Majorca, Balearic Bottles and the Song Of DNA

“The plant is crying out to us. It wants its DNA, its song to be heard, but we aren’t listening. In the vineyards across the world we are throwing that song away. In the vineyard all these plants are clones, they sing the same song. I am concerned about this and we are changing this in our vineyards. We are letting the new songs come through.” Says Miquelangel Cerda i Capo, the winemaker and proprietor of the Anima Negra Winery in Mallorca.

Yes, you read that address correctly.

Anima Negra is beautiful family run winery operation, that is located in Mallorca or as we spell it in Ireland, Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.

If I can press pause on the film running through your head of Union Jack T-shirt wearing Eastend boys on a beer sodden stag weekend, or blessed-out ravers in a football sized dance club for a couple of minutes I think I can convince you that this winery is perhaps the most important on the planet at this very moment.

Yes when you have upwards of 26 million tourist visitors to a series of islands that have a local population of several hundred thousand on islands like Ibiza which is just 12 miles wide and 20 miles long things can get overwrought.

Happily those 26 million do not all arrive at once, the key feature of the Balearic islands is that they enjoy 300 days of rain free, sunshine drenched weather. Secondly nearly every last one of the those visitors remains within a traffic cone’s throw of a dozen heaving, hotel and bar strewn beaches.

The rest of the islands are almost empty, totally unspoilt and in some cases UN World Heritage sites that will remain permanently protected.

The majority of Miquelangel Cerda i Capo’s vineyards are idyllic, pastoral scenes right out of the 3rd century BC, rather than even the days before cheap air fares.

“Our vines are planted in and around apricot trees, wild flowers, beans and grass. This is the way it has always been on Mallorca, perhaps it was the fact that we had little space and had to plant a little of everything. But today we are keeping this way because it is clearly the best from a, not organic or biodynamic, but it is that too, no, from a right way. It is the good way. I wish my English was better, it is sound.” Says Miquelangel.

His practice is so sound that the Italian Slow Food movement has festooned honours on him and his brother in law in this tiny Balearic operation. His vineyards, indeed his whole operation has been described as an Ark. His work in preserving an using not just ancient techniques but ancient and local vines is of incalculable value, but his thoughts on DNA and plant growth is vital to humanity well beyond the world of wine.

The Dark Soul

“We made up the name at night, anima is soul, negra is black. I’ll show you.” Says Miquelangel, who sports a long goatee and swept back curly hair that makes him look a little like a 16th century Pirate without an eye patch or indeed parrot.

“This has been banned in the US, it is the label of our top wine Son Negra” says Miquelangel as he passes over a painting by artist Miquel Barceló who paints a new label for each vintage of the €150 plus wine. It is the devil winged and leaping in the air with what art critics might delicately call an engorged phallus. Other labels include a goats head skull and other suitably satanic images.

The wines and the winery do not it seems want to be mistaken for anything casual, lightweight or safe, this is the Rolling Stones circa Blood On The Tracks and of course Sympathetic to the Devil and his Black Soul.

“When we looked for vineyards, when we started up, because we had very little ourselves we travelled around to find the small parcels of remaining indigenous grapes. Everyone had started puling them up to plant international varietals, we definitely wanted to save and use them.” Says Miquelangel.

What this meant doing was taking grapes and running vineyards in tiny plots across the whole of the Felantix region of Majorca. This area had done very well, like so many isolated and remote wine regions in Europe at the end of the 19th century, because the Phylloxera louse spared many of the vineyards because of their isolation. The impressive 19th century housing stock and perhaps oddly wealthy towns bear a testament to this transient boom in wine sales to the rest of Europe.

Eventually Majorca too was struck by Phylloxera and then the European vineyards recovered and Majorca’s moment in the vinous sun faded, but at least unlike the oversized botox mansions of Leitrim or West Meath, the legacy of partly derelict vineyards provided ongoing local business and were a basis for the present new wave of fascinating winemaking.

So, with a goodie box of patchwork properties Anima Nugra began to make wines from the local ancient grapes which made up thses many vineyard parcels including Fogoneu, Premsal Manto Negro, and, above all, Callet.

“These native grapes are planted in the traditional style, so they are in amongst the other elements in the fields, the apricot trees, the grasses and flowers. We find that they do best in this fashion, perhaps it is the competition for the roots, the competition to get the goodness from the soils. But I think also you cannot, you must also think, about the air, the perfumes and oils in the air too. It is a very complicated mix and we watch it all the time” says Miquelangel.

“We watch what is lacking, or when something needs support and we do this and we do with the other natural elements in the field, just as in the biodynamic approach, but I do not say and we do not put that on our wines, because to me, it is just good and right winemaking.” Says Miquelangel.

“It would be nice to say it was all planned but for us it has been a matter of trial. So for example our white wine, Quíbia, at first we just did not like it. No matter what we did, it just was not right. It was made from the local white grape Premsal. We make it without oak. Eventually we began to add other grapes and then we used Callet.” Says Miquelangel.

