Almeria’s ‘impossible’ wines born under the desert sun

Almeria’s ‘impossible’ wines born under the desert sun
Fuelled by passion and sheer force of character, a brilliant entrepreneur is breathing life into an ancient wine tradition in the parched south of Spain
‘Nothing is impossible. This is the proof,’ José Miguel Garcia says, swirling a glass of his should-be-impossible wine. We’re in the desert landscape of Spain’s Almeria, standing on a dusty peak of Bodega Sierra Almagrera, the first winery in the region, established 20 years ago. Garcia is no ordinary winemaker. He’s known for working at the highest level in telecoms with some of the biggest political, financial and technology-based names in the world. He also runs several entrepreneur businesses and philanthropic endeavours. I would love to tell you more on the who, what and where of all this, but I am sworn to silence, so you will have to take his extraordinary career partly on trust. Imagine a loveable Spanish Elon Musk and you are somewhere close. It is baking hot here. An unbroken vista of scorched earth and scrubland – this is where Sergio Leone shot his famous Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood. Vines may flourish in challenging soil, but, as Europe’s only desert, this climate is unlike anywhere else in the Old World. The heat is extreme during the day, meaning vines are planted at a high altitude of 350 to 1,200 metres above sea level: there, with the bright sunshine and cooler nights, they can ripen beautifully. Though the Phoenicians brought winemaking here 3,000 years ago, a combination of climate change and financial difficulties brought it to a halt. Only in the last couple of decades has winemaking resurfaced in Andalusia, at first with garage wines produced by and for local families. Now a handful of wineries are exporting. Indeed, Garcia was deeply troubled when he saw the land that a friend and colleague had bought on his behalf. There were no other wineries, and the barren landscape was daunting, but in a pattern that seems to have shaped his life, he was not deterred. He saw the similarities to the Australian landscape he grew up in. Garcia’s route to winemaking hasn’t been uneventful. He grew up in a poor Spanish community in Melbourne; his parents spoke almost no English – he would go with them to negotiate with lawyers, explain ailments to doctors and cut business deals. Finding his skills in demand, he started a translation company at 15 and sold it at 17 to fund a bakery business. He went on to study at the CIT Institute of Technology, travelled the world, made his fortune at the top of a series of telecoms companies, including Cable & Wireless and the Spanish operator Jazztel (acquired by Orange in 2015). For now, he’s settled in Spain.
This is a man who makes quick decisions. He planted 7,000 orange trees on his land simply because he liked them and wanted some greenery. Local farmers thought that if a businessman like Garcia had put his money into oranges, he must know something they did not, so they planted them too. As a result, Andalusia overtook Valencia as the largest orange-growing region in Spain in 2019. Garcia makes his whims happen – he told me how he once took a liking to a massive marble wall in a friend’s quarry, so he had it dismantled into fifty 100kg blocks which he transported to his house and rebuilt himself. Bodega Sierra Almagrera was born from a promise made as a young man (a complicated story involving the betrothal of a friend and a drunken evening with their Australian winemaker father). Alongside his telecoms career, he fulfilled his pledge, and the bodega is now a key (and award-winning) part of the region’s economy. Garcia remains focused on increasing tourism and employment in the area: the bodega has indirectly employed 1,000 people locally, having generated 200 jobs in construction, agriculture and service industries. ‘Very few have given back to this area,’ he says. ‘This is what drives me now. You need time management, delegation and a great team with a shared vision.’ He also works on instinct: his winemaker Domingo Haro Losilla has a background in construction and agriculture, his main experience of farming from growing tomatoes. He may not have had wine experience, agreed Garcia, but he had ‘heart, skill and curiosity’. When Losilla suffered a heart attack Garcia refused to make wine without him – the vintage remained unmade until he could get back to the winery. So far, so admirable, but what about the wines? Garcia pours me a glass of Caballo Español, a Shiraz, Tempranillo, Monastrell and Garnacha blend (a punchy £49). Matured for 18 months in American oak, it’s fresh, plush and balanced. His £189 Caballo Español Gold Shiraz Tempranillo (over 25 months in French oak), is equally assured. The wines are gaining some traction in the UK market, says Ben Van De Meutter, owner the Shoreditch Wine House, who imports them. ‘We don’t stock other wines from Southern Spain but these wines are excellent.’ When he was introduced to the winery, ‘I immediately felt that the wines were special, and I like José’s passion and want to be part of that story’. I have never met anyone who has done so much, who has taken so many (successful) risks and who has invested so much of themself in their decisions. I have no idea where he finds the time or energy. Maybe the key here is his attitude to it all. ‘I don’t work,’ Garcia tells me: ‘I’ve never worked. All of these things I do. They’re not work, they’re adventures.’
Libby Brodie is a wine writer, presenter, consultant, judge and City AM’s wine columnist. You can follow her on Instagram @libbybrodie.
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