As a mother of two bi-cultural children growing up in Andalucia, I see part of my mission as making sure we do fun-and-educational things together as a family, especially when they involve seeing food grown and produced in our home region – and even more so, naturally, when they involve wine.
In the past few years we have milked goats and made cheese in the Sierra de Aracena (Huelva), picked olives and tasted olive oil in Jaen, and visited an orange farm near Seville. I have been to, and organised, wine and sherry tastings, and bodega visits in Jerez.
Our latest expedition was for the vendimia, grape harvest, in Bollullos Par del Condado, a wine-making town located an easy 30 minute-drive from Seville – happily combining picking the grapes, treading them, and then drinking the wine itself.
This activity has intrigued me since last year, when, at around this time, a friend-and-client published a photo of herself treading grapes in Jerez. She looked like she was loving it, but also I knew that this is an important stage in a traditional process practised for centuries. History, fun – and wine? I’m sold.
Fate conspired – at a recent food conference here in Seville (blog post coming soon), I found out that Grupo Sentire, which organises wine-themed activities in Bollullos, had a family vendimia activity coming up the following weekend. So we set off at 8.30am on Saturday (which took some convincing) and headed up the motorway towards Huelva.
Our starting point, and base for the day, was Bodegas Andrade, founded in the late 19th century by four brothers, and still owned by the same family. Their wines are part of the DO, or Denominacion de Origen, Condado de Huelva. The DO dates from 1936, although wine-making in this area is first documented as far back as the 14th century. Bodegas Andrade’s beautiful buildings were restored in 2008 and are now used for events such as weddings and corporate functions, as well as smaller, less formal happenings like ours.
As soon as we walked into the yard of the bodega, we could smell and hear the activity – big machines were rumbling, and the musty smell was overpowering, though not in an unpleasant way. My daughter disagreed, shouting “Poo-ey!” and holding her nose in theatrical style. This was the leftover pulp being funnelled off after the grapes have been pressed. More of that later.
We were told that we were going to be bodegueros – wine workers – for the day, and as such we had to start off with a good breakfast. A long table had been laid between rows of barrels, laden with fresh fruit, sliced tomato, jamon iberico and bottles of olive oil. Fruit juice and toast (pan de pueblo, hearty stuff) were passed around and everything was plentiful and delicious.
Clearly asking for jam wasn’t an option, so I decided this was the moment to try my first Andalucian tostada, after 12 years living here (OK, my second – I had one at Annie’s in Vejer). The tomatoes were a lovely bright red so I slathered on the liquid gold – and then had five more pieces of toast-oil-and-tomato, it was that good. And, of course, a glass of Andrade Pedro Ximenez Reserva 1985, a sweet, dark-coloured wine made from the PX grape which the Jerez region is famous for. This was richly fragrant, sweet and smooth to taste, but without the fullness and depth of other such wines I’ve tasted in the past.
As we ate, our guide from Sentire, Victor, explained that until just a few decades ago, the harvest was gathered manually, with no mechanical help like today. This was hard physical work. Usually the breakfast on this day out takes place outside, but due to high temperatures expected, they wanted us to stay in the cool before starting our labours.
He also told us that the little train we would be taking harks back (symbolically, as it’s not a train as such) to the small Ferrocarril del Vino del Condado railway which used to run between the twin wine-making towns of Palma del Condado and Bollullos Par del Condado, now separated by the A49 motorway, from 1921-1931. In the DO Condado de Huelva, 15 of the 39 bodegas are located in Bollullos, which is also home to the largest cooperative in Spain, Vinícola del Condado S.C.A, also known as Bodegas Privilegio, which produced 6.5 million litres of wine last year. Many of them blend and/or bottle wines, rather than making them (elaboracion).
Andrade – and the Condado de Huelva in general – are known for their “vino blanco joven afrutado” – young fruity white wine, as well as sherry-type wines (for example, the PX) made in the criadera-solera system also used in the bodegas of Jerez (and only in Andalucia), using the crianza biologica whereby a layer of yeast forms over the wine, known as flor. Wines are aged and blended using a complicated system of mixing new wines with older ones.
