With Navarra running through his veins, Ángel Anocibar has understood the origins of wine in his hometown of Puente la Reina since he was a child. However, his professional career really took off when he went to France in the 1980s and became the first Spanish Doctor of Oenology from the University of Bordeaux. This achievement caught the attention of prestigious winemaker Pascal Delbelck, who thought he would be the perfect person to set up the Abadía Retuerta project and turn it into one of the best in Spain. Now, with more than 20 years of experience in leading the winery’s team, we are, without doubt, in the presence of one of the winemaking greats who has so much to teach us.
Although you have been familiar with vineyards since childhood, do you remember when and how you felt called to make wine?
Before starting, I would like to say that 25 vintages have already been made at Abadía Retuerta, all since this winemaking project was restarted. I speak in plural because this project has been built by people who believed in what we do from the beginning. Most of those of us who continue to run the technical side have been there since the beginning of this beautiful project and I am proud to have trained them, they have been my most faithful students.
Back to the question. I come from a “humble” family in both the personal and financial sense. This shaped my life as a teenager and was the beginning of my interest in this exciting adventure that is the world of wine. During the summer, Easter and Christmas holidays and breaks from my studies, wine was my source of income as I worked at the Señorío de Sarría winery in the DO Navarra. They say the more time you spend on something, the more you grow to love it, so over time I became curious about this world of wine, beyond what I knew through our famous Kalimotxo. Circumstances allowed me to go and study oenology in Madrid, which was the best place to do so in Spain at that time.
At that time, studying at the Madrid School of Oenology and then at the Bordeaux School wasn’t very common. What were the students like at that time? Did you feel like you fit in?
For me it was a miracle. My family could not afford for me to study, and certainly not in Madrid. I was lucky to get a scholarship to study at the Madrid School of Oenology, which is where the best teachers were at the time. I don’t want to mention names, because I don’t want to forget any of them, but they were the ones who finally managed to instill in me what continues to be my great passion, wines and their people, from production to enjoyment. The students were very diverse, from children of producers and sommeliers to people who liked wine. I was just someone who wanted to learn why he was doing those summer jobs in the winery and vineyard.
The truth is that you put in significant work because you ended up being the first Spanish Doctor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux. How has this achievement benefitted you? Has it ever been a bad thing?
When I had the opportunity to study in Bordeaux, it was both a difficult and an easy decision. There was the financial issue of my “humble” origins, but I found that the cost of studies was not as high as in Spain and that I could work to cover the costs. The easy part was going to the best place to learn oenology and viticulture. And the best thing was that I went to Bordeaux for the first time with Joaquín Galvez (wineman), who encouraged me the most.
I finished my oenology studies at the faculty and, at the same time, I was working in both wineries and in research. Then Doctor Bertrand suggested taking my studies even further and doing a doctorate and getting to know the wines “from the inside.” This changed the way I saw wines, analysing them throughout the process in order to improve them. Joaquín also spent a season in the laboratory and I think, like me, his eyes were opened to knowledge that hadn’t existed in Spain until then.
I’m glad you asked the second question. I do think sometimes being a Doctor of Oenology has been a bad thing, because the image that people have of you is of a man in a lab coat who is far from the realities of vineyards and winemaking. In this sense, one of the biggest compliments I’ve had from a colleague in the winemaking world was when he said: “I don’t think you’re like that.” Because I’m not just a person in a lab coat, I’m a knowledgeable countryman who thinks about how to improve everything and how to do things in the most ecological way.
As a final degree project, you did your thesis on sulphur compounds in wines. With your knowledge and experience, you must spot defects in wine from a mile off. What are your thoughts on the current trend of natural wines?
I don’t like this definition of “natural wine.” I think we make natural wines at Abadía Retuerta, we ferment with our own yeasts and we don’t add any of those “cocktails” that are sold and used to make wines. I imagine this is more commonly known as sulphur-free wine. If this is the issue, we add a “touch” of sulphur, always less than the amount that is considered ecological. It’s important to remember that sulphur in wine “disappears” during the bottle aging process, so I don’t think this is a problem. In any case, we have been conducting sulphur-free experiments for several years. We are still watching to see how they play out. By the way, you can experience these things yourself if you come to visit us at Abadía Retuerta.
