Any British woman who sends a townful of Spaniards an invitation to a Battle of Trafalgar Anniversary Party is my kinda broad.
The fact that October 21 (the date Lord Nelson defeated the Spanish Navy during the Napoleonic Wars) also happens to be her birthday is immaterial. Charlotte Allen indicated that only in the invitation’s fine print—print so fine that some of her neighbors missed it and stayed away in a snit.
She gets a kick out of the story to this day. And small wonder: She has been embroiled in a complicated love/hate/eat/drink/snicker relationship with her neighbors for more than eight years now.
In the early part of this century, wearied of the British wine trade, the London-based merchant set out to create a wine estate of her own. She apprenticed in Vouvray, picked grapes in South Africa and studied in Southern Rhône, but when set out to chase her dream (with an eye on France), a friend in Rueda suggested tranquil but rugged Arribes, a new DO in Northwest Spain where she could buy a hectare of vineyards for the price of three vines in Burgundy. Undeterred by the fact that she didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture, hadn’t heard of the indigenous grapes they grow and for the most part, didn’t know how to make wine out of them anyway, Charlotte Allen bought a French car and made the road trip to Fermoselle, a backwater hamlet on the Portuguese border.
Since then, if she’s looked back, it’s only to remind herself what a marvelous adventure life can be for those willing to grab it by the short hairs.
In 2006, she bought 14 hectares (roughly 35 acres) of vineyard in Arribes , and has spun quite a telaraña of intrigue in the medieval village of Fermoselle on the banks of the Douro River. She produces three outstanding field blends in miniscule quantities: Her Pirita label currently includes a white and a red, and now, there’s a third—a highly concentrated and beautiful window dresser made only in years where all the viticultural stars align over her low-yield vineyards, where some of the plantings are over a century old.
On Tuesday evening, I had a chance to break bread with Charlotte Allen, and literally—our baguette was ideal substrate for the Cabecero de Lomo she brought from her new home town. This cured and marbled wonder, made from acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico pigs, was itself substrate for Charlotte’s conversation and why winemakers like her are (to schleps like me) the lifeblood of the industry: The columns write themselves.
We couldn’t get passed a bite of the embutido, for example, without her launching a story about the drunken, lecherous, eccentric Fermoselle butcher who made it, a local crank to whom ‘pork’ is a verb as well as a noun.
Anyway, once it was established that no tale was taboo, it was off to the races, which is not a reference to chasing bulls, included in the five minute video on Charlotte you can watch if my portrait of this fascinating British expat seems in any way incomplete. I’ll link it at the end.
She regaled me for an hour with tales of her learning curve, including mastering the lost art of mule-ploughing, required in her peculiar, ancient vineyards which contain no trellising and appear in photos as random, stumpy vines dotting a russet-brown plateau—her eleven parcels range from elevations of 1600 to 2600 feet, and some of it is totally inaccessible to tractors. She convinced a local vineyard manager to train her in the art of mulery, and—in her philosophy of doing everything herself, ‘from A to Zed’—mule-ploughed the vineyards, drawing the ire of her mentor when she insisted on instructing the Spanish-speaking mule in English.
“The mule was bi-lingual,” she jokes. “Amusing, because nobody else in Fermoselle is. In fact, most of them can barely speak Spanish.”
Descriptions of indigenous arrogance and naïvity, illogical traditions and funny, generally reality-challenged attitudes among her fellow Fermosellians forms the core of Charlotte’s conversational repartee; she loves to talk about their mendacity, their provincial pigheadedness, their steadfast self-confidence, but with the affection of one who has adopted the inhabitants of this strange, stark, hauntingly beautiful milieu as her home.
And nowhere is her ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ fatalism more evident than in the above referenced video, titled ‘My name is Carlota’.
She explains: “Because when I first arrived in Arribes I was driving a French car, the locals referred to me as ‘Carlota la Francesa’, even though I was not French and my name isn’t Carlota. And yet, so persistent were they, that’s how I now refer to myself.”
When In Rome…
…do as the Spaniards.
We also had a fascinating convo about the origin of the grapes she grows—seventeen varietals in all, only about three of which are likely familiar even to the most geeky wine scholar. Conventional wisdom suggests that Spanish varieties were planted by the Romans, setting up shop after whupping Carthaginian butt in the Punic Wars. But some of the more singular grapes on her property, Juan García, Puesta en Cruz and Rufete may be much older than that, with ancestry tracing back to the Phoenicians, who colonized the area a thousand years earlier.
