Originally published in the March 2020 edition of Essential Marbella Magazine
How can an 18th Century former military tin factory in a remote, off-the-grid valley produce some of Andalucía’s most sophisticated wine? The answer lies not so much in the soil but with the man who fell in love with a historical ruin, transforming it into a unique organic wine tasting experience.
If you only know Juzcar, the Smurf-coloured village in the Serranía de Ronda, from the movie sequel that was filmed there in 2011, you have missed the best parts. In addition to fabulous hiking routes, the area also has la sierra’s most hidden vineyard – la Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata de San Miguel de Ronda.
Juzcar’s best hidden secret
“Drive until you come to a red sign, turn sharp left and follow the road,” a local resident advises us. The corkscrew descent to the property may be somewhat hair-raising, but you won’t regret the effort once you see the enclave of flamingo-coloured houses surrounded by picturesque plots of vine, framed by a deep green forest. Leaving our car beside a jeep with a bumper sticker saying ‘I (heart) Ethiopia’, we enter a roomy courtyard where citrus trees and wild dates support hammocks and glass lanterns in a Boho style paradise.
Our welcoming committee, Momo the dog, grins almost as widely as our host Enrique Ruiz who comes out of the kitchen with open arms. Shortly after we are joined by the gemütlich German specialist in biodynamic farming Markus Bauer and the passionate Seville organic oenologist Fernando García de la Vega, also greeting us like old friends.
Canon balls by camel
“If you think this place is hard to get to now, imagine in the early 18th Century!” smiles Enrique. Why such a remote location? In 1725 when the factory was built here under the royal decree of King Felipe V, its whereabouts and production were considered state secrets. In fact, the metal making process was so clandestine that German and Swiss engineers were brought in to make the exact combination. “If one were to believe the legend,” adds Enrique, “the scientists were kidnapped and brought to Spain inside wine barrels”.
The specific location had the advantage of nearby iron mines and seemingly limitless supply of oak and walnut trees to feed Spain’s first high-temperature smelting oven. In addition, the Genal River provided enough hydraulic power to flatten the tinplate that later would line the hulls of Spanish galleons. In its hay day, over 100 people worked in La Fábrica, producing two tons of bullets, cannon balls and hojalata (tinplate) daily. As the loads were too heavy for mules to transport over the mountains to the coast, these beasts of burden were soon substituted by 20 camels from the Royal Palace in Madrid. Imagine! By the 1780’s, the valley’s wood resources were exhausted. Others took over the production and the factory was abandoned. It later became a 19th Century lair for bandoleros and other outlaws, and according to village gossip, one of the last owners was a spy!
From banking to bodega owner
But how does a Barcelona-born World Bank Economist end up in this remote corner of the world, I inquire? “It’s a long story,” shrugs Enrique who happened to be at an airport in Nicaragua leafing through a real estate magazine when he discovered that the old Fábrica was for sale. He bought the property in 2001, spending over a decade restoring the old factory. He worked two construction teams, while juggling permit applications from a multitude of departments in various levels of government.
As a testament to Enrique’s persistency and vision, the project won the distinguished Hispana Nostra award in 2018 for its patrimonial, cultural, environmental, educational and economic benefits. The award recognized the rehabilitation of the factory using only period materials, as well as harmonious recuperation of the land, dedicated to organic wine production and oenotourism. The entire complex has been declared a Historical Industrial Monument and a Site of Cultural Interest.
Continuing our visit, we are led into the old sheet metal workshop, which has served as their bodega since their first harvest in 2014. The stonewalls have an early-industrial character, while an enormous walnut tree growing straight through the recycled wood ceiling gives the place a contemporary feel.
“We only make varietal wines,” says Fernando, adding that due to the limited production, they can allow their wines to remain in the barrels for two winters before bottling. The estate actually has Europe’s southernmost plantation of Pinot Noir grapes, producing sublime wine.
All the grapevines are grown organically and harvested following the lunar cycle. “We have planted native species in danger of disappearing, such as Tintilla and Moscatel Morisco,” explains Enrique. Wine from the latter grape, which is autochthonous to La Serranía de Ronda, was rated 94% out of 100% by the Gúia Peñin (the Spanish equivalent of Robert Parker) in its very first year of production. It continues to excel in quality and is considered one of the best white wines in Andalucía.
Organic and artisan
La Fábrica’s annual production is 10 – 15.000 numbered bottles of five single- grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Moscatel Morisco, Tintilla de Rota, Garnacha Tinta and Cabernet. Following the estate’s sustainability mission, only clean renewable energy is utilized (wind, solar and hydroelectric power). Their wine is produced without chemical additives or artificial yeast, only using minimal amounts of sulphates if necessary. The bottles are light–weight recycled glass with names printed directly on the surface with non-toxic ink, using natural corks and beeswax seals, both produced on the estate. Only 1/10 of the land is dedicated to organic agriculture, the rest of the 30-hectare estate is Mediterranean oak, cork oak and chestnut forest.
Making artisan wine is more labour intensive than regular wine production. La Fábrica therefore accepts volunteers through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms to assist them, with Markus and Fernando teaching their international volunteers about organic wine production. Even the pressing is done the traditional way, so I volunteer our feet for the next harvest.
We taste their 2018 Moscatel Morisco and Pinot Noir, soon to be bottled. Having become accustomed to the traditionally heavy Ronda wines, la Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata wines are more like French wines – delightfully dry, elegant yet complex. Each wine has a distinctive character, which varies year to year. “Our objective is to produce distinguished single-grape organic wines,” says Fernando who in spite of his young age is the true nose of the bodega.
Drink, dine and stay overnight
A couple of years ago La Fábrica began to offer wine tasting tours. Due to their popularity, the experience was enhanced with an optional wine-infused lunch prepared by Enrique himself, who also is an amazing cook. The mouth-watering eight-course menu includes pheasant omelette, roasted Iberian pork with muscatel wine sauce and bitter orange cheesecake with to-die-for coffee brought directly from Nicaragua – all accompanied with the estate’s premium wines.
But that is not all… One day, a famous Malaga-born actor and his producer friends were having a tasting at La Fábrica. After a delightful lunch and maybe a tad too much wine, the actor told Enrique that the only thing lacking was a place for them to sleep. Enrique who happens to have 8 bedrooms in the main house, immediately offered them to stay the night. While this Hollywood favourite and his cheery lot were the winery’s first B&B guests, this option that is now open to all visitors.“We are a winery, not a hotel,” insists Enrique, saying that the rooms are there only for the comfort of wine lovers who wish to extend their visit and leave with a clear head after breakfast the following day.
Enrique and his trusted team bring oenotourism to a whole new level. From the historical tinplate bodega and the root-encrusted church with original art by the owner’s brother, to the estate’s Bohemian living-quarters, everything has a personal touch.
Each bedroom has its own style, wallpapered with Nicaraguan coffee bean sacks or musical notes, with priceless mementos from Enrique’s globetrotting life. You cannot avoid feeling at home. Most likely, you will want to stay for the night to be able to enjoy a summer lunch held under the shady orange trees by the pool or a wintery wine tasting in the library, bookended by two roaring fireplaces. Or simply sitting enjoying a glass of Garnacha wine, surrounded by Enrique’s ancient map collection.
La Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata, like its wine, is a place to be savoured.
Their premium estate wines can be shipped anywhere in the world and are found in selected wine shops and top restaurants in Seville, Cádiz and on the Costa del Sol. To arrange a visit, go to la Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata