Fuentes del Silencio is a project of Indiana Jones-level excitement in the way of lost and nearly forgotten wine cultures. Dr. Miguel Angel Alonso and his wife Dr. Maria José Galera, both medical doctors, found themselves back in Miguel’s homeland, in the high plains of Herreros de Jamuz, literally unearthing one of the rarities of the wine world: ancient, abandoned vineyards with many vines that predate phylloxera, or at least survived it without the grafting of American rootstocks.
What began as a tiny vineyard planted next to Miguel’s house turned into full-blown, honest obsession for the recovery of a national treasure. And to avoid the misconception of being another one of the world’s vanity projects from the affluent that made their fortune in other ways, like those of retired doctors, adopted the moniker Fuentes del Silencio, forgoing any mention of their names on the front label. It translates to “Sources of Silence,” fitting for this quiet place in the middle of nowhere full of natural water sources. Miguel is in this for the noblest of reasons: for the resurrection of his homeland’s ancient wine culture and because winegrowing was a family affair over a hundred years ago.
Their approach was that of the true scientists they are, and they began their impressive endeavor with a talented team of emotionally charged vignerons, Marta Ramas and Miguel Fisac, Alberto Aldonza in the vineyards, and José Villar, their cellarmaster. I’ve not witnessed firsthand a single wine estate in the world that’s done a more impressive level of research—it goes beyond the aforementioned obsession and into the outrageous. Their first vintage was 2014, and before the 2016 wines even went to market, they completed a 90-page research dossier for Pago status (a classification of Spanish wine reserved for unique terroirs and estates) and a microbial biodiversity study from two PhD researchers from a US-based company called Biome Makers.
The attainment of Pago status aside, the 90-page report is incredible and juicy, but extremely dense (and written in Spanish…). It tells the story of the region all the way back to when the Romans first brought viticulture here likely between 29-19 B.C. Then it goes deep into the climatic factors, a dozen pages on its geologic history and even more on the topsoil constitution—all of which I have translated and summarized in the Lay of the Land section (below) as it pertains to the wines.
The Romans brought the vine here, as they did to everywhere else in Spain. Between the 9th and 20th centuries, Jamuz was a considerable wine producing area, a kind of a one-stop shop for the Romans because the hillsides were perfect for vineyards, the riverbeds ideal for other agriculture requiring more fertile soils, and the hills were filled with gold.
Miguel explained that, “ The majority of the vineyards that exist today were planted at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th and were maintained until the 1960s. Of them, many are lost, but some were maintained until twenty years ago, more or less. Now very few families are still maintaining their vineyards. We have recovered mainly vineyards abandoned twenty to thirty years ago and some as far back as the 1960s. Many parcels are dead or were retaken by the forest.”
The ancient vines of Jamuz look like stout, squat animals with dense fur coats, half buried underground, with vine shoots growing in random directions out of their backs; unlike anything I’ve seen. They’re inside what is called ollas (pots), which are holes about 60 cm in diameter and 30 cm deep to protect them from frost and cold. And while so close to the ground, the soil retains heat and keeps them ripening as winter approaches; harvest usually happens in the two middle weeks of October.
During the recovery process of the ancient vines, a gentle rehab approach is critical. While many of the centenarian vines seemed dead, careful work can get these time capsules to produce again. Miguel and his team had to carefully dig in and recreate the ollas and unbury the vines, and any wrong move with their tools could’ve quickly ended any chance of recovery. This process is extremely tedious, time consuming and expensive, and the gravitation toward organic farming was the clear choice. With all the nature having crept back inside the vineyards, especially those closest to forests, it would’ve seemed wrong to disturb this unique setting with unnatural things.
In the cellar, Marta’s approach is simple and clever. Given the unique opportunity to preserve as many natural elements as possible, they invested in completely new winery equipment across the board, including barrels (and thankfully it was the earlier vintages before we began to import them that took the brunt of all that new wood). They did this because they didn’t want any outside yeasts or bacteria in the equipment from other wineries to disturb this isolated microbial island separate from other wine regions by a good distance.
Once the grapes are handpicked and received in the cellar, the natural fermentation of the red wines is done almost entirely with whole clusters (90% or more), a risk many in other regions would hesitate to do to the naturally low acidity and higher pH levels that occur with the Mencia grape. The common compromise in other parts of the region where there’s too little acidity is simply to add acid from a bag or to blend in other higher acid grapes to offset it. But Mencia in Jamuz is different. It’s higher in natural acidity due to factors such as altitude, soil composition and more that will be explored below in The Lay of the Land. The natural musts here can take the loss of acidity and raised pH that comes with whole bunch fermentations and still maintain natural, healthy and in most cases an exceptional level of acidity for a finished red wine.
