"When I first arrived in Bierzo, the place felt so magical. The people were working with their hands and feet. I fell in love. It's more a style of life than it is a job."
After a stint studying science—chemistry, to be precise—Verónica Ortega soon realised that it wasn’t the inside of a laboratory where she longed to spend her days. In fact, it was quite the opposite kind of scientific playground that she had in mind.
Verónica didn’t grow up amongst winemakers. Her path to the vines was part and parcel (pun intended) thanks to a realisation that there was another type of chemical reaction that piqued her interest. After her first harvest in the magical vines of Priorat—under the esteemed guidance of Álvaro Palacios and Daphne Glorian—Verónica fell head over heels with the world of winemaking and, in her own words, “never went back to [her] place again. Just for the holidays!”
Meet Verónica Ortega
Verónica grew up in sunny Cadiz—a region famed for its production of sherry. Though her family were not winemakers, she understood from a young age that at the very heart of sherry-making (and later, wine) you’ll always find people, tradition and culture.
“In my mind the wine world was something similar—a product that’s linked to the area, to the tradition and to the culture of a place. It felt like something very artisanal... a kind of mystery world.”
After finishing her studies in chemistry, it hadn’t yet occurred to Verónica that this mystery world was accessible to her. Not convinced by the promise of days spent in a lab, Verónica began to search for a second course which would allow her to diversify her knowledge. It was after stumbling upon a new degree—winemaking—that she realised there was an alternative type of science that would allow her to use her studies for the good of the planet (and the people…)
“After first getting in touch with the wine world, I fell in love. Afterwards, I just wanted to learn and travel as much as possible: to get to know as many different regions, to work with as many good people as possible; to learn as much as possible.”
Verónica’s background as a winemaker is impressive. She learnt the ropes with Daphne Glorian and Álvaro Palacios in Priorat, followed by stints at Burgundy’s mythical Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Comte Armand. She also delved into the land of Syrah with Domaine Laurent Combier in Crozes-Hermitage, and harvest hopped to New Zealand to work with one of the New World’s most esteemed biodynamic domaines: Burn Cottage. Above all, however, it’s Verónica’s optimistic and driven outlook which has helped her to succeed amongst some of the most revered wineries.
“Álvaro Palacios helped me to get the placement [at DRC]. He sent a letter to Aubert de Villaine; he was very convincing, clearly, because it’s very rare to get a place there through a letter. I’m sure that Aubert de Villaine receives millions of letters from millions of people all over the world wanting to send their daughter or son to work in his vineyards, so I was very, very lucky.”
Was it luck, or was it a particular drive and talent that Álvaro and Aubert saw in her? We’re inclined to say the latter. After a short while working at DRC, Verónica was offered an extended stay (for the record - for as long as she wanted). That’s not something that happens by luck. She stayed until just before Christmas, after which she returned briefly to Spain to see her family. Rejuvenated and ready to get back to the hustle, Verónica returned to Burgundy; this time to assist Benjamin Léroux.
“I wanted to stay for another year – a whole year working with him in Burgundy in the vineyards and in the cellar, to learn a little bit more about their amazing work with Pinot, their vineyards and their wines.”
With ample knowledge under her belt and a fire in her belly, it was time for Verónica to decide where to lay her roots. Travelling often between France and Bierzo, visiting her friend and mentor Raúl Pérez and working in his winery, she soon realised that Bierzo felt like home. There are many elements which make the region interesting to a winemaker; lots of very old vines, and mild weather with an Atlantic influence, bringing freshness and delicacy to the grapes. But for Verónica it was mostly a feeling which brought her there;
“The most important thing that brought me to Bierzo was the profile of the wine. I felt that these wines were very similar to those I had imagined in my mind.”
“One of the treasures of Bierzo is definitely the old vines. We’re one of the areas in Europe with the oldest vines. That is very important to us.”
Verónica’s first plot—Roc—is a small, modest parcel in Valtuille – not far from that of her friend and mentor Raúl Pérez. In fact, it was Ricardo Palacios, nephew of Álvaro Palacios, who offered Verónica her first vineyard. “It’s an old vineyard with a very strong personality”, she muses.
“After that, once I was here working, people started to get to know me. I was taking on more and more vineyards every year. For me, it’s very important to test the grapes first, to decide and see.”
Verónica has gradually pieced together her parcels, noting that, although there are lots of beautiful vineyards full of old vines, there are also many old winemakers in the region who are reticent to part with their vines;
“There are still a lot of old viticulturists here that are still working by hand. To find one you have to look for the people who are the owners of the vineyards, and talk to them.”
