Half a tank?

June 19th, 2018

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When you start cutting your tanks in half it’s never just for a bit of routine maintenance – it’s usually much more significant than that. Indeed, the last time we did this was following a catastrophe in 2008 when half of our tanks were accidentally crushed by a powerful vacuum (whilst testing the tank cooling jackets).

Today’s ‘vandalism’ has actually been triggered by choice, albeit once again related to the cooling jackets. This time we are adding more cooling to the tanks to give us greater control and more flexibility during harvest. Logistically it’s quite an undertaking, and to be honest there’s no really good time of year to carry out this work. Having just completed the racking, then obviously we were able to relocate the new wines away from the work area, but even so, tank space is always at a premium (because of our extended lees ageing).

The only option is to do this work, step by step, and when time allows. For example, today we will be cutting and removing just four tanks.

Obviously my short video shows the cutting process, but the one thing that a video cannot highlight is the smell! Cutting metal generates, well, a burning metal smell, and so we have to make sure that everything is completely locked down to isolate this as much as possible. We are actually using our powerful extraction system (used during harvest to remove the CO2), to keep the air as fresh as possible.

Just after I wrote this post, and purely by co-incidence, this article appeared in our local press. Obviously my views differ slightly from that of the author (click on article to enlarge).

A question that I often ask myself, and that is apparently a frequently asked question is – when a restaurant is awarded a Michelin star, does the star belong to the chef or the restaurant? The answer is not quite as clear cut as you might think. Certainly is is the chef who takes the accolades for his menu, but in reality Michelin stars are awarded for the total experience including service, wine list, amenities, general ambiance etc.

Once awarded a star or two does this then mean that the chef has to spend all his waking hours cooking and supervising his kitchen? Well, no, not at all (much to my own chagrin). A chef can apparently train a head chef to prepare his menu and then, if he wishes, move on to set up another enterprise, which explains how a chef can run several different establishments at the same time, clocking up Michelin stars around the country. Indeed there are some celebrity chefs that have been awarded a multitude of stars in a number of different locations (sometimes on different continents!).

Of course, if said chef sells up, moves or forms a different company, then the star rating does not automatically follow him or her, it stays with the restaurant. In these circumstances the restaurant would normally be re-reviewed pretty quickly.

I suppose these ‘roaming’ chefs are a little like flying winemakers, they make their mark and then ‘hover’ around different locations, juggling to keep all the pieces in place.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see a talented chef where he should be, in his kitchen, showing off his cooking skills to the paying public.

El Mundial

June 15th, 2018

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As if you didn’t know the World Cup kicked off yesterday, with the Russian hosts giving the Saudis quite a comprehensive beating (no surprise perhaps, that they ended up in probably the weakest group of the tournament).

So football and politics aside, it’s time to put your feet up, kick back on the sofa and enjoy a glass of something refreshing whilst watching the next game – and by that, I mean of course, a well-chilled glass of Castro Martin albariño.

Even if football is not your thing, then you can just as easily recline on your favourite garden chair and savour a glass or two, simply because albariño is the type of wine can you can drink just as easily on its own, even without food. On the other hand, if you are planning to stoke up the barbecue this weekend, then Castro Martin will still be the prefect choice.

Just how versatile can a wine be?

Now, I don’t profess to be any kind of meteorologist, but I do recognise when something’s not quite right. Here we are well into the month of June, and the weather here in northwest Spain is pretty poor to say the least. Daytime temperatures have hovered around the mid-teens °C (60-65°F), it’s grey and there has been a fair amount of rain. Our flowering period started reasonably well, in relatively dry conditions, but then it all went a bit down hill. Some flowering was complete before the rain, but for the rest we will have to wait to see what long-term effect that this cool, wet weather will have. I rather suspect that the flowering will prove to be uneven.

The odd part of this is that in some areas of northern Europe (across the UK, Belgium and Holland for example), they have been enjoying hot, balmy, summer conditions with temperatures into the mid 20’s, perhaps as much as 10°C more than our corner of Spain. This topsy-turvy weather has persisted for some time now (the whole of May) and to be honest I don’t really remember ever seeing this type of persistent weather reversal before.

