Miracles in the mountains

I have in the past used the expression “miracle” when referring to wine making but the more wine makers I meet the clearer it seems that it is a miracle in the same way that Lee Trevino was “lucky”: the miracles are the result of a lot of very hard work.

This week I was treated to a staggering vineyard visit by Sabino and Isabel of Orujo de Liebana S.A. and was able to see first hand, from the back of a fifty year old jeep, pottering along on a track that most mountain goats would have simply refused to contemplate (and at an angle of almost 45 degrees), the sheer amount of work and passion that can go into making wine in the mountains.

As we made our way up to the vineyards we passed field after field of vines that had been lost to some ailment or other, and learned that 2018 had been quite literally a wash: so much rain in July that 2 hectares produced only 300 liters of wine. It felt like a miracle to find any grapes at all up there – but there they were, bracing themselves for the final assaults by birds and boars as they tried to make it the last week of September.

It was really humbling stuff, no surprise that this was officially recognized “heroic winemaking” (to be honest it was pretty intrepid just visiting) and although you could not find a friendlier, sunnier or more cheerful bloke than Sabino to show you around there was no mistaking that serious hard work was involved – red flag phrases like “by hand”, “14 hours” and “before dawn” were slipped in with alarming regularity (and considerable relish – to be fair your man Sabino seemed to genuinely love it).

But after a couple of hours of near vertical mountainside we were back down in the distillery. Sabino and Isabel’s main business is the Orujo distillery they inherited from Isabel’s grandmother – Justina de Liébana. It is widely considered to be Spain’s top distillery of orujo or anything else, with a beautiful array of 24 copper stills that slowly bubble away to allow for the most artisan distillation you could think of. (It really is as if they had just brought all the stills in the village under one roof.)

It would have been rude not to have a little tipple and while a fella is occasionally misunderstood he has never been known to be so rude as to refuse high class booze. And this was really high class.

To start with the wine – Pum de Pumareña – was as fresh, aromatic and fruitful as you would hope and had a lovely feel to it – we only had a snifter but it was enough to produce sadness at the cruelly curtailed production (only three hundred litres!) There were a good few more litres of orujo and good news there: wonderful lightness to the aromas and a smooth, straight to the chest heat in the orujos, along with beautifully integrated flavors in the liqueurs and cream.

Best of all for the parishioners of this blog were two little barrels of top quality orujo aged in sherry barrels – pedro ximenez and oloroso – in which those sherry characteristics really shone through on the nose and palate – deliciously dangerous stuff.

They told us they were in thirty Michelin starred restaurants that they knew of and it is absolutely no surprise. It was superb stuff, and the few bottles we bought didn’t make it back even to Madrid.

But the lasting memory will be of the kindness of Sabino and Isabel, inviting us into their home (and in Sabino’s case driving us up the mountain) to share what is clearly a passion for them. They could not have been better hosts and it could not have been a greater pleasure. I would raise a glass of orujo to them, but since I am temporarily out of stock this fino will have to do!


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