An exploration of wine

Cantariña, Bierzo: Finance to fine wine

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Cantarina Vinos de la Familia Bierzo Mencia

Cantariña No. 2 and No. 3 Mencia wines from Bierzo

In 2002, I first met Santiago Ysart Alvarez de Toledo – Santi Ysart – when we joined the full-time MBA programme at London Business School. Santi, a rugby-playing finance guy, rapidly became a stalwart of the LBS student community and a good friend. After graduating, Santi returned to Madrid and the world of banking and high finance for several years.

Finally, though, he had the cojones not just to get out of the rat-race, but to start a fine dining restaurant in Madrid – Alma or “Soul” – during which time he got more and more interested in wine.

Alma Ristorante Madrid food

Just one of the ambitious, fine dining dishes at Alma

The restaurant, which we visited in 2016, sadly didn’t survive but Santi’s passion for wine did. With his 4 siblings, a plan began to form, to revive his maternal family’s wine roots.

Santi Ysart Cantarina Alma wine cellar

Santi, in front of Alma’s impressive wine cellar, when we visited

When Santi said he’d be in London in December and asked if I’d like to try the wines of his new family venture, Cantariña, I of course said yes and we met at 67 Pall Mall. This can be a tricky situation though, given our friendship: what if the wines are bad? How do I assess them objectively?

Thankfully I didn’t need to worry, because the two Mencía wines were very good – both the tiny production, but very fine, Cantariña No. 3 El Triángulo 2016, and their largest production Cantariña No. 2 Viña de los Pinos 2017, which I think is an absolute steal at €11 / bottle on the shelf, at least in Spain.

Later that evening, with the rest of the samples to hand, I showed both of these to a fellow MW I happened to bump into. Knowing only that these were from Spain she straightaway said of the No. 2 – “this smells very Mencía-like”, which was precisely how I felt – it’s a classic example of the variety. She also confirmed my view of the quality of No. 3. I’d like to see this wine again in 3-4 years, when I think it will be fully in its stride.

Moreover, the potential from the old vines that go into the white and Garnacha Tintorera bottlings is clear, and these should be great as Santi and his family build their knowledge of how best to handle these varieties in both the vineyard and winery. This is a very important point to bear in mind – the wines tasted here are essentially the first vintages made, so Santi and his brothers and sisters are still in the early stages of the learning curve.

Nevertheless, these are wines to watch – you heard it here first! I sincerely hope Santi will get UK distribution in the near future and I’ll do my best to point him in the right direction.

As for the name, Cantariña means “cricket” in the local Galician language, gallego. Their closest town is Vilafranca del Bierzo. Where the Camino to Santiago de Compostela passes through the town, there is another road named Cantariña after the local crickets found in that area. They decided to adopt the name to represent both the winery and its connection to nature.

 

Background

Cantariña is Santi’s family project, which involves bringing family vineyards back into their own production and back to life. Today, Santi is based in Beirzo, and works full-time on all aspects of the wine business, with part-time contributions from his brothers and sisters – one sister, for example, designing their attractive labels.

For an ex-finance guy, something of the change of pace has taken some adjustment, as some decisions taken can take years to show an outcome, but overall he is loving the creation of something from their land, and tending it to be in good shape for the next generation.

Originally, Santi’s maternal grandfather, a noble landowner with 40Ha of land, first planted the vineyards. For the Bierzo region, where most production was either for personal consumption or bulk sales to co-ops or elsewhere, he was considered an innovator, helping to transform to own-bottled production across the 1950s to 1980s.

While technology to control fermentation and so on was lacking, leading to vintage variability in his wines, they were nevertheless well known for the region – indeed Alváro Palacios recently explained to Santi that he remembered drinking some when younger and that tasting them was part of what helped him realise that good wine could come from Bierzo.

As his grandfather aged – dying in 1982 – Santi’s parents’ generation tried to modernise the winery, for example replacing old foudres with epoxy-lined and stainless-steel tanks. Sadly, to do so they mortgaged most of the land and got over-leveraged, ultimately going bankrupt in the late 1990s. However, at his grandfather’s insistence, the 2 best vineyards, 3Ha Viña de los Pinos and 3.5Ha Valdeobispo, were not mortgaged so remained in family ownership.

Another winemaking business leased those vineyards and made wine over the intervening period. However, in 2014, the family realised that a small part of one vineyard was actually planted with Alicante Bouschet not Mencía, and that the leasees were not interested in harvesting it.

