Rocklands Farm winemaker TJ Fleming brought back many takeaways from his recent trip to Spain. You may have seen some of his posts live from the field on Rocklands' Facebook page, but in case you missed them, here's a recap.
Viva Vino Español
At the end of June, Rocklands Farm sent TJ and his wife Bethany to check out Spain's vastly growing frontier of artisan winemakers and growers.
All in all, the trip involved visits to five small natural producers in wine regions throughout the country. The Flemings' itinerary looked something like this:
A common theme TJ found among the natural winemakers was their independent spirit, and an insistence on doing things their own way. Part of this independent spirit involves an attempt to return to their roots — in terms of growing methods and even grape varieties.
"It's a philosophy more than anything," he explained. "In Catalonia, for example, they're bringing back an ancient variety called Sumoll. This red grape was there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before mass-producers started ripping out the vines and planting more conventional varieties."
The Flemings tasted the most history at MicroBio Wines, in a tiny ancient town called Nieva in central Spain. The cellar was built by monks around 1100, and bought by the current owner's (Ismael Gozalo) family in the late 1700s. Some of the vines TJ saw were more than 250 years old.
"The underground walls of weathered granite are covered with yeasts and molds," TJ recounted. "This was a bit unsettling for my more hygienic winemaking sensibilities, yet Ismael insisted that the flora and fauna covering his walls were part of the 'magic' in the wines. They were positive microorganisms, not the spoilage variety."
Although there is great variation among natural wines, they all "hark back to a time of manipulating the wine as little as possible," according to Warren Leonard, general manager of Weygandt Wines in Washington, DC. At Rocklands Farm's first Wine Camp on June 14, Warren spoke about natural wines to a group of more than 30 people, walking us through six certified sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines from the Weygandt portfolio.
Warren's definition proved to be true at all of the vineyards TJ visited. At Daniel Ramos Winery, TJ remarked that "Daniel uses very little inputs in the vineyard or the winery," and at MicroBio Wines, Ismael Gozalo makes his wine without any additions of cultured yeast. "He just allows the fruit and the present microbes to 'do their thing' during harvest," as TJ explains.
In the Basque Region, TJ noted that Iker Ulibarri farms his vines from an ecological point of reference, refraining from using any inputs in the vineyard that originate outside of the farm. Anything on the farm is fair game, however — including the farm's 300 sheep, which Iker uses from the end of harvest until bud break to add fertilizer to the soil of the vineyard. The sheep's primary purpose is producing cheese ... the perfect complement to Spanish wine!
At Finca Parera in the Catalonia Region, vigneron Rubén Parera began his winemaking career employing a technical winemaking approach. Over the years, however, Rubén shifted to a more hands-off approach in the winery, and his vineyards have become certified biodynamic.
"The soil is life!" he exclaimed as the group waxed philosophic over four bottles of his wine.
"What does this trip mean for Rocklands?" you may be wondering. Is TJ going to start incorporating mystical yeasts and molds into his wines?
According to TJ, whose first calling in life was as a chemistry teacher, that won't be happening anytime soon — even though he claims that the newly released, unfiltered Ancestry is as close to a natural wine as he's ever made. (Sidenote, have you tried it? I had my first taste last weekend and think it's one of Rocklands' most unique wines yet!)
The trip gave TJ other aspirations apart from natural wines, though.
"Seeing 250-year-old vines really expands your idea of what's possible," he said. The wines TJ tried sparked new ideas for experimentation, including possibly skin contact whites. He wouldn't give away too much more, but I for one can't wait to taste the magic!
If you can't squeeze a trip to Spain into your summer plans, but you're in the mood to learn more about wine, head over to Rocklands' next Wine Camp event on Wednesday, July 12!