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Even if the D.O. Bullas likes to puff itself up like a proud peacock at the first warm ray of sunshine, the reality is a little duller and greyer. Apart from the in every respect negligible bodega Tercia de Ulea, which is also conspicuous for its illegal labels, all the other bodegas are located in the two municipalities of Cehegín and Bullas. In the towns of Cehegín and Bullas, however, there are no wineries apart from the two cooperatives and the witnesses to the history of winemaking already described above. Instead, they can be found in valleys and side valleys, or at high altitudes, mostly far away from any civilisation. The fact that the most traditional of the modern bodegas and one of the two innovative bodegas are almost side by side in the Aceniche region is therefore newsworthy in itself - and at least helps a little to keep to the timetable that has been lost in the still incessant rain.

Fortunately, there is a guide this morning, Josefa Fernández, the boss of Bodegas Balcona, shows the way. Finally, just driving without constantly missing the second turn-off on the right behind the third oak tree, next to which wild boar and hare meet to wish each other a good meal. She was the most active in the preliminary discussions, immediately sending information about the meeting point, asking about seven times whether I had received the information, only to change it again shortly before the visit. Bodegas Balcona is the only winery in the region that already has an importer in Germany.

Old vines in the Valle de Aceniche

After about twelve thousand metres in the direction of the mountains and at least as many bends and counter-bends, the destination was reached. A bodega in the middle of a sea of vineyards, where the first thing that stood out was the drip irrigation. Josefa immediately rushed out of her cream-coloured Audi A4 into the protective interior of the winery and began to talk about José Luis Pérez, the owner of Clos Martinet in Priorato and advisor to the bodega - at least in its early years - as well as Robert M. Parker, Jr. who, in a fit of youthful recklessness, had once given a wine from the bodega 90 points, which, for one thing, was many jubilee years ago and, for another, is not so extraordinarily exciting. And then, once again, the game that distinguishes a good bodega from a bad one began, even before the first information had been conveyed, at least from the bodega's point of view.

"Let me explain the way we work in our winery: The grapes arrive here..." What she does not suspect at this moment, may never have suspected and probably will never suspect even in her wildest dreams of Parker and points: She has already lost. A ham is not created on the slaughter bench, caviar not in the can factory and wine not in the winery but in the vineyards. Unfortunately, this was not an oversight, but revealed the obvious lack of interest in eighty to ninety percent of the process, because even in the further course of the thoroughly harmonious and pleasant conversation, she kept trying to finish things off with the vineyards in order to talk about barricas and bottles and Pérez and Parker. Unfortunately, it didn't work out as she had imagined. The information about the vineyard area still came easily to her lips: 90 hectares, but only twelve for her own bodega, everything else is sold openly. Just under half is Monastrell, plus Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tempranillo. Monastrell in the classic head cut, spacing two by two metres, the rest is young and climbing on wiry frames. 3.000 vines per hectare, she explained. A figure that would later become important in understanding what was being tasted. In deeper water, although she assured us that there was nothing she liked more than walking through the vineyards, she felt visibly uncomfortable. At the obligatory question about the rootstock vines, she didn't know anything at first, after a supporting enumeration she chose the most unlikely of all, whether the vines are Guyot or Cordon cut, she unfortunately couldn't say either, but said that it looked like a "V" - which is possible with both variants. But she already knew that watering was necessary. Because, and she seemed absolutely convinced of this, the vines could not survive without substantial irrigation. That's what happens when you only look at your own vines and dream about Parker. Questions about treatment measures in the vineyard could therefore be safely omitted.

One man% one barrel% one wine: Algonso García and his 2005 Chaveo
Be that as it may, the irrigated grapes end up - hopefully dry - in the bodega, upstairs so they can tumble into the tanks without pumping. I have to admit that I was already latently sceptical about the bodega before the trip, but then decided to find out what the relative fame of the bodega could be based on. When the process of grape processing was described to me, I knew that my scepticism was not entirely unfounded. Pure cultured yeast, a short maceration period, a hasty malolactic fermentation in the steel tanks, which is also supported by the addition of nutrients. All this produces clean, almost clinically pure wines, but wine with heart and soul is different.

Then Josefa decided to move to the barrique cellar, where she skilfully extracted wine from barrels that were difficult to access with a mini pipette. The barrels, about 170 in number, currently contain the 2005 vintage. 2006 is still slumbering in the steel tanks, 2003 and 2004 have been bottled. 2002 is on sale. Despite the rather small production of 40,000 bottles, business doesn't seem to be going so well.

We tasted this and that, starting with exactly one Monastrell, then tasting the other grape varieties in more detail. Several Merlot samples, then Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and finally Syrah, before I had to ask again to taste two other Monastrell samples. The Cabernet Sauvignon had that green-pepper tone that comes from young plants and high yields, mostly found together. The Merlot tasted restrainedly of strawberries, the Tempranillo restrainedly of nothing. The Syrah at least had a good colour. But all not fish not meat and certainly not wine. Now the Porque question also arose for the visitor: Why is that so? Many years of bodega squeezing experience teaches me never to ask about yield, as this figure is mostly wrong, but to split the question into two parts. First ask for canes per hectare and then, as much as possible later, once to find out the yield per cane. Three kilos per vine was the answer. So there's the rub. Three kilos for old head pruning systems with 1,100 canes per hectare, that may still be acceptable. But three kilos with 3,000 vines is, if you'll pardon the expression, a lot - and, apart from all the technical gimmicks, certainly the main reason why the wines are the way they are.

