A Trip to Barranco Oscuro
After Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship came to an end in the 1970s, Manuel Valenzuela returned to his homeland in the south of Spain. He had escaped to Paris but it was now safe to come back and after working with high quality food and wine produce in France he now wanted to farm himself. After choosing the hills on the south side of the Sierra Nevada known as Alpujarra, he planted his first vines in 1981 near the village of Cádiar which produced fruit for the first time in 1984.
(Manuel Valenzuela amongst his vines)
The plot is 1368 metres above sea level yet just 10km from the sea. These unique conditions produce unique wines. Hot days and cool nights bring a balance of ripeness and acid which is not always easy to achieve for winemakers. It also makes Manolo's wines very age-worthy. As we first enter his home, I notice cabinets surrounding the entrance full of old bottles from his early vintages all with amazing hand written labels. 40 years of winemaking history up in this remote part of Andalusia.
I've come with my friend Alba who owns the Al Sur De Granada shop and she knows Manolo very well through years of selling his wine and paying him regular visits. The pair have a warm and honest relationship, almost like father and daughter. Alba kindly acts as translator for me but Manolo keeps getting frustrated with her for not letting him finish his long passages before she gives me the English version. "You are talking for 5 minutes, I can't remember the whole thing!", she replies.
(Alba running some grape tests)
Manolo is now 80 years old but you would never guess it. He's fully mobile and active in the vineyard and winery. As he takes us down into his cellar he begins to go into chapters of his long lasting beef with the wine authorities of the region. He is not part of the DO here so is not allowed to write grape varieties or the region on the bottle. He sometimes produces a rosé wine with a Salmon on the label and "Swimming against the current" written underneath in Spanish. He claims that the local authority even wanted to sue him for this as they took it for slander.
(Manolo in the cellar)
To say he has a strong belief in what he does is an understatement. This attitude helped inspire a whole generation of winemakers in the local area such as Ramon at Bodega Cauzón and Torcuato at Purulio but also much further afield. Manolo even mentions that the famous Beaujolais 'Gang of Four' sought advice and knowledge from him decades ago in the early days of the natural wine revolution.
It is incredible to see all the old bottles that Manolo has kept in the cellar, something that is not always that common with winemakers. He never releases his cuvées until they are ready and explains that making wines in a totally organic and natural way at this altitude sometimes means you must wait years before the wine is in the right place but he is more than happy to do this. He pulls out old bottles for us to drink at lunch so he can see where they are in their journey.
Alba and I have brought fish from Granada which is barbecued outside along with various vegetables but the real food highlight comes from some boquerones (anchovies) that Manolo has marinated in vinegar as well as some of his own oxidative wine. Incredible. We drink his 2017 champagne method sparkling wine but Manolo decides it is still not ready for release. Then he opens a bottle of his 2001 signature wine 1368 Cerro Las Monjas. A blend from the plot of grapes he first planted in 1984, this is a powerful red wine but it still displays so much fresh acidity. Alba tries to let Manolo know that he doesn't need to open such special wines for us but he quickly dismisses this. The wine keeps flowing, oxidative, sweet, everything!
(Lunch at Barranco Oscuro)
Manolo talks in long sentences that often integrate 4 or 5 topics at the same time, some of which are quite philosophical. Alba sometimes looks at me bemused at how to translate such a winding and complex narrative. "He is now talking about astronauts so I'm not going to translate this", she quips. His energy and passion is on display at every moment. At one point he swipes through dozens of photos of restaurant dishes that he has enjoyed recently, passionately describing each one to me. He explains that despite his age, he is still so excited for what is to come. He lies awake at night unable to sleep because ideas for new projects flood into his mind. I tell him that I find this inspiring for someone at his age and he begins to recount a story of when he told his doctor that he drank 2 litres of wine a day, including a bottle for breakfast, and she couldn't understand his good health. He proclaims that he will die in his vineyard when he is ready and certainly not in a hospital.
(Cerro Las Monjas vineyard, 1368 metres above sea level)
Now it's time to see those vines. The building is surrounded by his vineyards but he wants to show us the one with the highest elevation, the Cerro Las Monjas plot. "To the sky!" he announces as we jump in his car. The view and sensory experience up here at 1400m above sea level is amazing. The Mediterranean is just about visible through the hills below to the south. When you look west you can make out some of the famous villages of the Alpujarras across the valley such as Lanjarón. You are surrounded by vines of international grape varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Imagining Manolo up here 40 years ago making his first plantings leaves a real impression on me.
(View from the 1368 Cerro Las Monjas vineyard towards the Mediterranean Sea)
Before we leave he gifts me with a bottle of oxidative Sauvignon Blanc, made under flor from the year 2000. It has no label and has never been released. A piece of Manolo's winemaking history. When the time comes to open in, I hope I will be taken right back to this magical part of Andalusia and to this day when I was lucky enough to interact with a special and unique human being.
(Manuel and one of his dogs)
We currently have two vintages from the 1368 Cerro Las Monjas vineyard. Powerful red wines made from Merlot, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
We also have Manolo's sparkling white wine made by tradional (Champagne) method using the local Vigriega grape variety. With some good ageing now, this offers amazing value for money
Finally, a very special oxidative wine made from 4 different vintages of Pedro Ximenez grapes. This is dry and savoury and drinks like a white Jura wine. Incredible.