Ángel Anocíbar, up close and personal

Born in Navarra, he has been behind the wines of Abadía Retuerta for almost 25 years since Pascal Delbeck saw that he had the professional skills to place this winery among the finest in the country.

At 53, this Aries born on April 7th (curiously, the same date as his mentor, Pascal Delbeck), feels deeply attached to Abadía Retuerta. The estate looks like an oasis now but in the early nineties all the work was yet to be done, including the construction of the winery.

Making wine in the open air is the most surreal thing you remember from your career at Abadía Retuerta?

On July 7, Pascal and I were standing next to the hole where the winery was planned to be built and at the end of September we brought in one million kilos of grapes. We started the gravity-based tank system [familiarly called “ovis”] without really knowing how it worked, but we were a very young and enthusiastic team —in fact, most of us are still working here. There was no roof, so sometimes you were pumping over and it started to rain, or the power supply failed. The tanks arrived from Portugal at a rate of three a day. The way they were assembled looked like a Formula 1 pit lane and in just a few hours they had grapes inside. Luckily, it was a very good harvest and the grapes arrived very far apart in time.

How do you remember the team back then?

We at Abadía Retuerta are a family, for better or for worse. Back then, we were very young and we used to organize lots of tastings and gatherings. Now it’s more complicated because many people have children, but the spirit remains. This bond and the commitment of the whole team means that someone can be disturbed during the holidays if, for example, the cooling systems break down, or at the weekend if a major problem arises.

How did you start in the wine business?

I started from scratch. My family lived in Señorío de Sarría, a large farming and livestock estate in Navarra that had its own village for the workers and where wine was also produced. My father worked with the cows and from a very young age I did some work in the winery: racking, helping with the orders… I was gradually learning and the opportunity arose for me to study at the Escuela de la Vid in Madrid. The school had reached an agreement with Bordeaux for the top student in the class to go to France to study. I finished first and that allowed me to complete my oenology degree there. Afterwards, I was offered to do my dissertation, so I combined my research with jobs in the region’s wineries to pay for my studies. I worked in the Entre-Deux-Mers area and at Château Calon-Ségur. In early 1996 I met Pascal Delbeck, who told me about Abadía Retuerta and suggested that I should join in. I remember that he would pick me up at the University to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and then we would go home.

What was the dissertation about?

It was about sulphur compounds in wines which enabled me to work with all kinds of aromas. I have conducted analyses for different projects, many of them involving Portuguese companies. As a result, I have learned a great deal about aromas and faults in wines. I had very good teachers in Bordeaux. Many of them had authored the textbooks we studied or came directly from their labs to teach us recently published topics.

Which are the most important moments in your career at Abadía Retuerta?

The climate study that we conducted at the time, all the know-how that we have acquired about diseases and the excellent work on the vineyard from the very beginning. When we arrived, no selection tables were used in the area and the grapes were picked watching the neighbour. Standard techniques in Bordeaux such as cluster thinning did not exist here. Even the priest of Sardón de Duero came on one occasion to see why we were throwing away grapes.

Having vinified each plot separately for 25 years provides you with excellent insights. Take this vintage, for example —I know the harvest date since mid-July. The climate studies that we have conducted enable us to fine-tune a great deal.

I would also like to mention the people who have been involved from the beginning and who have left their mark. Pascal’s sharp vision of what the vineyard would yield in 25-30 years. He is the sort of person who gives you ideas about a thousand things that you have not even thought about. Juan José Abó was also a key figure in the early days. Back then, I was a jack of all trades: winemaker, vineyard manager, lab technician and sales person alongside Abó.

Being in this job has brought me into contact with numerous other wine professionals. It is not always the case that so many experiences can be shared. This does not happen, for example, in Navarra, but in Castilla y León, wine is very much part of life and there are leading figures such as Mariano García, who is the equivalent of a local Pascal.

Could you tell us which are your top three vintages and why?

The first one, 1996, was the most surreal, but it was also the beginning of everything and for me it has a special meaning. I also love 2005 and 2011 because they were mature vintages. In 2011 I discovered that September is a crucial month. Until then, it was the time when the grapes finished ripening, but in 2011 we realised that it could be a very hot month and that it was possible to obtain really sweet tannins. It was a vintage with high concentration, but at the same time very well balanced. Acidity was well integrated and the high alcohol was not evident.

What is the most important thing you have received from Abadía Retuerta?

Comprehensive knowledge. The fact that you can manage the vineyard, make a wine that is adapted to the vineyard, and carry out wine, microbiology and climate research; you can also manage budgets, costs, five-year plans… All of this has given me a global vision of the business of wine. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a great privilege.

What is your favourite time of year in the vineyard?

The moment when the grapes start to change colour with veraison because it means no more work or treatments; you just have to wait for them to ripen. It’s precisely at this time of the year when I go on holiday because I now I can relax —I have an estimated harvest date and I know the real condition of each plot. On good years like this I go away feeling satisfied. In a cold year the feeling is not the same because I know we are going to harvest late and the risks are much greater.

