Bodega, bees and bottles of wine: natural farming at La Alondra Infinita

This update is long overdue, and I apologise for the delay. As usual we have been very busy, but at last we are now seeing, and enjoying, the fruits of our labours and investments over the last year: the wine we drink is the wine we make!

Our natural style of farming

Expanding the woodland

When we bought the farm in 2009 it had a small woodland in one corner which had been badly damaged by a fire, and many small trees had been cut down for firewood.  Over the last 4 years we restored this area by cleaning out dead wood, by encouraging the native trees to expand and by adding a few specimen trees to add diversification. The woodland is now spreading along the side of an irrigation ditch and it has almost joined up with a newly planted area of acacia trees by our house 125 yards away! In summer, when temperatures are in the late 30’s this area is a lot cooler than the rest of the farm, and we ofter use it for picnic lunches and lunchtime naps.

House nestling in the trees

The main woodland is now around 2 acres in size, with a much smaller woodland growing close to one side of our house. Here is our house nestling in the trees as seen from the meadowland. In spring the acacia trees are white with blossom and the noise of the bees feeding on them has to be heard to be believed! Our wooded areas have oak, acacia, mora (mulberry), bay, apple, pecan nut, pear, poplar, walnut, apricot and peach trees which have attracted a large insect and bird population. We leave the leaves that fall on the forest floor to rot so the soil is turning a rich, almost black colour.

Horses enjoying our meadow

We have chosen an area of 13 acres that is now used only for grazing by the horses. The area looks untidy, but with over a year’s worth of horse manure and a little watering, it has started to turn itself into a meadowland full of wild flowers and bushes. A huge variety of seeds come down in the irrigation water and we have discovered wild celery, sunflowers, evening primroses, asparagus, fennel, rocket, mint and even garlic growing here! Graciela collects the seeds from the wild flowers and these are scattered over the meadowland to encourage further growth. But as we live in a semi arid area there is always an attendant fire risk on unploughed farmland , so I have had to plough a number of firebreaks across the meadow.

Graciela examining one of her beehives.

In keeping with our natural style of farming, the addition of Graciela’s beehives into the meadow has paid off with our first small harvest of honey which has a lovely clear colour with a distinctive taste of its own from the huge selection of wild flowers surrounding the hives. The wild flowes and bushes keep the bees busy outside of the fruit tree flowering times. Graciela plans to put more beehives into this area as well as by the main woodland. Opening up a hive for inspection is still a ‘worrying’ time for me, but Graciela has no problem at all – maybe why I have been stung a number of times – the bees sense my unease?

Field hospital

During the year we adopted (or rescued) Waggy and Toba, both of whom were abandonned dogs. Toba, who looks like a cross between a Doberman and a Pointer was very timid, but now she is getting more secure she is turning into a very good guard dog. Waggy, a real “Heinz 57″ is not the brightest creature on the farm, and when we were building he ran into a roll of metal mesh, ripping open his shoulder. Undaunted, he continued to run around the farm chasing the lapwings ( and other dogs). But the cut was so bad  it needed urgent attention.  Graciela operated on him, literally, “in the field”. Such is life here in the remoter regions!

And the wine?

On goes the roof

Our biggest need on the farm, apart from finishing the inside of our house, was a barn to store items and a bodega (winery) to make our natural Malbec wine in quantity. So in October we took the decision to draw up plans for a two storey building that would be a barn on one side and a bodega on the other. Construction of the main structure started in November and finished in February. The bodega has space for a small laboratory for the analysis of wine as well as a bathroom/shower/toilet facility. Our six wine fermentation tanks, each of 950 litres capacity, were ordered and delivery was promised for mid February. The fermentation tanks were a little late in arriving and I could not weld up the stands to hold them and fit the valves and pipework in advance. So we were getting worried as harvest time approached.

Instalation of the wine fermentation tanks

However nature came to our help. We had a very wet and cool period when the grapes were ripening which pushed our harvest back almost 4 weeks, to the end of April. Despite this appalling wet weather our Malbec grapes reached 13.8 Baume and we were ready to harvest.

Just before harvest time we were hit by a hail storm which damaged many of the bunches of grapes, and as a result, our harvest was only a fraction of that planned. But I can’t complain, a neighbour lost his whole vineyard in the same storm when his vine plants were reduced to match sized pieces of wood sticking up out of the ground.

Grape harvest

The harvest went well and although we only harvested 2 tonnes it was a delight to see our handpicked grapes go straight from the vines to the bodega for processing and crushing. There were  a few minor handling glitches or areas where we could make the process smoother, so for next year we have a few alterations planned. Despite these few glitches the design of the bodega, totally our own idea, has turned out well and we are extremely happy with it. Now the wine is fermenting and maturing, we need to look at our bottling and storage facilities to see how they function.

