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.

DOG DAYS 8 – “THE LAST ALMOND”

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the b’Jesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…