21 Jul The Wines of Terramoll: A World Apart
In Formentera, there are eight different winds, and each one has a name. They feature prominently in the evening newscasts, but also in the sixth sense of the island’s farmers, who use them to make decisions about protecting their gardens and their grape vines, which are a staple in almost every yard on the island. A wind blowing from the peninsula towards the island rarely carries rain. Likewise the Xaloc from the south, from Africa, is also often a dry wind, while the the easterly wind coming off the sea, the Llevant, will bring rain.
Enologist José Abalde is explaining the fundamentals of weather to me as we stand in a patch of lumpy clay in the vineyards of Terramoll, one of the only two vineyards found on the tiny Spanish island of Formentera, a scant 14 miles and 30 minute ferry ride off the coast of Ibiza. Formentera is the smallest sister of the four Balearic Islands, little more than an 11 mile long strip of UNESCO protected space in the middle of the Mediterranean. Although small, the island has long been a haven for ex-pats, models, and tired party-goers seeking some space.
With such little space to offer for agriculture, Formentera seems an unlikely place to find incredible wines, but indeed it is. Terramoll is situated in a privileged spot on a high plain, known as the Mola, on the northeastern end of the island, a couple of minutes drive from the village of Pilar de la Mola. When I stopped in Sant Ferran on my way there and asked some locals to point me in the direction of the vineyard, my inquiry was met with blank stares. I was confused as to how, on an island with a winter population of just under 12,000 people, no one in the office had ever heard of a place only fifteen minutes down the road. When I told them about where the vineyard should be, one of them gestured off down the road in the direction I was headed, and said, “That way. It’s another world out there,” and shrugged. He wasn’t wrong. After you pass Es Caló, the small inlet on the northern side of the narrow isthmus, the road climbs almost 400 feet up from the sea through a heavily forested area, filled with switchbacks and a few unimpeded views of the dazzling aqua water below, and spits you out onto an arrow straight road headed toward Far de la Mola, the lighthouse at the easternmost tip of the island. The drive is nothing short of spectacular, especially by moto, and is one of the highlights of visiting the winery.
José is bringing me to a patch of newly planted land, dotted with slender new vines. They are obscured by white plastic cones, which help stabilize and protect them against the island winds while they grow tall and strong. The clay-colored soil beneath our feet is dry and crumbly, and shifts easily as we walk across the vineyard, causing me to stumble more than once. Terramoll is a family name, although I can’t help thinking of the irony of it: in Catalan, the words terra moll translate directly to ‘wet earth.’ As the southernmost and mildest of the Balearic Islands, Formentera sees less than 17 inches of rain a year, and April is the wettest month in spring, usually seeing about an inch and a half of rain. Even today, on a weekday late in April, the sun shines brightly on the vines’ new leaves, the sky absent of clouds.
“From May to September, not one drop of rain falls. It’s a very extreme climate,” José explains.
“The soil itself very poor. It has a lot of limestone but little organic matter. Both fig trees and the vines do well because they’re very resistant plants.”
Although it seems like paradise, being island bound presents its own problems for wineries. The sea imparts a high salinity to the wines, which can be a mark of character for Mediterranean wines but also a problem for the high humidity it produces. At the same time, the soil is very dry, and since winemakers can’t water the vines, fresh water being a precious commodity on the island, drought is the biggest problem they face. For the last three years, in fact, Terramoll’s vineyards have been suffering from a lack of water, and some of the vines ultimately die off because of it.
Indeed, a lot of the labor of the land is related to maintaining the right kind of soil for the plants to survive in. Because the chalky limestone soil is very poor, winemakers have had to remove some of the topsoil in order to allow the vines’ roots to penetrate more deeply. This helps them reach better nutrients but also secures them against the the heavy, near constant winds that blow across the island, threatening the vines’ tender branches. Because farmers used to have to do all this by hand, instead of collecting all the rocks into giant piles, they would use them to make the walls that are such an iconic of the island landscape. These walls helped to delineate land and also to protect the vines from the winds. Despite the vines’ ability to survive against the drought-like conditions, wind is another persistent issue on the island, even in the forested area where the winery and some of its vines are located.
