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How Envínate Became a Symbol of the New Spanish Wine

With production practices that span multiple growers and regions, the project is changing the conversation about what Spain’s wines should be.

“You know Jurassic Park?” says Roberto Santana, one of four winemakers who make up the of-the-moment Spanish producer, Envínate. “This place is as if you’ve traveled through time.”

He’s describing a vineyard planted along the rugged volcanic coast in Taganana, a region in the northeastern pocket of Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. The vines are 300 years old and the terrain requires such strenuous work, all by hand or horses, that very few are willing to do it. This is exactly why it’s an ideal site for Envínate.

Tenerife is just one of three Spanish regions where Envínate makes wine—each of them part of a larger project meant to exalt idiosyncratic landscapes and vines, which has quickly captured the interest of sommeliers around the country.

The project began in 2008, when Santana and his friends from enology school—Laura Ramos, Alfonso Torrente and José Martínez—purchased a tiny plot of old-vine mencía in Ribeira Sacra, where Torrente is from. Since then, they’ve collected vineyards in the slate slopes of Ribeira Sacra, volcanic soils of Tenerife (Santana’s home) and chalky Almansa (Martínez’s home), with a separate winery in each area. While they own a number of vineyards, they also rent or have contracts for others, working with some 60 growers with a focus on old-vine indigenous varieties and a particular affinity for coastal wines, or what they refer to as vinos Atlánticos. All of the wines are also made with native yeast, neutral oak or concrete—no steel—and only a little sulfur when needed.

The four are on planes and in their trucks constantly, checking in on vineyards and wines in all four of the regions. “Each grower works in different ways and that you can feel in the grapes and in the wine,” says Santana. “It’s important to be in these vineyards every day, talking with the grower or working ourselves.”

Three Envínate Wines to Try

2015 Envínate Táganan Parcela Margalagua

This very pale, cranberry-tinted red comes from a hilly 3.5-acre vineyard that’s owned by nine different growers; Envínate works with eight of them. The wine is pretty with restrained red cherry fruit and spice.

2015 Envínate Benje

From one of the project’s highest altitude vineyards (1,000 meters) in Tenerife’s Santiago Teide, Benje is primarily made of the listán prieto (also known as mission or pais) grape. Benje shows lifted and happy red fruit alongside some herbal notes of fresh fennel.

2015 Envínate Lousas

This mencia from Ribeira Sacra is called Lousas, the Galician word for “slate,” and the wine lives up to the name. The red has mouth-filling brambly fruit with dark tannins and earth, with a floral lift that recalls lilacs.

The objective of the project is threefold: to show off the personality of each plot, to convey the character of each vintage and to elucidate the personalities of the growers through the wines. These ideals have resonated with a wine culture that’s interested not only in stories and singularity, but also in a certain lighter-bodied, high-acid flavor profile that all of Envínate’s wines embody.

“These folks are the powerhouse of New Spanish Wine,” says Maggie Strom of Dame in Portland, Oregon. “They’re going old school with their techniques in the cellar, working with farmers that are off the beaten path—there’s a vibration in these wines that moves you.”

While winemaking driven by these ideals is commonplace in many parts of Italy and France—where the natural wine movement is manifest—Spain has been slower to adopt a less-is-more aesthetic over the “Big Flavor” (i.e. ripe, excessively oaked) wines that came to define its wine culture. Envínate, for many buyers, is today’s best representation of the alternative.

The wines have an undeniable transparency. The Táganan red from Tenerife, a blend of local varieties like listán negro and listán gaucho, is linear and focused with dark cherry fruit, whereas the high-altitude Parcela Margalagua, also a blend of local varieties from Táganan, is light and salty and spiced. Likewise, in Ribeira Sacra, where mencía is the signature grape, the Viña de Aldea from Lousas is all juicy raspberry and licorice, while the Parcela Camiño Novo, from the same area, which contains some garnacha tintorera, has more commanding structure and dark fruit.

“We’re not buying Envínate because it’s Spanish,” says Justin Vann of Houston’s Public Services Bar, “we’re buying it because it’s Envínate.” He notes that the wines are better fit stylistically on his French-heavy wine list, shyly drawing a connection between Envínate and wines of Burgundy and the Jura in the way that they highlight specific locales (he also cites producers like Goyo Garcia Viadero in Ribera del Duero, Curii in Alicante and Nanclares y Prieto in Galicia that show a similar dedication to place). This is part of why the wines have found a comfortable place on lists where Spain isn’t all that well represented, like at Prime Meats, a Germanic restaurant in Brooklyn, and at Vann’s boisterous Houston wine bar.

The scarcity of bottles from Envínate has only bolstered their appeal. Envínate’s importer, Jose Pastor, says that in the 2016 vintage, Envínate made 7,500 cases of wine; only 2,500 of those will arrive here in the United Stated this fall, with the rest going to 25 other countries. Jordi Paronella of Washington D.C.’s Jaleo says he buys everything he can get every vintage, which usually amounts to a grand total of 30 bottles.

Despite their rarity, what’s perhaps most remarkable about the wines is how they’ve become something of a big tent for dueling wine factions. Not only are finding themselves at home with today’s smaller-is-better wine set, they are also getting big scores from critics like Luis Gutiérrez, who covers wines from Spain, Argentina, Chile and the Jura for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

Gutiérrez, who has had an eye for smaller producers since he joined the Advocate in 2013, thinks Envínate is key to changing the dialogue about Spanish wine. “They are wines that are opening many doors,” he says, “[and] making a lot of people pay more attention and take more seriously what is happening in Spain, wine-wise.”

Santana, for his part, acknowledges the shift in tide happening in Spain, stylistically. But he cautions that in order for it to have staying power, it has to also have substance. “There is a very big problem in Spain,” he says. “We like fashion. Thirty years ago, everybody wanted to make Rioja-style [wines]; twenty years ago everybody wanted to make a Parker wine with 200-percent new oak and high alcohol; now, everybody wants to be natural and hippie.”

The answer to countering the inclination to choose style over substance, according to Santana, is to keep the conversation focused on place and what the less-explored corners of Spain can offer today’s wine consumers that is completely singular.

“If we are trying to make wine in Tenerife, we are trying to make wine in Tenerife, with that terroir—not a wine that looks like Priorat or looks like Burgundy,” says Santana. “Right now, there are a lot of people in Spain that are starting to work in that way.”

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