The red leather-bound book lay open on the desk, as if the reader had suddenly remembered something else they had to do. An elaborate, ink stamp with a name on the darker, more legible right side: Carlos III. In elegant block-capital calligraphy the date: mil setecientos y setenta y vno: 1771.
That was the year Maria Jose Velazquez’s ancestor bought at auction the house and property in the vall d’Albaida that, at the turn of the new millennium, Maria Jose, brother Miguel and father Manuel reanimated as Bodegas Los Frailes. Before Carlos III stamped them out, Jesuit friars (‘frailes’) lived in this small valley not far from the Mediterranean coast, tended vineyards, made wine and stored it in clay amphorae, tall as coffins, sunk into the cool earth in the low-beamed cellar.
Maria Jose gropes for a light switch as we descend, heads bowed, into the vaulted space. Red wax seals glow dully through thick coats of dust. Inverted light-bulb glass jars called damajuanas hold more recent vintages. My head brushes the arch of a doorway and reddish dust crumbles onto my shoulder. “Jaime I drove out the Moors in about 1235, so the Jesuits were here until the expulsion in 1771. So maybe 400 years old?”
Wanting to know what 400 years of history feels like, I touch an amphora’s curled lip. It is unmoved by the caress.
We slope our backs to climb out of the ancient cellar into more modern climes. Modern is a relative term. The house above, a mere couple of hundred years old, was originally a summer home. Maria Jose’s abuelo, seen in a family photo as a sturdy, crop-haired boy of 11 or 12 with a broad white collar and a fancy, if slightly askew, bow tie, was the only one of his siblings to survive the Spanish Civil War.
As sole inheritor of the estate, he had four houses to bequeath: one to each of his children. Maria Jose’s father Manuel got this one, the casa veraniega. For most of her life the property was worked, as it had been for centuries, by tenant farmers. Before her brother, Miguel, became a winemaker he was a pharmacist. She worked for multi-nationals in Amsterdam and Brussels.
Not that you’d guess from her vineyard-casual black Columbia fleece, Chelsea work boots and jeans; or from her enthusiasm for the dew-wet plants we tramp through. “Try,” she urges, pointing me to a cluster of green teardrops within the yellow petals of a wild plant. I pop the pods between my teeth; they’re astringent with a touch of heat.
Yes, and that ripple of royal purple petal marks a pea shoot and that emerald grass with the nodding, spiky head is wheat and the wine-dark ridge between where we stand and the gnarled, naked up-reaching fingers of the Monastrell vines is composting pips and stems. The mustard/peas/wheat/grass/wildflowers will be plowed into the ground. The compost spread among the vines.
Bodegas Los Frailes was one of the first organic vineyards in Spain. Now, it is also Demeter-certified biodynamic. There’s a carved wooden chest in the cellar, holding what look like old quilts wrapped around a clay jar. Maria Jose scoops a handful and extends it to me. The color and texture of coffee grounds, it has the essence of earth. Cow shit, she says. They pack the manure into cow horns and bury them for six months, digging them up to claim the rich compost.
The cow shit, sourced from a neighboring farm, is supplemented by the vineyard’s sheep. They graze then repay the soil with manure. Though the estate is empty of human life apart from Maria Jose and I, and a handful of workers in and out of the bottling room, it hums with pollinators and birdsong.
Cumulus clouds flare, hoarding the sun, as we stroll past Sauvignon Blanc vines trellised in a low T-shape. Their first bright leaves look like menorah flames. They also grow indigenous Moscatel and Verdil, blending the three to make the acidic, aromatic, goes-with-anything Blanc de Trilogia.
Monastrell is a later-bloomer. Theirs are gobelet or bush vines, deep-rooted. Los Frailes is a dry vineyard. Despite the summer heat, it eschews irrigation, meaning the vines drive into the earth in search of moisture. Don’t be fooled by the rich, potent, mouth-filling heft of a finished Monastrell wine, Maria Jose warns. The grapes are delicate, thin-skinned and full-figured as a ’50s moll. They have to hang until October to ripen. This makes every year a gamble as this part of the Mediterranean is known for whomping September storms.
Ringed by mountains, the vineyards feel sheltered but a topographical map shows the estate at the sharp end of a green wedge that runs inland from the beach town of Gandia. With no inhibiting geological features, sea air flows along the valley as through a funnel. Every year, they hope torrents won’t soak the dainty, plump grapes.
All the tasting room doors are wide open, a plastic sheet half-covers the stocked wine shelf behind the bar, which like everything else, is cloaked in dust. Barrels and chairs are shoved here and there. Maria Jose uncorks a bottle of Dolimitas, a single-vineyard, varietal Monastrell. It is medium ruby, almost pale in the glass yet in the mouth it has the grape’s rich, characteristic bitter chocolate savor.
Dolomitas is one of four single-vineyard ‘terroir wines’: Caliza, another Monastrell; Rubificado, made from another indigenous black grape, Garnacha Tintorera; and 1771, made from 75-year-old Monastrell vines. All are manually harvested and made with wild yeasts and minimal intervention. They are aged Jesuit fashion, in amphora and concrete.
Like every Casa Los Frailes wine I’ve tasted they are elegant, refined, balanced, greed-inducing. Their opulence belies the tragedies that shaped the fortunes that brought them to being. A family demolished by civil war. An order uprooted after centuries of power and tossed aside like pruned vines. Though I can’t feel sorry for any Catholic organization collectively, I can imagine the distress of individuals whose homes and livelihoods were ripped away.
Two and a half centuries later, the world has grown no more predictable. Expulsion one century; war another; pandemic the next. Through the catastrophes, viticulture and wine-making have been a reason and reward for endurance.
It is reassuring to know that with time people will find our nightmares as ephemeral as we find those of history; and the amphorae will still be smiling in the dark.