Natural wines for the natural wine lover.
Ronda la Vieja, meaning “Old Ronda”, is what they call the stunning fields and farming land on the outskirts of this historic town. It’s a criss-cross of narrow bumpy lanes and a patchwork of fields heavy with the scent of olives and lemons. It’s also the home of Ronda’s burgeoning new wine industry.
Spanish vineyards are not easy to find; these aren’t tourist attractions or big landmarks – many are people’s homes or working fields. Viloria is no exception. Luckily a passing shepherd and his fifty goats led the way, and we arrived at the gates of Jesús Nieto Jiménez (or “Chechu”, as he is known to his friends) and his vineyards.
Chechu is everything you expect from a man that has spent his life outdoors. Vibrant, healthy and full of life, he explains how he couldn’t imagine spending his days stuck in an office.
“As a child I loved nature,” he says. “I loved being out in the countryside, it’s where I grew up and it’s where my heart is. I had a fascination with nature and respected it from an early age. As children we had picnics outside. It was a time to relax and be together as a family, and I would never want to go home. My siblings left to study and work in big cities, but not me. I love it here. I wake up before dawn every morning and look out over the land, crisp and shining with the early morning frost, and watch the sun rise over the vineyards. It’s magical.”
But life wasn’t always like this for Chechu. In fact, he could have become a famous sporting star.
“I played football as a kid, in fact I was semi-professional and played for the region. I even had a trial for the Madrid team once,” he says shrugging, as if it’s nothing. “But this won.” He stares out over his vineyard. “This is what I truly wanted.”
Chechu founded the Viloria vineyards and Lagarejo label in the year 2000 alongside the López Salgero family. With a vast history of farming and agriculture, the family took him in at the young age of 14, and he quickly picked up their farming ways. “Manuel López was like a father to me,” he tells me. “The family already grew olives, wheat, sunflower seeds and pulses, so it was natural for me to take the chance in the world of wines. Manuel and I began forming our label Lagarejo, and when he passed away two years ago it was a big shock to us all. But alongside his wife and two daughters, I have continued his passion and we are going from strength to strength.”
Viloria is made up of 30,000 vines in three plots across a huge expanse of land. Each type of grape is grown in a different location to ensure the best light, white grapes in the North and red grapes in the South.
“Orientation is everything,” says Chechu. “The hard work is done in the fields. If you get it right out here then the wine is already perfect when it reaches the barrels. There is no need to add anything to it, nature makes it the way it needs to be.”
Chechu is passionate about farming and he has very strong views about the importance of fair treatment of agricultural labourers in Spain. The surrounding farmland has been owned by Spanish farming families for generations, but the concept of making a business from the land is relatively new. Chechu explains about the exploitation that farmers have suffered in the past, about how merely 100 years ago the area was full of people living hand to mouth, rarely leaving the region and simply surviving by supporting each other with produce. But things are finally changing, farmers are finally getting the support that they need from the government and they are returning to a culture of fair pay and fair working hours.
“This is very much a family business. There is no day of rest, we all work 365 days a year,” he tells me. He points to two men in a distant field. “José works the fields and Antonio drives the tractor, but the whole family is very hands-on. And when we need help, we work with local labourers. They are like extended family to us. Agriculture runs deep within their veins, they know what they need to do. We all do. Nature is natural to us.”
Lagarejo has six wines: one white, one rosé and four red, producing between twenty and twenty-five thousand bottles a year. His wines are sold world-wide, but that isn’t why Chechu began his business. It doesn’t interest him that his bottles are lined up in fancy shops or being served at five-star hotels in other continents.
Chechu makes wine for each individual person, the normal person, who appreciates a good bottle.
“When I started this business nearly sixteen years ago, it seemed like a distant dream, but I am proof that it can be done. All I wanted to do was take what the land gave me and make something exceptional, something that others would enjoy.
For too long people, even we Spanish, have thought of Rioja as the only wine that comes out of our wonderful country. Any red Spanish red wine is referred to as a Rioja – and that has to change. There are so many amazing bodegas and labels in Ronda and other parts of the country, the world needs to understand that there is actually more choice to be had.
Now I get visits from people who have heard of Lagarejo and have come from as far as Japan, Italy and France, and end up standing in my back garden, enjoying a Ronda wine. The love for what I do is evident in my grapes and my wine, and to know people are enjoying that ... that’s pretty amazing.”
Chechu has been a fast learner and now feels like it is his destiny to pass on those lessons. He sees the next generation as the key to the future of Ronda and the region’s farming methods. Having studied business, politics and finance, he is combining his head, hands and heart to guide others into a successful future in agriculture.
“The plan is to open up a small farm school nearby, so young children from the cities can visit and be inspired by nature, as I once was. They can understand how food is grown and produced, maybe even get a taste of what it would be like to own their own land. We owe it to our future to ensure that the region continues to create great produce and wines. I am hoping that the next generation will be more politically astute, more educated than those before them, yet just as passionate about farming and nature. It’s time for new blood, new strength and a new start. And I’m proud to be able to be a part of that; to give other children the chance that I got to enter into this wonderful profession that gives me so much joy.”
If you could bottle love, passion, family and what it means to truly understand nature ... then it would be a wine made in Ronda, and it would be called Lagarejo.