The supporting cast of grapes, Alicante Bouschet and Prieto Picudo, are employed to a lesser degree in the two top wines, Las Quintas and La Gándara, but more in the outrageously overachieving entry-level red, Las Jaras. (More on that later.)
2016 was a defining vintage and a breakthrough. They were the first wines we imported and are wonderfully original and beyond mildly addicting—I truly crave their taste and smell. The ensemble of Fuentes del Silencio and Jamuz’s unique terroir brings to life a range of wines that are unexpectedly noble and captivating. Those in search of honest and true wines with an interest in Mencia may have to open their mind to what they think they know about this grape variety. Jamuz is alone in style and expression and stands tall next to the great Mencias grown further inside the Galician Massif.
Lay of the Land
There’s so much to say about Jamuz, and given that there is almost no information out there other than on Fuentes del Silencio’s website, I felt compelled to provide a slightly exhaustive account. The story is complex and once through to the bottom of this essay, the magnificence of this region’s potential will be laid bare, as it was for me the first time I tasted the wines out of barrel and visited its vineyards. First, we’ll start with the grapes, and then we’ll dip our entire foot into the landscape and finally, dive head first in the geology and soil. These elements are crucial in revealing only what appears to be the tip of this historic iceberg.
The principal grape in the region is Mencia, a variety known to grow well in Bierzo to the northwest, and Galicia’s the Ribera Sacra, Monterrei and Valdeorras. However, Jamuz may have the longest growing season and almost certainly the highest level of natural acidity, a quality this variety is not known for. Many believe Mencia to be the great red grape of Galicia, but we will see what the coming decades of climate change bring. Other reds also show great potential in Galicia, but in Jamuz this is the natural fit. Here they render wines with a stronger balance of pleasure alongside the intellect that this grape can transmit from the more stony and visually impressive terroirs further into the Galician Massif.
The next grape in line is Alicate Bouschet, also known as Garnacha Tintorera— which is not to be confused with Grenache/Garnacha. Many in Galicia refer to it simply as Garnacha, and for a while I had no idea it wasn’t the same grape as Grenache! In fact, Grenache/Garnacha has white pulp and Garnacha Tintorera has red pulp, so there’s no chance at all of them being related other than their both being part of the vitis vinifera species. This grape has a lot of acidity and serves to improve the freshness of the wines.
Prieto Picudo is a low production red grape that brings more strength to the structure. It’s more common in the Tierre de León DO, and is responsible for some of the dark color and rustic profile of the region’s wines. It contributes acidity, tannin and color to a wine.
The landscape around Jamuz has a series of notably unique characteristics that help to define the wines. Interestingly, there isn’t much in the way of what is “typical” here because almost all of the vineyard land was abandoned for commercial purposes, and the rest were used to make wine for some farmers’ home consumption. There are almost no references to pull from, so this is all new to everyone, including the last generations of Jamuz—a classic story in the northwestern part of Spain: lost history and little context.
To the north of Jamuz are the Cordillera Cantabrica, the Cantabrian Mountains, and to the west the Maciso Galaico, the Galician Massif. Jamuz is tucked into the foothills of the Galician Massif, just below Monte Teleno, the massif’s tallest mountain. Despite being within site of some of the Cantabrian range, Teleno is the mother of the Jamuz landscape: its geological genetics, its design, and its protector.
Monte Teleno, a sort of miniature version of Africa’s famous Mount Kilimanjaro with it long, flat top, reveals the hundreds of millions of years of erosion that have smoothed out its general shape. What was once likely a mountain that extended well above the elevation of Kilimanjaro (a mere three million years old), at 19,308 feet, it now rests at only 7,178 feet, and all that igneous and metamorphic rock that made up that mountain and the mountains behind it had to go somewhere.
The Jamuz river valley extends from west to east and immerges from a fuente (spring) on Monte Teleno. The massive erosion and runoff from this mountain range and into the direction of Jamuz started around 35 million years ago and largely finished up during the close of the last ice age. Many rivers in the world during these times had moments of torrent, wiping out whatever was previously there and ultimately depositing what is left today. In Jamuz, quartzite and slate-derived soils are found on the plateaus above the dry riverbeds where the best vineyards are located.
