Asturias wine makers

Bea Pérez & Pepe Flórez

1st June 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Mónica R. Goya

1st June 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Mónica R. Goya

The night before we visit Bea Pérez and Pepe Flórez at their vineyard in Cangas del Narcea, in southwest Asturias, I eat something that causes me to wake up the next morning feeling slightly less than perfect. This turns an otherwise heavenly prospect – a day of eating, drinking and touring vineyards in the mountains – into something of an uphill struggle. First there’s the long, winding road to negotiate, leading us past crystalline lakes through dramatic gorges to the only significant wine-producing area in Asturias.

Then there’s the vineyard tour. We meet Bea and Pepe at the headquarters of Bodega Vidas, which they started in 2012 and have quickly built into one of the best wineries in the area. Neither have a background in wine – both trained as scientists – but they grew up around here and are both passionate about putting Cangas, whose vineyards fell into neglect during the 20th century, firmly back on the winemaking map.

To my relief, Bea and Pepe are warm and friendly, serious about their work but ready to laugh about everything else. To my dismay, a further car journey awaits. We hop in and zigzag up a steep slope to take a closer look at one of their plots. A peach tree overhangs the entrance to the tiny vineyard1. On a vertiginous incline, we contemplate gnarled 60-year-old vines, some of them bearing grapes – the white albarín blanco and the red carrasquín – that are virtually unknown outside this part of Spain.

Finally it’s back to their house in the hills for a late lunch. They warned us they were preparing something meaty but nothing quite prepares me for chosco, a local specialty consisting of cured pork neck and tongue trussed together and seasoned with salt and pimentón. As the chosco boils and Bea slices some tomatoes and pungent Asturian cheese, Pepe opens a selection of Bodega Vidas bottles for us to sample. This could go either way. Luckily, once I take a few sips of their excellent albarín blanco, I perk up and my appetite miraculously returns.

The chosco, when it arrives, is salty, spicy, intensely meaty – delicious. We eat it on the balcony as the sun goes down, followed by frixuelos (Asturian pancakes) drizzled with local honey. Somehow, despite a shaky start and various obstacles along the way, this day has turned out remarkably well.

Continued below...

i. The winery

We are standing inside the Bodega Vidas winery, across the river from the centre of Cangas. It’s a small factory unit containing a number of steel vats that resemble daleks from Doctor Who. Pepe runs us through a quick history of the local wine industry before we head up into the hills…

Is there a long tradition of producing wine in this area?

Pepe: It’s been recorded that there’s been wine production here since the 10th century, starting with the monasteries.

Really, it goes that far back?

Pepe: Yes. The monastery2 was really important in the area, it was the most important thing in Asturias. For the needs they had, they started to grow grapes and make wine. By the end of the 19th century, winemaking had become really important here. They modernised, they applied new techniques. It was the peak of the Cangas wine industry.

So what happened?

Pepe: In the 1950s and 60s, everyone started working in the mines and wine started to decline. A hundred years ago there were almost 1000 areas cultivated for growing grapes. They almost all disappeared. When I was a kid, there was almost nothing. In the last 15 years, professional wineries are opening again. Now there are maybe 80 cultivated areas.

How would you characterise the wine in this region?

Pepe: They’re called “Atlantic” wines – they are drier and cooler than wines from other parts of Spain. Usually more acidic, quite fruity. Traditionally they were very fresh wines to be consumed within the year – you didn’t have to add any wood, or leave them in barrels. The acidity conserved it. But now we’ve tasted wines from 10 years ago and they’re good. You’ll have to try some.

Do you produce more reds than whites?

Pepe: Traditionally, it was almost all red. Now we are making some white wines and people like them a lot. Most of the new vines planted are white.

ii. The vineyard

We drive up to see the one of their many plots dotted around the valley. The following conversation takes place amid 60-year-old vines on an incline so steep that we have to cling to the posts for support.

Did you have any experience of growing wine before 2012?

Bea: No [laughs].

What were you doing before?

