December 10, 2023

They say that the river Tastavins (catavinos) received its name from its propensity to grow and to go into the surrounding wineries to taste the wines. They assure that the Matarraña river, where the waters of the previous one flow, is one of the cleanest in the Mediterranean basin. Matarraña is also the name of a region of Teruel, as uninhabited as it is full of splendid landscapes of serene beauty, with mountains and valleys, pines and olive trees, dotted with medieval stone houses. The town of Fuentespalda belongs to this “Spanish Tuscany”, as the cliché shared with some other wine-producing area of ​​the country says.

The British couple formed by Jemma Markham and Piers Dutton arrived there more than 31 years ago, after two years of searching. They wanted to change their lives. Leave Madrid and your jobs and find a haven of peace in the middle of nature. A forester from one of the 18 medieval villages that make up the region of just 8,000 inhabitants told them about a 15th-century tower on a hidden estate, at the end of a long dirt track that opens into a valley through which the river aficionado passes. to the wine. Today, on that 80-hectare farm, alfalfa is grown for the animals and a small orchard feeds the restaurant of the La Torre del Visco hotel, which also uses wild plants and the oil of the empeltre variety extracted from its olive trees, in addition to the beans and chickpeas from nearby Beceite or La Portadella or meat with the animal welfare seal from a supplier from Teruel. For all these reasons, the establishment run by the chef Rubén Catalán, with Susana Gámez as sommelier, obtained a Green Michelin star for its sustainable gastronomy.

The hotel is part of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux chain, owned and managed individually, which joined it a few years after opening its doors, after the rehabilitation of the tower and several half-ruined buildings. In this refuge away from the madding crowd, Jemma Markham officiates as hostess. On Monday, she urged a group of winemakers, sommeliers, winemakers, chefs and other professionals in the sector, mostly from Aragon and neighboring Catalonia and the Valencian Community, to practice an exercise in “cross-pollinating ideas”. The objective: to talk about natural wine.

Participants in the conference 'The wine that sustains the landscape', in a botanical walk around the Torre del Visco, on Monday, in an image provided by the organization.
Participants in the conference ‘The wine that sustains the landscape’, in a botanical walk around the Torre del Visco, on Monday, in an image provided by the organization.MARC GARCIA

Or artisan wine, or free, or accompanied, or minimal intervention, or respectful of the territory, the landscape, a way of life, because there are many ways of referring to this type of wine that is gaining followers around the world in the extent to which sensitivity to the environment and sustainability in food increases and climate change accelerates. The wine that sustains a landscape and Let’s look for a definition of natural wine were the topics of the conference, to which this newspaper (and other media) was invited, within the Confitando territorio program, which included a botanical walk and the preparation of a vermouth, as well as the tasting of natural wines and menus in accordance.

In Spain, almost 2% of the production is of this type of wine with less sulfites (derived from sulfur that are used as additives) than the industrial one. In other countries such as France, Germany or England the percentage is much higher. There is a rising demand, a trend that is presumed to last, rather than a passing fad, they agreed. But it is not a question of the wine having more or less sulphites, although María Dávila, The sommelier of the Existe restaurant (Mosqueruela, Teruel) elaborated on this difference and the need to teach the client. Many orange juices contain 10 times more sulfites (possible allergens) and it is not specified, as is mandatory in wine, pointed out Pilar Salillas, oenologist at La Gravera. The Romans already added honey to wine to sweeten it and improve its conservation, recalled Félix Artigas, sommelier of the Gente Rara restaurant in Zaragoza (one Michelin star), in which he is committed to taking the client out of “their comfort zone”.

Minimal intervention wines

Some defended the denomination “minimum intervention wines or authentic, free wines, connecting with the human part”, because the natural term is “overwhelmed and prostituted”, according to the sommelier and critic of the newspaper abc Pilar Cavero. Others advocated defending the natural label, precisely because it is ingrained, even though it does not exist as an official label. There was general agreement, with some amendment, when chef Bernd Knöller (Riff Restaurant, Valencia, one Michelin star) stressed that when you drink natural wine you don’t get a headache the day after as it happens with other wines. Or when Berna Ríos, an entrepreneur of wine events, recalled the contempt of not so long ago, less than 15 years, for this natural wine that was said to “smell bad”, but which takes care of “the ancestral and the culture, for which it is should talk about complex craftsmanship.”

“There is a love for the territory, a philosophy behind natural wine that connects with the landscape,” said Rafa Camps from the distributor La Natural, from l’Ampurdà. “This is an honest wine that shows what it is like and where it comes from, that it is not a mass-produced product like industrial wine,” said Jaume Roca, winemaker at Bodega Ficaria. “A big difference is also the marketing. The large industrial groups do not pay for the grapes as they should because they need that margin for the marketing”, affirmed Pep Raventós, viticulturist of Raventós i Blanc. “In non-natural wines, numbers prevail over philosophy,” said Raúl Igual, sommelier at the Yain restaurant in Teruel. “It is a matter of consistency, of respect for the land and the people on it; the project has to convey an environment, some varieties”, indicated Francesc Frisach, oenologist at Celler Frisach.

The most widespread variety in Matarraña is Garnacha. There are at least 15 small wineries in this region that speak a rich variety of Western Catalan, which some call chapurriau, and that has found in rural, sustainable, quality tourism, a very relevant source of income and knowledge. There are numerous charming hotels and accommodations open to the enjoyment of a privileged nature, 100 kilometers from the sea, which reaches levels of up to 1,400 meters high. In this sense, La Torre del Visco (mistletoe) has played a pioneering and dynamic role.

The owner of La Torre del Visco, Jemma Markham, in a provided image.
The owner of La Torre del Visco, Jemma Markham, in a provided image.MARC GARCIA

Running the hotel is Jemma Markham, following the death of her partner a decade ago. At 73 years old, she maintains the purpose of respecting the territory and counting on her people and products from the so-called empty Spain. With the “foreign look” that she claims to have, she does not want to pass as “a British colonizer”, she jokes this former student of the Hispanist John Elliott who came to Spain to learn Spanish in 1973 and stayed. She recalls how the sale of her two properties in Segovia and Madrid, where she worked as director of the Longman-Penguin publishing house and where she founded the renowned Turner bookstore with her partner and the publisher Manuel Arroyo-Stephens, allowed her to embark on her adventure through the lands of matarana She now shows her concern for a project to install a wind farm not far from the hotel to produce energy for “big cities.”

The region is a great unknown to many. In the mid-seventies a small colony of artists and writers settled in it, especially in the town of Calaceite. The Chilean writer José Donoso lived there and other colleagues from the Latin American boom such as Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, then based in Barcelona, ​​went to visit him. Years later the poet Ángel Crespo would join a town where the judge and writer Joan Perucho was also a regular. Today, Calaceite continues to be the cultural focus of the area, although its capital is the surprising Valderrobres (included among the most beautiful towns in Spain) which is accessed by a medieval bridge that crosses the Matarraña river, the heart of the region. .

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