Like France’s Southern Rhône Valley, the plateau vineyards are covered with rounded cobblestones and one can occasionally find slate rocks lying around that managed to make it here in recognizable form. Slate is not a hard rock compared to quartzite, one of the hardest rocks around. A forty or more mile rough ride down from the mountain rounds out the edges of the quartzite, while it absolutely pulverizes the more fragile slate (especially if its travel companion was quartzite) until much of it has been ground into a fine sandy soil that bears no visually obvious indication of its origin. Here you will find only bits and pieces of picturesque slate rocks, unlike the abundance found in Germany’s wickedly steep Mosel, or in Bierzo’s Corullón. It is indeed slate-derived soil and it governs some of the aromatic and textural profiles of the wines, while the fine soil grains of sand, silt and some clay influence the wine’s shape.
It can be observed that there is a some level of correlation between the texture and shape of the rock and soil and the wine itself. The Mencia wines rendered in the fine-grained soils of Jamuz are more rounded and less angular—just like their soil. It would not be a stretch to say that these wines may be the closest Mencia-based wines in shape to a Burgundy grown on topsoil with a greater clay to rock balance because of the roundness of the wines, with as strong a horizontal axis than vertical. By contrast, Mencias grown on steep hillsides with slate bedrock and topsoil in the nearby Corullón are more taut, angular and spare in their horizontal axis but more vertical, much closer to a wine from France’s Côte-Rôtie, or even texturally similar to a Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Germany’s famous Assmanshausen vineyard, grown on a sort of pink metamorphic slate-type rock.
The soil in Jamuz is typically orange to dark orange—a consequence of the dry and cold Miocene epoch that transformed the minerals in the sediments, resulting in a lot of iron oxide. There are all sorts of minerals and metals in the soils covered in the dossier for Pago classification. They mention conglomerates, sands, silts, kaolinite clay (like Cornas) and smectite clay (like the Côte d’Or), gold (like, well… nowhere!) slate, limestone—must I continue? Ok, if you insist. There are also the minerals typically in granite rock, like quartzite, sheet silicates like mica, potassium feldspar, plagioclase, et al.
If it’s easier, you can forget most of that last paragraph ever existed and just chalk this one up as very complicated.
While the geology of Jamuz is completely connected to the Galician Massif, the climate has little relationship to Green Spain and absolutely represents that of Castille y León and its high elevation countryside. The Cantabrian Mountains to the north and the Galician Massif to the west are natural gatekeepers that allow very little oceanic influence to pass beyond their guard into mainland Iberia. They’re referred to as a rain shadow, and this topographical feature along with the warm Mediterranean influence from the south and the desert inbetween is the reason for the arid landscape. The winters are long and harsh and the summers hot and dry, however nighttime temperatures drop quickly because of the rush of wind from Monte Teleno; even summer nights require a substantial sweater to be comfortable outside.
Another extremely important influencer on the shape, texture and structure of the wines is the vineyard altitude. With an average of 855 meters (2805 feet), this marks likely the highest average elevation where Mencia is planted in Spain, with the only contender perhaps being some sections of Bierzo, well above Corullón; that said, there is hardly a vine in Jamuz that sits lower than 800 meters. Higher altitude sites bring tension due to stress on the vine, and a very late picking season further develops depth of complexity from more hang time for the grapes. Desiccation or over-ripening of the clusters is less a consideration here than in lower altitude areas. The result is Jamuz grapes with fully lignified stems, taut berries and the influence of the full length of the beginning of spring to the end of fall, its flora, fauna and any other factors that may contribute some kind of unique nuance. This is real complexity and opportunity for subtleties and more distinction to emerge with bottle age.
The desert landscape is filled with indigenous holm oak trees, wild thyme and lavender, and without a single alien eucalyptus tree in site to muck up the soils and influence the taste of any of the wines. This polycultural area is rich in wildlife and untamed land and the good vineyards are alone and usually without too much cultivation around them, save some tree groves inside the riverbeds far away from the vineyards.
The soft touch and thoughtful approach in the vineyard and cellar by Miguel’s team led by Marta allows the wines to express their entire environment, not solely led by its solar and wind influence, geologic setting and grape varieties. These wines transport you into the Jamuz with the cold Telemo winds, its lift and freshness; mineral nuances and roundness from the fine-grained pulverized slate soils; the smell of winter coming when the grapes were picked; the wild, dry and pungent desert thyme, lavender, rosemary, chamomile and the wild roses (called jaras). This place is special. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere, far away from some of nature’s greatest adversaries, industrialization and monocultural farming. In one of the last frontiers of rediscovery of ancient vines in the wine world, they are breathing Jamuz back to life.