Meeting Pascal Delbeck has been vital in the direction of your professional career. How did you meet?
Like when we talk about monuments and we say “you can’t miss out on this”, the same can be said of Pascal Delbeck. He has such great viticultural knowledge and above all, he has great convictions and sensitivity. In the 1990s, when highly concentrated and woody wines were awarded all the high ratings in magazines, he described one of these great critics as a “woodpecker.” It did not go well for his wine scores, but it was popular among those who love his way of doing things, which now curiously seem to be in fashion. At the time I was still writing my thesis and working, in 2015, at Calon Segur, supporting my friend Nicolas Labenne, who is now a great winemaker at Lynch Bages. It so happened that I visited Chateau Aussone some time before and during this visit I chatted to Pascal about things we were both passionate about, things about viticulture, wines, life, etc. When we were introduced for the “interview” he remembered me and our conversation and he said: “you are the person I am looking for.” Some other time I will tell you about how this interview-appointment in a restaurant went. I was a student, nervous about the interview…. and “about having to go halves.”
When he invited you to be part of building Abadía Retuerta, was it an immediate “yes” or did you have some hesitations? What was it that finally convinced you?
Once again, the great Joaquín Galvez took me to this event for the first time. If you come to Abadía for the first time, you will feel what we feel, there is something special that grabs you, there is a tremendous beauty and it feels like great wines must be made there. The same thing happened to Pascal.
I suppose that as with any good project, the beginnings of Abadía Retuerta were hard. What do you think was the most difficult thing to get going?
Before this wine-growing project that we joined was restarted, there were quite a lot of vineyards in Abadía Retuerta, many hectares growing grapes to sell. Perhaps not many people know that Abadía Retuerta and Vega Sicilia, 10 km apart, were the same property. After the creation of the DO Ribera del Duero, which Sardón de Duero was not part of, the Abadía vineyard, dating back to the 19th century, became extinct. But in the 90s Novartis decided to revive this historic vineyard and restore its monastery, which is how we’ve got to where we are today.
Starting a vineyard and winery project from scratch is a big challenge, but it’s also a very beautiful thing to watch. Even more so when you can go back to making wines like the monks made centuries ago and building a team to do so. On the technical side, things are still pretty much the same, although there have been some new additions over the years that we are proud of, and we are like a family.
And this was the biggest challenge, forming systems and structures around the workers and developing work protocols in the vineyard, winery, and laboratory. It’s important to remember that we started building the winery on July 7, 1996 and by the end of September we were already making the first Abadía Retuerta wines. Everything happened on the basis of knowledge and determination.
As a mentor, colleague and friend, what have you learned from Pascal? How has he influenced the way you work and your life?
Friend, mentor, friend. I came to manage Abadía Retuerta when I was 29 years old. I had technique and knowledge. At this age, 25 years ago, Pascal gave me the vision of what to build and that vision became Abadía Retuerta. The vineyard must be “educated”, production must be “respectful.” These are concepts that I have built into my work over time, concepts I couldn’t get my head around before, perhaps because I was young.
Personally speaking, you have to get to know him, to me he is family, just like J.J. Abó, who was another of the great “influencers” of Abadía Retuerta.
You and your work have changed many people’s perceptions about the Castilla y León region, just outside the borders of the Ribera del Duero. How would you define the wines of the V.T. Castilla y león?
Although there are other wineries in the part of Castilla y León that borders the DO Ribera del Duero, where we find Sardón de Duero and Tudela de Duero, I want to highlight the image that our neighbour Mauro has given these wines from Castilla y León. Mariano García, well known in his time for being a producer in Vega Sicilia, and his successors, Eduardo and Alberto, who have inherited his passion and good work, were the first to create this imagine of high quality.
We identify with the wines of Mauro, because of the proximity of terroirs, and respect for the vineyard and production, but Castilla y León is a large area and our wines may not be at all similar to wines from far away regions and different varieties. In any case, I do think that Castilla y León is a leading producer of quality wines in every sub-region.
