Andrea and Jack Montgomery head to a wine-growing region in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Las Alpujarras, Spain, to visit Juan Palomar's vineyards and sample his award-winning wine
What do the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and California's Napa Valley have in common?
To anyone arriving amongst the softly rolling plains and snow capped peaks of Las Alpujarras with its white-walled villages huddled like sheep into the folds of the hills and its olive and almond groves, the answer is very little. In Las Alpujarras wide avenues, neatly mowed lawns, white picket fencing and country manor style homes are as evident as Cadillac cars. But make your way to the town of Úgijar and the home of Veleta wines and you'll find Napa Valley's vines flourishing and producing wines of such high quality that they're winning awards 'back home'.
“Just to give you an idea of how old I am,” says Juan Palomar as he leads us down the drive of Dominio Buenavista Farm towards his bodega. “I planted these palms from dates.” I glance at the row of tall, fat date palms standing sentry along our route and then back at the smiling face of Juan and conclude that either date palms are extremely fast growing or there is a painting of a very old man in the attic.
At the turn of the 21st century, there were two passions in Juan Palomar's life, his work as a surgeon in Ohio and his love of California Napa Valley wines.
Realising the similarities in climate and geography between Napa Valley and his home town of Ugijar, Juan decided to try to grow some of the varieties so successfully produced in California on his family farm in Las Alpujarras. In 1994, carefully carrying root stock from Santa Rosa vines by hand back to Spain and grafting them onto wild root stock planted two years earlier, Juan began to cultivate Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines to produce wine for his family and friends.
With time and care the vines adapted perfectly to their new home and the experiment proved so successful that Juan planted more vineyards with root stock brought from California, adding Merlot and Cabernet Franc to his menu. By 1998 the Bodega Dominio Buenavista was born and when, four years later Juan was forced to retire from medicine due to the arthritis in his hands, his hobby became his second career.
Medicine's loss was viticulture’s gain as Juan turned his surgeon's skill to grafting, pruning and tending the vines that carpet the hillsides of his family farm, irrigated by the fresh spring waters flowing down from the mountains. Veleta wines grace the tables of the Restaurant Las Chimeneas in Mairena from where David and Emma Illsley arrange tours and tastings for their guests.
After we tour the fermentation room and cellars of the bodega, Juan leads us to everyone's favourite part of the visit, the tasting room. Seated amongst the award certificates and press clippings that adorn the walls of the tasting room we sample the fruits of Juan's labours; a Veleta Chardonnay 2011 with its crisp, dry peachiness; a chocolate and blackcurrent, full bodied Tempranilla Reserve 2007 and my personal favourite, the elegant, cherry, chocolate and almond perfection of the Veleta Nolados 2008 which marries Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes with traditional Tempranilla.
Juan's Veleta wines regularly scoop awards in Holland and across Spain but sweetest of all are the honours that are bestowed from across the pond, at Cincinnatti and San Francisco International Wine Festivals where the Tempranilla Reserve won gold at Cincinnatti and silver at San Francisco in 2010 and the Nolados won silver at Cincinatti in 2011.
Putting a beaming smile on Juan's face today is the news that one of the USA's most respected digital, wine specialist magazines, Snooth, has just named Veleta Nolados 2008 and 'reserva' Veleta Tempranilla 2009 as two of the nine best wines of Spain in the United States.
Veleta wines, from California, via Úgijar, with love.
Written by Andrea and Jack Montgomery
Jack and Sarah visited the Bodega Dominio Buenavista, an organic vineyard and wine shop run by Juan Palomar who can organise tours and tastings.
Restaurant Las Chimeneas is a wonderful restaurant and cookery school set on an organic farm with self-catering cottages; the owners can organise walking and birdwatching tours, and children's activities.