Two very different vintages and two very different tastings demonstrate how the weather still plays a crucial role in winemaking, writes Peter Ranscombe.
WHAT a difference a year makes; nearly 12 months ago, I was sitting in a London tapas bar – remember when we could go out for tapas? – listening to Paula Fandino, the winemaker at Mar de Frades, explaining why she likes to do things differently with her albarino in Spain’s Rias Baixas region.
Today, I sat huddled over my desk, crossing my fingers that my ageing laptop would hold itself together for long enough so that I could hear Fandino imparting her words of wisdom from her vineyard via video conferencing app Zoom.
While lockdown may have altered the medium, one aspect of the annual tasting remained the same – the sheer quality of her wines.
Fandino’s fastidious stirring of the lees – the dead yeast cells leftover from the fermentation that turns the grape sugars into alcohol – builds up the body of her wines, while her preference for a Ganimede fermentation tank, which uses carbon dioxide instead of sulphur dioxide to keep out the oxygen in the air, maintains the wine’s fresh and fruity flavours.
Each of her actions aims to retain albarino’s fresh and floral characteristics and avoid the “apple pie and honey” flavours, which can come from leaving the grapes on the vine for too long so that they get over-ripe.
That doesn’t mean that her wines are carbon copies of each other, year after year.
The crucial factor – which not even Fandino can control – is the weather.
Rias Baixas often reminds me of of the west coast of Scotland – a land of sea lochs filled with exquisite seafood and pounded by the Atlantic.
That wet climate even influences how the grapes are grown; high up on two-metre tall pergolas to allow air to flow in between the vines and blow away diseases and rot.
Yet, like most places on the planet, Rias Baixas’s weather is changing, with warmer temperatures affecting the ripening of the grapes.
Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you
Tasting two vintages today of Mar de Frades side-by-side illustrated what a difference the weather can make.
The 2018 Mar de Frades Albarino (£15.80, Exel Wines) came from a hotter year, with its aromas and flavours concentrated more around peach, apricot and red apple.
It still had the characteristic albarino acidity that Fandino works to protect, with a lick of butter and a rounded texture from the lees stirring.
Pouring the 2019 Mar de Frades Albarino (£18.95, The Fine Wine Company) made it obvious immediately that this was a different beast.
While the aromas of both wines leapt from the glass, those from the 2019 were much more focused on lemon, green apple and even lemon sherbet.
On the palate, it was much more savoury, with the traditional lemon rind and sea salt tang.
“This wine is still a baby – in six months or a year it will get even better,” said Fandino as she swirled her own glass at the other end of the video conference call, before grabbing the camera and taking participants on a tour of the outside of the winery and vineyards, with the sea poking through the trees in the distance.
She explained that 2019 was a cooler year, with weather that was much more typical of what Rias Baixas regularly experienced a decade ago.
Covid and winemaking
And what of 2020? I asked Fandino if she would store this year’s vintage in tanks or bottles if restaurants, bars and other markets remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and are therefore unable to buy it.
“In tanks,” she answered immediately. She wants to keep her wine away from oxygen and part of it in contact with its lees to again maintain that balance between freshness and body.
In that way, a delay in bottling the 2020 vintage won’t cause too much disruption; Fandino keeps her wine in tanks and usually only bottles it three months before an order is due to be fulfilled.
Let’s hope that, by the time the 2020 is ready to leave its tanks, we’re all able to enjoy her albarino again in restaurants, bars – or even visiting Rias Baixas.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s blog entries about whisky, wine and other drinks on The Grape & The Grain at https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/grapegrain/