I took a day off and left Madrid for a trip through Quijote’s manchego land, passed the beautiful windmills in Mota del Cuervo. And soon I found Juan Padilla’s place. Not where the map showed me, but some people at a nearby restaurant knew the way. I had no appointment, and I was prepared only to talk to somebody in the reception, and take a walk around and take some pictures. I knew it was right when I came to this closed door.
So I phoned the number, and who else came and let me in but the master himself. He showed me around, and explained the various stages. Very rarely I have had so few questions to ask, I must admit.
During the last few years I have been aware that containers made of clay can provide a serious alternative, as it lets the wine breathe in a way that stainless steel cannot, without affecting the taste of the wine in the same way that oak barrels do. But I am only beginning to see behind the initial fascination and to understand a little bit. I knew there were many old ones around. I also know that there is an 8.000 year old unbroken line in Georgia, and some very good producers. And the number of wines made in these vessels, big Georgian kvevri or smaller amphorae (in Roman times made for transport), seems to be increasing every day. When I attended a kvevri seminar at the RAW fair in London 2013 Emilio Foradori presented a fabulous wine, for me best-in-show (see here), and I was amazed when he told that this was the only one not made in Western Georgia, but in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. In Spain they call them tinajas, (the big ones tinajones) or simply barros (barro meaning clay), and the makers are tinajeros.
I contacted Emilio when I planning to write this article, and he tells that for him «Padilla is the last real wine-clay artisan, the quality of his clay is outstanding and above all others I have tasted (lowest percentage of metals)». I also contacted COS, who inform that when they started to use amphoras in 2000 they had also tried jars from Tunisia as well as from their native Sicilia, but they preferred Padilla’s tinajas.
So here I am, walking around Padilla’s pottery in the outskirts of Villarobledo, Albacete. He talks about the process, and shows me his workshop, where he has started on many new tinajas.
In short, the clay is grinded, then it’s mixed with water and kneaded. It’s widened, then left to rest overnight, and it’s kneaded again the day after. He forms the jars with two metal blades, before it’s scratched so as to avoid marks between the numerous overlapping rolls of clay used.
Once completed, it is dried slowly, in various periods like autumn and early spring. In May the jars get in the wood oven and once baked, they are finally ready and can be shipped, to Italian producers like Foradori and COS, or some Spanish wine producer (or gardener) will eventually come and pick them up. So you see, it’s not much rush about this.
La Mancha is the historically the big center of the jar industry in Spain. You can read about it in Cervantes novel, and nearby El Toboso, where Quijote’s virgin lived (according to himself), was one of the most important villages. In more recent times, between 1915 and 1930, Villarrobledo had 72 active producers.
Holes for the fire
At the natural wine fair in Madrid I tasted some really delicious wines from the interior of Galicia, the red ones from mainly garnacha tintorera being raised in tinajas. Nacho González tells that his wines called La Perdida are made in clay a little more porous than the ones from Padilla, but they share some of the natural characteristics. Some clay containers are covered inside with epoxy, beeswax or other elements. «For me this is like losing some of the essence of the clay», says Nacho. «I am looking for a natural element for the wine to ferment in.»
Several winemakers, like Nacho González, refers to Rafa Bernabé for his long experience with the use of clay. He is located in the village of Bigastro on the Costa Blanca tourist and international holiday home strip. Rafa informs that all his tinajas has been new and aquired from Padilla. He has now more than 100 tinajas with a capacity between 200 and 400 liters. He works with Padilla «for many reasons», he says, «but mainly because of his artesan character, having learned the skills from his grand-father, for the rigorous selection of the clays, and for the way he dries and blends them». The way he heats it up, in his wood oven (horno de leña, in Spanish), is maybe the most important single factor, according to Rafa. He says he likes the finish and roughness, probably the only jars of the world that do not require to be lined inside with epoxy or other materials. Still, having said this, Rafa Bernabé stresses that he is not looking for anything in particular when it comes to making wine in jars, because «after all the most important is the vineyard and the grape, that must be shown respect and given freedom. I think we should intervene as little as possible so that these wines can be the very expression of the landscape, territory, its vineyards and its people.»
And here we are back where we started, the most important is the potential of the grape, and the land where it’s grown. And it’s here that clay offers an interesting alternative to both steel and wood.