Passionate about wine, food and opera, this economist, lawyer and wine broker was able to identify the tremendous winegrowing potential of Abadía Retuerta back in the 1980s, even though there were no longer any vines left on the estate.
Juan José Abó is no ordinary person. He was born in the Aran Valley on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, an almost secret region that looks towards France and has its own language. Aranese is a variant of Occitan which Abó still speaks today.
His wife, originally from Bordeaux, instilled in him a passion for wine and food culture. When they met, he was 18 years old and drank Coca-Cola. Eventually he became a good connoisseur of the great French wines. He joined the International Academy of Wine (AIV) in the mid-seventies and, encouraged by his producer friends in the association (Louis Jadot, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Jean Louis Chave or Auguste Clape), he started to import some of their wines to Spain. “I had to drink many of them”, he remembers, “because at that time nobody wanted French wine”. Since the 1980s, he is the only Spanish member of the Académie du Vin de France. For her part, his wife, who is an excellent cook, is an advocate of her country’s fine food and regional products through the Ordre des Dames du Vin et de la Table.
Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company where he had previously worked as an economist and lawyer, sought his advice on a property they had acquired in the Duero Valley. By then, Juan José Abó had visited some of the most legendary vineyards in France. This interview tells the story of the creation of Abadía Retuerta as we know it today and the wines that were produced in the early years.
How do you remember your first visit to Abadía Retuerta?
It was in 1988 with Xavier Brugué, president of Sandoz Spain. We flew with Aviaco to Villanubla airport in Valladolid and I discovered an amazing estate with an abbey that was then a cereal farm. The property consisted of 710 hectares, of which around 250 were under vine until the previous owner grubbed them up at the end of the 1970s.
After hiking across Burgundy seven times with my wife in the 1970s, I immediately pictured the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. It seemed to me a magical place. We also visited the abbey, which was where the wheat was stored at the time. Xavier was disappointed and asked me if something could be done because they had some interested buyers. But a soil that has been regenerated for 10 years is very good for wine.
Was there a defining element that helped to take the step?
Hipólito, the man in charge of the estate at that time, discovered a collection of documents which proved that wine had been produced since the 12th century and that in the 17th century wine had been served at the royal court of Valladolid.
Beyond the natural misgivings caused by the arrival of a multinational to the area, we had plenty of help from locals such as Pablo Álvarez, from Vega Sicilia, and his then winemaker Mariano García, who explained to me during a dinner at the winery that they used to harvest grapes from a plot in Retuerta called Prado del Aceite.
What did Sandoz think about engaging in a business so different from its own?
There was considerable internal discussion about whether or not it was good for a pharmaceutical company to produce wine. They had not bought a winery but a farm to plant seeds. The company was headed by Dr. Marc Moret and the idea of making wine seemed quite distant at the time. But I always defended that it made the company more human and that wine is part of the Christian civilization. I also told them that there were no formulas to create a best-seller or a film with ten Oscars, nor a great wine.
I also pointed out to the Council that wine is made in the vineyard and that we had an unpredictable partner in nature, which tends to express itself with parsimony because it hates urgency.
Fortunately, Mr Moré took our side eventually and helped us to carry through all the ideas we had.
What were the first steps?
I handled things as I could with Xavier because there was no structure to begin with. We travelled to Burgundy, the Rhône and many other places because I had to show him what a winery was.
Professor of viticulture Vicente Sotés, an honest man of great culture, soon became involved. He carried out a survey of the estate and from there Tempranillo and some Cabernet were planted.
I also approached many friends at the Academy such as Perrin of Beaucastel in the Rhône or Montille in Burgundy for advice, but of all the people I brought along, the only one who shared my philosophy was Pascal Delbeck, who made the wines of Château Ausone and Château Bélair in St-Émilion and was known in Bordeaux as “the king of Merlot”. We hired him in 1994. He conducted another soil study and defined the current plots with different qualities based on orientations, soils, etc. He also planted Merlot. Good viticulture practices let terroir express itself whereas bad viticulture can mask it.
Then we met Ángel Anocíbar, a very young passionate winemaker with a good track record in Bordeaux. He was from Navarre and a bit stubborn, but also a bit crazy like Pascal. It was the ideal candidate: the sane ones are too prudent. Besides, we both share the same birthday: April 7th. At that time Moré retired and Daniel Vasella, the next president [by then of Novartis, after the merger of Sandoz with Ciba-Geiby] was a great wine lover.
How was the winery designed?
It was Pascal’s dream winery and Brugué supported him. We adapted the technology of Bélair using gravity and no pumps, but in a more rustic way. A sorting table was also set up because Delbeck had been the first to use it at Bélair 1978.
