Hot, Dry & Natural in D.O. Madrid with Marc Isart
Thank you Marc for a day of laughter, vines and wine! -Karen Ulrich
A few hours after landing in Madrid, I drove southeast with Marc Isart to visit his vines. As we passed through an incredibly arid landscape, where the poorest of soils were allocated to vines, Marc spoke of the two most recent vintages, hot and dry, and no doubt a result of climate change. Luckily, however, the vines that Marc farms in D.O. Madrid are bush-trained and ancient, with roots that dig deep to access the water table that his neighbor’s trellis-trained vines will never find.
Here, Marc contracts his vineyards so that he can remain untethered if he desires change. For his La Maldición label, Isart rents from an 84-year-old man, who likes to help out in the vineyard when he can. The same can be said for his Malvar vines that Isart rents from another elderly gentleman, who tends to the vines as a hobby. With great respect for the vineyards’ origins, Isart farms these old vines as they were farmed in the past—without intervention. “When we work a plant that’s 60 or 100 years old,” he said, “what’s there to change?” He simply prunes and works the soil.
A natural enthusiast who is quick to laugh, Marc enjoys his time between the vines, but it’s the plot of 100-year-old Malvar that remains his favorite. Standing on a gentle slope, surrounded by olive trees and wild herbs, the soil here is chalky underfoot, where we grabbed a few berries to taste from the vine. Interestingly, the Malvar planted to chalky soils showed greater acidity and flavor concentration than the Malvar planted to soils of clay. With a rocky topsoil above the chalk, the water evaporation here is slowed, allowing for healthier, greener vines, whose roots are not bogged down by excessive moisture. The vines from this site also yielded a wine with only 10.5% abv, said Marc, likely because the excessive heat causes the vines to shut down during the growing season, leaving the vine on life-support with little energy left for the growth of fruit, thereby concentrating flavor.
At the winery, which is owned by a friend, Marc inhabits a small space by the door. Here, he uncovered a plastic tank and proceeded to punch down a vat of fermenting fruit with his hands. He then changed into a pair of shorts and climbed into a tank of Tempranillo for pigéage à pied, the fermentation coming to life with the submersion of each cluster. In plastic wrapped tanks, both Garnacha and Tempranillo ferment for 30 days via indigenous yeast.
Stepping down to the cellar, we tasted the “Malvar de Valdilecha” 2015, which was ready to bottle at the time, and is now en route from Spain to NYC. With 65% of the wine undergoing skin-contact for 40 days, the remaining 35% is directly pressed. Typically, the wine spends 11 months in used oak, but because Isart is looking to slightly increase his production, this particular vintage saw one new oak barrel added to the mix. From the barrel, the Malvar was waxy in texture with bright acidity, and a lemon zest note that offered both balance and contrast to the minerality and cheese-rind flavors in the glass. So good…
Made in very small quantities, the “Oxidativo” is made in amphora from 100% Torrontes, from a total of 90 vines in two different vineyards. Spending one year on the skins, and 3-4 months beneath a layer of flor, the “Oxidativo” is waxy and spicy with aromas of a local flower that dots the vineyard, its scent reminiscent of chamomile and curry. On the palate, there are flavors of marmalade and lemon zest. If I could have, I would have carried the amphora home on my back, it was that damn delicious.
When Isart first produced his “Tinto de Valdilecha” in 2013, all 7,000 bottles sold out within two months. Today, Isart adds 30-35% Malvar juice (not skins) to the tank of Tempranillo during fermentation, yielding a silky textured wine with notes of bramble fruit and tobacco leaf. And while this is his flagship wine, Marc still produces fewer than 3,000 cases, not much, but a far cry from the days of his grandfather when vineyard workers were paid in wine.