How does a cellist decide to study regenerative agriculture in Cuba? And then how does that regenerative agriculturist decide to become a winemaker?
Then what do you do when you can’t afford to buy or rent a winery, but you want to make your own wine?
Build a modular winery. That’s what Julia Casado did.
What do you need to have in order to do all of the above things? Determination and a deep love for nature, both of which Julia has in bucketloads.
Julia was studying music in Germany at the same time as doing a degree in agricultural engineering. She wasn’t particularly interested in her degree, but wanted to see it through, and decided to do an agriculture-related internship.
“I thought it could be interesting to do an internship at a winery. Before that, I had no relationship to wine whatsoever. My family wasn’t into wine, and I wasn’t really a wine drinker.”
So, she took an internship with Weingut Josef Biffar in Neustadt (Pfalz). She had thought she’d mainly be in the laboratory, but she ended up doing a lot of cellar and vineyard work, too, and she found it fascinating. She was hooked enough to stop her music studies, instead deciding to study regenerative agriculture in Cuba.
“In Cuba, my feelings about music and about agriculture changed. That was the year I changed my mind about everything.”
She continued studying agriculture and took up additional studies in enology. She also studied Edaphology (the influence of soils on living things, namely plants). When she came back to Spain, it coincided with her winning a prize to work at the iconic winery in Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia for three months. After that, she went to work at several wineries in Argentina and Uruguay, then back to Spain, where she worked for wineries in Murcia for three years.
By the time she decided to start her own project, it’s safe to say that Julia had already done more than many achieve in a lifetime. But she was craving to farm vineyards her own way, and to make wines that reflected her own philosophies.
In 2015, Julia parted ways with her commercial winery job, to try her hand at making natural wines. She says,
“I had started to drink natural wines and to learn about the philosophies of those winemakers. Before, at university, we had always drunk technical wines. More and more, I felt that just wasn’t my thing.”
From her previous jobs, she had discovered a village called Bullas in Murcia. She decided that settling in southern Spain would be a good idea for her mission of regenerative agriculture:
“Here in Murcia, we usually have such healthy grapes. This year was so difficult in Catalunya, for example, due to powdery mildew. But here, vine sicknesses like that are quite rare, as they’re often related to humidity, whereas this region is dry. We’re very privileged when it comes to organic farming.”
She had seen many small plots of old vines there, learning that they were often owned independently, and decided that would be the perfect place for her to start her project. She took out a loan, built her modular winery with friends, and rented a tiny bit of land to put it on.
She met a man who owns a small vineyard located in a national park. Due to being in a protected area—resulting in the use of chemicals in agriculture being prohibited—it hasn’t seen any chemicals for over 20 years. It sits on a hillside at high elevation, on gravel soils, and is home to 50+-year-old vines; predominantly Monastrell (Mourvèdre), but also the white varieties Macabeo, Moscatelo and the very rare Valentí. It was perfect.
“I got to know the owner, and there were only a few adjustments that we needed to make in order for the farming to be where I’d like it—stopping tractor work, and no more green harvest for example. He was very open to farming in the regenerative way.”
The tractor was the key thing to go—but it was easy enough to convince the farmer, who had likely been using it more out of habit than necessity.
“I hate the noise of machinery. It’s a reserve, so if chemicals aren’t allowed, it must be the same for machines, as the noise disturbs the wild animals.”
Then, she also decided to stop any hedging of the vines, instead letting the tips of the shoots (the apex) continue to grow, tying the branches together.
“It’s relatively easy to farm the plot because of its location and soil—the winds dry the leaves and clusters naturally, and the gravel soils are free draining. We remove the weeds by hand, and leave the soil undisturbed. The plot doesn’t need you to work the soil. Then, I just observe, and let it be.”
The first wine Julia made, and the wine closest to her heart, is La del Terreno—the red from the plot on the nature preserve. Wanting to make more wine than what this tiny vineyard could give, she got in touch with the local cooperative winery in Bullas, who allowed her to work with a vineyard plot that is farmed without chemicals and to make that wine in their winery. Ergo Ninja Las Uvas!
“This is a way for me to collaborate with them [the coop]. It’s a way to make a co-working network, which is important for the area. Every year, more and more old vineyards are torn out and it’s very sad.”
That plot is also Monastrell, but very different—at even higher elevation and with younger vines. As the plot is more exposed, it gets more wind, resulting in thicker grape skins.
“Because the skins of the grapes are more rough from that plot, I think the wine better suits intracellular fermentation—as this makes it a bit softer—so we do whole bunch fermentation for that wine. The stems are always green; flexible and tender in that plot, whereas in the plot in Bullas, they’re always brown and woody. So for Bullas we destem.”
She has invented her own unique pressing process—that's to say, she doesn't actually need to press at all. The natural fermentation process begins in concrete and wood tanks, and she adds a touch of sulphites via vapour. Then, she waits for the skins to rise to the top of the tank, and without pressing at all, just lets the wine drain out, leaving behind the grape skins. Julia prefers it this way; it's both practical and less invasive.
For the first time, in 2020 she also made a rosé in collaboration with travelling winemaker Darren Smith. 2500kg of Monastrell grapes (from the same vineyard as Ninja Las Uvas) were destemmed and put into an amphora for 20 hours. Then, the juice was taken out and put into an egg-shaped tank, after which it was transferred to barrel.
It is a never-ending process of exploration, and it’s only just commencing. This year, Julia has moved to the border of Andalusia, to live in a community with other environmentally motivated young people who are working towards regenerative agriculture in their various sectors. Amongst them are an artisan beekeeper, a carpenter, a metalsmith, a rare breed cattle farmer and a herbalist. The plan is for them to collaborate and plant a vineyard together on the land.
“I only arrived three months ago, and we still need more time to sit down and work on the idea, but the idea is to plant Garnacha Fina, Garnacha Gris, Cariñena and Monastrell there, as well as other indigenous lesser-known white varieties. Then, we’d make experimental wines with students—to try to recover traditional ways to make the wines of the area. We can see from archaeological remains in amphorae that white wine was a tradition here too for example, but today that’s almost unknown.”
She is a woman on a mission, but it’s a mission of gentleness— both in the vineyards, and in the winery. Ever humble, she says,
“Every year is different. The one thing each vintage has in common is that I let the grapes be what they are.”
We know that the grapes are the best they can be due to her patience and relentless compassion.