As Head Winemaker Mariano and the equally indispensable Minister Without Portfolio, Carmen, drove me to one of Bodegas Castaño’s vineyards, there was a contagious and yet intangible air of excitement, tinged with a touch of anxiety. There is a chain of events that eventually leads to grape collection, and precisely when that occurs is on Mariano’s say-so alone.

The responsibility sits comfortably on his broad shoulders, however. This internationally respected oenologist is at the top of his profession, having worked for decades in the family owned, and indeed familial, bodega.

Fran, the bodega’s Head Agricultural Engineer and first link in the chain, had informed Mariano that in his opinion the vines of certain vineyards were reaching maturity. With grapes now in glorious dark purple colour the mother plant turns its attention to changing their acidity into sugar, a procedure achieved through the good offices of its leaves.

It was time for Mariano to make regular, twice daily visits to determine exactly when the itinerant pickers should descend on the vines and get to work on the grapes that have been so lovingly husbanded throughout the growing season. Vinos De España was invited along to learn how such important decisions are made, as well as observe the pre-harvest preparations back at base.

 Mariano relies on two aspects: the visual and the technical. The magnificently tailored vines looked in pristine condition as we made our way down one aisle and up another in the baking sunshine. Mariano moved stealthily, predator-like, from vine to vine firstly looking at the perfectly formed bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon and then plucking an occasional grape.

 Those bunches whose stems were approaching a brown colour leading to the first berry were inspected closely. A grape here and another there would be taken. If there was any flesh left where grape left stem, the time was not quite right. Further evidence was gleaned by taste and mouth-feel – Mariano tasted and felt the texture of the skins in his mouth. The flesh was sweet, but sweet enough? And the skins, too dense means – delay a little longer.

 Then, a further consideration. The seeds were inspected. Green pips indicate ‘not yet’, browning seeds suggest ‘nearly’. Then, by way of further confirmation, for the first time, Mariano turned to technology producing his trusty refractometer. This instrument measures the amount of sugar contained in the juice of the grapes (a delightful pale pink demonstrating how quickly maceration affects colour). The juice was attained simply by squeezing the grapes into a pleasingly low-tech plastic bag! Although he would ratify his findings in the laboratory later, his verdict was ‘not today’ for this parcela!

 In fact Bodegas Castaño’s harvest had started, in part, already. The Chardonnay used in their 50/50 blend with Macabeo had been harvested a few days before our visit and was fermenting by then. Also the black grapes used for their limited production, fruit-driven Carbonic Maceration red wine were being unloaded onto the selection table as we spoke. Furthermore the white wine grapes from their experimental vineyard were also undergoing fermentation, samples of which we tasted later.  

 Back at the bodega, the grape reception area was bright and exemplary in its cleanliness – a byword, once ignored in Spanish winemaking, but now a major focus since the era of the flying winemaker and the influence of the new generation of winemakers such as Mariano. Outside it was still and quiet, all was calm. Inside, it was a different story – a precursor mini-storm was in progress.

 The workers were in the last throws of the ultimate cleaning. This feverish activity misses no corner of the bodega. No pipe, no stainless steel fermentation vessel, no grape press, no selection table, no gently moving conveyor belt, no tool, nothing.

 To make medal-winning wines of the quality of Bodegas Castaño (whose exports amount to some 95% of the total production and whose points totals in the various guides, including Parker and La Guía De Oro, are invariably in the high 80’s and 90’s) no bucket shall be left unturned, every area and piece of equipment shall be cleaned, disinfected and sterilised!

 We next went to the huge stainless steel fermentation tanks where half of this year’s Chardonnay was already fermenting. Mariano drew off three glasses of cloudy, fermenting juice adorned with what looked like the head (froth) on a glass of beer! The aroma was stunning – paraguaya, that lovely peach-like fruit from South America. The flavour, sensational – sweet and frivolously full of tropical fruit, with a small amount of alcohol (5%) at that moment and of course a touch of effervescence.

 We next looked at the oak barrels, reposing in controlled chilled conditions, which contained the other 50% of the Chardonnay. This barrel fermentation adds different taste nuances and a certain creaminess to the finished wine. Here the taste was different, drier with an as yet faint oak influence, a more grown-up taste.