In principle, there are two wines, one with Syrah and one without. Monastrell, Cabernet, Merlot and Tempranillo are in both wines. Depth, complexity, this but-hello effect, that's unfortunately not to be found. The wines are certainly not bad, but they certainly no longer belong to the top of the region. Moreover, they are untypical of the region, perhaps even untypical of Spain, and thus unsuitable as Bullas wines and too expensive as international wines. Hence the somewhat slow sales.

What strikes me as I write these lines is that there are only a few steel tanks. So, apart from Monastrell, each grape variety has to be vinified in only one tank. Each grape variety thus goes through only one process, regardless of whether the wine ends up in the Selección 37 barricas or in the somewhat higher-priced Crianza. The third wine of the bodega, Casa de la Cruz, is interesting: a barrique Cabernet, a barrique Merlot, a barrique Syrah and half a barrique Monastrell, but not selected, rather left over at bottling. No Tempranillo, but double the price, which is also an exciting system.

One of the many reasons to view Balcona with some scepticism is that it is only a stone's throw away from this very bodega and goes by the name of Bodegas Monastrell, which is a good sign for the terroir-seeking Upper Franconian Castilian. The bodega is just being built, as are the business cards, the telephone system and much more. Alfonso, a small, agile man in his mid-forties, first climbed down from a scaffolding that was blocking the view of a laboratory, a kitchen or something similar. Similar to Molino y Lagares de Bullas, this bodega also consists of a multi-purpose hall that has probably turned out a tad too big. This leads to the following hypothesis: interesting bodegas in Bullas always seem to have buildings that are too big. For the maximum of 50,000 bottles that are to be produced here, a quarter of the hall would have done. Especially since the barrique cellar will now actually be in the cellar and the space occupied by the barrels will then also be available.

The new Bullas: a single construction site. Barrique cellar at the Bodega Monastrell

Bodegas Monastrell works almost exclusively with Monastrell. Only an almost two-hectare plot of Petit Verdot forms a counterpoint. The Petit Verdot is only five years old, grown in a wire-frame style (Guyot) and is planted on 41-B, a very lime-resistant rootstock that also delays ripening. This has its consequences, because here, at an altitude of about 850 metres, the grapes are not harvested until after 10 October. The Monastrell is found in four or five plots near the bodega, all head cut, all about 30 years old. There are hardly any really old vines here, because until well into the middle of the last decade the winegrowers were really only paid by the kilo and therefore simply could not afford elaborate old plants with low yields. The blame here is clearly borne by the big bodegas, which do not (or did not) attach any importance to quality. Organic viticulture, no irrigation, green harvesting and a yield that, at 23,000 kilos per 15 hectares, has nothing whatsoever to do with mass wine production. "No tiene nada que ver" is one of the Spaniards' favourite phrases and comes right after "No te preocupes", both however with a clear safety margin to "mañana". The estiercol already described elsewhere is also used here, so the green harvest takes place at the beginning of August, when the colour mutation begins.

The tasting round began here with a barrique sample of Petit Verdot - quite a monster, but good! Barriques from "Ardour", a little Seguin Moreau, some Demptos and three or four Hungarian oak barrels are used as experimental barrels, which, as is the case with all wineries, are sorted out again after the experimental phase is over. About seventy barrels are currently in place and waiting to move into their new, already completed home. The 2005 vintage was the bodega's first, still aged in another building. Now there are seven steel tanks, a selection table, a press, a small bottling plant - and the barrels. In 2005, as it was not the bodega's own, and in 2006, as it was the first vintage in the new building, commercial yeast was sown; from 2007 onwards, this is to stop. Alfonso was afraid that something could go wrong in the first two vintages, and since the money is lacking everywhere, especially at the beginning, all right. Instead, the Malo takes place in the barricas. In general, the Monstrell tolerates the wood excellently with these small harvest quantities, it simply eats it up. A bottle of the '05 Chaveo presented itself latently chocolaty and coffee-heavy on the first evening of a tasting, but after a day this tone was gone. Also good were the different samples of the '05 Valché, which will continue to mature in the barrels for another month or two. The 2005 Chaveo has already been bottled for half a year, is currently maturing in bottle, or more precisely, the wine is waiting for the labels to be finished so that it can be released in two to three months.


A small conclusion

Bullas with its rather continental climate is certainly interesting. The wines present themselves quite differently from those from the neighbouring regions of Jumilla and Yecla. What makes the assessment of the qualities somewhat complicated is the age of the bodegas. Including one bodega not mentioned in the text, half of all wineries have only two vintages at most behind them, mostly with relatively small quantities that can still be pressed without major problems. What happens when success sets in? Do the bodegas get bigger and how does that affect the quality? Will this attract new wineries that will change the typicity of the region in the long term? Is there a market at all for the products, which are not excessively expensive, but have certainly escaped the bargain sector? Will the winegrowers stay on the ground if they are successful? And the most important question: how do these wines age? All questions that will probably only be answered in a few years. We shall see.

To the first part "Antonio arrives at five

To the second part "Mud fight in the dusty south"

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