We visited this winery on the same week that we went to Pago de Tharsys.
How often do you pack two winery visits in a week? Very rarely, I’d say! But it was really insightful as we still had the previous experience fresh in our minds, and it was easy to compare styles between the two.
There are plenty of similarities: both are based in the Valencia province. Both are inland, in mountainous areas, way above 500 m over sea level. They’re independent (not owned by a big group), and they offer various types of products, from entry level to premium wines.
Judging by that, you could expect the second visit to be predictable, samey, boring… but it couldn’t have been any more different!
Whereas the visit to Pago de Tharsys was quite composed and in a very small group (four people total), this had all the bearings of a party, as more and more attendees—even a bus load of people!— registered in reception. And you might imagine that amount of people ready to taste wine do not keep still and quiet: it was quite raucous!
Difference number two: I personally know the director of the winery, Toni Arráez, as we went to the same school year, although I hadn’t seen him in ages.
I had last spoken to him the summer after we finished school; he and a group of people from his town (La Font de la Figuera) came to visit ours for some festivities. It was right after the university admittance results had been published, and it was, obviously, all we could talk about. “What are you going to study?” and “Was it your first option?” were the two sentences we could not stop asking each time we stumbled upon someone from our year.
And then he goes and declares that he’s going to study agricultural engineering, become an enologist and make wine. BOOM. Mic drop, etc 🎤💥
I remember thinking: yeah sure, whatever.
Wine wasn’t something that looked like it had a serious future in our area; I just thought all the grapes we grew were for dessert purposes. Call me unimaginative, but agriculture as a way of living was just something that never crossed my mind, despite being surrounded by it. The whole thing about the EU paying farmers to stop producing, and seeing fields abandoned probably had some influence in this. Our sights were put on engineering, industry and technology! That was the future. And thus the memories of this conversation slowly faded away from my brain as we went on to study different careers, had different friendship circles, and lost track of each other.
A lot of years passed, and at the end of 2016 we were browsing the shelves of Tendavins, a wine shop in Ontinyent, looking for some sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve, and lo and behold, I see a bottle with “Arráez” in the label. “Could it be…?“, I wondered.
I turned the bottle around and lo and behold… there was his name and face! He had made it! He was making wine! Suddenly, I remembered that conversation, and I felt very happy that he had succeeded despite all the sceptics (like me). You see, I sometimes like to be proved wrong 😝
Since then we’ve tried many of the wines coming out of the winery, as they’re consistently reliable and good value for money, so it is not strange that we eventually wanted to pay a visit to the winery itself. Of course Covid made everything “a little bit” difficult, but we finally made it!
So it was exciting to finally meet him and tell him: “you know what, I thought you were bonkers. But you’ve made it! Well done!“. The facemask didn’t help in recognising me (I suppose my eyebrows aren’t that distinctive when we’re surrounded by other Spanish people with strong eyebrows), but it was a matter of taking it off for a second and he was like “Ah! yes it’s you! And you thought I was bananas…!” —and then he announced there would be a surprise ready for the people coming from Ontinyent.
And I say “another” because this visit was intended to be a surprise for my mum’s birthday—she also tried to visit the winery a while ago but something came up and it didn’t happen. So we told her we were going somewhere, but would not tell her where.
“Well, I already suspected it was going to be a winery”, she said on arriving to Arráez.
It is hard to not suspect when you’re driving across what’s known as “The Valencian Tuscany” and the road takes you past field after field of vineyards and wineries, and you’re even held up by tractors at points, though!
“And you said there’s another surprise? Is that your own doing too?”
“Yes, but we don’t know what is it either”
We had been out-surprised.
And so the tour started…
Toni himself was our guide and told us about the new building we were in, to which they had relocated recently, having outgrown their former installations in the town itself. This new winery, he said, was made to measure and with lots of intention, down to the actual contour of the premises which, seen from above, look like… a bottle! (you can check by yourself).
So we were inside the bottle now, he cheekly declared, as we had to go through the neck to enter the premises. Which were also designed to use energy efficiently, and all the features you expect from something built in this time and age.
Their aim as winemakers is to make wines which are enjoyable, easy to drink and eye-catching, and that’s why they have invested a lot in distinctive graphic design and even bottle design—their flagship “Malavida” wine uses a narrower, taller bottle, an awkward and unexpected name (“Bad life”), and really atypical packaging for a wine. And they’re proud of it!
It was fun to hear about the transition from the previous generation to today’s, and how he decided to abandon his young winemaker life in Ribera del Duero, despite it going really well, after a long period of rain and grey skies. He just picked up the phone and told his father he wanted to take over the family business. His father tried really hard to disuade him, but once his father went on holidays and came back, he quickly let go and let Toni do “whatever”, although there were still a couple times where he couldn’t but ask him something like “are you fucking bananas?”, such as when presented with the designs for Malavida 😂
I thought the story was also quite interesting from a socio-economical perspective: in the past, and specially during the bonanza years, pre-2007 crisis, wine in Spain had become this big serious thing for People Who Know™️ or People Who Want To Show Off With The Most Expensive And Oaky Rioja™️.
