Who: Fabio Bartolomei.
What: Vino de España, Sierra de Gredos.
Where: El Tiemblo, Avila, Madrid.
When: Since 2003.
Viños Ambiz is a very small producer of natural wines based just west of Madrid in the now rather fashionable region of Sierra de Gredos. It’s run by Fabio Bartolomei an Italian born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland and who somehow fell into winemaking. He is entirely self-taught.
He didn’t go to winemaking school, didn’t go to work for other producers or even very much visit them – because he was grape growing in a fairly remote part of the world, while in Madrid he had no interest whatsoever in the type of wine he found (and still does) everywhere around him, industrially and conventionally produced to a boring, standardised “norm”. There’s still only a couple of natural wine bars in Madrid and 10 years ago there were fewer than 50 producers in the whole of Spain. However, Fabio’s curiosity for and love of the process itself took him on a journey to learn grape growing and winemaking by reading, talking with locals and endless experimentation.
Fabio had found himself in Madrid by chance in around 2000 when it was the first flight out of a dull office job in Italy. He wanted to get involved in organic agriculture and sustainability projects. This desire took him out to the farmland west of Madrid and soon he met fruit growers including some old grape growers (old growers and of old vines) who invited him to look after their vines and make wines from the harvest. It never occurred to Fabio to use any additives or technology in his winemaking; he’d always thought wine was nothing other than fermented grape juice.
Fabio works with native, local varieties and the results are frequently spectacular, minimalist, direct, edgy, exotic, delicious, unusual and as far as you can get from the “standardised norm”.
He started in 2003/4 making just 600 bottles from 250 vines of Airen. He added small parcels from year to year, changed cellars, making do with whatever he could and kept his day job in Madrid as a translator, along with home and family. In 2013 he found his current cellar in the village of El Tiemblo, and more or less settled his lineup of wines with around 15 different Cuvées, both white (mostly orange, really) and red of a few hundred to a couple of thousand bottles each, around 12,000 bottles in total.
Fabio farms organically using cover crops to promote biodiversity and sustainability in order to produce healthy, delicious and naturally grown grapes. Given the hot, dry climate, vines are rarely in need of treatment. But in some years, plant preparations, organic manure and occasionally sulfur may be used to promote health or treat ill-health. Harvesting is carried out by hand into small cases and any not perfectly ripe and healthy fruit is left on the vine or on the vineyard floor. Health and hygiene is vital in the vineyard so all tools and equipment are scrupulously cleaned before entering the vineyard.
In the cellar, the harvest is always double-checked and any damaged or unripe fruit is removed. Hygiene is paramount and there are no additives or chemicals used. Fermentations take place using natural or wild yeasts in a mix of containers including stainless steel and clay jars (anfora). Sulfites have been very occasionally used at the request of overseas buyers at bottling. Otherwise Fabio has never felt the need to use them.
Fabio approaches his craft as a gift from the universe. He’s constantly joyous about being able to farm local grapes and transform them into wine.
We first ran into Fabio at the H2O natural wine fair in Pinell de Brai in 2013 when his wines stood out for the transparency of their fruit aromas (not transparency of juice) and the unusual aromas of not before tasted varieties, as well as energy captured.
His wines are now well represented in Japan, US, UK, Denmark and other places, and this exposure to different markets is helping to grow up the wines, too.