The date is not mistaken, far from it. On January 11th we picked the grapes for our Vendimia Tardía, a sweet wine that is part of the range Abadía Retuerta Winemaker’s Collection. We have been making it since 1999, in years when the conditions are right for it.
The greatest difficulty lies precisely in the weather as the grapes must follow a continuous process of sugar concentration for almost three months after the end of the regular harvest.
In our case, the resulting wine is what our technical director, Ángel Anocíbar, describes as a mixture of Sauternes and Eiswein, two classic sweet wine styles. Sauternes, originally from Bordeaux (Château d’Yquem is its most famous example), manages this concentration of sugars thanks to the action of the noble rot fungus (botrytis cinerea) that dehydrates the grapes while retaining good levels of acidity. Eiswein (German for ice wine) achieves the same concentration by freezing the fruit naturally at temperatures of at least -10º C.
The grapes that were harvested on January 11th on the estate were affected by noble rot (check the wrinkled cluster in the photo) but had also undergone a freezing process (the frozen must is visible in one of the images).
What do we need to be able to produce this late harvest wine? According to Ángel Anocíbar, “the first requirement is an absence of rain at the end of the harvest, otherwise the bunches will rot”.
Not all vineyards are apt to make this style of wine. Our most suitable is right in front of the abbey, where frost is frequent. Furthermore, given the proximity of this vineyard to the river, a combination of fog alternating with sunny days create the perfect conditions for the development of noble rot.
Our Vendimia Tardía is part of Abadía Retuerta Winemaker’s Collection range alongside other special and experimental wines. It has been made since 1999, climate permitting.
The focus has always been on Tempranillo, the estate’s flagship variety, even though it is not usually destined to make sweet wines.
The process requires a relatively quick harvest (the temperature should not rise above -2ºC) and a fast pressing when the grapes arrive at the winery. “Everything is prepared as if it were the pit lane of a Formula 1 race,” jokes Angel. The reason is that the cells of grapes with higher levels of sugar freeze at a lower temperature. Only these grapes undergo extraction; frozen berries with higher amounts of water are discarded.
As high levels of sugar are present, the process of transformation into alcohol is very slow. The process usually starts in stainless steel tanks and continues in barrels. Fermentation continues almost a month after the harvest, but the cold gradually helps it to slow down. At about 60 grams of sugar per litre, we add a small amount of sulphur to stop fermentation.
The wine will continue to age in barrels before being bottled. Even though grapes were harvested in 2019, the vintage that will be printed on the label is 2018. After all, the year of the vineyard cycle is always taken as a reference. But isn’t it remarkable that grapes can be so magically transformed and maintained in the plant beyond the New Year to create a completely different style of wine?