After discussing with the leasees, the family took care of that 0.2Ha parcel from the 2015 vintage – ultimately making their first wine – 900 bottles of Cantariña No. 1. As they embarked on the project, they quickly realised they didn’t know enough about winemaking, so asked Alejandro Luna Beberida for help, and the wine turned out well-enough for them to be encouraged.

That success suggested it was worth expanding, so they took over working an equally-small, triangular plot of Mencía within Los Pinos, named El Triángulo, which yielded 500 bottles in the 2016 harvest. The vines are approximately 80-100 years old, and as was typical practice for the area at the time higher up on the slope, some white vines – Doña Blanca and later some Palomino – were planted. In El Triángulo, that’s around 5% of production and up to 10% across in the entirety of Viña de los Pinos.

In 2016, the winery who had been renting decided to give up the contract and focus on vineyards closer to their base. The Cantariña team then took the lease over for the entire pair of vineyards – 3.5Ha and 3Ha in total. Scaling-up significantly in 2017, production upped almost 10-fold, to 12,000 bottles, primarily from the full 3Ha of Viña de los Pinos. Soils are clay and limestone at 5-600m altitude on hills, with some sand in parcels like El Triángulo.

In 2017 they sold 7,000kg of Mencía to leading light of Bierzo, Raúl Perez. In a style typical of the man, he said that the grapes were of such quality that they should make their own wines from those vines in 2018, which the family intend to do. Further, a new plot, which had been abandoned, has been planted with Godello and with Merenzao (Trousseau), to expand the white wine range on the one hand, and to add a grape that Santi and the team like on the other.

Their viticultural philosophy is sustainability with as low intervention as possible, with that low-intervention approach extending to winemaking. But low-intervention doesn’t mean “no sulfites” or “natural”; there’s a pragmatism here and a recognition that commercial viability through wine stability is critical to their establishment. The well-trained businessman in Santi quite rightly makes its stamp on the set-up of Cantariña.

 

In the winery

We began by tasting their white wine Cantariña No. 4 Doña Blanca, first made in 2017. It is 80% Doña Blanca which is a variety typically overlooked in the region – sold to co-ops, blended-in elsewhere, or simply not even harvested. They therefore didn’t know what to expect from it, so in 2017, the white vines were deliberately harvested a little later – after the Mencía, in fact.

This was done to see what effect fuller maturity would have on the varietal expressions of both Doña Blanca and generally-neutral Palomino. Given broadly decent acidities resulting from their altitude, they felt it was a risk worth taking, and the 2017 No. 4 weighs in at 14% ABV. For 2018, they deliberately brought the grapes in with a slightly lower 13.5% ABV to get a little more acidity and less ripeness.

Tasting the wine, I think that’s the right approach, as I believe a little more freshness would give the wine lift, without necessarily losing too much varietal expression – some more tension would be of value. We also discussed the use of oak, which they did consider and are considering again. I think the wine would take some subtle oak – perhaps 2nd or 3rd use, or 500L tonneaux – to give nutty complexity and richness. Overall, there’s definitely potential there, with good density of flavour and some saltiness from the really old vines.

The white grapes were manually harvested into 15kg boxes – the plot is simply too small to consider mechanisation. These were then transferred as whole clusters to a cool chamber for 48 hours of almost carbonic style, pre-ferment maceration. Fruit was then fully-destemmed, around 150ppm of SO2 was added, then the grapes pressed.

Though they had only 1,000L juice, that was transferred to a 10,000L stainless steel tank as that was the only one available. Unfortunately, that meant the liquid sat below the temperature control jacket! Nevertheless, the juice was then left there without addition from the end of August to December, resulting in a natural fermentation, followed by sitting on gross lees without any stirring.

Partial MLF naturally occurred. With just small SO2 adjustments, the wine spent a further 2 months in the tank as they decided what best to do with it, then they simply filtered with a medium-pore pad, before bottling.

In future, not only will the wine be slightly lower ripeness, they also do aim to put some into wood – like a 700L Jerez bota or 500L tonneau, most likely for the 2019 vintage. Production should also increase up to c. 3,000 bottles as they recover vines at the top of the hill, including both replanting and better protection of existing plants from rabbits.

We next tasted their ‘banker’ – the biggest production wine, from Viña de los Pinos: No. 2 Mencía. In my view, at just €11 on the shelf, this is a total bargain. Harvest was early – 20th August – and included mainly fruit from West and North-facing vines, because the South-facing grapes dessicated in this hot vintage before reaching phenolic maturity.