Due to the heritage of the region, the plots are small and divided up; a little like Burgundy. In one plot there could be as many as ten farmers – each one the owner of a small piece of the vineyard.
For Verónica, the main charm of Bierzo’s vineyards is Mencía – “the Queen of the grapes”. The vineyards in the region have historically been co-planted to different grape varieties. For example, in one small plot you can find Palomino, Doña Blanca, and a little bit of Verdejo. There are also black varieties, notably Mencía (with twelve different heritage selections!). Unusually, some parcels are planted to both black and white varieties.
“They are all very old vines – so you find huge differences from one parcel to the next - obviously because of the terroir, the situation, altitude, position... Mencía is a very good grape for showing this because it’s very transparent. It will quickly show you any differences or issues between the plots.”
Verónica also works in Cobrana. There, her winemaking style is partially influenced by the old techniques of the area. A small village at a higher elevation, the grapes are usually picked two weeks later than in Valtuille. In Cobrana, however, the historical custom is to de-stem all of their grapes (unlike Verónica, who uses stems). As she tells us this, she laughs, adding;
“It’s funny because they have one de-stemmer for the whole town, and they share this one de-stemmer every day. They have to coordinate harvest times in order to share it.”
“I like honest wines with energy inside. Not just clean, but something with imperfections and soul: a wine which will move something inside you.”
Since the very beginning, Verónica’s approach to winemaking has been driven by her desire to authentically represent the charm of Bierzo. Her aim, for the most part, is to create wine that perfectly reflects the variety of the area and climate and, of course, the history of the people too.
Verónica’s Cobrana exemplifies how the covinification of white and black grapes can create something inherently special;
“I’ve done this since I arrived. There’s just a touch of white inside – around 6 or 8%. It’s always been really fun to put some white in the red, because it gives the wine a little more agility. It gives it a little more lightness... it becomes delicate.”
“The real inspiration behind Cobrana came when I arrived in Cobrana town, and found that the vineyards there are more mixed. Red and white are co-planted. In Bierzo, we have a small quantity of mixed grapes but in Cobrana, the vineyards are sometimes 50% white/red mixed. The local people are still making their own wine to drink at home, and they’re still using the same old style of vinification.”
Whilst her style is not an exact mirror of this technique, it’s not far off. Picking all of the grapes together, she puts everything into an oak tank with 100% whole bunches. She first crushes the grapes, then leaves them for three days for the fermentation to begin naturally. The maceration period is long—sometimes up to 28 days. The grapes are covered in liquid at this point, swimming and floating around in juice.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a way to avoid obstruction and do something slowly. You decide for yourself the exact point that you want to stop.”
Her style of winemaking varies depending on the style she wishes to make.. For Quite (her entry level Mencía) she destems:
“I destem when I want to make a wine that’s more accessible—easier to drink—something ready at the beginning of summer without intense structure, just something that’s fresh and full of fruit.”
For Roc, her technique has evolved. In 2016, she decided to start using whole bunches. Before that, it was 50% whole bunch, and 50% de-stemmed. She notes,
“It’s a wine that has a powerful structure to it already, so I was afraid initially that it would be too much.”
For Cobrana and Kinki, it was a no brainer—since the profile of the Mencía grape lends itself so well to using whole bunches.
“The stem holds the wine, gives it some freshness, but for me it’s most important for the structure. In the long term, after it has aged, the wine becomes much more complex and elegant. When you’re working with Mencía, you need to give it a little more time to get there. But once it does, it’s much more elegant.”
An intriguing facet of Verónica’s vision is her use of amphorae. Her passion for slow, considered winemaking and fresh, delicate wines is reflected in her decision to work with these large clay vessels, alongside oak barrels.
“What I love about amphorae is that they move the wine very slowly: both the evolution and the maturation. Some tanks are very oxidative and they work your wine too much. The amphorae are not porous, and also very big – they hold almost 800 litres. I prefer to work with this size as you find you have less influence of the oxidation because you have a larger volume of liquid.”
It was after her first vintage of Quite, in 2014, that Verónica started working with these vessels. She had an urge to create something more easygoing, slightly lighter than Roc. Not a young wine, but something a little lighter.
“The porosity of the clay allows the wine to slowly ferment, while keeping lots of fruit.”
The golden question: amphora or barrel?
“When you’re trying the same grape from both the barrels and the amphorae, the amphorae are much more salty than the barrels. But what I prefer, if I had to decide, is a blend of both. Everything ends up adding something.”
She might have trained at some of the world’s most esteemed wineries, but Verónica Ortega has carved out an approach to winemaking that is entirely her own. With a respectful yet innovative approach to old techniques; this is slow, considered winemaking at its best.