Back in the UK, my friends still believe that I spend my time basking in a warm, sunny climate – clearly they have not visited Galicia!

Posted in Vineyards, Weather

The fermentation of our 2017 wines finished at the beginning of October last year, and since that moment our wines have been resting quietly on their lees. Today, some 8 months later, we have just started the annual racking. Over the winter the lees settle to form a sort of thick paste at the bottom of the tank, and today we are simply drawing off the clean wine from above (making sure that the don’t disturb the lees in the process).

It’s actually quite a slow process, with long periods of inactivity as we wait for the precious liquids to be transferred. Once the clean wine is relocated we then transfer the lees into large airtight containers to be sold to the distillery for making aguardiente. Nothing is wasted!

The final job is to clean the interior of the empty tanks, which is a chore in itself. The walls of the tanks are nearly always thick with brown crystals that resemble rust (from the tartaric acidity in the wine), and they can be quite tough to remove. We have to use a caustic solution, but then making absolutely certain that the tank is rinsed thoroughly before it is ready to receive the next wine.

Posted in Bodega, Winemaking

A few weeks ago I took a photo of a guy in the middle of a forest, close to our bodega, cutting trees and making a clearing. Little did I know at that moment that his plan was to plant a small vineyard – but it did start me thinking. Was there any logic whatsoever behind the site that he selected, or was it just a small plot of land where he fancied growing a few grapes? I rather suspect it was the latter.

I have asked myself this question many times, about the seemingly random situation of many of our Rias Baixas vineyards, and how they actually come to be selected. My guess is that, for the vast majority, it is more about convenience than making any type of detailed study to find the best site. This could explain why, in a denomination of only 4,000 hectares, there are nearly 22,000 different vineyard sites!

In the wine business we talk about ‘Terroir’, which many think is simply related to the soil on which a vine is planted, but I can tell you that it is actually much, much more complex than that. Terroir is a combination of factors, including nearly every physical aspect of a vineyard location that you can think of – soil, soil type, drainage, aspect, sun exposure, local rainfall, protection/shade, wind, sea mists etc., etc. All of the individual components that will ultimately determine why the quality of one grape varies from another (assuming that they have been properly cared for).

My photo shows this new planting, bathed in a bit of early morning sun. But what the photo doesn’t tell you is that this location is one of the coldest corners of Ribadumia. The vineyard is on a north facing slope, and apart from this brief touch of sun, it will spend the rest of the day shrouded by trees, with almost no direct sunlight and very little warmth. In a few years I will be interested to explore what it produces.

Blitzed wine?

May 26th, 2018

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Yesterday I missed yet another ‘National Day’ – apparently it was National Wine Day (or at least it was in the USA). About 10 days ago I also missed National Tea Day, which, as the world’s greatest tea drinker, came as quite a shock – albeit that every day is National Tea Day for me!

Moving on quickly I read something very interesting yesterday, well, actually quite shocking to me! Putting red wine in a blender to help it breath! Apparently it’s called ‘Hyperdecanting’…..

OK, we live in an age where everything is instant, and few people have the patience to wait for anything. Many prefer to ignore the slow, careful, perhaps more traditional method of decanting, but putting wine into a food blender? Really? Certainly this is something that I would never ever consider myself, even for a half-decent wine, but then we are told that this blitzing is ‘ideal’ for cheaper red wines – it can accentuate the fruit and make them less harsh. Well, I doubt if I will be trying this theory any time soon.

For example, could you ever imagine the sommelier of your favourite restaurant plugging in a blender at the side of your table to aerate your wine – I think not. Simply open the bottle, pour, swirl, wait and savour (or just stick to Coca Cola).

One commentator summed this idea up beautifully – it’s quicker to open a wine with a chainsaw, rather than a corkscrew – but you wouldn’t!!

