’t be able to keep up,” he concluded. For Juan, who exports 40% of his production to the States, it’s a depressing topic “Two guys will go out for a night in Madrid and happily spend €20 drinking Heineken, yet the same guys will tell you that a bottle of my wine is expensive,” he bemoans.
There is gold to be found in Gredos, as Bernabeleva and other wineries have demonstrated, but try telling the locals that. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with searching for the end of the rainbow that we fail to see the treasure right under our noses.