By Andrew C Ferguson
Describing my day job as Chief Ninja in the Council’s Democratic Services Black Ops Division, as I sometimes do, probably gives it a veneer of glamour that’s slightly misleading, if I were being honest. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, and try to give 100%. But like most people, it’s not, perhaps, the role in life that I lay awake dreaming of, night after night, in those heady teenage years when anything seemed possible and the world, as Hilda Ogden used to say, was my lobster, or at least seemed that way.
So when you meet, in the same day, three people that love their job so much it amounts to a passion, that’s a special day (and, come to think of it, a fourth the next day, but we’ll come to him presently). We all want to live the dream, right?
Let me say straight off the bat we’re not wine experts. Nor are we wine snobs: we know what we like, and we buy it, with a bit of research and intelligent enquiry, from supermarkets and wine merchants alike. And then we drink it. But, in the beautiful northern Spanish city of Salamanca for a few days with family, a day trip to a winery sounded just like the thing, especially as we’d stayed in town before, and done the centre, at least, on foot.
They say that we live in the Age of Peak Stuff: that in fact, from now on, the ease of getting anything delivered to your door (indeed, in the near future, 3D printed on your own machine) means that consumer goods have lost their value, in most senses; besides, much of what we used to need big clunky amounts of space for – films, music, books – have been digitized. What we increasingly crave instead, so they say, is experiences: that perfect holiday; that opening chord in the first gig of the music festival; that moment when you feel your stomach pass your eyeballs in the other direction as the bungee snaps you upwards; and so on, according to taste and vertigo levels.
In that context, what Slow Wines offer is the future. Helena and Pierre are clearly passionate (that word again) about their business, and their wine: the website tells you they can take you on a tour of most of the major wine regions of Spain. How they manage to do that, out of a small office down the side of the cathedral in Salamanca, presumably involves a lot of travelling and wrangling, and/or local contacts. However, when we got in touch, we were looking for something closer to home for them. A couple of days’ short notice, a few emails back and forth, and we had booked ourselves on a day out to Sierra de Salamanca, Spain’s newest Denominacion de Origen.
The experience consisted of three parts: a visit to a winery, a village, and a Dominican sanctuary. When Pierre later asked for our feedback, our only criticism was that the winery came first: but maybe that was just our Scots Presbyterian deferred-gratification wiring at work. An hour’s drive into the mountains took us to Cambrico, which might just possibly be the best winery in the world.
Let me explain. Anyone that’s ever read a wine merchant’s catalogue, or even a supermarket flyer about the latest plonk they’re trying to shift for Christmas, will know the kind of script they push at you. Hand-harvested grapes, tiny parcels of ancient vines, high in the mountains where the wild boar roams and the fennel grows free among the vines. A local varietal, scarcely known till now, producing flavours long thought lost in the mists – or myths – of the valley below.
Well, Cambrico is all of these things, quite literally. The wild boar didn’t pop out of the undergrowth and say hello, but the hunting signs at the side of the road on the way up the mountain made it clear jabali was somewhere about, and presumably feeling pretty feisty, too. As for the tiny parcels/hand-harvested/growing among the wild fennel schtick goes, well, it’s not just a schtick. Here’s a couple of other pictures:
Seriously. I have broken off the stem of the wild fennel and smelt its tart aniseed juices myself. My leg still bears the scar from a bramble stem that reached out into the path and grabbed me. See those trees? The ones that aren’t wild olives are mostly different species of oak, which the vineyard lets grow, presumably to help fatten and flavour the passing wild boar. Think it looks like a scrubby hillside with a random collection of plant life on it? That’s because it is… well, not quite random. The vines are grown organically, on the unique combination of Cambrian-period slate and granite geology that predominates in this area. Some of the plants – such as a variety of Salvia – are grown to be harvested for natural insecticide; others go into a green manure to nourish the vines that grow amongst them.
As for the little known grape varietal: that’s the Rufete, only found in its red version in these here mountains and in limited areas across the border in Portugal. The white Rufete, we were told, is so rare they’re still trying to analyse its genetic inheritance.
