BLOOD, SWEAT AND LAUGHS – wine making at Finca Carmel

Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.

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The north vineyard came with the property and is predominantly Moscatel (Muscat). The 500-or-so vines are all non-staked and pruned right back early Spring. This picture dates from May 1994 and Dido’s blonde mop can just be made out upper left…
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The Moscatel harvest is picked typically late September when many of the berries are turning to raisins. However, we prefer our “Malaga” drier than the locals go for, and pick at the start of the month. Though the wine is unfortified (no brandy or grape spirit added) it still attains a strength of over 17%  – apparently breaking all the laws of natural fermentation…

Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.

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We planted out the south vineyard in 2000 and it comprises 300 Cencibel and 200 Moscatel vines. Digging 500 holes half a metre (20 inches) deep into rocky terrain, using a mattock and pickax was the toughest physical task of our lives. This picture dates from the Spring of 2002, just after we had pruned the plants and dressed the mounds. The weeding was yet to be done…

 

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One our first Cencibel harvests (I don’t think we have felt greater pride in anything we have ever produced). Cencibel is a sub-type of Tempranillo (the “Merlot of Spain”), and ripens a fortnight or so before the Moscatel…

In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.

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We de-stem the grapes by hand. Dido here ably assisted here by our friend Valentina and her sadly, late husband, Jean-Claude. Each and every stage of the wine-making process, from harvesting to barrelling  is highly international at Finca Carmel. Fellow-Brits, Russians, Belgians, Israelis, Americans, Australians and of course, Spanish volunteers have joined us over the years…

 

We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.

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We still crush the grapes using the timeless method of treading. Here Dido is assisted by Jane and Pepa, our most dependable volunteer of all. A steady flow of ice cold beer and appropriately rhythmic music blasting out from the house above is essential to the efficiency of this process…
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Once crushed, the fruit is poured into baskets for pressing…

The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.

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When the press is full we use the ratchet and oak blocks to apply extra pressure. Typically we fill the press twice for the Moscatel and having applied the final turn of the ratchet leave it overnight to exude every last drop of must…
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The final precious stream of must is referred to as lagrima in Spain – alluding to the tears of Christ…

Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.

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We make sure to feed and water our workers well, seen here for instance enjoying a light lunch of Dido’s delicious ajo blanco (cold almond and garlic soup) washed down with copitas of our own Malaga, with freshly picked figs for pudding…

On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…

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Our barrels containing our Malaga solera (“super-blend”). Malaga, like its much younger cousin Sherry, is not released as a vintage but is re-racked and blended annually. Each new wine is evenly distributed into the previous years’ blends to ensure a consistent and hopefully, perfect wine.
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STALIN, IN THE LIBRARY, WITH A BOUNCING BOMB – or the weird and wonderful incarnations of my old school…

I rarely get to the cinema these days and do most of my catching up with the latest films on the two or three long-haul flights I do every year. So it was last Spring, I found myself 33,000 above the North Atlantic Ocean, watching The Death of Stalin. The film itself was somewhat disappointing, and I was considering changing to another movie when something caught my attention. It was a scene in a study in Stalin’s quarters, in which Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) was talking to Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), but it wasn’t the “drama” that caught my attention; it was the study itself.

The room was somehow familiar, and then, in following scenes set in the tyrant’s abode, I saw other rooms that I thought I recognised. However, my mild curiosity over the apparent familiarity of the movie-set for Stalin’s quarters was insufficient to maintain any interest in the alleged black comic-drama and a short while later I was watching something else.

And, until yesterday, when I began preparing my next post for this site, the film and the film-set had completely slipped from my mind. The post I was preparing was to have been a brief history of my old school, Carmel College, and my experiences as a pupil there. But, when researching some details about the Victorian mansion that I had known as School House, I made some discoveries which seemed to offer me the prospect of a  more interesting piece than the one I was originally working on.

Presented below are several photographs of locations from the late Carmel College with captions describing their respective roles in 20th century British architecture; inspiring the world’s longest running play and indirectly one of the world’s most successful board games; in British Cinema; and finally, in military history…

School House
The Victorian mansion (that I knew as School House) has the richest history of all the Carmel College buildings. During the Second World War it was HQ for No. 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command, and in 1943  the final reconnaissance briefing for the  Dam Busters’ Raid was conducted in what I knew as the headmaster’s study. A few years later it became Agatha Christie’s template for the house in her world record breaking 1952 play for the longest West End run, The Mousetrap. Christie had a huge influence upon Anthony E. Pratt, the creator of Cluedo in 1949. Far more recently , among other things (as mentioned above) the interior of the mansion was the set for Stalin’s quarters in the 2017 movie, The Death of Stalin. The grand entrance hall and staircase, the library and the aforementioned study featured heavily…
Shul on frosty morning
The Carmel Synagogue was designed by architect Thomas Hancock who also masterminded the entire Carmel Campus. It’s now a grade II listed building and remains one of the most stunning and beautiful Synagogues anywhere in the world. Hancock’s concrete amphitheatre, built at the same time, can just be made out to the left of the picture. Hancock, a Buddhist, developed something of a niche for himself designing houses of worship. including a Hindu temple and most famously the Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes. The Synagogue’s interior was used in the 2011 film The Iron Lady as the scene where Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) received voice coaching , and its exterior featured in the 2016 film, Mindhorn…
The Pyramid
Another grade II listed masterpiece, we just referred to as”the Pyramid”, was actually an art gallery and named in honour of  patron of the arts ,Julius Gottlieb  and gifted to Carmel College by his son Lieutenant Commander E. J. Gottlieb. The Pyramid and the boathouse upon which it sits was designed by Sir Basil Spence, and is one of the smallest, and  best resolved works of Britain’s foremost brutalist architect.
Pool and Gymnasium Building
The Sports block which contains a large gymnasium, a 25 metre swimming pool and a squash court has been the setting for  pop videos and movie scenes. Kylie Minogue and The Kaiser Chiefs shot promotional videos there in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and the pool featured in the 2018 movie, Annihilation (with Natalie Portman)…
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The exterior of the mansion and its gardens was the setting for the the final part of the 2016 film, The Darkest Dawn.  The grounds’ arboretum is most famous for its fabulous Ceders of Lebanon…