Fruit was destemmed and crushed to 2 x 10,000L tanks, neither of which were entirely full. The separation was based on lower parts of the vineyard into one vat, containing only Mencía, and the other including the white grapes from the upper vineyard areas.

Wild-yeast fermentation took place in stainless steel with pumpovers, plus temperature control up to a maximum 28°C for around 10 days, with 1 further week of post-fermentation maceration. That was followed by pressing to 10% new French oak barrels. MLF took place in barrel, with the portions with white and non-white grapes remained separate.

Maturation was for 8 months, then after some discussion, all barrels were blended together, including press wine, to create the 10,000-bottle production.

Their El Triángulo plot, first bottled separately in 2016 as Cantariña No. 3 El Triángulo Mencía, spent a full year in cask. 2017 produced 2.5 casks, while 2018 will be up to 3, so this is very small production at around 500 bottles. It is therefore €29 at retail, but is an absolute stunner of a wine, even in its first vintage. It shows the fairly-firm structure of Mencía, but without the rusticity of tannin texture that can accompany it – instead having some polish to the tannins that is already starting to resolve. There’s good length and perfume, so I would like to see this wine again in 3-4 years, where I think it will be really on song.

Finally, we tasted their first wine, the 2015 No. 1 Garnacha, made exclusively from Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet). As a long-maturing variety, was this was harvested in late September, based on flavour – particularly retention of some citric character – as well as skin and pip maturity.

As a result, they harvested significantly earlier than most who make Garnacha Tintorera wines, aiming for just 12.5-13% ABV, whereas many Alicante Bouschet wines from its spiritual home in Portugal’s Alentejo are often over 14.5%.

The wine therefore had pretty high acidity for the variety, so they put it into 500L and 225L new French oak for a year, to balance that acidity with oak richness. Tasting the wine, I also noted some green apple flavour character, and Santi recalled that this wine also only partially-completed malolactic fermentation.

I can again see potential from this generally disregarded variety – planted in the 1950s for production as ‘food’ more than for wine – given 70-odd year old vines with good flavour depth and some salinity. Nevertheless, I would go for a little more ripeness, to soften the acidity a touch and enrich the mid-palate – say 13-13.5%.

 

Wines in order tasted

Cantariña No. 4 Doña Blanca Bierzo 2017 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
1,200 bottles. 80% Doña Blanca, 20% Palomino. 14% ABV. €14.50 / bottle RRP in Spain.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Green apple scent, with chalky-flinty mineral, a touch of nutty breadth from wild ferment, and some almost marzipan-like character. On warming, orchard fruit expands and honey emerges – builds nicely in the glass
P: Marzipan, green apple and some stone fruit. Some gentle phenolics. Medium-long, with some nutty, wild ferment tones. Bright acidity just holds the wine together, along with a touch of salinity

Cantariña No. 2 Viña de los Pinos Mencía Bierzo 2017 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
10,000 bottles from 2.6 of the 3Ha of this single vineyard. 90% Mencía, 10% Doña Blanca and Palomino. 8 months in 10% new French oak. 13.5% ABV. €11 / bottle RRP in Spain.
A: Deep purple
N: Rich blackberry and some damson, with subtle nutty oak, slatey-granite minerality
P: Damson and blackberry. Peppery, with nutty oak. Complex, smoky rock tones. Fine-grained, fairly-firm tannins. Good length

Cantariña No. 3 El Triángulo Mencía Bierzo 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
0.2Ha sandier-soil plot. 550 bottles. First vintage. 95% c. 100 year old Mencía, 5% Doña Blanca and Palomino. 12 months in 10% new French oak. 13% ABV. €29 / bottle RRP in Spain.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Floral overtones of violet and rose, to blackberry and raspberry fruit. Subtle, integral nuttiness. Flinty minerality
P: Tighter, firm, chalkier tannins. Blackberry and strawberry. Crushed rock. Nutty mid-palate tones. Long. Needs time to express itself

Cantariña No. 1 La Garnacha Bierzo 2015 (15.5+ / 20; 89+ / 100)
900 bottles. Garnacha Tintorera. 14% ABV. €18 / bottle RRP in Spain.
A: Deep black with a narrow garnet rim – classic Alicante Bouschet
N: Chocolate and coffee oak is notable, but not overdone. Violet and lemon touches. Rich, ripe blackberry and some blueberry
P: Brisk-to-crisp acidity. Touch of apple – apparently this did not complete MLF fully. Wild, grainy, firm to high tannins. Green tinge to blackberry fruit. Some spice through the medium-long finish. Interesting

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