This story starts in a hospital in Santander. While in the waiting room I struck up a conversation with a man who told me that his son had a winery in the area. I was under the impression that Cantabria was the only region in Spain where no grapes were grown, but this man told me that there were two areas that had recently begun to grow them: Liébana in the far west of the province near Asturias, and the east coast.
Several years later I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from the eastern coastal region at a wine fair in Santander and was impressed by the interest of a small group of wine lovers who were willing to invest in a business that to me was plagued by oversupply, low prices and excessive regulation. But I never bothered to enquire further.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited by Ken Baldwin from Totally Spain, a travel agency based near Santander, to one of the wineries in Cantabria, Bodegas Vidular, for a visit to the vineyards, a tasting and lunch. It was an unforgettable experience.
Bodegas Vidular is the brainchild of the Durán family, originally from Bilbao, with experience in the wine distribution business. We met Mikel Durán at one of the company’s vineyards on the outskirts of Noja, one of Cantabria’s most popular resort towns. Here, he explained that grapes and wine had been produced in Cantabria until the early 19th century but its resurgence had been very recent. Vidular, along with five other wineries created a ‘vino de la tierra’ with the designation ‘Costa de Cantabria’. Mikel said that Vidular had no intention of joining a denominación de origen because the rules regarding grape varieties were too strict and would stifle their attempts to see what varieties would work best given the climate and soils of the area. They’re right.
The company has a total of nine hectares of vines in three vineyards: Noja, Castillo (a nearby village) and Vidular, about 15 kilometers south of the coast at an altitude of 500 meters. The winery has planted the white varieties albariño, chardonnay, treixadura, gewürztraminer and godello and more recently, pinot noir.
Cantabria, with its rich clay soil and rainy climate nine months a year is not a place where you would predict grapes would produce quality wine, but for that matter, neither the coast in the Basque Country, but txakolí is selling like hot cakes. Mikel explained that the Noja vineyard was planted in an old quarry, so there’s a base of limestone, good soil for growing grapes. Another smaller producer recently told me that he had trucked in some ‘poor’ soil for his small vineyard.
The topic of soil fertility came up at the second vineyard we visited. Here, the family had laid down a semipermeable mat under the vines to allow rainwater to seep through but would stop weeds and other plants from sprouting up.
These up-front investments reminded me of the fundamental question about the wine business:
Question: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
Answer: By starting with a large fortune.
The wines are sold in mainly in Cantabria and a few other places around Spain, as well as in Germany and even Japan. We got a big kick out of hearing Mikel’s story about the sale to Japan. He’s a surfer, like a lot of people living on the coast here, and was featured in a story in a Japanese magazine about ‘The Life of Surfers over Forty’. Mikel mentioned that his family had a winery and a reader sent him a 100 case order.
Wine tourism, however, is where Mikel wants to devote his energy. As we were standing beside the Noja vineyard, he pointed to the long line of cars going to the beach and mused about building a small tasting room and shop there.
Following a quick stop at the Castillo vineyard, we took a beautiful drive up a mountain to the winery and vineyards. The family bought and restored an old farmhouse that they originally planned to use as a country hotel, but finally decided to turn into a tasting room and restaurant to entertain groups of wine tourists. Our first stop was the small but functional winery built next to the farmhouse where we tasted the company’s two brands, the white Ribera del Asón and Cantábricus with some tapas prepared by chef Mario Armesilla.
Since the meal was the highlight of the visit I didn’t make detailed tasting notes for the wines but can say that they were very tasty, showing intense tropical fruit aromas, and vibrant acidity.
It’s tempting to make a comparison with txakolí, the popular white wine produced in the Basque provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, but the wines from the Costa de Cantabria had a personality of their own. While most of the producers of txakolí from Guipúzcoa favored the traditional low alcohol, slightly fizzy, prone to give you a headache style that is served in bars by pouring the wine from two feet above the glass to aerate it, much like Spanish sidra (hard cider), the Vizcaya style is an attempt to compete with whites such as Rueda. Vidular was somewhere in the middle. I thought it benefited from a little aeration, but was definitely on the serious side.
As a matter of fact, there’s been quite a controversy about the appropriation by the Basques of the word txakolí (or chacolí). According to wine historians, wines called chacolí used to be produced both in Cantabria and the north of the province of Burgos, east of Rioja. In Burgos, the wines are still locally known as chacolí, but not in Cantabria.
The wines from the Costa de Cantabria aren’t widely available outside the region themselves and at least in the case of Vidular, the Durán family is not in a hurry. In the wine business, the slow and steady approach is the safest route to success.