Transporting us back all those years again, it would have taken hours to move the picked grapes from the donkey carts to the press, and months to bring the grapes to the bodega by donkey. These days, tractors pull trailers in minutes, which tip their loads into a stainless steel pit with a great splash and crash, where the grapes are crushed, and then the mosto (must) is filtered and pumped into stainless steel vats to ferment. These grapes are mostly zalema, a variety native to this region of Huelva province, ideal for making many vinos generosos (fortified wines, like sherry), such as palo cortado, PX and oloroso, although not for fino.
We tried the grape juice straight from the stainless steel vats next to the crushing machine – it was very cloudy, as it hadn’t get been filtered, and tasted wonderfully grapey and fresh.
Leaving this part of the bodega, where you step on a stone floor bathed in sticky grape liquid, we saw the waste pulp, or orujo (same word as used in olive-oil making), being loaded onto trucks in big clumps.
Then it was time to board the train, the high point for the children in the group. The original one had 15 carriages – five for people, and ten for the barrels of wine. The route to the vineyards goes close to the edge of Doñana park, the area known as pre-parque. In our open-sided carriage, divided into sections with seats facing each other, we passed through Bollullos town, where locals waved and smiled, and we counted five more trucks piled with grapes arriving from the countryside. Then we left the paved roads, and headed into the countryside, to the viñedo (vineyards).
Along the way, we spotted abandoned farmhouses, and isolated crosses dedicated the Virgin del Rocio, a big name around these parts. We saw neat rows of olive trees, fields of watermelons, fig, orange and lemon trees, and cacti with prickly pears.
We passed scores of vines, and then we arrived at our allotted spot. Victor explained that there were two rows of vines assigned to our group, so each family took some pairs of scissors (children’s craft ones, no sharp points), picked up a puerta (bucket), and headed off to start cutting.
The vines were heaving with greeny-purple bunches of zalema grapes, so it wasn’t a problem to find enough to fill our bucket. Most families managed two buckets full in about 30 minutes, carried between two back to the little trailer. We put ours in by hand as the puerta was too heavy to lift.
At the end of our rows of vines was, bizarrely, a castle, sitting incongruously in the middle of the vineyard. This turreted brick fort, started by the grandfather of the current owners, but never finished, gives its name to one of the wines we were to try at lunch, Castillo de Andrade.
As we were returning on the train, the kids still entranced by bumping along the country tracks in the open air, Victor told us that Bodegas Andrade is one of the largest wineries in the Condado de Huelva area, with 140 hectares, producing around 250,000 kilos of grapes and 20,000 litres of wines.
Our next stop was the Centro del Vino Condado de Huelva, back in Bollullos. This was introduced as not a museum, but rather a place of living culture, heritage and the story of wine. There used to be 200 bodegas in this condado, but the feel is very much contemporary/futuristic, with angle panes of glass in a chequered pattern. You see barrels and vines outside, which is a great way to introduce the industry to visitors, setting a context before you’ve even entered.
Our guide explained that Spain has only three DOs for vinegar – Jerez, Montilla-Moriles and Huelva – and that in 2010, another DO was created, for Vinos de Naranja – sweet wine flavoured with dehydrated orange peel, a perfect Christmas drink.
Modern installations, where you stand inside a circular exhibit, introduce the idea of the barrel, with its layer of flor. The strong heritage in the area is represented by hanging eyes – these are all the abuelos (grandparents), who handed down their knowledge of viticulture – and are still present and watching us.
The next area was about famous personalities related to wine, such as Cervantes, who worked as a tax collector in this area, and Colon (Columbus), who took wine to the new world, as well as a major local literary figure: Nobel Laureate Juan Ramon Jimenez, who was from nearby Moguer and whose father worked in the wine world, wrote one of the best-loved books in Spanish, Platero y Yo, about a donkey. You could press buttons on a table to play videos about the history of wine-making in the area, which goes back 4,000 years, right up to the modernisation of bodegas.
