Exceptional wines built on ancient foundations.
When you think of Spanish wine bodegas, you think of rolling hills stripy with bountiful vines and rustic Spanish fincas glowing white in the setting sun. What you don’t imagine is a five-hundred-year-old monastery hidden in a sunken valley. Yet that is where we are, in one of Ronda’s most magical vineyards, with architects and wine growers Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi.
“This convent was built in 1505,” Flavio tells me, as we walk around the gardens with his oenologist and vineyard manager Vicente, the man responsible for turning the business men’s dreams into a flavoursome reality. “It housed monks that were known as being ‘descalzos’ – barefoot. When the monastery was moved to the town towards the end of the last century only the older men stayed behind to look after the gardens, hence why we named the vineyard Descalzos Viejos.”
The grounds are a secret garden of winding rocky pathways, forgotten fountains and wondrous secret nooks. It feels every bit the spiritual retreat it once was. A family of cats follows us as we pick our way through the exotic foliage and look down at the rows of vines growing at the foot of the ancient ruins. “The convent was built in a unique valley that they call Hoya del Tajo, a dip in the mountains that is sheltered from the wind and produces a very distinct climate. It’s always warmer here than a few kilometres away ... that’s how the monks that lived here were able to plant these fruit trees of figs, avocados and kumquats that are not normally so easy to grow in Ronda. And it’s why it’s the perfect place to grow grapes and make wine. It’s a little slice of Eden.”
Flavio is originally from Buenos Aires, born in La Boca neighbourhood, in Argentina and his business partner Paco from Málaga, Spain. For twenty-five years they have been working together as architects, and until the recession hit, they had been involved in some great projects throughout Andalucia. “We work well together, but we knew that our business was slowing down and we wanted a new venture. When we discovered this place we fell in love with it. We had no idea what we wanted to do with it, but we knew that it was an amazing place that we would enjoy renovating ... and that’s when the hard work began.”
In the year 1998 the couple and their wives, Chelo and Mariela, both doctors, bought the premises and spent a further two years restoring it, something of a busman’s holiday for a partnership with such vast experience in renovation and construction. They were told that the land was ideal for planting either vines or olive trees, and by 2003 they had produced their first bottle of wine.
We pass the distillery and enter the room where the wine barrels are stored. I gasp. It’s heavenly. Before us is an impressive fresco, half a century old, depicting the Sevillian patron saints – after which two of the Descalzos Viejos wines are named; Iusta and Rufina.
“When we bought the building this room had been used to keep sheep in by local farmers, can you imagine? It took a lot of restoration to get the walls back to their original glory. It’s like our own shrine to wine.”
We take a seat on a small patio overlooking an impressive vista. Flavio, a true Argentinean full of energy and passion for life, strokes one of the ground’s friendly cats and smiles up at the sky. “This is like a third life for me,” he says. “I had my young life in Argentina when I was a boy, dreaming of being an architect, then I moved to Spain and followed that dream; I started my business and had my family and fell in love with Andalucía, and now this. Look around you, could you think of anything more glorious?” The sun beats down on our own private sun trap, the cats have settled on our laps and the wine keeps flowing. This is not a place one leaves in a hurry.
“Being from Argentina, I have always loved wine. But it wasn’t until Paco and I entered into the world of wine that we realised how similar it was to architecture. You start off with nothing, just an idea. You then start to plan, sow the seeds and you wait. Things worth doing take time, it has a process and like building a house it involves a number of experts and a lot of vision to get there. It takes years, up to five years from seed to bottle, but the end result is something beautiful. You have created something that brings people pleasure, and that gives me such a thrill.”
The vineyard hosts tastings and tours for dozens of visitors every day, along with two music festivals a year, celebrating both jazz and independent music from local bands. Stalls are set up around the grounds, selling local dishes and of course Descalzos Viejos wine. The festivities end with a DJ that gets the party into full swing until the early hours of morning; an enchanting night of food, wine and music in one of Ronda’s most unique venues. Huge posters advertising the music festivals are displayed around the vineyard, featuring amazing paintings by Paco’s son – a local artist.
“Wine is everything to me, along with art, architecture, music and of course women,” Flavio says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Wine brings people together; it opens them up and it slows them down. Look at us now, sitting here talking and laughing. It’s as if we haven’t a care in the world. Sunshine, a beautiful view, sharing our stories ... wine does that. It’s a celebration of life and it creates memories. Every day I get people from all over the world arrive here to try my wines and I get such a buzz from seeing them enjoy the experience. I learn so much from them, too; it’s an interaction ... something I never got from my last job as an architect.”
As we tear ourselves away from the bodega’s welcoming embrace, Flavio shares with us one last observation. “In my 53 years on this planet I have learnt one thing,” he says, “you must accept whatever life throws at you and work with whatever you have.” A meaningful lesson that I’m sure the barefoot monks, that walked the same rocky path we take to our car, would have approved of.
Descalzos Viejos and its magnificent old building is a piece of Ronda history that is making new history. With one foot in the past and the other in a young and vibrant future, Flavio and his team are bringing passion, energy and love back to a place that time forgot ... and ensuring that those that visit this impressive bodega will never forget it.