A Visit to Vera de Estenas

A Visit To Vera de Estenas.
Leaving the motorway to Madrid from Valencia at the Junction for San Antonio and San Juan, the Finca Cabezuela , Casa Don Angel which comprises the family home and HQ of Bodegas Vera de Estenas is quickly spotted away to the right amongst a pine grove up on a hill . The beauty of the property itself however is not realised until you have followed the dirt track over the local railway line, around the back of the property and you then reach a car park to the side of the house, guarded by two alsation dogs. Rounding the front of house by foot the splendour of this old bodega with its gardens sloping away from you is suddenly apparent.
Rear entrance to the Bodega .
We were met by Félix Martinez, winemaker and owner who I had met previously at Ferevin and other fairs over the years. A genial man with good English he quickly took us to the vineyards to see the crop and to taste the grapes of the different varieties.
The Chardonnay had been harvested and was by now in stainless steel tanks and about to commence fermentation. The vineyards surround the property again making harvesting easy and transportation to the bodega quicker to avoid the grapes expressing juice and oxidising before they can be chilled and pressed and temperature control takes over.
Félix explained that this was not destined to be a great year in either his vineyards or those of Utiel-Requena more generally. The weather this year had brought problems with oidium amongst others and the heat had been inconsistent at the wrong time. Nonetheless the Chardonnay still produced between 12.5 -13% alcohol and the Macabeo around 12%.  Harvesting of the red varieties would commence with Merlot this week and could take three weeks or so. Indeed the overall harvest can commence as early as the last week of August and continue until as late as the first week of November.
Discussing and tasting the ripeness of the fruit direct from the vine with Félix
The vineyards consist of 42 hectares some down to old bobal with more than a hundred years of age and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay planted by his father in 1981. They also grow Malbec, Macabeo and Tempranillo and access Syrah from plots away from the vineyard nearer to Requena.
These 30 year old vines produce around a kilo of fruit per plant from Merlot and 1.25-2kg from Cabernet Sauvignon. Harvesting  takes between 15-20 days and each variety is picked, pressed,  moved to tank and vinified separately.
Félix allowed us to try the different grapes and was keen to show the `green pepper´  in the still unripe Cabernet Sauvignon…..something that could not be missed! Interestingly this ecological, but currently uncertified, property is suffering from the plague of rabbits which is prevalent in the region and which the local hunting associations are required by law to deal with. Félix showed us the bunches closest to the ground with the ripe grapes gone, eaten away by what by now will be tasty bunnies!
As the property is highest near the bodega and slopes away towards the motorway and railway, the vineyards are at their worst in terms of fertility up here with stony thin soil . Lower down the slopes the valley is more fertile and the soil deeper with more clay and as at Chozas Carrascal plots of vines contain different varieties to ensure an even distribution of quality.
Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1981.
We moved from the vineyards to the reception area outside the bodega where the grapes are pressed and the juice pumped direct to double skinned stainless steel tanks controlled temperature wise by an industrial sized refrigeration plant which keeps the temperature at 14-15 degrees. We were then met by Mario, the Marketing Manager at the bodega who had originally kindly invited us to visit the property when we had sampled wines at the recent Requena winefair .
Vera de Estenas has ambitious plans, one of which is to be declared a vino de Pago, that is to say a bodega where the entire process from growing the vines, harvesting, making the wine , ageing, bottling and distribution is entirely carried out at and controlled from within the property. This is an immensely time-consuming paper exercise but one which, when complete will add prestige to the Bodegas reputation.
 Mario took us from here through the barrel park where he showed us the French Allier barrels and some American oak examples as well with their wood cut in directly opposite style to the former. Wood here is kept for four years only and then sold off or given away to restaurants for decorative purposes. Before being moved to oak barrels the wine passes through underground deposits where it is pumped over and where a natural gravity inspired filtration process takes place.
Some of the French ( Allier ) oak barrels .
From here the wine goes either to barrel for ageing and maturing or directly in the case of the white and Rosado to the bottling line. Here extreme caution has to be exercised depending on the wine, its DO,  and its destination as an export because there are different labelling requirements especially in the USA where even different states can require different information on the front and back labels.
From here Mario took us to the museum where the old olive press and copper tanks are kept together with old bottles of wine showing the development of wines in each brand, the change of brand names and the change of bottle shapes and styles and labels over the years.
Mario with one of the museum peices.
Particularly interesting was the Viña Lidon with its selection of gently oxidising wines going from pale gold to golden brown gold,  as they aged year by year, some in their Alsace shaped clear glass, the newer ones in their green Chablis shaped bottles. ( More on the wine itself later!).