The shocking fact is that for less expensive wines, the cheapest element of the price that you pay is for the wine itself – the actual 75cl of white, pink or red liquid in your bottle! When you consider the amount of effort that goes into producing a single bottle (from growing the fruit, harvesting, converting it into wine, bottling it and packaging it), the fact that this can actually represent just a tiny fraction of what you pay is really a bit of a scandal (speaking from a wine producers point of view, of course)!

I guess that the same could be said for any number of products that you might find in your weekly shopping basket – we are after all, simple fruit farmers. The only difference being that we take the production one step further by fermenting the fruit into alcohol. And thereby lies the key word….. Alcohol! 

The moment that the bottles and pallets leave our door is when the costs start to mount up. Transport and shipping I have already mentioned, but once our wine crosses the Spanish border, it immediately become liable for the duties and taxes of the importing country. It’s only when you start to examine these additional levies a bit more closely, that you see the cost of a bottle really beginning to accelerate.

When goods eventually arrive at their destination then they can also attract further warehousing and handling costs. Depending on the type of customer, they could then attract further, onward distribution costs even before they arrive anywhere near a consumer.

Now we can finally talk profit! Of course the wine producer himself has already extracted a very modest cut, and then the importer will add a further margin before passing the bottles on to a retailer or restaurant. Of course the profits made by shops and restaurants are already well documented, and it is probably better that I don’t comment at all – suffice to say that these can be quite “healthy”.

The net result is that with all the handling, distribution, taxes and duties etc., a very modestly priced wine can end up being quite a bit more expensive. A very frightening calculation (working backwards), is that a bottle sold in the UK for around £5.00 leaves almost nothing at all for the cost of the wine itself!

Following my latest post about the cost of producing a bottle of wine, I have just read a very interesting article written by an old friend of mine – UK wine journalist Tim Atkin MW. Although he is not actually commenting directly on the production costs of wine he is, in effect, talking about the price pressures often put on producers to reduce their selling price (and certainly their profit margin). If this downward pressure is allowed to continue then, inevitably, the only thing that can and will suffer, is the quality of the liquid in the bottle.

In the final line of his article he says “More than ever, we need a strong independent sector to preserve diversity, quality and individuality.” In this case he is referring to independence in the retail sector, but allow me to say that the very same phrase could easily be applied to the wine producers themselves.

He is a link to Tim’s full article.

There used to be an advertising campaign on UK TV for bars of chocolate. The slogan was something to the effect that it took 1½ glasses of milk to make one bar of chocolate…. without actually specifying the size of the glass, or the bar of chocolate!

In the world of albariño I can tell you that it takes approximately 1½ kilos of grapes to make one 75cl bottle. Of course this seemingly simple calculation can sometimes be compounded by the price of the grape itself. Even if a bodega owns 100% of its own vineyards (which not too many do in Rias Baixas), the cost of grapes still fluctuates. Of course, yield can be controlled to a certain degree but will always vary a little, and labour cost in the vineyard can change according to the growing season, depending on how much work is required. Then there is also the cost of buying, maintaining and running tractors and other equipment that has to be factored in. On top of this, if you are then obliged to buy additional fruit on the open market, it can become a bit of a lottery. Grape contracts do exist, but some can end up being quite meaningless as market demands can often put a strain on persuading growers to honour them!

So once we have our 1½ kilos bought and paid for, safely in our tanks, then what else needs to be included in the final bottle price? Believe me, it’s a long list! Materials for making the wine, materials for bottling the wine, labour costs, and not to mention the overheads of running the bodega itself – electricity for machinery etc. Next comes the outer packaging, cartons, pallets, pallet wrapping, even before we can even consider moving the wine.

In export we are rarely involved in the cost of transport, but there will always be some element of (expensive) road haulage involved. With pallets weighing in at over 1000kg each (even using our Eco friendly lightweight bottle) the cost of moving them around, especially by road, does not come cheap. Sea container transport does work out much cheaper, but then this is usually limited to customers outside Europe, with the odd exception.

With all these elements quickly adding up the wine is finally on route, and the cheaper part of the final bottle cost has been explained. The really expensive part of the calculation I will save for another day!

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