Now that you have been a leading winery for so many years, what do you think is the key to your success in holding this position for so long?
There is a lot of field work every year in the vineyard and in the way we make our wines, but also in the way we share our achievements. Abadía Retuerta has been in the WSP top 100 for 3 years, it has been voted the best wine in the world in England… But if you don’t tell anyone, consumers will never know. Having a management team that knows how to steer and communicate all of this is as important as the winemaking process.
Of the wines you have made so far, which one has given you the most trouble and which one has given you the most satisfaction? And why?
Troubles: Definitely the Petit Verdot. The viticulture is complex, because the clusters are very droopy with very fragile buds at the budding stage. Another thing we have to consider is completely protecting the bunches from the sun, because the small grapes are prone to drying out very easily. Although it may not seem like it seeing the result, our macerations are very gentle with minimal extraction because the grapes are very concentrated. I think we managed something extraordinary in 2015. It was very difficult, but when it happens, you get this feeling of “finally.” By the way, this is a Petit Verdot, so don’t expect a light wine.
Satisfaction: Being able to revive a wine that I am very fond of because the old vintages have developed very well… Cuvée Palomar. This wine will be available to enjoy again soon.
Your studies in the field of oenology are well-known, especially your commitment to climate change. Based on your research, what is in store for the vineyard in 10 years?
We have done a full climatic study of Abadía Retuerta for the last 50 years. And that was able to tell us that, since the 90s, the “average” temperature has continually increased, which has made harvests ever earlier. It freezes less often in winter and the temperatures are not as low. We have also found that the winter rains that fill our water reserves tend to be very variable from one year to the next. So far in the Douro area this is not a serious problem, it just involves a study of the temperatures and water in the soil each year.
I mention “averages” because the most worrying thing that I see in climate change is the highly variable and extreme weather conditions that we are seeing more and more frequently, and we need to know how to manage them. Take the year 2020 as an example. April saw 120 l of rainfall. It was raining for 27 of the 30 days of the month. The month of July was a month of extremes, with up to 3 heatwaves with temperatures close to 40ºC and just 20 litres of rainfall. To top it off, the month of August was very unusual, with days of extreme heat reaching 40ºC around the 7th, and then ending the month by plugging in the anti-frost towers, and temperatures around 0ºC. All this means that disease management, load adjustment, pruning, etc. have to be adjusted every year.
There is one word that we should all get familiar with, biodiversity. If we are all equal, and a disease comes along, we will become extinct. If we are different in any way, diseases will not affect us equally. We can also apply this concept to our vineyards. We are studying the behaviour of other varieties as well as the ones we’re already familiar with. We currently have more than 20, which we are adding another 6 pre-phylloxera to that we recovered from the previous era of the Abadía vineyard. They turned out to be Tempranillos with different characteristics, presumably due to mutations over the centuries.
Wine is the main thing in your life, but if you had to give up wine, what would you hold onto?
Running a project as big as Abadia Retuerta every day must leave you with very little time left. If you have spare time, what do you do?
I abandoned Basque pelota given the lack of people to play with in Valladolid, and that is what I enjoyed most, so I’ve changed things a bit. At the moment I play some frontenis and I really love hiking.
Finally, could you tell us about a wine that has pleasantly surprised you in recent weeks?
Of course I can, and you can’t imagine how happy I am to be asked this question. I buy many wines to see what is being done in all corners of the winemaking world and I share them with my team at Abadía Retuerta. The quality that has been achieved in all Spanish regions is amazing, and since you’ve asked about the last few weeks, I can tell you that I have been surprised by the Garnachas Tintoreras from the southeast of Spain, but going back more than the last few weeks would be a never-ending list.
And I want you to know that I like to share these wines with my team at Abadía Retuerta because ever since our first production we have strived to do our job better and better, always remembering that we want to surprise someone. We want people to take a sip of any of our wines, look at the bottle and remember our brand as a wine that has surprised them, that is our spirit at Abadía Retuerta.
The post Discovering Ángel Anocibar, technical director of Abadía Retuerta first appeared on the Decántalo Wine Blog.
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