A while ago we talked about Struggling Vines, the brand Melanie Hickman uses for producing her own wines. We will talk today with her about her passion for winemaking and life. She has written a book about what brought her from her natal USA to Rioja. It is a book more than recommended to be read.
Good morning, Melanie, and thank you for your cooperation. An Ohioan from small-town Prospect (population 1,000) came all the way, passing through Hawaii, to Elvillar, Alava, with an even lower population. How was such a big step in your life?
I left my hometown when I was 18 years old due to its constricting size. After years living in cities, ironically, my small-town roots in many ways prepared me for this time in my life. It was a bit of a shock at first but I love a good challenge. Where we live is like a little oasis of nature. I don’t require much and am happy with a simple life. We are surrounded by vineyards, animals and nature. I can ride the horses whenever I want. I think I’m pretty fortunate! The small things keep me content and grounded.
How did you get involved in wine in the first place?
I recall drinking wine in college and wanting to learn more. I took a very basic class at that time but no one around me had much interest, so I think like most, you start trying new things and learning little by little. I didn’t take wine seriously until Hawaii. That is when I started to make a real hobby out of it. I started taking more classes and by doing so my social life started to integrate with other like-minded people – often at a much higher level than mine which was to my benefit as I could learn from them.
David Sampedro and you, partners in life and in crime, produce a wide array of wines. Nevertheless, you produce four wines on your own: Phinca Hapa Blanco, Phinca Hapa Tinto, Phinca San Julián and you recently released Carrakripan. What is your objective with these wines, different from what you do with the rest of the wines David and you produce?
My wines generally spend less time in oak than David’s wines. I want wines that speak of the place, serious, yet are more fruit forward. They are more a reflection of my personality as well, I suppose. A bit lighter, fun yet with depth.
One day walking around town, you stepped into a vineyard that now is yours and its known as Hapa. What was so magic about it?
This will sound absurd to those who aren’t animal lovers but it took me a long time to heal after losing my dog. I recall feeling this internal drive to find something to memorialize him – as was promised by David … but that’s another story. From the outside he wasn’t the cutest dog, but internally he was beautiful. He was white pit-mix rescue and when I came upon a chalky white soil vineyard, planted with a significant amount of white grapes … I don’t know, it was a beautiful day and perhaps as he had done to me many years ago and called on me to rescue him, that vineyard did the same. In this case it was an externally beautiful vineyard needing be rescued from many years of harsh and toxic chemicals that come with conventional farming. I am a dangerous romantic as you can see.
You macerate all your white wines on the skins. Please tell us why do you do this and something about your Phinca Hapa Blanco.
We have always fermented our whites with the skins. Some wines and/or vintages only a few days while others spend the entire fermentation with the skin. Viura is not an aromatic variety and skin contact helps enhance its flavors and provide body to the wine. So I was familiar with skin contact but not extended maceration, I proposed a longer maceration with Hapa blanco. David was hesitant to simply leave the wine to macerate a long time without being accompanied by the chemical process of fermentation. He wanted to ensure the end product wasn’t faulty due to bacteria that can develop when the wine sits a long time with the sinks. We met in the middle and decided on a carbonic maceration white. It was a risky move as we couldn’t find any other winery that produced a carbonic maceration white wine, so it was a first to our knowledge. We place the whole bunch in a concrete tank and don’t crush the grapes. We don’t add commercial yeast so the fermentation process is longer, some years up to 60 days in the tank. We press when the juice is about 80% fermented and it finishes fermentation in its own time in large foudre.
First organic work in the vineyards, then biodynamic practices… what appeals you guys about biodynamic practices?
David converted his vineyards to organic in 1999 and learned about Biodynamics a few years later while working as a peon in France during harvest. At that time, he felt his vineyards were missing something in their conversion to organic. He wanted to see more biodiversity in the vineyards. He is a skeptic by nature but experimented with some applications and liked the results. We met in 2008 and our conversations about Biodynamic farming was one of the reasons we connected. He has a really profoundly beautiful environmental side to him that he doesn’t often expose.
Speaking for myself, personally I love the holistic nature of Biodynamics; looking at the farm as living organism and trying to understand and connect with the unique ecosystems within. Finding balance is key. It is a challenge for me, as it requires me to slow down and observe the gentle ebb and flow of nature, influence of the moon, stars and how that affects the parcels of land that I am fortunate to have under my care. So much of our world pulls us away from nature yet I find myself renewed in nature – it feeds my soul – while technology, and the like, drains me. Steiner spoke often of materialism, its connection to ego and how that degrades society. I feel we are in a bit of a spiritual crisis at the moment and need to shift our focus away from excess and ego towards community and the nature that gives us life.
Now you have in sight being certified as biodynamic winegrowers. What’s your aim with this certification?
This has been a goal for years, but it was impossible with only David and I handling everything between the two of us. We hired an office manager last year, which has lifted a lot of work from our plates. We have completed the certification process and recently received confirmation that we are officially “in conversion” for Demeter Certification. We decided to pursue certification as it lends credence to our labour and it’s a lot of hard work! Another item that is really important in the certification process with Demeter is they require a dedication of 20% of the project to biodiversity, which I believe is crucial to changing the monoculture system void of life, soil health and balance.
Any other further steps in sight?
I have strong opinions about biodiversity and how we should treat the land, so leading that charge is my priority. We’ve spent a lot of time, energy and money planting native aromatics as hedgerows. I want to take this one step further and start integrating more trees into our vineyards. I have approximately 70 saplings that I cultivated from the pits (seeds) of vineyard peaches (melacontones secanos) I collected from my San Julian vineyard. I will use these saplings to kickstart my project. I had the idea last year when David’s father drew my attention to the fact that one day these trees could be non-existent as farmers continue to focus on monocultural practices that no longer value trees in the vineyards. I still have some more research to do, but my goal is to plant them this winter. From there I would like to expand this idea as we learn. Starting with peach trees is a perfect marriage between biodiversity and providing food for my bees, another obsession of mine. I currently have four hives in two different parcels. I hope to catch new swarms next spring in some of my other vineyards that are rich with biodiversity. One in particular, El Vedao in Kripan, is the perfect setting. It is a vineyard we planted on abandoned terraces that we recuperated in 2020. It’s surrounded by a forest and last year we planted over 1,000 creping rosemary in the hedgerows separating the terraces. The idea is that once the roots take hold they will creep over and cover the tall growing weeds, thereby lessening the amount of labour needed in the vineyard while also providing forage for the bees.
How things are going for you guys with the new system of single vineyards wines?
For the moment, this is not a goal of ours. Although, it humors me because when it came out it was almost an exact fingerprint of our winery. Village and single vineyard wines have always been the core of our philosophy and many of our distributors have worked with us since inception so it really wouldn´t change anything. I’m happy to see it gaining popularity if it makes sense for the winery or grower. However, I personally equate it to more paperwork. We have registered most of our wines in “Vino de Municipio” but until I see light at the end of the tunnel in regards to administration, it won’t be at the top of my list.
Which kind of wine do you like to enjoy when it is not for working?
I love trying wines from all over the world. I tend to gravitate towards Jura but I often won’t open a bottle of it for me alone. I’d rather share it with friends. Recently, I’ve been re-exploring Pinot Noir from Oregon but it is harder to find small and interesting producers that export to Spain so what I can’t bring home in a suitcase, I leave for my travels.
Thank you very much for your collaboration, Melanie!!