Bea: I was doing physics, Pepe was studying chemistry.
Pepe: I went to the UK to do a PhD. First Sheffield, then London. Bea was there one year also. By 2006 we decided to come back here. We wanted to raise kids here, so we got married and in 2007 we came back. Then I started to work in the town hall here on a scientific project. One of the duties I had was to develop a wine museum. We started to get involved in the idea of wine, because when we were kids – as I told you earlier – wine had almost disappeared. But we saw that there was a lot of culture, a lot of effort had been put in… We started to think that this might be a good place to work, because everything was behind us, this was something that we could do.

When you say everything was behind you, do you mean that there was a history of winemaking to build upon? The area has been shaped by the wine production?

Pepe: That’s it. We felt we could do something to save it.

Did your backgrounds in science give you some advantage when you started making wine?

Pepe: Well… not really. Not in terms of farming and hard manual work. But we have an external technologist who helped with the process and he said we were easier to work with: “You ask the right questions and pick it up fast.” Other people, he had to be with them all the time.

Some years ago we did like stronger, concentrated wines a lot. But we have changed our palate – we drink a lot of lighter wines now

So your training did help a bit.

Pepe: It’s not the same, but the process, the way you approach the problems, is the same.

Did you both like drinking wine before you started?

Bea: Yes. Lots [laughs].
Pepe: Actually when we were in England we were drank beer more than wine. But yes, we’ve always enjoyed it.

Have you got to the point now where you are very opinionated about wine? You can taste other wines and go hmm, I’m not sure that’s working.

Pepe: Yes. It’s like education, right.

Self-education.

Pepe: Yes, you have your notes and you taste it and of course, now, we have learnt a lot. The more you get involved and the more you know, the more you have to learn. And we enjoy it much more than we used to, because of that.

Do you tend to agree on what’s good?

Pepe: Almost always.
Bea: Oh no, no.

Both laugh.

Does one of you, for example, prefer darker, richer red wines?

Pepe: No. Some years ago we did like stronger, concentrated wines a lot. But now we have changed our palate a little bit – we drink a lot of lighter wines now.

iii. At home

We head back to their house in Santa Ana, in the hills above Cangas. It’s a big old farmhouse that Pepe’s father completely renovated after he bought it 20 years ago. When we arrive, I wonder why the place is all closed up, the shutters locked, the kitchen showing no recent signs of use. It soon becomes apparent that this is not their everyday home…

Pepe: Usually we live in Oviedo, so we commute a lot. This house belongs to my parents – they used to live here in the summer time. So we come often: when the kids are on holidays and don’t have to go to school, everyone comes here.

But you live in Oviedo most of the time?

Pepe: Yes, though we have an apartment in Cangas as well.
Bea: We’re in Oviedo during the week but here on the weekends. During the week I drive here from Oviedo almost every day.

How long is the drive?

Bea: It’s one hour.

What time do you normally get up in the morning, when you come in here?

Bea: I get up at seven to get the kids to school, and then I come here.

Why did you decide against coming to Cangas full-time?

Bea: Pepe has another job…
Pepe: The family business. A small company in Oviedo. We clean tanks – petrol, heating. It’s based in Oviedo because most of the clients are in that region. When we started this wine business from scratch, we had to keep the other jobs.

Here in Cangas, you have to eat a lot. It’s the normal thing. Eat till you explode!

So does that mean, Bea, that you spend more time with the wine?

Bea: Yes, yes.
Pepe: I get more involved during the harvest.

Given the choice, would you prefer to live in Oviedo or Cangas?

Pepe: Cangas.
Bea: Me too, I think. Because of my work, because of the gardens…

Are you hoping that the wine will become the main thing?

Bea: I think so – it’s very difficult, because of the vines, they’re very expensive to cultivate and I think that it will take a few years more, maybe five years.

Bea has sliced up some cheese and tomatoes and we’re laughing at the size of the chosco, which is boiling away in the pot.

Pepe: Here in Cangas you have to eat a lot.

Why is that?

Pepe: It’s the normal thing!

It’s tradition?

Pepe: Yeah, to explode, man [laughs]. If you come to visit someone, you have to eat a lot.
Bea: It’s because of the climate, maybe. It gets quite cold up here.

