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Born in 1986, Carmelo launched Bien de Altura at the age of 30 with a clear goal: to revive Gran Canaria's wine growing potential and recover the large number of old vineyards that are being abandoned despite the paradoxical chronic shortage of grapes on the island, which currently has some 200 hectares under vine and just over 100 producers, most of them for self-consumption.
Despite his youth and no family tradition, Peña has solid experience in the world of wine. He studied chemical engineering, but since his dream was to have his own restaurant, he decided to combine his degree with catering and sommelier courses. Having acquired a taste for wine, Peña enrolled in oenology at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, where he met Luis Pedro Cándido da Silva (now winemaker at Niepoort and member of the family that owns Quinta da Carolina), who convinced him to go there for the harvest. He liked the experience with Dirk Niepoort so much that he ended up staying at the Douro for two years. After some time in Bierzo working with Raúl Pérez, he returned to Gran Canaria where he met organic producer Cristina Millán, owner of Bodega San Juan in Santa Brígida, where he consults and makes his own wines.
As it happens in other islands of the archipelago, buying a vineyard in Gran Canaria is prohibitively expensive, so Peña is happy to purchase grapes from local growers and lease about 1.5 hectares. The area he likes is San Mateo, in the northeast of the island, where he farms old vineyards on steep slopes at an elevation ranging from 1,100 to 1,460 metres. There, the fresh and humid wind blows from the northeast, and unlike the vineyards further south or at lower locations such as Bandama, the traditional growing area, the vines can be dry-farmed. Moreover, as in San Mateo the sea of clouds stays below the vines, he only needs to apply a couple of hands of sulphur. On the plots facing north, Peña's preferred orientation, the grapes are harvested up to 12 days later and with two degrees below those facing south. The grapes are harvested in boxes and transported on rails with a motor, similar to the system used in Ribeira Sacra.
He launched Bien de Altura in 2017 starting out with his island wines, a white and a red called Ikewen, a word whose pronunciation in the Amazigh language of the Berbers, the original inhabitants of the island, means origin. Their labels, featuring a person's feet after treading on grapes, leave no one indifferent.
Ikewen red 2020 (around 4000 bottles) is a blend of grapes from three plots in a site called Lomo de la Sepultura in San Mateo. Vines are over 80 years old, predominantly Listán Negro, some Listan Prieto and a potpourri of indigenous white varieties with different orientations. Each plot is vinified separately, part with stems, with macerations of 40-45 days. He treads the must with his feet once a day and favours long macerations with little extraction "to try to get a light wine with fine tannins and depth". Low in alcohol and easy to drink, without filtering or clarifying, Peña achieves a fresh and very elegant wine, with a distinctive character that sets it apart from the Listán wines of Tenerife or Lanzarote. The only barrel he made of Ikewen white 2019, which is under a veil of flor, is still in the cellar.
Peña, who supports the creation of a land bank by the local administration to encourage interaction between vineyard owners and people who want to cultivate their land, is always on the lookout for vineyards in San Mateo. With no small effort, he has managed to help in the farming of Viña de La Lechuza, a beautiful property that looks like a garden with orange and plum trees and 120 year old vines of Listán Negro, Tintilla, Vijariego Negro, Vijariego Blanco and some Moscatel. With all these grapes, except the Moscatel, he made a red wine called Tidao (union, in Amazigh, 800 bottles, about €30) in 2019, which has just been released. The winemaking process, which includes some stems and long macerations, is fairly complex as he split the slopes from the plains to apply what he learnt about soils from Pedro Parra in Chile. Peña, who ages the wine for about eight months in three Niepoort barrels, has managed to make a serious wine suitable for cellaring.
One of his last "bailouts" is a 110 year old plot planted, like the rest of his vineyards, with ungrafted vines. It had been abandoned for so long that the plants dig themselves into the ground to sprout again, becoming an example of survival against the odds. Facing north and at an elevation of 1,200 metres, the owner told him that some of the vines were brought from Cuba.
After a diligent and laborious pruning, he plans to plant some white vines to ensure the supply every year and to study the volcanic soil with clay on the topsoil on this steep vineyard. All this work is done despite renting the vineyard and with no prospects of being able to buy it. "I won't be picking grapes here for a further three years, but we can't let this die," explains Peña. "There are no subsidies to preserve this heritage, although there are to convert these plants into trellised vines. In the face of such a situation, we have to accept it, but we also need to have the courage to believe that this is the way forward and that someone must lay down the foundations for others to follow”.
Peña, who was winemaker at Puro Rofe in Lanzarote until 2021, has a small project called El3mento with his good friend Luis Pedro in Douro. They make two wines together, one in the Douro and the other in Gran Canaria, both with natural fermentations, long macerations and from old vineyards at high elevations. They make about 1000 bottles of each at a price or around €35).
In addition to his consulting services, and although at Bien de Altura is in charge of everything from viticulture to invoicing, Peña has found some time to develop his website in partnership with several local artists who are helping him to narrate the history of Gran Canaria through wine.
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