A day in the life, harvesting and making Natural wine in el Matarraña, a natural process from soil to bottle.

natural wine in el Matarraña

7.45 a.m., we have already fed the chickens, horse, cats and dog. We topped up all the water bowls and buckets too. The generator has plenty of fuel in case the clouds roll in and snuff out the solar panel collectors. It is time to start on the first of the annual vendimia grape-picking forays into el Matarraña, a natural park in the interior of Eastern Spain. This day’s sortie will be different to that experienced by most commercial grape pickers. After a morning’s short, sharp, rich picking, we will be processing the grapes too. Naturally grown grapes will be pressed and left to ferment with no added yeast. This is going to be a day of natural winemaking as it is supposed to be: natural from start to finish.

Little known natural wine in el Matarraña, a little known wine growing region

Lest we forget, Spain is a world leader in natural wine. However, apart from the odd reference in the international press to the Tuscany of Spain, you probably haven’t heard of el Matarraña, let alone sampled any wines, natural, organic or industrial, from this area. You can put this unfortunate state of affairs down to a combination of inability and unwillingness of locals to market their secret sauce to the wider world. This is not a trait reflected in the neighbouring Terra Alta region. Natural winemakers like Laureano Serres in El Pinell de Brai and Finca la Despeinada in Bot are starting to make significant inroads into the impregnable French market.  And the natural wine scene in el Matarraña is on the rise.

The plan

It is the first week in September, we are going to pick garnacha negra and macabeu grapes. The vines are grafted atop the phylloxera resistant American rootstock. (Phylloxera is a microscopic insect.) All-in-all these vines have benefited from a fortunate combination of climate, natural winemaker management and zero pesticides and fungicides. In truth, not a single ecocide potion masquerading as ‘necessary for good wine-making’ has been applied on the vineyard we are going to.

The grapes will purely be the result of nature, hand pruning, and one cursory run of a tractor in the spring. That single ploughing of the biologically rich topsoil was itself deemed one too many by the winemaker. It was however beyond their control at this time. (The owner still insists on ploughing, as he has planted oaks inoculated with truffle spores between the vines. This is part of their plan to increase the financial potential of the land.)

It goes without saying though, that no human has played a role in the soil quality 3m down and deeper, nor the altitude at around 600m and higher. The effects of unpredictable winter, sudden summer storms and 300 days of sun have certainly been in the laps of the gods.

En route to the vineyard, the source of natural wine in el Matarraña

el Matarraña

Driving cross-country to the vineyard, we pass through olive and almond groves, pine forest and rolling fields of cereals and alfalfa. A new hay or straw stack has appeared out of nowhere since last week. We spot the occasional terrace of tended, semi-tended or downright abandoned garnacha, peeking through the multi-hectare monoculture patchwork. These tiny vineyards seem like a last ditch effort to bring diversity to a one-track farming culture covering every square centimetre around here.

small scale vineyard el matarraña

As ever in the farming world, times are a-changing in the way the land is being exploited and scaled. But one underlying factor is set in stone: will a change make us more money?

Traditional and Natural Landscape?

The typical picture postcard scene in this olive country is orange clay terracing thrice-yearly ploughed, planted up at a generous 50 rain-fed trees per hectare.

olive grove el matarraña

Often hundreds of years old, the olives are pruned for harvesting manually with poles or electric fingers, and nets. Likewise, vineyards are of a scale from consumo personal (for personal consumption only, Mr Customs and Excise man) up to a hectare. They are arranged in straight lines 2m apart, but rarely with a guiding pole nor wire in sight. Traditional winegrowers allow their vines to grow independently, as gnarled and lean as nature dictates. And invariably they bring out the plough two or three times a year, to prevent other plants competing with their vines.

vineyard el matarraña

Almonds, less present than an olive, but a stunning shade of green after the stunning Spring time blossom, also fill hectares of terracing. These typical Spanish vistas may look wonderful through the un-invested tourist eye, but that eye is likely misinterpreting ‘tradition’ and ‘natural’. For the most part, neither traditional nor natural need apply here.