On The Menu

Lunch with Bea Pérez and Pepe Flórez
Cangas del Narcea, September 2016

To eat:

Tomatoes with Afuega’l Pitu cheese
Chosco with pimentón potatoes
Frixuelos vaqueiros with honey »

To drink:

Cien Montañas, Albarín Blanco
Siete Vidas, Tinto
Siete Vidas, Roble
Vive la Vida, Tinto
Cien Montañas, Carrasquín

Do you both cook – or does one of you cook more than the other?

Pepe: Bea more than me…
Bea: But Pepe likes to cook Indian dishes – different types of food. I’m more traditional.

Is Pepe’s cooking good?

Bea: Yes
Pepe: Sometimes [laughs].

Do you make things very spicy?

Bea: No, I don’t like very spicy food…
Pepe: In London we had some friends who were Indian and once we went to her place to have dinner.

They both look slightly traumatised.

It was too much?

Bea: It was not normal.

Would you say you’re both quite interested in food? Is it an important part of your household?

Pepe: Yes. For sure.
Bea: And now more than before, I think. We’ve gotten to know a lot of people who are making cheese, or cider, or chosco… We are now very interested in food from this region.

When I was in London, I always brought chosco from Asturias. My friends would cook, and I would have chosco, chosco, chosco…

If you’re at home what is your favourite thing to cook? If you have a full day off, nothing to do…

Bea: I like to cook pitu [free-range Asturian chicken]. When it’s a party at my parent’s home, I make pitu for 30 people.
Pepe: She’s a good cook, which is important – for marriage.

What’s your contribution? Do you do the washing up?

Pepe: Of course [laughs].
Bea: And music.

What’s your ideal comfort food?

Pepe: When I was in London, I always brought chosco from Asturias. My friends would cook, and I would have chosco, chosco, chosco.
Bea: It’s said in Cangas that children were born eating chosco.

Is this this only place where you find it?

Pepe: Cangas, yes.

So you grew up eating it?

Pepe: Yes, yes. Our distributor does this thing where they match food with wine. Oysters with cava and so on. And she said, “I want to do this with your wine, can you think of something that would fit?” Of course I said “Chosco”.

The answer to everything. Do you have a wine that goes particularly well with the chosco?

Bea: All the red wines but especially this one, the Roble – with three varieties, albarín negro, carrasquin, verdejo negro.
Pepe: Chosco is strong, it has paprika, so it needs a wine that is fresh and acidic. If you have a very complex and mature wine with this, then at the end your mouth is very heavy, you don’t enjoy the wine or the meat. With this acidity, though, it cleanses your mouth a little from the heat of the paprika.

It must be very satisfying to create a wine that complements your favourite dish so well.

Pepe: It is [laughs].

Did you both come from families where food was important?

Bea: Yes. My parents had a food shop. We are six siblings – three brothers and three sisters – and my parents would tell us all the time that it was very important to have good food, to cook every day.
Pepe: My father always had a chopping board and a knife in the car. I would say “Why, why?”. He said, “You never know when anyone is going to offer you a chorizo sausage.”

That’s amazing… So you knew each other when you were teenagers?

Pepe: Yes. High school.

In the same year?

Bea: No no.
Pepe: It doesn’t look it, but I am three years older than her.

Did you get together afterwards?

Pepe: Yes, in Oviedo.

If someone told you when as a teenager that you would end up running a vineyard together in Cangas, what would you have said?

Bea: [laughs] We would have said they were crazy.

For more about Bodega Vidas, go to www.bodegavidas.com

Follow Bodega Vidas: Facebook | Twitter

  1. Like a canary in a coal mine, the tree gives an early warning if there are problems in the soil that might affect the vines. They explain that this is a difficult place to grow grapes: the climate can be cold and very wet; flooding is a common problem. They farm organically most of the time but will occasionally have to spray a crop with elemental sulfur or copper to avoid losing it.
  2. San Juan Bautista de Corias, a former Benedictine monastery just outside Cangas town, founded in 1022, now a luxury hotel.

Posted 1st June 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Mónica R. Goya

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