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 am compelled to provide a slightly exhaustive account. The story is complex and once through this essay, the magnificence of this region’s potential will be laid bare, as it was for me the first time I tasted Fuentes del Silencio’s wines out of barrel and visited their 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 Ribera Sacra, Monterrei and Valdeorras. Between them, Jamuz may have the longest growing season and on the average likely 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 initially I had no idea it wasn’t the same grape as Grenache, or the well-known Garnacha found in other areas of Spain further toward the east. In fact, Grenache/Garnacha has white pulp and Garnacha Tintorera has red pulp, so there’s likely little chance 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 Tierra 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” because almost all of the vineyard land was abandoned with some kept in production only to make wine for some of the farmers’ home consumption. There are almost no historical references, so this is all new to everyone, including the last generations in Jamuz; it’s a typical wine 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 may have extended above the altitude of Kilimanjaro (a mere three million years old), at 19,308 feet, Teleno 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 emerges 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 cobbles and fine, 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 there 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 with quartzite as a travel companion) until much of it has been ground into a fine sandy soil that bears no obvious visual 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. Appearances aside, 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 some level of correlation between the texture and shape of a wine and a vineyard’s rock and soil composition. 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, demonstrating 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 found in granite rock, like quartzite, sheet silicates like mica, potassium feldspar, plagioclase and more.
If it’s easier, you can forget most of that last paragraph ever existed and just chalk this one up as very complicated and diverse with about everything imaginable.
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 Castilla 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 in-between 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 Teleno; even summer nights require a substantial sweater to be comfortable outside.
Another extremely important influence 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 (2,625 feet). 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 during the summer and late fall heat. 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 unique nuances found in these wines. 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 Spanish sun, 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, the team at Fuentes del Silencio is breathing Jamuz back to life. -TV