One of our natural insect eaters

On the farm our policy has always been one of working alongside nature and in as sympathetic a way as possible. To that extent we clean irrigation ditches, the vineyard and around the fruit trees by plough and by hand. We DO NOT use weedkillers, herbicides or any other chemical means to clean the land. Experience has shown that our tolerance for a certain level of natural weeds around and amongst the crops has paid off. These areas fill with insects and birds and apart from helping the bees, these ‘untidy’ areas also help us keep down pests. We have a balance of good and bad insects and we noted this year that we lost no grapes at all to insect damage, and our fruit trees are largely untouched by pests too. The only insecticide we have is ant powder, carefully applied by hand, to combat the soldier ants that can  destroy 4 or 5 grapevine plants overnight. In our arsenal of good insects are praying mantices, and the vineyard is full of them, all hunting down insects to eat. This one crawled onto me whilst I was working in the vineyard – I don’t think it found anything in my beard thought!

Autumn seen from the kitchen window

Autumn arrived and our alamo trees seemed to lose their leaves in just a few days. The weather was all wrong for this time of year and we saw both wild flowers and ‘domestic’ flowers bursting into bloom when they should have been going dormant. This is the view from our kitchen window – almost winter and our Flowering Yuccas are in full bloom. It is worrying because if these plants are hit by frost/snow they will not have had a chance to produce seed for spring. Rain, an unusual feature here, hit us for 3 days solid and turned the farm into a lake. Then it all dissapeared in a short while. Looking at the Andes in the distance, there is very little snow on the peaks, so it looks like we may be short of water in 2015 as our irrigation water comes from the lakes high up on their slopes.

Of our 2013 vintage wine, all that remains is my ‘special reserve’ which is slowly dissapearing as time passes. This reserve is for our own personal use, and it is still a delight to open up the bodega and liberate a bottle to have with a meal. It is not just the flavour of the wine that gives me pleasure, but the knowledge that from vine to glass, every single stage was done with our own hands. Cheers!

Our Malbec 2013 Vintage

Falling in love with Malbec

Our Malbec harvestIn September 2010 we planted the first 2 1/2 acres of our vineyard with Malbec vines.

Earlier this year I registered myself as a winemaker with the Argentine licencing authority (Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura) and was granted a licence to make wine and to sell my wine to the public.

In March we harvested our very first crop of grapes which we fermented and then nurtured and fretted over for 6 months.

The INV inspector recently took samples of our wine for analysis and yesterday we received the results. Our Malbec wine passed the analysis with flying colours and I am now cleared to sell it. In fact the Inspector said it was an excellent wine. It is a dark, dark red (almost black) wine with a 14.1 degree alcohol content. Taste is of a slight hint of dark cherries with a smooth finish.

That same evening we had an offer from a wine buyer to purchase all of our 2013 vintage. It was a tempting offer, but in the end we decided to sell him only part of it and use the rest to build up a customer base for the future.

Unlike many wines, our 2013 Malbec is a totally natural wine. Fermented with the natural yeast on the grapes, no added acid, no added sugar, no added glycerine or preservatives. It is meant to be enjoyed whilst still young. So, we are feeling very content for the moment. Unfortunately we are not in a position to export (yet).

What now?

Now we have some serious work ahead of us. This year the vineyard should be in almost full production. Which means we need to increase our winemaking and storage facilities on the farm, whilst still maintaining the high quality that we achieved this year.

To all our friends out there, cheers!

A Huge Step Forward

As we live in a remote area there is a government funded programme whereby we get free hens so that we can supply our own eggs and chickens.

Our day old chicks arrived in a cardboard box. 5 dual purpose hens (egg layers and broilers for eating) plus 5 cockerels (for eating). Only after a few days they had already grown.

The young chicks explore the world

The young chicks explore the world

We kept them in a box with a heat light whilst I built a hen house for them. As they grew older they spent the day roaming free on the farm and at night they are locked in the hen house to keep them safe from wild dogs, neighbours’ dogs, foxes, opossums, snakes and ocelots.

Our free range hens

Our free range hens

But the biggest step forward for us was when the government inspector visited to see us and our winemaking facility. It passed with flying colours and now I am registered as an Argentine winemaker. This allows me to make wine for public consumption and also allows me to sell my wine either to buyers or directly to the public. Our wine label has been approved so all we need to do now is to harvest, ferment and bottle! Before I can sell a single bottle our wine will be chemically analysed to ensure compliance with the tough Argentine standards which, to me, is an excellent check and idea.

My selling limit is 4000 litres (just over 5000 bottles) a year, but this year we are going to do a small trial run to get some practice in the various stages (and get used to all the paperwork needed) before we try to elaborate our whole Malbec grape production.

The first 300kgs of grapes for winemaking

The first 300kgs of grapes for winemaking

We have been regularly checking the sugar content of the grapes and when they were ready we harvested around 300Kgs of grapes from 1 sector of the vineyard. These are now fermenting gently. We were about to harvest another 300Kgs for a second run but cold wet weather swept in, so we will wait a few days before harvesting and kicking off another fermentation.

Fingers crossed, if all goes well, our first trial run should give us around 360 bottles of finished wine to taste.

Each day we are taking a number of measurements and we are plotting a graph so we know when to move the fermenting wine onto the next stage.

Twice a day testing

Twice a day testing

The problem with winemaking is that it is a long and slow process and it is difficult to wait so long before wanting to try a bottle or two, or three…