While our hometown Ronda in southern Andalucía is a perfect place for a romantic getaway, it is also becoming a favoured destination for wine tourism. Our region produces many outstanding wines, but when it comes to the combination of taste and setting, no winery can compete with Descalzos Viejos.
Situated at the northern end of the Hoya del Tajo valley, tucked underneath the cliff, the vineyard has a microclimate that is unique in the Serranía de Ronda. It might be for this reason that a couple of friars were granted royal permission to build a monastery in this exact spot in the year 1505, just a couple of decades after the Catholic Monarchs won back the region from the former Moorish rulers. The Trinitarian monks remained until 1664, when the threat of earthquakes and rock falls made them move closer to Ronda. Only the most senior Brothers chose to remain, lovingly tending to their vegetable garden and fruit trees. Once these Descalzos Viejos (old barefoot) Brothers whom the vineyard is named after, passed on, the monastery was abandoned.
Fast-forward 300 years to 1998, when the current owners, Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi first laid eyes on the ruin. The architects immediately fell in love with it and decided to purchase the former monastery. From the very beginning, it was a family project needing all hands on deck, though they admit that their wives, who are both doctors, are more the silent partner types. “We go to them when we need their purses”, Paco says half-jokingly.
The initial goal was to bring Descalzos Viejos back to its former splendour, primarily restoring the main building with its gardens, as well as the natural spring that feeds several ponds and fountains. The restoration, which started in 2000, was a complicated process – structurally, legally and practically – as Paco and Flavio needed their day jobs as architects to pay for the massive renovations.
Visiting the property, it is clear that this was and still is a true labour of love. Descalzos Viejos is a magnificent blend of Gothic-Mudejar and Modern architecture, innovatively and fearlessly mixing ancient stone with contemporary elements of glass and steel.
Such a lofty vision could only have been achieved because the owners are more artists than businessmen. Had Paco and Flavio not taken on this monumental task, the building would have fallen down, as no government funding was granted towards the restoration of this important piece of Ronda’s history. Other buyers might have injected the funds needed for a basic renovation, but I doubt that anyone would have invested the care and passion that Paco and Flavio have brought to this unique estate.
To understand the scope of the restoration, one simply has to look at the before and after photographs. The church had half crumbled walls and a lean-to animal shed where the altar once stood. The local shepherds who built the haphazard barn construction had also dug out various openings in the wall for their chickens and other farm animals.
From the few scattered remains hidden behind layers of lime-wash and grime, it became clear that the walls of the chancel had been decorated with religious frescos. Once the structure was rebuilt and a new roof added (which could not touch the original walls…) a team of restorers from the University of Seville spent almost half a year bringing back the original frescos dating from the early 16th Century.
The marvellous centrepiece the restorers unfolded depicts St. Rufina and St. Justa, the patron saints of Seville and the guardians of the Brotherhood.
Andalucía has far too many tourist sights to attract people by merely opening a former monastery to visitors, so Paco and Flavio had to find another way to get a return on their investment. Ronda was an important wine-producing region since Roman times until the Phylloxera pest killed virtually all the European grapevines in the late 1800’s. The monks had also produced wine on the property, so they decided to try their hands at growing grapes. “We knew hardly anything about the wine industry,” they tell me. This however, didn’t stop the forward-thinking team. Paco, who later became the first president of the association of Ronda’s vinicultores or wine producers, took a Master in Oenology merely to understand what other vintners were talking about.
In 2003, they had their first harvest. By 2005, Vicente Inat, an agricultural engineer and oenologist from Valencia, joined the team. Their 2006 vintage was almost too strong for consumption, yet the very same wine won the gold medal at the world wine competition in Brussels in 2010, and the grand gold medal in 2011, the only Andalucian red wine to receive the prestigious award that year.
While other producers would have wanted to profit from such honours, Descalzos Viejos did the opposite. In spite of becoming one of the best wineries in Ronda in a very short period of time, you will not find a Seal of Distinction or a Certified Organic label on their bottles. “We are not interested in accolades. We want our clients to recognize the quality of our wine from the taste, not from its labels,” Paco explains. Over the past 16 years, the architects and their small team of helpers have become experts in the art of winemaking, offering a fully organic product, grown in small plots of land with the collection, fermentation and bottling done by hand.
If you have a chance to taste a Descalzos Viejos wine, consider yourself privileged. The wines cannot be bought in supermarkets, nor are they sold at airports. Only a selection of wine merchants and restaurants carries the brand, as well as a few international distributors. Compared to the huge vineyards of the Rioja region, the estate is very small. With an overall area of 15.5 hectares, out of which 10 are planted with grapes, nearly all of their production can be called ‘limited edition’. They did produce 15.500 bottles of their regular DV wine in 2017, but their specialty wines, like the DV Rufina and DV Iusta wines, named after the Monastery’s saintly protectresses, are only produced in a restricted quantity of 2000 bottles per year.
