Origin: landscapes and peoplescapes

This post has only one connection with the traditional wines of Southern Andalucía: it is about wine, and top class wines at that. Because a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to taste the 2020 vintage of single vineyard wines of Artadi in Laguardia and they were exceptional, as were the people involved.

It started with a reception at Las Colonias in Laguardia – a superb, imposing building – at which there were more than a few friends, before a round table discussion between four top drawer speakers. First was Carlos Lopez de Lacalle, taking the baton from his illustrious father and setting up the day with a warm welcome and the introduction of a well chosen theme: “Origen: Paisajes y Paisanajes” (Origin, landscapes and “peoplescapes”), a title drawing together two of the dimensions of great wines: the places they are made and the people that make them.

First to speak to the topic was Aitor Arregui of Elkano. I have written before on here about the restaurants this man is behind (Elkano and Cataria) their exceptional understanding – and communication – of the terroir of the sea, and how much that knowledge and communication contributed to what were two of the best meals of a life featuring quite a few good ones. Well on Monday there was more of the same – simply and clearly communicated, and with an emotion that set the tone for the day. There was also a first glimpse of the bonds of friendship and family that are one of the other abiding memories of the day. A superb start.

His key point was that landscape and time defined the produce of Getaria, near the southernmost extent of the bay of Biscay, but the way that that produce had been interpreted by the local population had defined a cuisine and culture – we fish it, we grill it – (sounds simple but try it) that in turn attuned the population to the patterns of the currents and life cycles of the animals. By stripping away all artifice the culture is one that demands an understanding of the culinary qualities and seasons of the animals in a kind of virtuous spiral, redefining what can be done with a grill one splash of “Lourdes water” at a time.

He was followed by Ramiro Ibañez, beloved of this parish, who picked up the same theme and took it in a different direction from the opposite end of the Peninsula. Ramiro spoke to how the differences in terrain and wine making possibilities of Sanlucar and Jerez had over the centuries shaped first the wines, then the population and their tastes, spurring further specialization not only in wine but in cuisine and again a virtuous circle that had created great diversity in a small area. He also picked up on the social and industrial changes that threatened to break that virtuous circle, as industrialization and 18th century globalization offered winemakers markets and wine drinkers choices, and lead to a blurring and forgetting of that diversity. (In fact he actually started there – even if I remembered it in reverse.)

Ramiro in turn was followed by Rodrigo Gonzalez, director of wine for the Dani Garcia group who picked up what looked like a nasty hospital pass and to be fair he ran on with aplomb. He recognized too the same issues of globalization and industrialization that Ramiro had picked up but rather than denying the market he took their themes of people and places and tied them to the stories of wine that resonate with customers in restaurants and stores. When the client can come from anywhere in a shifting world, and can get their DRC on almost anywhere they go, a wine shaped by a place and a people is an anchor – and a wine and a cuisine borne of the same culture is an anchor upon anchor, a link between the ephemeral pleasure of a glass of wine, a dish. and the centuries, millenia, and more. It was a beautiful way to tie up one of the best round tables I have witnessed at a wine event.

That round table gave way to a debate about the same concerns – how changes in society were challenging the succession of traditional family businesses and prising the most precious real estate from their historic owners, in Rioja and elsewhere. Pretty gloomy stuff, but probably the same debate has been repeated for the last 100 years and the world has not come to an end just yet. More optimistically, the very presence of Ramiro was a reminder that however far a wine region can fall from its tree, consumers will seek out wines that reflect the place and the culture when possible.

Fascinating stuff but the time tends to drag on when you have four empty wine glasses in front of you. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer for the bride and groom and before we knew it the glasses were no longer empty. After a few words on the – pretty challenging – climate conditions and evolution of the vineyards during the 2019-20 growing season it was time to taste the 2020 single vineyard wines.

The tasting had a neat structure because we tasted the wines, more or less, in order of the depth of navigable soil in the vineyards, as captured by a set of “calicatas” – from 60cm to over 2m tall. (You like terroir? Look at those tubes!) This frankly is right up my street – an attempt to understand the wines in the context of the soils, and opens up a dimension I look forward to exploring further. And neither was it excessively nerdy – Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle disarmingly recognized that they were exploring and trying to understand the “what” but still didn’t know “why”.

First up were Cuerdamayor and Santa Cecilia – two old vineyards, planted in the 20s and 30s but with only 55 and 60 cm of topsoil. Surface feeding old vines you might call them. And the contrasts started right away: while Cuerdamayor had a bright, floral and fruity nose and a zesty, lively acidity, Santa Cecilia was altogether more mineral, more serious, a touch of the skin of barbecued peppers. Both extremely drinkable but with distinct personalities.

