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Dies Ira

By |  May 13 2016

This bottle poses three questions. Glasses drained, the questions remain, flexing themselves like expiring fish — though partly answered, and our minds wiser and warmer for the evidence.

It’s "Garnacha 100%," the back label says. A statement, but also a challenge: Garnacha is a wonderful blending grape, a generously woven, broad, but often muted canvas for showier varieties. Question one: Can it work on its own? Does varietal Garnacha have the completeness sought in fine wine?

I’ve often thought it hard to improve on Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a place to plant Garnacha (Grenache), and the region’s "special cuvées," inspired by magnetic Parker scores, has given us a wealth of beefy, opulent Grenaches to try. This bottle, though, tells us that there is another, more aerial way. If you want Garnacha to sniff, to quiver, to slide like silk across your tongue, look here instead.

This is mountain wine, and the mountains are called the Gredos; they lie a little west of Madrid, squatting on a mess of regional and provincial boundaries, which robs them of any ready identity in DO (denominación de origen) terms. That may be one reason why these grapes (las uvas) are of wrath (de la ira). But there are others. Life in the Gredos is a different sort of hardscrabble to that endured by Steinbeck’s Joad family on their catastrophic journey from Oklahoma to California, but it’s tough nonetheless; viticulture has been savaged by economics here, and little remains of a once-thriving wine landscape. Each vine is a survivor; each bottle a cry for recognition.

"Here," though, is more specific than that. It’s a vino del pueblo, the wine of a village, and that village is called El Real de San Vicente. It’s found (as the label also points out) in the Valle del Tiétar, a subzone of the Sierra de Gredos — to the south of the region, in the rainiest, greenest part, where olive and lemon trees share the slopes with oaks and chestnuts. Dani Landi produces single-vineyard wines there as well, but this is a blend of old-vine fruit from three vineyards lying at around the 750m (2,460ft) mark, on sandy granite soils. (Granite typifies the Gredos — though there is also a significant band of schist through the region, which seems to produce wines with a riper, more generous style.)

Before we answer the first question, let’s have a second. What can stems bring to a wine? I spent a couple of days tasting Cornas in the summer of 2014. There are leading Cornas growers who use all the stems every year (such as Clape); there are others who use none (Colombo). I found, poring over my notes, that I loved the use of stems: The wines were grander, fiercer, more profound, and (for my acid-shy palate) riper and better balanced for drinking pleasure than those made without.

This wine is made with all its stems, as are all Dani Landi’s wines. Stems, he says, furnish "the bones and life of the wine" — though I should add that his quest is for freshness and finesse rather than ripeness, and he seeks out "the high places and the windy places" to court these qualities over the length of a long season. The bunches are foot-pressed on day one, then left more or less alone for 40 days; there is no "extraction." He merely keeps the cap moist by infusing it with wine poured from a watering can.

I think we’d better taste at this point. The wine is a pale, clear red; you can, if you like, see the height at which it grew by the light that floods through its pores. It has graceful, gentle, unshowy scents: strawberries sketched in pastels; a dish of milk; warm stones. On the palate, too, it is elegant, poised, and balanced, opening very gently; the Languedocien friend I showed it to found it underwhelming. But I spent a lot of time with this bottle over three days and found it not only complete but completely satisfying: the pleasure of good Burgundy but an entirely different set of flavors, building to a perfumed freshness on the finish. And the stems? They make it; that’s where its intrinsic seriousness comes from. A light wine with structure, grip, and length, all of those qualities quietly emphasized by that unfruity, dignifying presence. It’s difficult, after trying this wine, not to conclude that all reds should be made in this way.

And the third question? That’s the hardest one to answer. What, exactly, might be winemaking talent? Having tasted this wine, and having tasted Dani Landi’s other wines, and having tasted the wines he makes with his friend Fernando Garcia Alonso under the clever Comando G labels, I’d suggest that he’s a prodigious talent. Yet I’m also aware how presumptuous a statement that is. A finished, packaged bottle of wine is the unitary accumulation of a thousand decisions, ten thousand attentions, one hundred thousand details, both consciously and subconsciously brought into play. What can a foreign stranger who has spent only an hour or two in someone’s company ever understand of these intimate, lonely moments? How can those who have not made or bottled wine, or created a wine label, or grown up in a place where grapes might have reason to be wrathful, make such judgments? We can’t, so I’m speaking on the flimsiest authority, yet this daring wine seems to me to be made and presented with the kind of assurance that only talent can explain.

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