Charlotte Carlota, with her deep-seated ambivalence (and perhaps subconsciously), sort of prefers this history: “The Romans hated the Phoenicians,” she quips. “Even as they learned from them.”
The varieties mentioned above, along with Malvasía, Godello and Bruñal form the base of her wines. She ferments each variety separately and does the blending afterward, although when asked why a certain percentage of this grape and a certain percentage of another make up the final brew, she’s apt to say, “Because that’s all I had,” not, “That’s how I wanted it.”
Indeed, Charlotte’s approach is extreme winemaking; an ongoing experiment—with only a handful of vintages under her belt, she’s learning, vintage by vintage, how to (not manhandle) womanhandle each grape, assessing the dish that each brings to the potluck and how the interplay of organoleptics works.
Pirita White, 2011, is a wine that seems to exude the odor of mature oak and all the myriad flavors associated therein. t I was both chagrinned and delighted to discover that the wine is wholly naked—unoaked. The predominant aroma of butterscotch, underscored by vanilla and appealing nuttiness is produced by the grapes—although which specific grape remains in question. The wine has an unctuous quality that Charlotte says has developed in the bottle; the light oily sensation on the palate, not unlike that of certain mature Gewurztraminers, coats the mouth and allows light green apple flavors and citrus notes to linger and mingle for a while. Light on acid, but heavy with personality, a final unusual scent arose from the wine after it had been open for an hour or so: An unmistakable whiff of shortbread cookies. It is, no doubt, the Brit coming out in the glass.
Pirita Red, 2012 offers an initial blast of licorice, something for which Charlotte credits Juan García—the grape, not the billion Spaniards who share the name. JG is grown almost exclusively in Galicia, Salamanca and Zamora, with Arribes acting as its unofficial ground zero; it’s hugely perfumed and makes a somewhat harsh wine when vinified alone, but when blended with Rufete and Bruñal (and here with a touch of Tempranillo) the wine becomes much rounder, fatter and more interesting.
Still, the tannins in the 2012 remain tight and have not yet settled in with the fruit, making the wine massive and chewy through the finish.
A better example of what bottle age does to la Francesa’s wines is seen in her eponymous label, Charlotte Allen, 2009. It displays a similar profile, albeit more intense, but with the addition of cellar years, the rough woody edges are sanded to a silken finish. The wine again opens with sweet licorice, this time gilded in bittersweet notes of chocolate. Buried deeply in the complex and spicy savoriness are bright black cherry notes, roasted coffee, and an appealing scent of cumin. An odd, but interesting note of paraffin emerges after half an hour in the glass, and the tension between the fruit and the spices plays well through the palate in a silken vibrancy.
The tannins—with all the time they needed to integrate—wrap up the package with only a light, and entirely appealing, impact.
Embedded for nearly a decade, now, Charlotte Allen retains her English whimsy—her sense of humor is as dry as her product and as crusty as the sediment her unfiltered wines may throw. But I believe that despite herself, she is slowly turning into a Spaniard, becoming imbued with the ancient wisdoms and irrational superstitions.
And emulate them.
Patty Hearst had it, and I think Charlotte Allen might have it too.
She now speaks Spanish like a native, pronouncing ‘Manzanilla’ (she also has five hundred olive trees) and ‘García’ like she’s missing her two front teeth. She forgets entire abstractions in English and has to ask our bilingual host how to explain them to me.
But most telling is her bio on the Dolega Group artisan winery fact sheet. It states: “Allen’s wines are not filtered; they are bottled with the new moon, so this is not necessary.”
Believing that wine will or won’t throw sediment based on the lunar cycle is not a British concept, trust me; not even when they were painting themselves blue and building villages in the middle of lakes. It is the superstition of an old and isolated tribe, the shibboleth of sharecroppers, the hoodoo of hayseeds.
For final proof, I say we wait until November 22 and see if she sends out invitations to her family back in England: That will mark the 420th anniversary of the Battle of San Juan in which Spain soundly defeated Sir Francis Drake and the British Navy.
If those invites show up, we’ll know for sure that she’s pulled a Patty Hearst—especially in she pronounces it ‘Heartht’.