Little room for traditional in highly invested modern farming

Like most places in the world, we hear that inputs are up, resilience down, output is no less unpredictable. There is barely a fertilising farm animal to be seen in the wild. Dependency on modern farming inputs is in plain sight from grain silos to machinery that sprays liquid, intensive-farmed animal manure. There seems to be no producer of any fruit capable of leaving their blessed tractor and plough at home. John Deere must employ the best sales force on earth. The farm co-op warehouses demonstrate the power of Big Ag to convince farmers to apply phyto-sanitary products by the sackload.

ecological vineyard el matarrañaThere are social, environmental as well as economic consequences to a relentless multi-decade marketing push to grow at scale. Rural depopulation is a major issue, España vacía. In essence, the economics of agriculture has led to the abandonment of smallholdings. Some are bought up and added to a larger farmer’s stock, but most parcels are isolated, and commercially unviable in the 2020’s. Untended, the land gets overgrown, and is eventually taken over by forest, which attracts visiting humans who end up responsible for 9/10 forest fires. Once productive land becomes a fire risk.


Over the last 50 or more years, farmers have grown accustomed to keeping their land immaculately ploughed, and quote all sorts of justifications, including fire and efficiency. Therefore it is no easy ride for any landowner who understands the importance of biodiversity, and dares reject industrial practices and lets Nature in, to add resilience to their soil and crops. They will likely hear mention of the word guarro.

Guarro is not a nice word, especially if you are sensitive enough to take minimal-intervention pride in your eco olive grove or natural vineyard. The first time, it can be more than annoying to listen to the neighbour’s uninvited critical opinion. Especially when you know that the produce resulting from your hands-off approach is exceptionally nutrient-rich and cheaper to produce compared to their semi-industrial fare. But nobody should try to change minds that won’t be changed. You move past the criticism quickly and get on with letting Nature prove her point far better than you ever could.

Conflicting trends

There is no doubt that the age of the artisan is also upon us. However, the output from small artisanal groves and vineyards, in this area at least, is fundamentally on the decline, both in numbers of hectares and as a proportion of overall agricultural production. The tray of marbles that is ‘agricultural trends’ has tilted once again, this time in favour of olive demand. Consequently, forest and grape vines of the ages are being literally ripped out the ground, and subsumed into industrial-scale, often irrigated olive groves. Such is the price of progress.

We drive along a newly asphalted road, a veritable runway to the countryside. We pass through one of the few commercial vineyards locally. An unspoken feeling of ‘oh dear’ fills the car. Another of nature’s gifts repackaged into a sprawling mega-hectare monoculture, reliant on machinery, cheap labour and assorted potions.

Ecological production is nudging back in el Matarraña

Around another bend, we are blinded by a potential shining ray of hope in a land of diminishing water supplies. It is a run of eco-looking fields of rain-fed olive trees. Hectares of empeltre re-shaped like wine flutes, are laid out in immaculate mowed rows. This is the stuff of new age, picture-perfect mass production. Piles of cow manure mark several graveled country roads heading off the main asphalt artery into the campo. Maybe the world is becoming a better place, one eco exploitation at a time.

Only time will tell of the benefits of progress. Will we be toasting huge piles of slowly decomposing cow manure of presumably eco origin, shipped in from who knows where in 40 feet containers forged from Chinese steel? There is talk of an eco pig silage processing plant in a nearby town. The cynic might assume that they are filtering waste from overflowing lagoons through rose-coloured spectacles. Will these kinds of developments really mark a change in the health of produce emanating from this area?

We follow the road, realising that some of those spanky new eco olive trees are now growing on what used to be an old established vineyard of moscatel. Around the next corner our chit-chat is interrupted. The familiar, nose-assaulting bouquet of suspiciously antibiotic pig shit brings us down to earth!

Natural wine in el Matarraña, the key to unlocking the eco food market?

The Bajo Aragón region prides itself in its culinary products. There is a growing demand for organic and eco food. The term ‘artisan’ is on many consumer lips now. We know the wine from the vineyards harvested by our friend is the benchmark in beyond ecological. Is it a stretch that maybe natural wine should spearhead the whole drive for fantastic natural produce across the board? After all, every chef tries to pair a wine to their food. With vegetarian and vegan demand growing, wine is the one common factor in all stripes of diet and dish.

