Photo by Abel Valdenebro
Spanish winemaker and “terroir hunter” Luis Olivan tells us about his new project searching out small plots to create wines that transmit a sense of place.
You’ve spent a lot of time in the wine world. Tell us how you got to where you are today.
At the beginning of the 1990s I was working for a wine distributor based in Huesca (northern Spain). We worked with a wine from the Cooperativa Comarcal de Somontano de Sobrarbe called Señorío de Lazán, a reserva which included the native Moristel variety in the blend. That grape really helped launch wines from Aragón as a brand and drew me into the world of winemaking.
At the end of 1994 I joined the winery (now called Bodegas Pirineos) and was working alongside enologists like Jesús Astrain, Jesús Navascués and a young Norrel Robertson, in his pre-MW days, who spent some time there blending wines for a UK client. It was a wonderful time – things were starting to happen in new appellations outside the more traditional Rioja and Ribera del Duero and the market was hungry for new wines.
My own wine curiosity led me to make the leap in 2008 from Aragón to Bierzo, and I started working for Dominio de Tares as Commercial Director. As you’d expect, the focus at the bodega was very much on Mencía and Godello. They also owned wineries in Pajares de los Oteros in León where they worked with the Prieto Picudo grape, and in Rías Baixas where their Lusco wine was one of the first Albariños to demonstrate bottle ageing potential. It was while I was in Bierzo that I really began to appreciate the value of historic old vines and parcels, and how their story is so intricately linked to that of villages and their inhabitants.
In 2012, I changed region again and moved to the Las Moradas de San Martin winery in the Sierra de Gredos mountains (DO Vinos de Madrid), where the focus is on Garnacha and Albillo. I spent a lot of time in the vineyard with enologist and Garnacha specialist Isabel Galindo, who really taught me how to get the most from such a chameleonic variety, and manage natural challenges like frequent water shortages or heatwaves which are common in the summer months.
Over the past 25 years I have been lucky enough to work with hugely generous people who have happily shared their knowledge.
And now you have your new project – Luis Olivan Wines & Vines. What’s the philosophy behind that venture?
At the beginning of 2018 I decided the moment had come to go it alone and start my own winemaking project. One of my guiding principles from the outset was to look for vines in historic areas; areas that in Italy they would call “classico” – sites or parcels where records show that vines had been planted from at least pre-phylloxera times, as that longevity is a reliable guide that the site is right for vine cultivation. I also looked for partner wineries with a strong track record in making their own wines, as that is a good indication that they could do the same with my own wines!
You work with several separate vineyards with different terroirs. Tell us more about them and the wines you’re producing.
The first parcel I chose was in Bespén (Huesca) an area with a wine history dating back to the 12th century. The parcel is known as Las Pilas and we make the wine in the Bodega de los Hermanos Lasierra who have been viticulturists for more than 200 years. Here we produce about 2,000 bottles of Garnacha. We have also started to work with another one hectare plot which was planted more than 100 years ago, but where records show vines existed for at least another 100 years prior to that.
Another of our plots is in the little village of Ainzón, which is about 35 miles north west of the city of Zaragoza. In wine terms it’s part of DO Campo de Borja, where Garnacha is the main grape variety. We’re in the high part of the DO, and the vines are spread over three separate parcels known locally as Pozos de Mata, El Romeroso and Feremosa. They are all on mountain slopes surrounded by olives and almond trees, and produce fresh wines with good acidity.
Our third wine is a white wine made from the Malvar grape in San Martín de Valdeiglesias in central Spain. I was originally looking for Garnacha when I came across this parcel which produces about 1,400 kg of grapes. We opted for an early harvest and left the must to ferment with the skins to enhance complexity and help transmit a sense of terroir.
And you’re also working on a clarete – correct?
Clarete in Spain almost disappeared as it was swallowed up by huge quantities of rosé. Historically, viticulturists used to plant white grapes in amongst the red, because the white varieties helped ensure decent levels of acidity. But that diversification was also a tool to help hedge against a poor crop, as disease and frost doesn’t affect all varieties in the same way. After fermentation, the wine was pressed and then barreled without the skins which was a simpler and cleaner process than for a straight red wine.
That has basically been my approach with the clarete, although fermentation has been in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks. The wine will be on the market soon, but outside the Denominación de Origen system as these kind of wines are not currently contemplated in the existing rules.
You’ve been described as a “terroir hunter”, a type of wine nomad. What criteria do you work to when it comes to choosing a plot?
Yes, I suppose I had a pretty nomadic commercial life before, so my winemaking inevitably followed the same route! One of my key criteria has been to look for vines and wineries that are relatively close together. Time is perhaps my most valuable commodity – as a native of Huesca, which is quite remote, we already have to spend a lot of time on the road transporting and selling our wines, so I wanted the production process to be simpler.
We look for small parcels on a bit of a slope. In the areas where we are working we get lots of hours of sunlight every year so we try to play a bit with orientation to reduce the amount of direct sunlight. We can’t always get everything we want, so if we can’t buy vineyards then renting or leasing is always a good option.