Les Freses sits under the mountain of Montgo, overlooking the sea. During the night the humidity levels are immense and in the morning the vineyards and the vines are bathed in moisture which is retained in the soils. During the afternoon the breezes dry them out again keeping them healthy and free from mildew.
Historically winemaking has been carbon dated to 7 centuries before Christ in the nearby archeological site of L`Alt de Benimaquia, one of the first Iberian peoples settlements and it is quite possible the red grape remains found there were the original variety to come to the peninsular from Tyre.
For some months the Valencian wine world has been awash with reports of some excellent new wines emerging from the Marina Alta in Alicante province and more specifically from an exciting new Bodega, Les Freses in Jesus Pobre.
Having had the opportunity to taste two of these wines and the success they enjoyed at one of our tastings we took the opportunity to arrange a visit on the 19th of June.
Mara Baño who is the winemaker was our hostess, incidentally she is also President of the local Producers Association and qualified primarily as a sumiller before going on to University in Valencia to gain her winemakers qualifications.
She is passionate about the area, the Moscatel variety and the possibilities for producing new wines with differing techniques. Undoubtedly Mara is a winemaker to watch and Les Freses a bodega to follow.
More recently, until the onset of pylloxera, Jesus Pobre was a relatively well off town. Moscatel is a rare variety in that it produces table grapes, raisins and wine. Mara started our tour on the edge of the vineyard where the grapes would have been blanched briefly in caustic soda before being dried in the sun during the day and under the protection of the Riu Rau at night. This was the way raisins, or panses, were traditionally made. The men worked the vineyards and the women packed the raisins in wooden boxes in Denia harbour before they were shipped to the UK and elsewhere, thus earning two incomes from the same produce.
Les Freses takes its name from the fact that it was, until the grapes were planted, a strawberry farm. The previous owner had reunited the parcels ( split by inheritance into many different ownerships) into a single finca and Mara now enjoys 14 hectares of Moscatel de Alejandria, with some Moscatel de Grano Menudo , Forcatell, and Giró. She has planted 42 different clones of the variety to evaluate how they react to the soils and to avoid all her vines producing ripe fruit ready for picking on the same day.
Her vineyards are split in two and the vineyard surrounding the bodega are on free draining red sandy soils (l’ Alt) and a second parcel across the river where the soils are white and chalky (l’ Alqueria). Interestingly the area enjoys a microclimate and climate change has not advanced the harvest as it has in some other areas.
Not everything went to plan however and of her original planting 80% were lost the first year to drought when they endured 400 days without any rain. She subsequently installed a watering system on the trellises before replanting but has never needed to use it! She has planted roses at the ends of the rows of vines because they react to bugs and similar diseases such as mildew a week before the vines. This allows for treatment to commence promptly and they use ladybirds to destroy the bugs and sexual confusion techniques against the vine-moth. Like so many new winemakers no chemicals are used in the vineyards.
The pruning cuttings are chopped up and ploughed back into the soils as green manure and will undertake 6-7 ‘podas in verde’. Mara takes about 3.5kg of fruit from each of the vines to maintain quality and concentration. She picks a little earlier than some to obtain a must with a lower potential alcohol level.
The grapes are picked by hand in 12.5kg boxes, taken to the bodega, de-stalked and pressed in a pneumatic press which is more efficient than the vertical variety and avoids oxidisation better.
The stalks and pips and skins go to a local goat herder in return for his cheese whist some is returned to the soils for the iron content. Mara even uses some to make her own alcohol for Vermut for example. The yeasts are autoctonal, not commercial and she starts the fermentation by treading around 300kg of grapes. This is added to each of the temperature controlled tanks to commence the process.
Mara is also an experimental winemaker and makes a wine in terracotta tinajas. Not any old tinajas though. She commisioned three copies of the R1 type discovered in the Benimaquia bodega. These egg shaped vessels are 350litre with handles in the neck and and bung holes at the bottom. They have one incredible property, they do not need to be cooled to control the fermentation if stood in a well ventilated space although Mara found this out after the first batch was gaining temperature rapidly!
The wine must be very good because the first batch was sold intact to Bon Amb restaurant nearby and the second and third to restaurants including Peix i Brasses and you will have to go there to try them! Actually 90% of her wine is sold to local restaurants.
We tasted three wines on the terrace with salazones and strong cheeses, almonds and raisins.
The first is the dry white Les Freses Moscatel 2018 which is available in the market and has just won the award for the best young white wine in DOP Alicante. It is produced from the vines around the bodega. Very pale yellow with steel and green flashes , the nose has rose and jasmine, peach and apricot and none of the pungency the variety can produce. It is elegant on the nose and in the mouth equally elegant and refined, the rose is replaced by subtle hints of Turkish delight, citrus notes, a wonderful balancing acidity and a long fine finish.
The second was the same wine but from the vineyards across the river with the chalky soils. It is awaiting its labels from the DO and will then be released onto the market. It is very similar in appearance, it is the nose where the differences are apparent. Herby, grassy with fennel and spicy ( this could easily be mistaken for a Viognier) but also the fruit (peach and apricot) were more marked and it is quite perfumed. In the mouth it was drier and even finer.
The third wine is the Dolç, sold in mallet shaped half litre bottles, a very elegant presentation. It is a dull gold in colour, with a very concentrated nose. In the mouth it is a revelation, rich, sweet, with a good acidity balancing the wine and avoiding the cloying sensation so many sweet Moscatel wines can have. The grapes are late harvested, in September and then dried in the sun before pressing. It was a perfect marriage with salty cheese and woud be excellent with blue cheeses as well.
Mara produces a rosado and a red from Giró as well but these are sold already.
It was a pleasure to share the visit with Colin Harkness, fellow English wine writer ( Costa Blanca News) and a group of English residents in the area who were also discovering the delights of this exciting new bodega.
VÍ Vid will be following progress and developments very closely! Thank you Mara for an exceptional visit.