We were on our way to a winery in a craggy hill town off Spain’s Costa Blanca, and were childless for only the second time in two-and-a-half years. There was no stopping us—only we couldn’t find the damn place.
Now a winemaker, Felipe Gutierrez de la Vega had previous careers as a sailor and a taxman.
Even with MapQuest directions and my astute navigational abilities (“I see vines, we must be close!”), we got lost halfway there and stopped at a concrete sculpture yard specializing in snails and Buddhas. The owner directed us to throw away our map. Finally finding Parcent, but still hopelessly lost, our chauffeur (my father-in-law) stumbled onto a doctor who proved very helpful (even if her patient didn’t agree). We squeezed down an impossibly narrow street then wandered aimlessly by foot. After a final clue from a mother stopping for her son to pee in the bushes, we knocked on the giant oak doors of the walled bodega, a forgivable 25 minutes late. Felipe Gutierrez de la Vega, kind-faced and short in stature, answered the door wearing a black lab coat and espadrilles with ribbons laced around his ankles.
With past careers as a sailor and then a taxman, Felipe started a life making wine in the Marina Alta subzone of the Alicante D.O. in 1973. Drawn to culture in all forms, Felipe combines his passion for music and art into every aspect of his winemaking. As he showed us around, opera bellowed through speakers in every room because music, to Felipe, is essential to wine’s evolution.
We explored the 16th century Moorish kitchen, the cloister with an Alhambra-inspired floor, the stainless steel tank room, and the laboratory (which, in this small 70,000 bottle production only sees action when acidity, sulfite, and alcohol levels need assessing). Felipe’s wife and daughter were busy with their summer chore: hand-cleaning the French, American, Hungarian, and Caucasian oak barrels.
Felipe’s favorite tenor, Antonio Cortis, hit a high note just as we descended into the underground cave. There, 200 casks illuminated softly from behind hold the wines of Felipe’s label, Casta Diva (an aria from Bellini’s opera, Norma). Water trickles down the natural stone walls maintaining an optimum temperature and humidity.
We tasted more than two dozen wines, mostly from barrel, and all showed craftsmanship, sensuality, and respect for terroir and varietal. The moscatel in all three versions (dry, sweet, late-harvest), swelled with scents of elderflower, lavender, almonds, apricots and ginger. The dry reds, made from monastrell, garnacha, or a blend of the two, were, in still-barrelled vintages, as ferocious as Pamplona bulls, but displayed obedience after a few years in the bottle.
Fondillón, the once-extinct wine of Alicante with a 500-year written history and a fan club that included Louis XIV, the fictional Count of Monte Cristo, and Ferdinand Magellan, has been resurrected by Felipe into a modern revelation. Made from vine-dried monastrell grapes, Fondillón spends 10 years or more in barrel and combines port-like fruit with sherry-like nuttiness, but with no added alcohol. Its taste, smoky and brooding, made visions of churros dance in my head.
After two hours, we emerged from the cave, blinking and shivering, but inspired by a Renaissance man fulfilling his dream. We fought over a banana, two granola bars, and five jelly beans on the way back along the Mediterranean, returning just in time for a siesta in the warm Spanish sun.