Right after Easter I led our party of six travellers eastwards through the Alpujarras mountains in southern Spain to the vineyard of Manuel Valenzuela. Cortijo Barranco Oscuro is located in the district of Costa-Albondon, a few kilometres north of Cadiar. The wines are known by their trademark Barranco Oscuro (The Dark Ravine).
Manuel is the grower in these parts who first dared to plant his vines at an altitude where others believed they could not survive. On our first visit to his vineyard two years ago he told us about the advantages of this altitude – the greater intensity of the ultraviolet light, the cold nights in summer, the purity of the air and of the soil, the absence of fungal and insect predators that confront the grower at lower altitudes. Such conditions have also allowed Manuel to grow grapes and make wine without using sulphur or any other chemicals.
He first took us to the highest point of his vineyard – 1368 metres above sea level. To the north snowy Mulhacen towers against the blue sky and to the south the blue Mediterranean stretches out to Africa. From here one can see Morocco on a clear day.
Long dotted rows of black vine trunks run out over the hills. The ground is stony and lean, tilled into closely spaced furrows to catch the infrequent rain. They are bush vines – low gnarled stumps, each with just a few spurs of last year’s wood, each spur carrying one bud for the new season’s growth. The buds are still hidden deep in the wood. That’s not unusual so high up in the mountains at this time of the year. Yet this season there are two additional factors dissuading the buds from swelling and breaking open into leaf. First, Manuel tells us that there has been practically no rain up here since last October, so there is less than half of the usual precipitation stored in the ground. And second, there is a fierce wind blowing up over the Contraviesa, the tier of mountains running between the coast and the Ulpujarras. The wind is an enemy of the vines and so they hug the ground and will wait until it passes before the new growth peeps out. Here in the photograph you can see Manuel and me braving the wind on the hill.
This is a demanding terrain for growing wine. In a good year Manuel will harvest about 700 gm of fruit from each bush vine, not enough for a bottle of wine. On the trellised vines he will get more. This year, however, he is expecting far less from them because of the drought. The vines will survive, for sure, but the harvest will be very small, if at all on some of these exposed slopes. However, a great wine comes invariably from the vine that must struggle against adversity. Manuel’s wines are known as vinos de altura – which in Spanish means both wines of altitude and wines of depth.
So we move on back down the hill to the homestead and the winery. We are driven underground by the raging wind. A tour through the cool vaulted cellars, past the champagne bottle racks, the steel tanks and the barrels of French and Slovenian oak, and we rise up again into a peaceful, big bright room with stained glass windows and dark wood tables and benches – the tasting room. Manuel pours out a dozen wines, each one introduced by animated description of the wine making process and the secrets revealed. Sarah, our best Spanish speaker translates for us all. Jane and Sean and Sue drink all that’s given. Mike and I, the drivers in our group, drink deeply of the scent and aroma, we taste but do not swallow.
Here are my notes about the wines I really liked from this flight:
Brut Nature: aka champagne, clean, sharp, dry but fulsome. Unavailable unless one orders first directly from the vineyard. Manuel describes a method of making this wine that I understood enough to realise that it’s not manufactured like the French stuff, but involves a refermentation relying on the next season’s grape skins. Must go back again to learn more.
Blancas Nobles Classico 2009. Rich, aromatic and fresh.
Vino Costa. Homage to the traditional wine made in the Contraviesa. If you’ve drank costa in the bars around here, this is the clean and unoxidized version. Same pale colour. Made from Palomino Negra and a little Garnacha. Great traditional label.
Garnata 2009. From Grenache. Lovely garnet wine.
Rubaiyat 2005 (yes, of Omar Khayyam -a poem is quoted on the bottle). Made from Syrah. A big wine, yet restrained, that comes forward slowly.
Tempranillo y mas 2006. More than 50% Tempranillo and three other black grapes. Complicated, molasses, still dry on the tongue. A meditation wine for me.
Borgognon Granata 2006. Made from Pinot Noir. This Pinot you’ll recognise as an exotic long lost cousin.
1368. Vintage year 2004. For its age, it tastes surprisingly fresh. I can smell that wind in it.
Xarab. Half bottle of golden dessert wine. If you like your pudding, this one adds fresh fruit to it. On a par with a fine Tokaji.
At the end of our stay, everyone had a big hug with Manuel. And on we went north into the Alpujarras to find the ancient village of Yegen, where the writer and Hispanicist Gerald Brenan went to live after the First World War (as told in his book South from Granada). There, by chance, we came upon an Irish woman who owns a restaurant and bar on the main road, right next to a little museum created in Brenan’s honour. She opened up the museum for us and we viewed the paintings and photographs, the rooms of the house, the view over Yegen from its windows.
When we returned to the woman’s bar (I regret not asking her name), I told her where we’d been that day. To which she pulled out a bottle of 1368 from the wine rack and said “Oh, I know Manuel, he’s a friend of mine. I first met him when he came to Yegen to find out who is that Irish woman up here that keeps ordering his wines”.