Start harvesting macabeu grapes

grape picking in el Matarraña

We meet up with the person responsible for pruning and harvesting the six, 100-metre rows of white macabeu vines. Word had it that as recently as three days ago, it was race on, man v wildlife. The chances of a bountiful harvest were diminishing by the day as javalí wild boar, munched their way through the fruits of someone else’s labour. Nobody in their right mind expects to cultivate land in the middle of nature and not have to share with the local wildlife, but… When wildlife can’t picture 10% for them, the rest for us, it can get a little ugly with the us, and javalí can become the enemy. Control comes in many forms, from lion’s pee, to human hair, to motion-sensor stadium lighting, to dogs and men with guns. Or you can simply ask a few friends to help speed up the harvest, so that man wins the race and nobody gets hurt.

We unload a dozen or so crates and four capazos (42-litre plastic builders buckets). Most are black, but we have a couple of very dashing coloured ones too. With a pair of secateurs each, armed to the teeth, we are ready. It is a little tense, as are most initial moments, everyone anxious to get on with it, but needing to get bearings in an unfamiliar place. The youngest in the group, a ‘tenager’ with a hunger to die for, makes us all stand and reconsider our priorities. We obligingly munch on a sandwich, chocolate pretzel and a swig of water before splitting up, energized, into vague teams.

Would rain stop play?

It rained quite heavily the day before. There are mutterings from the senior citizens. If it is like any other natural vineyard they have ever been to, it is going to be a battle through a sodden mesh of overgrown vines, brambles and assorted local flora. But a combination of strong sun, a light wind and that single ploughing many months ago has worked in our favour. It is going to be quite an easy run for harvesters battle hardened on semi-abandoned and abandoned vineyards.

The boss man, because however you spin it, you do need one person to call the tune, makes sure there is some sort of cohesive method. One starts at the end of a row, another in the middle, a couple of crates in the vicinity, grab a capazo, off you go.

Different strokes

Like any physical activity, it is interesting to observe how different people work. This is no exception. Four or five people display four or five different styles. One super-conscientious and fast, one super conscientious and less speedy. Another is less able to be conscientious and employs the services of the shorter, sharper-eyed 10-year old to make sure nothing has been left behind. Then there is the boss.

He operates in a higher gear, here, there and everywhere, keeping the gang on track. Does everyone have a crate nearby? He is either distributing them personally or shooting a gentle reminder to the unofficial crate lugger. When not cutting twice as many bunches as the rest, he is dropping gems of information into the conversation. From the nuance of grapes versus raisins in the wine-making process, to the need to keep the filled crates in the shade to delay any fermentation. He shares that one day he is going on a pilgrimage to Georgia (not USA), the mecca of natural wine. Like a horseless general, he lightly scurries off like a shot with a full or empty crate, asking anyone he encounters on the way how it’s going. The picking stays methodical and relentless.

Rapid progress through the vineyard

grape picking in el Matarraña

Progress is rapid, and yields far more than the boss forecast on his earlier reconnaissance trip. Somehow more grapes have decided to show up. The ignorant among us don’t quite grasp how that works, but we aren’t complaining. Not all vines are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Some of the macabeu vines seem laden and the bunches easy to spot, cut and drop into the bucket. However, there is plenty of scarcity amongst the abundance too. Occasional vines have grown, trapped in veins of poor soil with poor water retention. In the garnacha negra vineyard next door, grapes are draping in huge multiple bunches from every vine.

Overall, the small but super tasty white grapes cooperate and we transfer the spoils of the buckets into crates. Eventually we fill eight in less than a couple of hours, with very few bitter raisins in the mix. We make sure to bury the full crates in shade, the heat in the full sun steadily growing to the high 20’s.

It has gone well, and again confirms my thesis that if you can work in 2-hour concerted bursts, there isn’t much a well-organised team cannot accomplish. After all, our antecedents from thousands of years before commerce and efficiency would only work a couple of hours a day. They had as much food and fun as a human could cope with. At the end of the day we are there to strip the vines of their fruit and preserve them in the form of wine. The sooner we leave the plants bare, the sooner the processing can begin.