He also explained the large hand painted bottles in a separate display case destined for a special art and wine exhibition in El Corte Ingles, one-offs for collectors with one-off prices to match! Also there were bottles from a special and exclusive collection  for the Mercado Colon commemorating the capture of Valencia from the Moors by King Jaime a representation of whom sits on a stylised horse in the museum.
Before we descended to the old concrete and ceramic tiled deposits under the original house Mario explained a bit about the philosophy of the bodega. It was the first time I had heard the term `boutique winery´ used in relation to a property in Spain, a description more usually applied to Californian producers of small and eclectic products..e.g. Bonny Doon. However it seems to me equally valid because whilst there are commercial entry  level wines within the range, much of the production is small scale and unique in style to this bodega as we will see when I describe the wines tasted later.
Older vintages of Viña Lidon in the old style Alsace bottles showing different stages of oxidisation.
Vera de Estenas is also very keen to promote itself through wine tourism ( The Ruta  Vino ) locally and abroad. Indeed whilst Mario conducted the second part of the tour, Félix was conducting a small group provided by a local hotel on a separate tour.  It is not a producer of wines for supermarkets in England for example and Mario was keen to explain that their wines were for niche markets and sold well in certain parts of a country for example whilst 50 miles away there would be no market for them for broadly socio-economic reasons, something we could accept as self evident.
Mario went on to explain that unlike some vineyards who produced wines fermented in barrel, Félix´s preferred treatment was fermentation in tank and then ageing in French oak with the last 30-50 days in in American oak to give a certain different style to the wine. Moreover he undertakes minimum filtration to allow natural brilliance in the wine.
The bodega currently exports to twelve countries and will bottle wine specifically for restaurants such as the excellent `El Tollo´ in Utiel with their own labels.
Just some of the bottles ageing in the cellars.
We descended to the bodegas cellars to view the collections of bottles, some reposing for future sales others for the regular monthly tastings conducted by Félix to assess the ongoing progress, maturing and ageing potential of each different marque. And then and only then were we taken back upstairs to a private room where we were to be given an exemplary tasting across the range of wines produced with plates of fiambres, cheese and home-made bread, and example of one of the tasting and visit packages made available by the bodega, ranging from the simple tour and taste through individualy priced  packages to one which includes a full meal and the number of wines within each is subject to negotiation.
Félix rejoined us at this point to discuss the wines we were to taste.
The tasting table.
I describe this as exemplary simply because they were keen to show us the quality of wines produced across their range and we were not restricted as to what could have been opened. This was a tasting based on a growing mutual respect and hopefully a relationship that could develop in the future.
The entry level wines are simply called Vera de Estenas and the label is decorated with a pixellated vine-leaf. We started with the blanco, a young white from 2009, 12% ABV and 95% Macabeo and 5% Chardonnay. ( In different vintages the percentage of chardonnay can rise to 20%). This is a clear, bright yellow wine with green flashes which, on the nose shows white flowers, predominantly elderflower, with citrus touches and hints of fruits. In the mouth this is a light but complex wine, fresh, fruity with perfect balance and a beckoning to invite a second sip. It has a long satisfying dry finish.
Second wine also from this range was the Vera de Estenas Rosado, a 100% Bobal with 12%ABV and from 2009. The wine is from the younger Bobal vines with only 30-35 years of age and is a clear and bright reasonably light red wine with long legs. On the nose it is undisputedly strawberry which predominates amongst strong fruit flavours but in the mouth this is a perfectly balanced fresh wine with a minerally after taste. Mario says this is particularly popular with ex-pat communities further down the coast and especially with women. We all agreed this was a wine for seafood dishes, especially arroz abanda. Both these wines retail for around 3.25€.
The third wine is one of my long term favourites here. I believe it is a masculine wine in so far as the production methods produce a robust wine. However I will accept that there is greater subtlety to this wine than some fermented in oak rather than simply aged in wood  for a while after fermentation. It has a lighter style as a result. Anyway, I am committed, I remember telling Félix four years ago it was the best barrel aged chardonnay I had tasted in Spain and nothing has shaken me from that point of view.
Mario had opened the bottle around 30 minutes before we started to drink it and as a result of this and being out of the fridge it had risen to about 12 degrees in temperature, a tad warmer than the chilled white and rosado wines.  It is 2009, 100% Chardonnay and 13.5%ABV. Clean, bright straw yellow with golden flashes. On the nose the expected tropical fruit, vanilla, soft oak and toasted biscuits. In the mouth this is pure harmony, very expressive, light but well structured, it has a crisp natural acidity in perfect balance with the fruit and wood. This sells for 8.50€ at the bodega, a bit more in specialist shops and is excellent in quality to value ratio. 