We were inducted into the mysteries of the Rufete by Bosi, our guide for the tour. In an example of the type of symbiotic, co-dependent relationship plants and people have in the area, he works for the owner of Cambrico some of the time, the remainder being expended on his own vines. An engaging, charismatic guy, he was really the star of the show, telling us (with the help of Helena and Pierre’s translations) about the vineyard and its working methods, getting right down among the vines and showing us how, given the fact the varietals are all planted higgledy-piggledy together on the slopes, the pickers are expected to tell the difference between the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Rufete plants (crucial because they’re all harvested at different times) by the leaves, and the grape size and colouration.
It was a million miles away from the slick, video-based presentations of the bigger wineries we’ve been to, where the vineyards themselves, shimmering in the distance, are serried monovarietal ranks of industrial-scale product, to be shifted and sold by the tankerful. Instead, one man in a dusty van had brought us to a hillside which, you felt, was about as close to the natural state you could get in our modern times. The grapes were hand-harvested, by the way, in baskets that held no more than 10kg of grapes at a time: all the better to avoid them being bruised, or crushed too soon.
Back at the winery itself, of course, modern production methods came into play. This is a business, after all, not some sort of heritage project: although even here, the emphasis was on careful treatment almost amounting to veneration of the sacred must that wine, ultimately, comes from. Everything was gravity-fed, to avoid pumps spoiling the holy juice:
Finally, we got to taste the stuff! With a simple accompaniment of bread and jamon (what else?) we tried, first, a younger wine, and then 575 Uvas, named to reflect the amount of grapes it goes to produce a single bottle of wine (mas o menos, as Bosi said with a smile). Standing in the cool of the winery, looking out onto the sun baking the terrace beyond, it was very easy to believe that this was the best wine we’d ever tasted, from the best winery in the world:
Cambrico, apparently, exports all over the place, its biggest buyer being Kazakhstan, for some reason. A few precious cases are reportedly being shipped off to England at the moment, but for Scottish readers, there’s only one bottle of 575 Uvas in the country at the moment. And it’s got our name on it.
After a good lunch in a nearby village (in Spain, even undistinguished-looking local caffs can serve up things like carillas de cerdo (pig’s cheeks, cooked in a red wine sauce) that are every bit as good as the fancied-up version you’d get in a top restaurant in Madrid) we set off for our second destination: the village of La Alberca.
Pierre told me he’d been in two minds about taking us here as part of the tour, and I saw why. La Alberca is a stunning village high in the Sierra (half-timbered, Elizabethan stylee houses deep in the Spanish mountains – who knew?) that’s just on the cusp of being spoiled by too much tourism. However, the village was so pretty we felt he’d made the right call:
After a cold drink, we set off for the last port of call: the Peña de Francia (the French Peak), and its Dominican sanctuary. Apart from the religious buildings (although looking a bit like a set of army barracks, the sanctuary did, somehow, exude a sense of, well, sanctuary) the main attraction of the place was its stunning views over the surrounding mountainous region, and beyond. A viewpoint, with metal pointers like gunsights for the main places of interest, was very photogenic:
After the intensity of the wine tour, and the bustle of La Alberca, the visit to Peña de Francia was a strangely tranquil end to our day. I would totally recommend any wine tour by Slow Wines: these guys are, as I say, completely immersed in their subject, and their enthusiasm and passion shone through. But above all you must go to Cambrico, and meet Bosi. Even if you’re pretty much condemned by reason of economics and geography to drink supermarket wines mostly, the memory of that hillside will stay with you for a long time.
And the fourth apasionado? We asked Pierre to recommend us a bar in Salamanca that specialised in wine, and he told us three. The best of these was, by some way, Doctrinos (Calle Doctrinos, 3) where the owner took particular care of us, recommending wines from the extensive list, giving us free tasters first, and producing excellent tapas to boot. He seemed far more concerned about us enjoying the wine than anything else: and he even had 575 Uvas on the list. Just a great, traditional style, Castilian taberna that we’ll definitely be paying another visit or two to when we’re back in Salamanca.
Oh, yes. We will be back.
Andrew C Ferguson