And the style of the wines?
We chose to use less oak than people wanted. We adhered to the philosophy of Émile Peynaud and Pierre Coste [the former was a leading figure in modern winemaking, the latter a professor and négociant in Bordeaux] of not masking the wine with wood or anything else. In the early days, Alain Senderens’ [the first chef to deliberately pair food and wine] favourite Abadia Retuerta wine was Primicia because he said it was absolutely original. It underwent carbonic fermentation, but it held up very well in bottle, was fruity, and was ideal to pair with the Spanish cuisine of the time. It was the most appealing thing we could do with young vines at the start.
Then came Selección Especial, which is a great red wine because of its price, quality and the regularity that Ángel Anocíbar imparts to his wines.
What do you remember about some of the other wines that were made and were later discontinued?
The cuvées were conceived as wines with different styles whilst we waited for the vineyards that needed more years to be ready. Campanario was a tight cuvée with all the austerity of the estate while Palomar was more celebratory. I felt a tingle when we first tasted Cuvée Palomar because it was a happy, friendly table wine. All wines are meant to be enjoyed with a meal, except perhaps Champagne that can be served as an aperitif or at seven o’clock in the evening.
Who else helped in getting the project off the ground?
Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, journalist Víctor de la Serna [now also a wine producer], who went out of his way to give us some fantastic ideas. We made many trips with him to the estate and suffered the cold. He also introduced us to Carmelo García Caderot, then art director at El Mundo newspaper, who created those sensational labels of the abbey’s angels that were so prominent on the shelves. I also remember the encouragement of Pelayo de la Mata, Marquis of Vargas, and the journalists Óscar Caballero, Paz Ivison then writing for Gourmets magazine and those we called “the Retuerta 25”, a group we brought by coach from Madrid to take a look at the project.
What’s the most memorable Abadía Retuerta bottle you’ve ever tasted?
Probably a 1995 bottle that I don’t even know how we made it, but we opened it 25 years later and it was perfect.
A piece of advice from someone who has uncorked countless bottles.
One must be very humble when it comes to wine. When they are born, wines are like babies, they are all beautiful. You must have a great deal of experience to understand how they will evolve. That’s why you have to start with honest, fairly priced wines. We have gone from producing hideous wines to making them all drinkable, but they are technological. Increasingly more wines are made in the cellar rather than in the vineyard. But with Angel Anocíbar and Pascal we are completely confident that the wines will always be made in the vineyard.
For Juan José Abó, what is the cornerstone of a good wine?
Pascal and I shared a set of principles including, among other things, that:
- Great wine cannot be made without high quality grapes; hence our insistence on taking care of the vineyard.
- Oak must be blended and integrated with respect for the wine so that it does not become a grave for the wine.
- A wine is remembered for its originality, its character and its persistence.
- Use new technologies wisely to better translate the respect for the grape, the identity of the wine, the personality of the surroundings, the cultural appreciation and the history of the winegrower
- The wines of Abadía Retuerta are singular, but also plural because of their great and rare complexity.
- Great wine is a human, intellectual and artistic creation skillfully sublimated with intelligence to enter the realm of the divine.
- Great wines are truly remarkable for their complexity, persistence, longevity, character and lasting
How do you view the evolution of the project over the years?
From what I saw to what I see now, the work done in the vineyard (the environmental commitment is outstanding) and in the winery has been heroic, and things that didn’t work were intelligently corrected. All my high-profile friends in the wine business are in awe of the achievements. We have been fortunate that Jörg Reinhardt, Vasella’s successor, is a wine lover and connoisseur without fanaticism; he appreciates the great wines of the world and of Spain, he knows what it takes to make wine and he strives to preserve Retuerta’s wine heritage and to develop its potential. The Retuerta vineyard is now like a 30-year-old person; in another 20 years I think we will have reached maturity.
Where will Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine be then?
I see it among the world’s respected wines. We haven’t yet discovered all the potential we have, but the fact is that partner nature requires time. For example, if we hadn’t waited for the Merlot [its ripening cycle changed over recent years and the results are now surprisingly good], we wouldn’t have succeeded.
What is the most important thing wine has given to Juan José Abó?
Apart from my wife, who is indefatigable, wine and music are my life. Wine has allowed me to meet fascinating people, people who in 90% of the cases are genuine because they suffer the attacks of that partner that is nature. I remember a visit to Chave in Hermitage that coincided with a hailstorm that devastated the vineyard in barely three minutes. And Chave, who was 80 years old, said that there would be no harvest that year but that the truly terrible thing would have been if one of his children or grandchildren had been involved in an accident.