If you are interested in learning about wine then it won’t be long before you come across Hugh Johnson: the world’s biggest-selling wine writer. His first book, simply titled Wine, was published back in 1966, and later editions metamorphised into the now ubiquitous World Atlas of Wine, in collaboration with Jancis Robinson. Incredible as it now seems, in the original book you can go for pages, cover vast regions, and yet find no more than a fleeting mention of a grape variety. Fast forward half a century and such is the current interest in the humble grape that today’s tomes come with lengthy lists akin to Latin verb tables.
Bored of uninspiring Chardonnay and routine Shiraz? Worry no more… why not try a glass of Ondarrabi Beltza or how about a bottle of Espadeiro?
On the outskirts of Madrid is a little-known place where they take their grapes very seriously and have amassed a collection of more than a thousand wine varieties alone, plus a good deal more that are apt for the fruit basket. So when I was invited to come and nose around, I didn’t stop to think twice.
Finca “El Encín” is the current home of a vine collection that dates back to 1893 when a Riojano named Víctor Cruz Manso de Zuñiga, foreseeing the grave threat that phylloxera posed to Spain’s viticultural heritage, first set about trying to catalog and preserve it. Over the following century as the collection grew it had to survive several moves, two fires and, most dangerous of all, human stupidity. But survive it did, and now occupies over 15 acres. Today, it serves as an important resource to everyone from local growers to NASA, who recently took an interest in its archives as part of their research into global warming.
Having been shown around the outdoor museum by agronomic director Félix Cabello, I’m allowed to roam free in the vineyard, home to a labyrinth of vines with mysterious and magical names like Ondarrabi Zuri and Caiño, each neatly numbered, and ordered both regionally and alphabetically. Walking along the rows, I soon realise that it would take days to taste the abundance of varieties, and would probably even get lost in the process. But, oh, what a place to get lost in!
If you ever have the opportunity to pluck wine grapes straight from the vine, then do. I’m immediately surprised that the fruit of wines that I know well, such as Garnacha and Tempranillo, give but the merest hint of their future selves. Others prove to be a revelation; I’m quite taken with Espadeiro… so much so that when I find a decent bunch I end up eating the whole lot. Still, some bare no resemblance whatsoever: Verdejo, for instance, one of my favourite Spanish white wines, is pale and disappointing… where is the delicious zestiness that I’ve come to love about the wine? The explanation, according to Félix, is that aside from the fact that grown in Madrid it can’t reach the same intensity as it does in Rueda, the taste that we know as Verdejo is largely achieved by the yeasts that are used in fermentation.
This is a whole new world: if there are more than a thousand wine grape varieties and hundreds of strains of yeast that can be used to ferment them (each with its own peculiarities), then the possibilities for potential wines are vast. Luckily for aspiring growers and oenologists, this is one of the areas that IMIDRA investigate in their on-site laboratory and micro-winery, conducting small-scale experiments to find the best combinations, the results of which are then made available to the commercial sector.
Back in the vineyard, I go from one row to another trying to imagine what a wine from each variety would taste like. Astonishingly, the entire collection was nearly lost in 1984 when its jurisdiction was handed over to a politician (never a good idea in Spain), who believing wine to be an evil vice, left it all to rot. Unbeknown to him, a couple of the estate’s workers, horrified at the prospect of losing such a priceless resource, worked with the one remaining tractor (often late into the night) to tend the vines; a heroic feat which would surely make a beautiful film if it was ever to reach the desk of a Hollywood producer (Saving Pinot Noir perhaps?)
Years later, after common sense and normality had returned, Félix was throwing away rubbish in an outbuilding when he stumbled upon the handwritten catalogs of the original collection. Unfortunately, it was not complete, and so began an investigation that would take him halfway across the country before eventually leading to a forgotten trunk in a dusty attic. The documents recovered not only helped to complete the historical archive, but they also contained the kind of information that NASA came looking for. Today, it is all on display in a small museum and has also been digitized and made available to the public, along with the entire database of the collection.
The threat of phylloxera may have passed, but viticulture has new and greater challenges on the horizon, and it is the invaluable work of places like El Encín that offer its best defense against the dangers to come, as well as providing an important record of its past. Back home, having managed to finally source a bottle of Espadeiro, I raise a glass to the workers whose dedication to the vine helped save this tremendous collection.