It’s difficult to understand the power of the wind on a gorgeous spring day such as this one. Birds are chirping loudly and the vines are rustling softly in the breeze. The sky is an electric blue. It is the definition of a perfect day. However, those who understand the landscape are privy to nature’s hidden threats. The trill of birdsong to an innocent visitor, for example, bodes differently to an experienced viticultor. On Formentera, as in Ibiza, winemakers struggle with a plague of Palomas Silvestres–wild pidgeons in regular parlance–who eat the grapes. They use scarecrows and other methods to control them, but the birds, which number 200 or more, can nevertheless be incredibly destructive, especially for the parcels which abut the forest. In half an hour, they can swoop down and eat everything. There are certain parcels, José tells me, where they have eaten 70% of the grapes.
Despite the challenges they produce, the conditions on Formentera are nevertheless ripe for good wine. The wind is often harsh and the climate dry, which helps prevent rot and also forces the vines to struggle. The deeper they dig to find solid footing against the wind and moisture, the better grapes they produce. The varietals that Terramoll works with are native ones that have adapted themselves well to the climate. Although Terramoll only opened in 2000, many of its vines have been in place since Roman times, although the island itself was occupied as early as 2,000 BCE. The Carthaginians were the first to settle before the Romans came, who were eventually were toppled by a dizzying succession of rulers–the Visigoths, the Byzantines, the Vandals, the Arabs–until the island was settled by the Crown of Aragon early in the 13th century. Evidence of this long history is marked in several places along the roads traversing the island, where archaeological sites lend insight into the island’s colorful past.
In order to teach me all of this, José has brought a map. He gestures to a colorful depiction of the island, which shows the important role that the monastery has played in the island’s winemaking history. There are even parchments, he explains, which reveal that three monks of the Order of Saint Augustine were already cultivating wine as early as 1246. In fact, right across the road from the winery are the ruins of the monastery of Santa María del Camí. The monks’ work was a vital part of developing the local culture and helping the community thrive.
The act of drinking wine is so imbued with pleasure now it’s easy to forget that it was once a means of survival, valued as a food for the calories that it imported to a person’s diet. On Formentera, a landscape of limited means, cereals like wheat, barley, and oats were an important part of the diet, as were dried figs in the winter, fish, and wine. For this reason, wine used to be something that people on the island made at home, and each family had vines in their own yards, something still in evidence today. Although the locals don’t depend on wine as in the past, many nevertheless continue to make wine at home for fun, and each year a competition is held to determine the best homemade wine on the island.
Terramoll works with a number of varieties of native grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Monastrell from which they make their own monovarietal wine, as well as a number of white varietals including Viogner, Malvasia, Garnatxa Blanca, and Moscatell. They prefer native grapes for their adaptability and resistance to diseases.
“This parcel was started from vines that are 50 years old, which were themselves taken from vines that were 40 years old, and so the genetics are so old that they are completely adjusted to the climate and not a lot of diseases affect them,” José explains. “Because they’re so well adapted, it’s not necessary to use pesticides.” Although it doesn’t have its seal yet, the winery is ecological and organic, and certain parcels are biodynamic as well.
“The grapes are naturally organic and healthy, and you can eat them right off the vine. It’s very historic and something really unique,” he says. “Winemakers who come from other places are impressed by the quality of the vines on Formentera.” Not only is the history impressive, but it also means there’s a lot of potential.
José’s objectives for the vineyard tie back to its history and its viticultural traditions. His short-term goal for Terramoll is to see it officially declared free of phylloxera. Once that’s done, he hopes to expand production little by little, although not at the expense of quality. It’s become quite clear during our short time together that he’s committed to the vineyard’s continued success.