If you had to choose between the vineyard and the winery…

I might choose the vineyard, but that’s because of what I know now and all the information I have. The vineyard is a source of great satisfaction, you can actually see that your efforts are paying off every year. The work in the winery is good, but it can perhaps be more routine. The lab is also interesting when you are working on a research project. The goal is always to manipulate less.

The harvest is about to start, how does it look this year?

Yesterday we harvested the white grapes and we plan to start picking some red next week. We have had a two-day cold spell with very low temperatures combined with a sudden jump to 35ºC. Ultimately our quality forecasts are good, but the harvest is going to be very irregular and long because we have plenty of everything: vines with varying amounts of grapes and ripening at different paces. This year Tempranillo has ripened earlier; Syrah is delayed and the last one is Petit Verdot. The weather forecasts for the next two weeks are good, so ripening is expected to progress smoothly. Everything will depend on the weather in October, which is always more variable, but the last Tempranillos will probably enter the cellar in the first week of that month and we will be left with the most resistant varieties in the vineyards.

This year the problem is Covid and all the accompanying protocols, PCR tests, the use of masks, etc. We will have between 60 and 70 people cutting grapes in groups of 10, plus another group to carry the boxes and 22 additional people every day working on the selection of grapes and pumping over the grapes. The Covid regulations are being applied throughout the process and all the necessary measures are in place to ensure that the harvest is done safely.

How would you rate the vintage compared to previous ones?

2017 was very warm and 2019 was fairly short. 2020 is quite similar to 2018 in terms of quantity and style; a standard vintage with temperatures close to last year’s and an average of 4,500 kg/Ha, which for us is in the upper range. What matters is that the grapes are very healthy and the quality is good.

You have experimented with almost everything in the winery and the Winemakers’ Collection line reflects this. Do you have anything left to do?

I taste a lot of wines each year and try to keep up with the trends. When I started at Abadía Retuerta there was a craze to use 200% new barrels. Now we have gone to the opposite end; no oak or old barrels and whole grapes. Pascal used to tell me that Bordeaux also went through those fads. I’m interested in making wines with stems because I see wines made in this way that I like. Others are not so good, but I think it’s a boon in years when the grapes don’t ripen fully.

I’m also very excited about the old Tempranillo wines that we have recovered in the estate. These are wines that always deliver very fine tannins. We already have two hectares of bush vines planted outside the monastery and another hectare that was grafted on. And we are going to replace all the faults in other vineyards with this Tempranillo.

What does Ángel Anocíbar drink when he doesn’t drink Abadía Retuerta or Duero wines?

All sorts of things. I usually do flights of 10 to 14 bottles. They may be Garnacha from different regions, Bierzo, Mencía… Right now I am busy with Garnacha Tintorera wines and with a tasting that I always do at this time of the year of Ribera del Duero wines now on release —currently the 2017 vintage. I drink a lot of wine, of various styles and from different places. I am convinced, for example, that Malbec is going to be a really interesting variety in Ribera del Duero because it is authorised and its growing cycle adapts very well to the area. Moreover, the fruit is extremely compatible with the Tempranillo variety.

And if we talk about food, what is your favourite dish?

As a good Navarrese, I love chistorra. I eat it raw. I’m lucky enough to have a butcher friend, so I eat this type of sausage straight out from the meat machine. I also like all kinds of veggies: green beans, leeks, asparagus…, but everything in the right season. I’m also very fond of steak tartare and I’m increasingly attracted to everything Japanese.

Describe us your favourite holiday plans.

I like the mountains and all those places where you can go hiking to get to a small place where good food is served. We often combine that with a week at the beach. This year it was the mountains. We would wake up early and hike for two to three hours to end up sipping a cold beer.

Does wine let you have room for leisure and hobbies? Which are yours?

To be honest, I’ve gradually abandoned many of my hobbies. I used to play frontenis [a racket sport played on a pelota court], but it’s harder nowadays. You stop playing, then you have no one else to play with and you end up choosing to walk in the mountains.

Which wine would you take with you to a desert island?

I would take a Garnacha from Artazu in Navarra, made by my brother and his friends and which is not commercially available. It is both fresh and concentrated and it works as an aperitif as well as with a meal, and it is not for sale. They produce between 150 and 300 magnums which are reserved for all the participants in the initiative. It is made in a very traditional way: the grapes are crushed and fermented in an open barrel, dipping the must by hand; once pressed, the wines is placed in the barrel where it is aged for a couple of years in an old cellar in Calle Mayor in Puente la Reina.

Wine for you is…

Life and the source of many satisfactions, but also of many concerns. When you open bottles with a few years you experience both joy and disappointment, but you can’t go back to set things right. You place your bets once a year, but it’s a great satisfaction when you see that people like what you do.

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