The second flight were three classy wines: La Laguna, San Lazaro, and Quintanilla. Vineyards planted in 1920, 1956 and 1951, respectively, with 105, 145 and 175 cm of topsoil available. Again this flight showed personalities that were different between each other and from the earlier flight. La Laguna was all blackcurrant fruit gums and even a touch of honey on the nose, and then a surprisingly saline and savoury palate. San Lazaro, by contrast was like a punnet of fresh black fruit, or even a blackberry bush on the nose, and had that same freshness and a leafy acidity on the palate. Quintanilla was a further step in that direction, with blackberry jam on the nose and then a palate with soft tannins and a hint of apple seed, nice profile that was full of flavour and compact.

These, by the way, are from my notes, but I wish I had taken better note of what had been said by Juan Carlos and Carlos as they presented the wines because their thoughts and angles on the art of wine tasting and description were fascinating. I tend to think of wines in shapes and textures, but Juan Carlos seems to see them like a combination of architectural blue prints and poetry (and don’t worry, no poetry was recited). Carlos, on the other hand had a more direct-to-the-emotion approach, comparing wines to the feeling of a surfboard on a wave amongst other things.

Anyway the third flight had four wines: Terreras (1960, 1970 and 1990 – up to 2m), La Hoya (1965, 105 cm), la Poza de Ballesteros (1960, 115cm) and San Martin (Laguardia, 1930, 185cm). As you have probably guessed by now, four distict personalities. Terreras is deep ribena on the nose and on the palate, black fruit from start to finish, long, acidic, and with a lovely fine shape to it – fruit all the way to the end, but with tannins that give it a graphite, mineral quality. La Hoya by comparison was light and vivacious, with structure but spark. This was a wine where Juan Carlos’s comment really struck home – he described it as having “living” room, space between lines – and I can understand it – the lightness, brightness of the edge of the profile and the softness of the centre. Very nice. That was followed by la Poza de Ballesteros, again a delightful combination of lightness and meatiness, quieter than La Hoya but meatier too, a very nice balance to it, and then by San Martin, which for me was something else, with a funkier nose, and a richness of palate and texture, chocolatey complexity that I loved. At the time San Martin was my wine of the day, with just an extra dimension that the others did not have – can’t wait to see it all grown up in a couple of years.

The final flight was lead out by Valdegines (Laguardia, 1989 and 1992, 2m), then El Carretil, (Lagurdia, 1930, 1975 and 1988, 2m) and, finally, El Pison, the family vineyard, planted in 1945 on a site in Laguardia with soils of at least 1,50 (and possibly endless). Yet more contrasts. Valdegines was aptly described as a creature of an inhabited mountainside, fruit and leaf but hints or malted barley and stew on the palate and fruit on the finish, with perhaps an outermost covering of charcoal tannins. For a wine from such young vines a real cracker. El Carretil is really a little gem. On the nose it is burgundy-like, has that tension like the strings of a tennis racquet and red fruit, even liquorice. Then on the palate you get a lovely tight profile with those same red fruit flavours, beautiful wine. And el Pisón is a big gem, a massive cucumber as the boys round here would say. Less brightness and tension on the nose than El Carretil and fruit that is darker, but a profile that could have been carved by Bernini, silky and elegant, and not jammy but full – fruit in every atom, and there, long and soft all the way through a long finish.

A really outstanding tasting, superb wines and an unforgettable opportunity to taste 12 wines from different vines together on an equal footing. The sort of tasting that makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a taster and writer, even when I take notes and they survive the day.

And there was plenty left for them to survive because the festival didn’t finish there. After a brief stretch of the legs in the sunshine we were back for lunch at the hands of Aitor and his crew from Elkano and it was, again, thrillingly memorable, with antxoa, txitxarro, lobstr, kokotxas (on the grill and pil pil), potxa a lo pelayo, the world famous rodaballo (turbot) and a dessert that, if it isn’t famous yet, really ought to be.

It was a lunch that on another day would have been the highlight of the year, and again it was washed down with more outstanding Artadi wines: Izar Leku 2017, the fourth generation of their really excellent sparkling txacoli, a superb Viñas de Gain Blanco 2014 that stands comparison with many much more famous Rioja whites, and then four reds that were a happy reminder of what the years would bring the wines of the morning: Viñas de Gain 2011, La Poza de Ballesteros 2012, Grandes Añadas 2000, and El Pisón 2004. You don’t need me to tell you that those last three, in particular, are absolutely world class, but by this stage of proceedings my note taking had dwindled from note taking to non-existent, and as the afternoon wore on and bottles came and went, the dancing and singing started and my memory becomes increasingly cloudy.

Not enough to obscure the memory of a wonderful, unforgettable day, and it would be incomplete and unfair too to sign off without mentioning the warmth and fun of the company from start to pretty late finish. The bonds of friendship and family were evident throughout the day and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of it.

Larga vida y muchas gracias a Artadi, Elkano, sus paisajes y paisanajes!

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