José has been making wine in Formentera for eight years, and he’s proud of its history and the wines he helps to produce. Originally from Galicia, he’s made wine in Chile, France, and different regions of Catalunya, including the D.O.s of Conca de Barbera and Terra Alta. Each, he says, has its good and its bad. In a place as beautiful as Formentera, however, it’s easy to imagine there’s little incentive to leave.
“There’s very little stress here,” he admits with a smile.
After our short tour of the property, we head inside the warehouse where a set of 10 tall stainless steel fermentation tanks are housed alongside pallets of bottles. The labeling and corking equipment are pushed to the side for the off-season. Along one wall is a stainless steel shelf covered in scales, glass pipettes, sensors, analyzers, test tubes, maps of the island, and a collection of open wine bottles. It looks part mad scientist, part drinking station. José jogs off upstairs to grab us some wines to taste, and brings back a small selection of what’s open. The wines are refreshingly cold after our time in the sun. Even the red has been chilled down to almost 11 degrees, not atypical for island reds.
We try a few from Terramoll’s catalogue, which include a white, a red, and a rosé, as well as a limited edition red, a sweet white wine, and a sparkling wine, labeled as a pétillant. Like French crémant is to champagne, pétillants are the equivalent of cava, but labeled under a different name since they aren’t produced in the same officially designated region as cava. While they plant whichever varietals adapt well to the climate–from Cabernet Sauvignon to Monastrell to Malvasia–most of what they produce is white, a necessity in an island location where drinkability is a top factor in sales. Like many island wineries, much of their production is sold locally. Indeed, 80 to 85% of Terramoll’s wine is sold in Formentera and Ibiza, while the rest is divided between Mallorca, Barcelona, and Italy as well, which is a new market for them.
José acknowledges the issue of temperature is a universal problem among the islands’ wineries. Visitors to Ibiza and Formentera want very cold wine, which means that red sales are particularly difficult. One solution enologists have focused on is to create red wines that are suited to colder temperatures. The reds tend to be lighter bodied and fruit-forward, with little oak aging. Despite the struggle to find the right balance, it’s no doubt that the end result is very agreeable indeed.
When to Visit: Late spring is the perfect time to visit the island, before the summer crowds arrive. Fewer businesses will be open, especially the beach side bars called chiringuitos, but the beaches, bars, and restaurants will be mostly be empty and the wildflowers will be in full bloom. September is also a good month, since most vacationers have fled by then, yet the weather will still be hot and sunny and many of the chiringuitos remain open until the end of the month. Even in the off-season, reservations for restaurants and wineries are, as always, a must.
Wines to Try:
Savina, 2016 (Viognier, Malvasía, Muscat, Garnatxa Blanca)
This is a young, refreshing white wine made up of largely indigenous grapes. It has an aromatic intensity dominated by white and tropical fruits, with a background of fennel and mineral. It’s a fresh wine with a good acidity, great breadth, and long persistence.
Rosa de Mar, 2016 (Merlot, Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon)
A pale rose color, this young wine has a good aromatic intensity with strawberry and other red fruits set against a fresh mineral background. Its freshness is balanced by a juicy, full body and a long persistence in the mouth.
Es Virot, 2016 (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon)
This young wine is a pretty ruby red with an outstanding aromas of ripe red fruit with a woodsy backdrop and mineral notes. Aging in French oak for only 3 months which allows it to remain fresh and a good complement to light summer dishes.
Carretera de la Mola km. 15,2
La Mola – 07872 (Formentera)
+34 971 327 293
About the Author: Melissa Leighty is freelance writer and photographer based in Barcelona, Spain. When she’s not writing about wine, she covers travel and food for Metropolitan and Miniguide and is at work on her first cookbook about Catalan cuisine. Visit her at www.melissaleighty.com and follow her latest culinary adventures on her food blog, Ataula. She’s on Instagram as well @mpleighty and @ataula_co.