The grapes are grown between 600 and 650 meters over sea level in three distinct properties, each with their own characteristics. The extreme seasonal temperature variations, the dry mountain climate and the poor, rocky or clayey soil make good growing conditions for their grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Graciano, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Paco asked us to meet him at the entrance of the estate several hours before sunrise, so we could see their pickers at work. The purpose of nocturnal harvests are to prevent the grape fermentation process from starting prematurely, but the fact that it happens in the wee hours of the night just added to my excitement. I have to admit, I had a slightly dated picture of how wine harvests unfolded, visualizing an operetta-like scene of buxom maidens in flowing skirts with straw baskets slung over their shoulders and grape leaves tangled into their raven black locks. Of course, none of this happens anymore, but the vendimia still has its charm, certainly when one is on the observing side.
We arrive in the dark valley below the monastery to see a dozen or so pickers sitting around a campfire having a pre-dawn breakfast. One of them motions for me to sit down on a plastic crate (the same ones they pick grapes in) and I join them by the fire. They tell me that they are from the village of Algamitas, where Paco’s wife Chelo is from. In fact, a couple of the pickers are from her family, while the ones who aren’t are still treated as such. I learn that the people from Algamitas have a reputation as excellent pickers, moving from harvest to harvest, following the seasons from peaches to grapes, and chestnuts to olives. This year’s harvest at Descalzos Viejos takes place over 10 non-consecutive days, when the oenologist deems the particular grape to be ready. Today’s crop of Syrah grapes grows on a slanted hill by the Guadalevin River where no artificial watering system is needed.
The pickers’ workday starts at midnight and they will be at it until 8 am. Looking at the expanse of grapevines, it seems impossible to me that less than a dozen people with only a pair of clippers and head lanterns will handpick the entire area clean in a few hours. But that is before the last cigarette is butted out and I see them go to work. Efficiency cannot even start to describe them as they move through the vines, swiftly yet carefully snipping each mature bunch, while leaving unfit grapes on the ground.
As soon as the first row is done, a miniature tractor with an open trailer rolls in. It fits exactly between the vines, which are planted 2.20 meters apart. A couple of young men hand the already filled boxes, weighing 14 kilos each, to another man who stacks them on the trailer. One senses the pride of these professional harvesters, who has been part of the Descalzos Viejos vendimia since the very beginning. Today’s expected harvest is 5000 kilos. Though output varies depending on the grape variety, a kilo of grapes will yield nearly a 750 ml bottle of wine.
While the pickers work, Paco shows us their other grape varieties, while explaining their system of grafting different types of vines onto already established roots. All the grapes we see look spectacularly healthy and plump, with leaf colours varying from green to the russet red foliage of my favourite – the Garnacha Tintorera grape.
Outside the monastery, Vicente the oenologist is overseeing the pressing process. When fully loaded, the tractor struggles up the steep hill with the cases. These are emptied into a moving assembly line, where Vicente and Paco’s daughter María, a graphic designer who has come home to help with the harvest, sort through the fruit.
Next, the grapes are rinsed and mulched before the juice and the grape skin, which gives the tinto its colour, travels through a thick hose, directly into huge stainless steel fermentation tanks.
What particularly differentiates Descalzos Viejos from other wine producers is the bodega where the wine is aged. The steel tanks of the winery are located inside the ancient church. Standing like enormous modernist columns, they line the nave towards the former alter.
Only the chancel area is filled with the traditional wooden wine barrels, used for special vintages. The grand church with its favourable acoustics is sometimes used for musical performances, with the audience seated between wine barrels. And with the frescos of the saints overseeing the ageing process, how can it not taste divine?
As dusk becomes day, everything is hosed down and put away. While the pickers head home, we take a walk in the monastery garden, following the windy paths once trodden by barefoot monks.
Breathing in the aroma of ripe fruit and feeling the peace of their sacred Eden, I can certainly understand why the oldest Brothers chose to spend their remaining days here, caring for their beloved orchard.
The sheltered location allows fruit to grow here that usually won’t survive at these altitudes. The branches of an enormous avocado tree, probably Ronda’s largest specimen, hang heavy with fruit. There are also quince, figs, persimmon, cumquat, lemon, almonds, as well as a pomegranate tree that has been dated back at least 500 years. In fact, its first fruits are just breaking open, displaying their spectacular crimson core.
Those who are lucky enough to visit Descalzos Viejos are in for a treat. In which other world-class winery will you get a personal tour by the people who actually designed the premises? Wine tastings take place on one of the many picturesque seating areas with astounding views towards Ronda. Being no expert, I cannot say if the wine has a nose of blackberry or chocolate. You have to taste for yourself, but to me, the wines from Descalzos Viejos are exquisitely complicated, like their past. They encapsulate the taste of Andalusian soil, the almost ever-present sun, the sweet aroma of fruit in season and the tender care of ancient barefoot monks.
When you make an appointment to visit the winery, do not expect a commercial enterprise. There are no Descalzos Viejos T-shirts, stickers or other wine paraphernalia for sale. In fact there is no store at all. The only thing you can purchase is wine, but when you have the quality and history of Descalzos Viejos, what more can one ask for? You will not regret your visit, and I assure you, nor will you forget it!