The San Diego winemaker tour continues. This month, Costa Brava in Pacific Beach played host to Spanish winemaking icon Alejandro Fernández and his representatives from Classical Wines.
“I was working as a retailer in the late ’70s,” recalls Classical Wines president Stephen Metzler, “and somehow, Spain just came to my attention. It was so close to France, and yet so unknown — it just created huge questions in my mind. Spain has basically been off the political map since the civil war, and it was basically closed to the mass media at the time the mass media was becoming established. I went in the early ’80s, and I was asking the right questions at the right time. Five years earlier, there were no answers.”
Those questions led him to Alejandro Fernández, whose Tinto Pesquera and Condado de Haza (among other wines) are two of the better-known Tempranillos coming out of Spain today — emphasis on the “coming out of Spain.” Says Metzler, “Alejandro is credited with the success of Pesquera in the international market. The new generation of Spanish winemakers say that without Alejandro, they couldn’t be doing what they are doing. From ’86 to ’96, Pesquera was sort of the public relations arm of the Spanish government by default — we went around the world doing vertical tastings. We spent a lot on wine.”
By the time his Pesquera made its way over the border, Fernández had already transformed one industry: “He invented a mechanical beet harvester, the first in Spain that actually dug up the beet and cut the top off. It was burned by workers in the villages of Andalusia” — people who saw the arrival of new technology as a threat, people who preferred tradition.
Fernández himself embraces technology akin to the beet harvester — automated bottling and corking, for example, technology that does a purely mechanical job more efficiently. But, says Metzler, when it comes to winemaking, “he always said that he went back to making wine like his grandparents did. He created a style of wine which, basically, had nothing to do with technology. It simply reflected the raw materials without overlays of antiquated technology: basically, the Rioja aging system as it was at the time.”
(A note on that aging system: “People were just used to Rosé and Gran Riserva” – first-press stuff and wines laid down for many years before release. We were able to position his Crianza [a relatively young release] as a top-level wine. People were shocked; it was an incredible departure, and he was criticized for the tannins. But he reminded people that ‘Bordeaux only makes Crianza.’” If they could do it, why couldn’t he? And it helped that he found a friendly palate in the American market “because it did resemble the wines people were drinking — Cabernets.”)
Getting back to the technology — or the lack thereof: “He showed people what the fruit tasted like again,” largely through careful maintenance in the vineyard. More problematic than the aging system, says Metzler, was that “the grapes coming in were no good.
“Of course,” notes Metzler, the focus on fruit flavors “can be overdone. Today, you have a whole new generation of Australian flying winemakers in Spain, just making what they make. Alejandro was maybe misinterpreted in the early days as just getting a darker, riper wine. Actually, his wines are elegant and ageworthy. He likes ripe grapes, but he doesn’t like wrinkles in the skin. I think there’s another revolution that has to come to Spanish wines now, now that they’ve become popular — and that is that they have to be a little bit more discriminating. Spain is a two-faced country — the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Mediterranean depends on technology; the noble wine districts do not. So we can be talking Bordeaux and Burgundy, which is what we’re doing here, or we can be talking Australia, which is Jumilla and these areas.”
Fernández himself speaks, and Classical Wines co-owner Almudena de Llaguno translates. “He says that he comes from a winery — all of his ancestors, his family, everybody has grown up with wine. Now, there are many wineries that come from the money that has been made in construction. People invest in wineries, and it’s all brand new. But he comes from a tradition. He says that everybody is going on their own path, that Pesquera doesn’t have anything to do with whatever else is happening. He says he doesn’t even have temperature control” — at least, not the standard, super-precise sort provided by refrigeration. The cold-water jackets he employs around his fermentation tanks “are much more expensive, but it’s worthwhile because every wine is unique.”
Adds Metzler, “He always uses 100-percent natural yeasts. If you’re maintaining a constant temperature, you’re basically eliminating numerous yeast populations from the fermentation process.”
Fernández has already made his mark on the wine world; he has nothing more to prove. He can take on a project for the sheer challenge of it — for instance, El Vinculo, an impressive attempt to craft world-class Tempranillo from ancient vines he found in the traditionally white-wine district of La Mancha. “Originally,” says de Llaguno, “they thought he was crazy, but now they tell him he’s Don Quixote, that nothing so good has happened to La Mancha since Cervantes.” Or perhaps because of a location’s historical interest, as with his Dehesa la Granja wines. “The land was a fighting-bull ranch when he found it. But there was a huge underground cellar built in the 1700s. He said, ‘Here, wine has been made,’ and that was his interest.” Or purely for the sake of tradition — the Alenza Gran Riserva, which, says Metzler, “exists so that he doesn’t lose touch with the wines he made in the ’70s. It’s made with whole-cluster fermentation, though only in very ripe years, so that you don’t get those green tannins. You don’t get a bouquet like this even from Bordeaux anymore — you’d have to go back to the ’50s or ’60s.”
These projects are not simply academic pursuits; in some cases, they are more clearly commercial in tone than the more-restrained elegance of his flagship wine. Metzler’s commentary as we sip and spit includes lines such as, “These are wines that are more forward — not so much for aging, but with more commercial acceptance earlier in their lives. It’s a very successful, bigger style. New French oak. He feels obligated to have some wines with French oak because it’s a familiar flavor. Basically, California went to France and copied them, and that’s the flavor that was imported.”
Still, the man who shocked Rioja has not given himself over to courting the market. “When I say that I wouldn’t have guessed that the El Vinculo Riserva was 100 percent Tempranillo,” Metzler asks (rightly), “would you have thought something like Merlot? I think you’ll get it, but in maybe 10, 15, 20 years. It’s really undeveloped.” Through de Llaguno, Fernández says that the Riserva is “‘the best wine ever made in the world.’ I always say that he makes a great wine because he makes it for himself. He believes in it. Fortunately, the rest of the world loves them, too.”
Costa Brava owner Javier Gonzalez turns to me. “This last wine shows what he can do to his maximum — not necessarily for our pleasure. This wine, he loves it — he brought it in his suitcase. This wine is for him to love. A lot of wines, I love them because I understand it is for the winemaker to love, not necessarily for me to judge.”