The first sip of Versatus was tart and creamy as lemon curd. Though standing on terracotta tiles in a rain-washed Mediterranean bungalow, the flavor whisked me to London, circa 2003. I worked for a magazine. One of my duties was to buy cake when birthdays rolled around. These were fetched, invariably, from Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street in Soho.
In my memory, there was always a drizzle. The Patisserie windows would be slightly steamed, adding a hazy glow to the jewels on display: strawberry tarts with the gloss of Bentley bumpers, meringues with storm-tossed foamy crests; brooding slabs of chocolate cake and sunny carrot (the office favorite).
Someone would beribbon the cake box while I waited, then tuck it into a bag to the accompaniment of spoons clinking in white china cups and the hum of well-heeled voices, a scene unvaried for 60 years. Doubling the top of the bag to keep off the rain, I’d trot back to Mappin Towers, enchantment fading with each step.
Versatus, its black-and-white label (designed by Enpedra) crisp as a Scott Fitzgerald dinner ensemble, has a similar time-machine effect. Rich, luxurious, it evokes the heft of wedding silver and the delicacy of crystal goblets. It lends even damp spring evenings a frisson of opulence and occasion.
This unassuming masterpiece is the handiwork of third-generation wine-maker Ana Mendez Gil of Genus De Vinum. The winery, about 30 minutes drive west of Ourense, Galicia, lies near the junction of the Puga river with its larger sibling, the Miño. The bodega is a seven-minute drive from an overlook dubbed ‘the most beautiful bench in the world’ – a reference to the vista of the Miño rather than the not unimpressive graffiti on the eponymous bench.
Mendez’s family has grown grapes and produced wine here for three generations but Ana wasn’t all that interested in the business. She would have studied art or history, but her parents persuaded her to do something applicable to wine, just in case. So she did a business degree, returning home on breaks to help with the harvest.
Slipping into the ever-renewing cycle of labor and craft, she began to take courses in oenology and viticulture. She completed the WSET Level 2, expanding her knowledge of wine history and methodology. As Mendez’s creativity wove itself into the exigencies of agriculture an ethos emerged: small batches of wine made from hand-picked grapes, indigenous varietals, a preference for old vines, time-consuming techniques.
Versatus is a blend of two native Galician white grapes, Treixadura and Godella. Crafted in 500L stainless steel barrels, it spends at least six months on its lees (the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation) before bottling, then another six months resting in the bottle before going to market. Considering this, its 13 Euro price tag is like snapping up a Dior gown for $100.
Lees-aging aromatic whites like Treixadura and Godello is not dissimilar to the creative high-wire of haute couture. There is a vanishingly fine line between triumph – imparting complex creamy, toasted notes – and failure – wine that tastes like buttermilk poured over a Glade plug-in. To borrow a parallel from early-Nineties fashion, consider the gamble of McQueen’s bumster jeans: potentially appalling yet finessed into iconic eroticism.
The secret, Mendez explains, is manic attention to viticultural detail. During ripening, heat converts the acid in grapes into sugar. This acid is key to successful aging; “if you wait one day too long it drops and you miss the moment.”
Beginning in mid-August, Mendez checks the grapes’ sugar levels daily, like a nurse monitoring diabetics for an insulin crisis. “I have to be prepared to start wine-making any day,” she says.
The instant she’s satisfied with the chemical composition, Mendez and her team plunge into the vineyards, plucking bunches by hand. But only in the fleeting early morning hours: “It’s important to pick when the grapes are cool to capture the freshness and acidity.”
In addition to Versatus, Mendez makes Rainman, a cool-fermented 100% Mencia whose insouscient acidity is sent to malolactic finishing school to ensure perfect comportment. Like Treixadura and Godella, Mencia is finicky. Under-ripe, it has astringent green notes. For a winemaker willing to hover in the vineyards, testing and tasting each day, it will deliver “brilliant red fruits, forest fruits, fresh herbs.”
Her third commercial brand is Cellarium, a lees-aged Albariño.
Other projects include 500 bottles of old-vine Caíño Blanco, a rare white grape native to Galicia, and a miniscule production of tostado do Ribeiro – a naturally sweet wine made from barrel-aged Treixadura. This practically unknown necter is “a marvel,” according to Mendez; “the most valuable and rarest of Galician wines” according to agricultural journal Campo Galego.
Like all true artists, Mendez is continuously experimenting with her materials, pushing them to achieve striking, new interpretations. The results have art’s ability to transform and transport, conjuring for the fortunate imbiber voluptuous memories and exquisite daydreams.