I’ve just spent a week in Granada, my first visit to that beautiful Spanish city, crowned by one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever visited, the Alhambra complex. Of course, Granada is so much more than just the Alhambra and alongside the monuments to the city’s Moorish and Sephardic past, there’s a thriving food and drink culture. Everyone has been asking me about the Sherry. Jerez was not such a tempting drive in temperatures reaching the upper thirties in the day time and rarely dipping below twenty-seven at night. I drank just one glass of Fino, it turned out to be Tio Pepe, in a tapas bar. In those temperatures a tube of beer was welcome for its volume (a couple of local beers proved tasty, Alhambra, and the darker craft beer, Sacromonte). But Andalucia does have a thriving wine industry, quite small scale, and with a focus on natural wines too. Vinos auténticos!
If you ask someone who is already interested in Andalucian natural wines for the name of a wine producer, the chances are you will get Barranco Oscuro. Manuel Valenzuela arrived in the Sierra de la Contraviesa, in the Alpujarras range, in 1979. It claims to be the highest viticultural regional in Europe. The land here had never been worked with chemicals and after a time Manuel began to undertake a wholly non-interventionist approach to making wine, even leaving fermentation to its own devices. He farms 12 hectares and from them produces a vast number of cuvées (I know of twenty), but as his labels state, “European legislation prohibits us from informing you about the origin of the grapes or the vintage of this wine. Ask the person who sold you this bottle“. We’re talking the equivalent of Vin de Table or Vino de Mesa.
This first wine from Barranco Oscuro shows the unique nature of Manuel’s production. You’d be disappointed if you expected them all to be made from obscure local varieties. It’s true that he did revive the use of the Vigiriega grape, but in pioneering red winemaking in the Alpujarras, he’s planted many French varieties, and some of the more ubiquitous Spanish ones too. This bottle takes it from the top. El Pino Rojo is Pinot Noir, but it has 16.5% alcohol. He may be high in the Sierra de la Contraviesa (over 1,350 metres for the highest vines), but as I can attest, it gets pretty hot in summer. The landscape of schist with some clay is dry and quite barren. The key to this wine is to cool it a little. At least this is what I did, drinking it in early evening temperatures in the mid-30s centigrade. It took the edge off the alcohol and made it surprisingly refreshing. Delicious!
The advantage of travelling with three vegans (there’s a thriving vegan food scene in Granada) is that the vegan restaurants seem to sell a lot of natural wines. Paprika, on the edge of the old Albayzin district , combines quite inventive dishes with a small but well formed wine selection, and it’s a minute away from the well known deli-wine shop, Al Sur de Granada, another good source for local wines. It was at Paprika that I drank perhaps my wine of the week, Purulio Blanco Joven from Bodega Torcuato Huertas. It’s said that Manuel Valenzuela kickstarted the revival of Alpujarras winemaking, and it’s true that so many people have indeed benefited from his help and experience. Torcuato Huertas is one of them, although he has been immersed in wine since childhood, having helped foot-tread his grandfather’s grapes.
Again, the stereotype is broken – old guy making non-intervention natural wines, yet he introduced French grape varieties (Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc), and new oak barriques. The vineyards here are located on the northern side of the Sierra Nevada, near to Guadix. They are also at altitude, around 1,000 metres, but rather than the schist in the southern valleys, there’s more sand and alluvial deposits with Mica, quartz, basalt and iron. The wines are taut, saline and fresh, hard not to call “mineral”. The blanco joven is made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Macabeo and Palomino, plus minor additions…and it’s orange. It starts off with a fragrance of ripe apricot before the palate kicks in as I described above. Its 13% alcohol doesn’t really make itself noticed. It’s quite sublime, a complexity wholly different to that you expect from a more classic wine. Maybe that’s why I loved it. To the dubious reader, not a whiff of any cider-like volatility.
Barranco Oscuro quite fittingly gets a second wine in the “holiday top-4”. This time it’s a red blend based on Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – Tempranillo y Màs. It’s a tinto crianza which tastes quite seamless as a blend, although I did seem to get a hint of each of those varieties as I drank through it (maybe I was just fooling myself). It’s a lovely, rich wine, full bodied with a long dark-fruited finish. It’s also one of their wines I’d never come across before, so I was all the more pleased to see it in a couple of places in Granada. Barranco Oscuro is a gem of the Alpujarras and it’s good to hear that Manuel’s son, Lorenzo, is working at the winery. Hopefully the succession here is secure.