After this, we thought about the different types of receptacles used to store wine, and drink it from – wood, metal and glass; a wind chime for each material produced its own sound. The importance of wine in terms of fiestas, such as El Rocio, music and social interaction was also covered, although we were pressed for time so couldn’t see everything – I’d like to go back and do another visit at my own pace.
Then we watched a short film on a huge screen, showing wine-makers talking about the chalky soil of the area, known as albariza (the same as in Jerez), pruning and picking the grapes, and the different production processes according to the type of wine – biological aging and oxidization.
Back at the bodega, it was time for the day’s highlight for many of us: treading the grapes we picked in the vineyard. Normally this is done in pairs, with two people standing facing each other and holding each others’ shoulders, and turning in circles as they stamp on the grapes, ideally in shorts or rolled-up trousers. In our case, the three of us did it together, trying not to get too dizzy as we turned, feeling the grapes squash beneath our feet. I was surprised how hard we had to stamp to get a decent amount of juice out of the fruit.
Then we washed our grapey feet with the soap and water provided. The kids had great fun keeping up the supply of grapes in the barrel, and watching the juice pour out of the spout at the bottom of the barrel into a jug. Then Zac and Lola each had a go at pouring the juice we had produced into another barrel, with a glass bottom so you could see the layer of flor.
After all that hard work, it was time for lunch. The kids ate together at round tables together, while the adults sat in smaller groups at high tables. We had five wines from the bodega, paired with tapas – the first was Castillo de Andrade, a blanco joven afrutado seco (young fruity dry white wine) made from the native zulema grape, paired with mackerel and red pepper on little toasts. This had a light, fresh, green taste, and had kept the early natural smell of the grape juice we tasted from the fermenting vats at the start of the day. Next was Murallas de Niebla, a blanco joven afrutado semidulce – semi-sweet, made from zulema and moscatel grapes, more golden in colour than the first, and with a subtler taste. This was accompanied by some delicious goat’s cheese from Doñana, with oregano and fruit jam; my companions on the table and I favoured the cheese over the wine.
The third was a fino condado palido, Palmarejo, made using crianza biologica, a natural aging process. I passed on the chacinas (cured meats), to the delight of my table-mates. This was a fino made from palomino grapes, but very different to the sherries from Jerez itself, although using the same process with a layer of flor. It had a cleaner, softer, fruitier and less complex taste, with a golden colour. After that was a Shiraz tinto roble, Soy del Sur, with 18 months of crianza, not to my personal taste. I had hake with clams and prawns while the others had pork loin with a red wine reduction. Finally, Doceañero dulce zalema pasas, a sweet wine made from zalema, PX and palomino grapes, which smelled of raisins, with delicious sugary pastries, including honey and almond biscuits called abuelitos.
After lunch, it was time to learn a skill of the wine world – the venenciador. This is a person who serves wine straight from the barrel, using a long bendy stick with a scoop at one end, which they dip into the barrel using one hand, and then pour the liquid into a glass (held in the other hand) from a height, without spilling a drop. It is designed to allow air into the wine. This skill is all about balance and aim – steady hands are a requisite.
With mixed success, we tried to fill glasses with water, scooped from buckets on the floor, while the children designed wine bottle labels for a competition. My daughter was thrilled to win, and the judge was a designer whom I had heard speak at the food show, Andalucia Sabor, where I saw Sentire mentioned – a neat symmetry. The prize was of an alcoholic nature, unsurprisingly – a bottle of the PX we had at breakfast – but this did nothing to dampen Lola’s pleasure.
It was a day out which had it all – time out in the countryside, learning about traditions, getting hands-(and feet-)on, great food, new wines, creative challenges. Victor did an excellent job of keeping everyone together, informed, entertained, and introducing us to the Condado de Huelva and the Ruta del Vino.