 Before a splendid lunch we tasted fermenting samples of mostly white wines made from grapes grown in Bodegas Castaño’s experimental vineyards but including early harvested Pinot Noir whose sombrero (‘hat’ of skins that have naturally floated to the surface) we had seen in the tank.

 It was clear that all was in hand, spotlessly clean, ready and waiting for the frenetic activity to come – the storm that is the harvest! 

 It is my sincere hope that, by writing the above title on the eve of the 2010 Vendimia, I am not precipitating the arrival of La Gota Fría, or indeed any other harvest-damaging storm. I’m not tempting providence!



 It’s Halloween as I write and through the office window I can see a light drizzle gently falling from all-enveloping, overcast, grey clouds bringing the land at least some succour after such a long, dry summer and autumn. This year I have no fears for my friends and colleagues at the sharp end of the Spanish wine trade who, weather-wise, have enjoyed one of the best years on record. (More soon on the 2010 Vintage!).

 However I have sympathy for some of those engaged in the noble art of Champagne crafting over the Pyrenean border following some worrying news, which broke in June but simmers still. And this is far more serious than the simple vagaries of the weather!

 Over 50% of a year’s production of cava and sparkling wine is sold during the Christmas period here in Spain. It is the drink of celebration and largely at an affordable price. So at the start of November the fizz makers’ commercial departments are already in full swing making sure that supplies are arriving at distributors’ warehouses. Back at base more pallets are forming an orderly queue anticipating escalating sales indicating, at least for a short period, a country-wide rejection of La Crisis!

 This year there may be an even bigger demand, this time coming from consumers who normally buy their Champagne from growers near the town of Soulaines in the Aube area France. The CIVC, Champagne’s member supported representative body, has recently lost an appeal against the continuation of Nuclear waste being dumped in the area.

 The court’s decision gives the green light to ANDRA, France’s national atomic agency to continue disposing of nuclear contaminated gas and liquid, but will it therefore mean a green glow in Champagne made in the area?

 ANDRA is certain it won’t. Whilst it admits that there is ‘a tiny’ amount of nuclear pollution in the water table beneath the area, it insists that the levels are far below the recommended maximum. Furthermore it declares that as the water table in fact flows to the north-west and the hallowed vineyards are to the south there cannot therefore be any contamination of the precious vines, and ultimately of course the Champagne in your glass.

 Greenpeace, whilst it admits that there is as yet no evidence of contamination, also states that nuclear pollution has been released into the atmosphere and into the water underground for ten years. They go on to quote the problems at La Hague, near Cherbourg, another nuclear waste facility, where, after having reached its capacity for nuclear waste storage, it was closed but still registers radioactivity readings over seven times the ‘acceptable’ level.

 The plant at Soulaines has a maximum capacity in excess of that of La Hague and has already suffered, an apparently harmless, crack in its walls! Greenpeace says, “We are sounding the alarm for future dangers.” But are they also sounding the alarm not only for local producers but also for lovers of Champagne?

 There is precedent. France’s Coteaux de Tricastin has recently won the right to change its name (to Grignan-Les Adhemar) in an attempt to halt a dramatic slide in sales seen as resulting from it being associated with an ‘accident-prone’ nuclear site at Tricastin! One such accident was a Uranium leak in 2008 and although subsequent tests revealed no vineyard contamination, consumers voted with their shopping trolleys!

 There are no such worries for two wine producers who operate, coincidentally, only a few kilometres apart form each other in the Jalon area. Armando, co-owner with his sister, of Bodegas Parcent; and Peter and Helen Arnold of Bodegas Garroferal in Murla are both just about to introduce their first ever sparkling wine. (They cannot be called Cava as neither bodega is in the officially demarcated cava producing area and in fact each fizz will use an unauthorised grape variety, but the method is the same).

 I feel rather privileged to be amongst the first to taste both these brand new sparklers very soon! Readers in the area will also be able to do the same with Bodegas Parcent’s as I’ll be co-hosting a bodega tour and tasting with Armando where his new ‘vino espumoso’ will be launched!

 PS A super weekend of wholly different wine tastings will take place on: Friday 26th November at Restaurante Asador Salamandra, Moraira, with Classical music from Dolce Divas later!; Saturday 27th at Javea Port’s Café D’Art, with an Art Exhibition too!; and Monday 29th November, Bodegas Parcent, Parcent for a tour and tasting! Further details and reservations (essential) – please call 629 388 159.