More grapes before noon

After a two-minute conflab, “Shall we shan’t we?” we stumble and stride into a neighbouring vineyard, and strip a few vines of garnacha negra. Picking both crops on this one trip makes better sense than making two journeys. With the extra hands, we will be on the road well before the midday heat starts to play with the grapes and the boss’ head. Back at the bodega, many hands will make light work of de-stemming the white and pressing the red.

Natural farming of grapes is productive

We learn that this white grape harvest has produced a 25% higher yield than the previous year, testament to careful pruning and a good combination of rain and sun. Two years ago we saw almost twice the average rainfall. This year, despite a winter drought, a summer drought and prolonged heat, the rains in March were enough to sate the grape vines. Unfortunately the same Spring rain drowned the life out most of the local almond trees. Suffice to say, there has been water in the ground, at least within reach of tenacious macabeu roots.

Back to the bodega to make Natural wine in el Matarraña

On the way back to the bodega, the mood is buoyant and bubbly. It has been a productive morning. En route we are going to stop off for cold beers and pick up food from the allotment for lunch. Wine-making is as much a social as a labour-intensive activity! Despite my advancing years, I also learn that fresh air through open windows is far better at cooling grapes than hi-tech air conditioning. Or better put, the fresh air outsmarts my understanding of how to work the damn AC dials.

hay stack el matarraña

Not all natural wine is equal

At its core, human-scale natural wine making is simple. You harvest naturally grown grapes by about noon, and get them back to a cool stone bodega, de-stem by hand, and press by foot. Having said that, you can only call it natural wine if your natural-farmed grapes ferment without any sort of artificial yeast. Commercial growers would say it is too risky to rely on the grapes to ferment without help! Contrary to that viewpoint, the pressed grape juice from this bodega is devoid of all and every additive that conventional winemakers say are essential for success. It ferments under its own steam, no fails in several years.

In a good batch of stunning natural wine, you can leave 90+ industry-standard chemicals, including sulphites, the silent headache hangover pill, in the laboratory. And at this artisanal scale, you avoid the complexities of machinery, refrigerated trucks, computer-aided workflow management, climate-controlled warehousing and sulphites. That type of wine making is the domain of enterprises invested in mass production, industrial scale exports and profit maximisation.

A good day out making natural wine in an el Matarraña vineyard

The stone bodega has 100 new litres of red garnacha wine sitting in a stainless steel tank with an inflatable seal lid, about to start fermenting naturally. The white grapes are in a 250-litre plastic bidón water tank waiting for pressing. The bottles are ready, the labels done. It is a process, a natural process.

Natural wine like this is not booze, it is food that winemakers grow in harmony with nature and doesn’t give you hangovers. It really is made with love, care and attention!

Thanks for reading about our day out in the land of Natural wine in el Matarraña

If you are interested in any aspect of natural wine in el Matarraña, please contact the winemaker, Xogorka … xogorka@tutanota.com

About us

This article is from Asociación Mas del Puch. It is part of our brief to raise awareness of traditional artisanship in Aragón, Spain. We share many of the values of the natural winemakers.

Our main mission is to restore the biodiversity on a small olive grove. Til 4 years ago, the farmer used tractors, ploughs and occasional industrial NPK fertilisers. We have demonstrated over several years the efficacy of our approach. Sow nitrogen-fixing ground cover, allow managed intensive grazing, and use zero chemical inputs. Improvements in tree health, yields, plus the explosion in plant, insect and birdlife is self evident. The end to soil erosion is marked.

Not-for profit association

ecological olive groveWe rely on donations to fund our development work in a consistent manner. It is not that we are work shy, but financially we are on our own with this one. There is not enough land to be commercial olive growers, and access to PAC/CAP grants is beyond our reach too. We hope to meet enough good people outside of farming who grasp the importance of what we are doing. By helping us out with funding, we can purchase materials, do the necessary work ourselves and share that knowledge openly. More here

If any of this strikes a chord, and you feel moved to help the project progress, please check us out on https://masdelpuch.org