And so that put “lay people” off drinking wine, as they were intimidated by the complications, the pretensions and the potential bill. What did they order when they went for a casual drink? A beer. No one wants to be cross-examined on their knowledge on tannins and lees when they simply want to order a drink!
It is quite obvious to see how their branding reflects their goal of making good wines approachable: these wines are meant to be fun! You’re not supposed to be pretentious and full of jargon when you drink these. You’re just meant to have a glass of wine, end of the story!
Another good outcome from this “wine demystification” is that consumers lose the fear of wine, learn what they enjoy and what they don’t, and become more knowledgeable about it, and thus society [re]acquires a wine culture with which they feel a personal connection as they understand and value the product.
The other thing I found interesting is how they aim to build an ecosystem with other growers, winemakers and businesses. If you’re aiming for volume as they are, but you’re not ultra-rich (and he said they’re not, and I’m inclined to believe him!), then you have to partner with others. So they work with cooperatives and satellite businesses like industrial machinery installers, to keep the economy flowing and support each other. The town they’re based in is also really small compared with Requena (~2000 vs 20000 people), so the impact on the local economy can be huge. And then if you look at the wines they sell, you’ll see how they are operating in multiple denominations (e.g. Valencia, Alicante, Jumilla, …) because that’s where the different grapes are grown or wines are produced. It really made me think about how investing in local industries can create and distribute wealth across the country…
After this lot of introduction, we went down to the fermentation tank area. There were some explanations about destemming grapes with a machine, temperature control within the tanks (which is built-in), and cap management and trying to extract tannins from the wine (I secretly enjoyed the comparison of pumping over the cap with trying to squeeze a tea bag), but we didn’t get much into detail with such a big group! And also, when you visit a winery on a Saturday there’s not any activity going on.
(This is also the point at which Devvers realised that the visit had been spoken in Valencian so far, not Spanish, but hadn’t noticed because it’s so similar to Italian!) 😂
The maturation hall was quite sizeable compared to what we saw earlier in the week. You can see how they’re going for volume, yet here we had all these barrels slowly doing their thing, rather than using chips or staves 😏 —you can make wine at high volumes without necessarily sacrificing quality!
From there we went up again and looked at the bottling, labelling and packaging machinery. This is so automated that it can even be remote controlled and diagnosed, and they love it, so they can focus on things that do need humans at the helm.
Throughout the visit there were lots of insights into decisions they had taken with input from the workers when it came to building the winery from scratch, to make it as usable and practical as possible based on their hands-on experience on the former premises. E.g. what if we place this room here, as it is related to this other step? Etc.
And then we went to the tasting room, or what Toni described as the BEST PART of the tour.
And… what are those noises we’ve been hearing when we were downstairs…? Could it be… no, that does not make sense… but didn’t it sound like some guitar jamming? Wait, there’s a music band setting up shop? What? 😲
This was the second surprise, we realised: a music band!
However, not having lived in the town for so long, I had no idea who they were!
They played a number of 80s/90s songs, both Spanish and “international”. Nacha Pop, Radiohead, Nirvana, Loquillo y los Trogloditas… all quite eclectic but in essence very much something someone from my age would have grown up with.
Most people around us looked my age, and thus it didn’t take long until they warmed up to the band and started filming, singing, and filming themselves while singing!
The wine tasting started too! We tried Los Arráez: Verdil (grapes: Verdil, from 30 y/o vines), then (I think) a Vivir sin Dormir (grapes: Monastrell), and finally a Parcela 0—which I enjoyed the most.
For this last one, Toni declared that we were going to “drink that mountain!” while pointing right towards the mountain we could see further away across the tasting room: el Capurutxo.
They had planted different grape varieties (Garnacha, Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arcos & Forcayat) in the most suitable plots for each variety, and then made wine out of that. And a really enjoyable one! It was smooth, complex, and I really enjoyed the idea of drinking a mountain.
The ambience in the room had continued growing in animation and what started like a purely selfie-taking audience became people exchanging phone numbers and realising how connected they actually were in this very small world: “oh you say you’re married to so and so? What, we went to school together! No, YOU ARE kidding!” and etc etc. Other wines were poured…
Who knows what other coincidences we would have unearthed if we had stayed any longer?
But we had booked lunch at the mythical Casa Julio and weren’t intending to be late, so we waved goodbye to our friends old and new, and left for nearby Fontanars dels Alforins… with a lot of bottles and glasses of wine, as they all were included in the price of the wine tour, and we also bought more. A good memento!
If you want to visit (and why wouldn’t you)
They offer all sorts of tours in addition to the “visita sibarita” that we did. You can even make your own wines, fly a balloon or attend a beer tasting (as they also brew beers!), or they might be able to arrange something for you if you get in touch to discuss what you need!
They were very responsive when I asked them questions about restaurants and the tour itself, so it’s worth trying if you want something tailor-made.
Polígono 6, parcela 386, Paraje Ciscar.
46630 La Font de la Figuera
The road from Ontinyent is a bit windy but doable. I think it’s easier if you come from the bigger highway to the West. As they say, your mileage might vary (never more appropriately!).
If you are in the UK and want to drink their wines, there seems to be a bunch of retailers via Wine Searcher and I’ve sometimes also seen bottles at the Iberica shop, like the Verdil we drank at the tasting.