Callet is the most important ingenious red skinned grape and is a component of the local, modest, red vine.

In the Anima Negro Winery Miquelangel and his partners are making a piercing still white wine from red and white grapes.

“As soon as we added the Callet, it became the wine we have today, which we like. It is a hugely difficult process though, but we feel it is worth it to make a good local white. The problem is that the Callet is very susceptible to oxidation so we have to chill the Callet grapes quickly and thoroughly after picking, we use Carbonic snow then when it is well chilled we press quickly but very delicately and this gives us the white juice that we need. The blend is about 60% Premsal and 40% Callet.” Says a proud Miquelangel.

The idea of white wine from red grapes might initially strike you as odd or rare, but it is neither. All grape juice, or very nearly all, is white, squezze a red eating grape tonight and you will see white juice. The red colour of red wine comes from the red skins, which are left in contact with the white juice after crushing the grapes.

Here the red skins stay in the crusher and never touch the juice. This is also widespread in the making of Champagne for example where the traditional blend is white grape Chardonnay and red grape Pinot Noir.

For his main red wine, called somewhat plainly, AN, Miquelangel uses Callet and Monte Negro, with a dash of fogoneu. For his second wine, you guessed it called AN2, he uses Callet and Monte Negro, Fogoneu and a dollop, up to 15% of Syrah. His top wine, the Devil’s tipple, Son Negre is a pure Callet, perhaps according to Miquelangel the only such wine in the world. Then with unstoppable honesty he added that sometimes 5% of Manto Negre might get into the mix, but being so small he does not have to legally declare it, but in the interest in full disclosure he always does.

The Sounds Of DNA

In Vineyards across the world, the vines, of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay to take the big three, are all clones. This is also the case for the vast majority of our crops and cereals, fruit and vegetables. What that means is that they are exact genetic replicas of their parents and their fellow plants in the field.

This has been achieved through two centuries of meticulous agricultural science rather than genetic modification, though that’s possible too.

It has been done for a good reason, we have selected the best characteristics of successful plants and reproduced only those. Yields have leapt, human populations have grown on this stability in food production.

In wine the clones were taken and propagated from the best and often the famous vineyard sites around the world.

“But” says Miquelangel Cerda i Capo

Are we sure this is still a good thing.

“Conditions change, evolution, adaptation. The DNA of successful plants under conditions that have now changed is now what is being planted. Yes these may have been successful then, but what about now, as the climate changes, what about with different levels of materials in the soils. Each year these plants sing to us, they produce fruit and seeds, this is their song, this is their DNA, changed, responding.” Says Miquelangel

“We are planting seeds, we are listening to the song, we have vineyards that are filled with individuals, not clones, each different some good some bad, but all responding” says an enthused Miquelangel.

It is for this reasonthat his wines are not just praised as excellent and interesting by Parker and the US fans of any exotica, but also as important by the Sow Food movement, this is why his unique, island based winery is being seen as a Ark of Taste, an ark of biodiversity and a very important philosophical question posed to the wider world of agriculture.

For wine lovers the happiest news is that these are very exciting and well priced wines into the bargain.

Wines of Mallorca’s Ark

Anima Negra, Queriba 2009 (89) around €11.99

-A superb, fruity, pear, apple and banana like nose gives way to a light, mineral laced, lightly acidic wash and a clean finish. A sort of mid level Chablis with a touch of tropical fruit on the nose. The kind of glossy white that to me could easily bear a touch of oak, but fans of young Riesling could like this Premsal and Callet blend.

Anima Negra, AN / 2 2008 (90) around €19.99

-This is a complex blend of local Mallorcan varieties Callet at 60% dominates, then 20% Mantonegro, 15% Syrah and 5% Fogoneu. The wine is very pungent, rather spicy and heather like, with touches of bramble, not unlike a Gigondas or good Cote Du Rhone. The palate is much lighter, more like a Pinot Noir, but a soft, caramel tinged New World Pinot. I think this is where its appeal will lie in adventurous Pinot Noir lovers. Soft, sweeter finish.

Anima Negra, AN/ 2 2007 ( 91) around €14.99 in increasingly fashionable 50cl bottles

-This has almost the identical blend of grapes as the 2008 above, but owing to the vintage it is much fresher, much more savoury and if you could say it, zestier. Overall it is lighter, but it is a more balanced and elegant wine. A food wine that Burgundy Pinot Noir lovers will prefer to the 2008.

Anima Negra AN 2007 (90) around €32.99

-This is the top wine, bar the occasionally made Icon wine Son Negre. It is made from the best and oldest parcels and it tps the scale at around 14% declared, but it certainly felt at least that to me. This is a wine that in 2006 Parker gave 92 points to a then almost unknown entity. It has made them a cult in the US. To me it is clearly a blockbuster, but in this 2007 it is quite savoury too and very tannic, a delicious wine that falls between a Northern Rhone Syrah and a Californian Pinot.