The first three wines from the tasting.
The second wine from this range of oak matured wines is a red from 100% Merlot and also 13.5% ABV. It is sold under the Martinez Bermell marque, the name deriving from Félix´s father Francisco who was also founder of the Requena wine school and at whose shoulder Félix learn´t his craft. I had tasted this wine in April at the Utiel Winebloggers tasting. Like the chardonnay this has spent 2 months in oak. It is a ruby red wine, medium density and described as a young red for summer drinking. On the nose there are red fruits, toasty scents and hints of vanilla. In the mouth it is well balanced between soft fruit and young oak and will probably still be this good in 4-5 years time. Also selling at 8.50€  the bottle.
We subsequently moved up a flight to the quality reds produced at the property. Also sold under the Vera de Estenas Label with a graphic line drawing of the Finca the wines have spent a minimum of six months in oak and the first of the wines tasted was the Oak matured 2009, 50% Bobal with the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot and Syrah. This is the biggest volume wine produced at the property and sells for 4€ a bottle. It is also 13.5% ABV.
In the glass this displays hints of violet and a lovely brilliance. It has substantial legs. This is a good wine to assess the flavours of bobal, newly cut grass, fruits of the forest, and floral notes as well as the woodland floor  and touches of oak which I believe derive from the influence of Cabernet sauvignon in the blend. On the palate, the oak is obvious but smooth together with its associated vanilla, there is also a touch of cedar more redolent of american wines and soft elegance which is probably due to maturing in second year rather than new oak. Another good summer drinking red.
The sixth wine is the Vera de Estenas Crianza. This has spent 7 months in tank, 15 months in barrel and 8 months in bottle before release onto the market. From 2007 and 13.5% ABV it is a blend of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Tempranillo, 15% Merlot and 15% Bobal. Black and of full density this wine is perfumed and concentrated on the nose with bags of mature fruits. On the palate blackcurrant, silky velvety texture and loads of fruit with a long finish. This is a premium restaurant wine and retails for all of 6€ at the bodega.
Wine number seven from this tasting was the Reserva, 2006 13.5% ABV and which has spent 10 months in tank, 17 months in barrel and 14 months in bottle. It is a blend of Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Merlot. The current vintage selling is the 2002 which has 10 years of life left in it yet. However the 2006 is medium to light cherry with a brick edge, On the nose fresh, fruity, with another touch of forest floor. As it opens the vanilla flavours appear. On the palate ripe but dry, loads of different flavours, smooth tannins, and a long dry finish. This needs food and red meats and cheeses would be perfect accompaniments.
The next wine is an enigma. Made from Malbec the Casa Don Angel is a blend of 2007 and 2008. As a result of both being an non-permitted grape and a blend of vintages it cannot fall within the rules of the DO. As such therefore it is a vino de mesa or `table wine´which it patently isn´t as it is the bodegas second top wine!
Malbec is a favourite in South America and France often blended with Merlot in a classic combination but this is pure, 100% Malbec. Technically a crianza, it is matured in French and American oak for periods between 6-24 months depending on the age of the barrel. 13% ABV it is Deep garnet cherry in colour, The nose is clean with a hint of green pepper and in the mouth, subtle it is not, being full, spicy, meaty silky and perfectly balanced with a long finish. At 8.50€ a bottle this is a wine to look for, sample, and then buy some more and lay it down. Wonderful!
Last , but not least as it is top wine, is the Casa Don Angel Bobal. 100% Bobal, 14%ABV, from 2005 and with 6 months in tank, 18 months in French and American oak and then bottle aged as well. This wine comes from the Bobal vines with more than 100 years of age, grown on lime based stony soil and yeilding no more than 2kg of fruit per vine.
Decanted well in advance, it is dark cherry red, with brick edge. Ripe fruits, spice and oak, toasted oak. In the mouth complex, meaty, full bodied robust, sweet tannins, rich . We were urged to taste this with a crujiente of dark black chocolate ( 90% Cacao) and almonds and obviously there could be no better match as the wine not only balanced  it but reaffirmed its power and fruit in the mouth. Top wine, top price around 20€ in specialist stores this is a treat and a fabulous example of what Bobal is about and why we love it so much here.
The Casa Don  Angel Bobal and Malbec ( Left and right respectively). Top wines from a top property.
This was a visit to a property whose wines I have often seen and sampled and which I have wanted to visit for some time. The visit fulfilled every wish and could not have been more enjoyable and more informative. Thank you to Mario for the invitation, the copious background material ( enough to write a book ) to Félix for being a genial host and to Laura Weatherston who took the photographs.
My advice, buy these wines whenever you find them, they will never let you down.
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