I was very pleased to find Bodegas Cauzon‘s Blanco 2015 on the shelves at Al Sur de Granada. I first met Ramon Saavedra at the Raw Wine popup at the London Edition Hotel back in May this year, and then again, a few days later, at the Raw Wine Fair in East London. We had to communicate in his little French and my even less competent Spanish, but he was very friendly. So much so that I was sorry to get as far as Granada and be unable to take up the invitation to drive up to Cortes y Graena, again high up in the Northern Sierra Nevada. Ramon has just 2.5 hectares of vines. Most of these produce red wine from Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a few local rarities, but the blanco is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Torrontés. It’s the colour of pale apple juice, cloudy and, being unfiltered, it has some pretty large clumps of yeasty sediment. With its clear glass bottle and clear label, it looks a bit like one of those pét-nats you can drink clear or cloudy depending on how you store them. Scary to look at, it’s actually 12.5% of refreshing white(ish) wine with a mineral/stone fruit palate. Easy to drink with a view towards the Alhambra, come 6pm on a hot August afternoon.
The delicatessen/wine shop Al Sur de Granada is at the top end of the Calle de Elvira (No 150), on the right just before you get to the Moorish Arch. In fact it’s much more than a deli, being at various times of the day an organic wine bar and restaurant, with a good selection of locally grown produce. Open, in theory, 10am-4pm and 6-11.30pm (I think they might shut at 3.30 and not the advertised 4pm in summer). The name, meaning South from Granada, references a book (pub 1957, since 2003 also a film by Fernando Colomo) by that famous historian of Spain, Gerald Brenan. The book is autobiographical and charts his complicated life as a demobilized soldier in the years after 1919, in a village in the Alpujarras.
Before visiting Granada I read Granada – The Light of Andalucia by Steven Nightingale (Nicholas Brealey, 2015). It combines a history of Granada with a captivating description of an American family’s move to the Albayzin district just over a decade ago. Nightingale is a poet and novelist, and he uses a poet’s sensibilities to appraise the rise and decline of Moorish and Sephardic culture in this great city, and the impact of the conquest by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. I loved this book, and plan to read it again now I’ve been there. By coincidence, we discovered that the carmen Nightingale bought and renovated was only metres from where we were staying. [Note slightly different title for US market]
We stayed in the Albayzin district in an apartment found on airbnb. Here’s a link . The view of the Alhambra at the beginning and end of this article was taken from the long living room, a constant companion for the week, and possibly the best view I recall having from a holiday rental. The Albayzin is effectively a village within a city, a series of tiny lanes, many a mere metre wide, snaking across a hill. It contains many churches, hidden Moorish architecture, small museums, and the beautiful houses known as carmens with their hidden gardens, oases of calm in the summer heat.
Other recommended (but smaller) sites to see include the Madraza de Granada (side of Cathedral, 2€, do not miss), the arab-era bathhouse on the Carrera del Darro and the Corral de Carbon (a Nasrid-era corn exchange). The Alhambra itself is magical. The complex contains the famous Nasrid Palaces, the Alcazaba fortress and the Generalife (where the famous water gardens are located). Ticketing is complicated so consult an up-to-date guidebook. Buy tickets online, in advance – you still have to collect tickets before entry and timings are reasonably strict. But remember, parts of the complex are free, including a small but worthwhile museum in the Palacio de Carlos V. We went up there three times.
If you are in Granada with a car, try to visit the white villages of the Alpujarras, some of the most beautiful in Spain. We lunched at L’Atelier restaurant in Mecina, in the Taha Valley, about 20 minutes east of Pampaniera (via Lanjaron). It’s a tiny place so booking is advised (they have a few rooms). Don’t be put off by it being vegetarian/vegan, the cooking is inventive and good. There is nice easy walking from the next hamlet, Fondales, with its flat-roofed Berber-style houses. Follow the trail signs in the village.