Casa Castillo has come a long way in the 30 years since José María and his father took their vineyards back from the tenant farmers, and made their first wines. Now they are considered among the best in Spain, credited by Luis Gutiérrez in ‘The New Vignerons’, his book highlighting the most exciting winemakers in Spain today, as having: “Changed the perception of both Jumilla and Monastrell”. Luis awarded their Pie Franco 2020 a perfect 100 points in his recent Wine Advocate report, describing it as: “An exceptional vintage the finest they have ever produced”.
This is quite an achievement in a region like Jumilla, which has little ambition to make fine wine, and most production still sells in bulk. But José María has been on a journey since those early days, always learning and improving: being more scrupulous in the cellar; and putting his faith in grapes like Monastrell , Syrah and Garnacha which express this Mediterranean place better. Trying different things also applies to wines, if you follow his Instagram feed you’ll see a hit parade of Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, and others, how can you make great wine if you don’t know what you’re aiming for?
I caught up with Jose Luis Hernandez, who fell in love with Casa Castillo wines while working as a sommelier in the UK. Jose Luis returned to Spain to work harvest with José María during the pandemic, and when an opportunity arose jumped at the chance to join the team full-time as export manager in 2021.
Jose Luis (JL) – “I knew José María, my hometown is around 40 minutes from the winery, and I’d been a fan of the wines since I introduced the 2017 vintage of Pie Franco to the wine list at Hakkasan. I fell in love with Casa Castillo, it’s similar to my hometown, and I ‘get’ José María’s philosophy and approach to wine. [So when Hakkasan closed during the pandemic lockdown] I called him and asked if I could work as a harvest intern, to have the opportunity to see the whole process and learn”.
“José María is like an open book, you’re learning 24 hour a day, he’s always happy to share his knowledge”.
José María needed an extra pair of hands, but wasn’t in a position to take someone on at that point. Jose Luis returned for harvest in 2021, and after that he joined the team full time as export manager.
José María and his father started to replant with native varietals in 1985. I asked JL if these vines are hitting their stride now.
JL – “It’s not about vine age, it’s about having the right variety planted in the best place. In the past vines weren’t planted with quality in mind, there are some wineries in the area who have older vines, planted in unsuitable sites. At Casa Castillo 15-18 year old vines which were planted in the right place, with the right soils (for the variety), are producing amazing wines. They can compete with the older vines, sometimes they’re better”!
“We don’t carry a flag saying – old vines are best”!
And what has José María learned in terms of the best places for planting?
He has got to know the soils across the farm, which aren’t different to the rest of the area. It’s about his approach, he dry farms, and he’s changed the varieties. In the beginning they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, but the area is better suited to Mediterranean grapes – Monastrell of course, and Garnacha works really well.
“We’re not discovering anything, we’re following traditional methods: we look after our grapes”.
JL – “José María travels a lot, visiting wineries, trying different wines. That’s shaped his approach, he’s open to try different things. You have to be open minded, humble and gather information when you travel, be like a sponge. Doing this over the last 40 years, in the Rhone, Burgundy, Italy, has given him a global vision”.
[He’s looking for] “Precise, balanced, gastronomic wines which speak on the table”.
Monastrell has become a signature for the winery.
It’s not universally seen as a premium mono-varietal – but it has potential in the right place, and the right hands. Temperatures in Jumilla easily reach 32-35 degrees in the summer, but due to the altitude (around 750 metres above sea level) there is a high diurnal temperature range, which drops to around 20 degrees at night. “Without the diurnal range Monastrell would get too ripe, we’d have raisins”. They also harvest relatively early, which recently that has been the last week of August.
Jose Luis describes vinification at Casa Castillo as traditional. “Many other wineries do long extraction and macerations for Monastrell which (with its thick skins) makes it high tannin; it’s also high alcohol and you get baked flavours in the wine”.
They ferment in stone lagares (photo below). They keep around 20% whole bunch, it depends on the year, stems ripen in Jumilla, but you have to watch the amount so you don’t get an astringent wine. They put a layer of berries on the bottom of the lagar, which get crushed under their own weight and start to ferment aerobically, followed by a layer of whole bunches on top, which start to ferment semi-carbonically. Jose Luis says having both types of fermentation is key to their wine style. Fermentation is at high temperature, so the simple fruity aromatics evaporate. This gives a better representation of the terroir of the estate, the rosemary, pines and fig trees. The wine is transferred to old barrels to finish alcoholic fermentation. Other producers often use a lot of new oak, which masks the character of the variety, Casa Castillo haven’t bought a barrique since 2008.
Luis Gutiérrez writes about Continental and Mediterranean vintages in Spain, which give rise to different wine styles, tell me about the 2020 and 2021 vintages?
JL – “Jumilla has a continental climate, but is only a 45 minute drive from the Mediterranean, which has more influence on the vineyards in some years”.
The last two vintages, 2020 and 2021 have been perfect: rain in spring and just a little before harvest. This has given grapes with equilibrium, balance and precision, which comes across in the purity, balance and minerality of the wines”.
For José María, a medium to low yielding year is the perfect Mediterranean year, with freshness added by those rains.
What future plans do you have?
JL – “We’re in a good place with the winemaking. There is potential to grow the vineyards, 171 hectares of the 400+ hectare estate is currently planted, but we want to keep biodiversity, with olive and almond trees on the farm. We want to grow slowly and sustainably”.
José María has described the evolution of the estate as like a family tree. Each wine represents a moment in the history, parcel wines with a family connection. His grandfather planted the Pie Franco vines; his father Las Gravas; the family have got to know the land and respect it, and will leave it to the next generation who will hopefully make wine.
If you’d like to find out more about the project, and taste the 2019 and 2020 vintages José María and Jose Luis will be in London on 24-26 October, drop us a line if you’d like to taste with them.