Struggling Vines, a life journey through life

Struggling Vines

The day woke up cloudy and rainy, the weather you might expect in late winter on a Sunday morning beneath the slopes of Sierra Cantabria in Rioja Alavesa, some hilltops covered in snow; the wind was noticeable touring around the vineyards. You could point your nose towards it and feel it in both ears. Not an easy morning, but having the chance to walk around with Melanie Hickman made the weather bearable. We were strolling over Hapa’s vineyard, from its highest point slowly going down till we reached the horses’ shack. We were talking about Melanie’s life journey and how she ended up here in a tiny village in Rioja Alavesa. It has been a long journey, from her hometown Prospect, Ohio (population 1,000) in the United States, and then spending most of her adult life in the Hawaiian Islands where she worked for many years in the corporate world, which in her words “Hawaii fed her soul but the corporate world did not”.

Melanie is a very positive person, one of those who are always happy and smiling. One day she decided it was time for her to build a new life on the opposite side of the world leaving behind family and friends. Rioja Alavesa is the place her new life started back in 2011, though that’s a story for another day.

Hapa’s vineyard is a very special piece of land for her. She named the vineyard after the American Bulldog she adopted when she was living in Hawaii that never made it to see her new mission in life. This is a west-facing vineyard located in the outskirts of small-town Elvillar, Álava, with an altitude of 646 meters and a total of 2.9 hectares of white chalky limestone soil planted in 1967 with Tempranillo and Viura. An Old Roman road runs parallel to the vineyard. She fell in love with it the first moment she laid her eyes (and feet) on it. She knew she wanted to make wine with the grapes growing there, but the previous owner was not selling. Melanie had to wait to make her dreams come true. She was already married to Spanish winemaker, David Sampedro, and helping him running their boutique winery Bodegas Bhilar. She was entertaining thoughts about making her own wine. WSET-certified as she was, it was time for her to transition to winemaking. This time on her own, not just as sidekick to David. Hapa’s vineyard turned out to be the place she wanted, as she explained to me, she felt deeply connected to this particular vineyard. Nevertheless, back then in 2012 it was not yet her time. Some years later, opportunity knocked on her door, as it happens to those who stay on the path of pursuing their dreams. The vineyard was finally for sale. It was time to make one of those decisions that mark one’s life: she had to decide whether to pursue her dreams and risk investing all her life savings in that piece of land. And she went for it.

As a person connected to nature, animals and who shares David’s philosophy, she works this vineyard following biodynamic methods. They plough the land with the help of a horse and no machinery whatsoever is used. Out of this vineyard come two wines: Phinca Hapa Blanco and Phinca Hapa Tinto. She also produces another red wine, Phinca San Julián from the homonymous vineyard. San Julián is a small 0.6-hectare vineyard located on a steeply graded hill. It is a very secluded plot, away from the road and prying eyes. If you don’t know where to look, you will never find it. Pure limestone soils and an east-facing orientation keep the vineyard fresh and cool.

These are the two vineyards she works for her three wines. She is part of Bodegas Bhilar along with David, but these three wines come to the market under a label of their own: Struggling Vines.

Phinca Hapa Blanco is the white wine is 82% Viura, 12% Garnacha Blanca and 6% Malvasía. The grapes ferment with the skins in a 2,000-liter concrete vat for over two months. The wine is then pressed and placed in 600-liter French foudres for one year. In 2016, she produced 2,300 bottles.

Phinca Hapa Tinto is the red wine. A blend of 94% Tempranillo and 6% Graciano. Full clusters are fermented in concrete vats with indigenous yeasts. Following fermentation, the wine is pressed and matured in 500-liter French oak barrels for one year. In 2016, she produced 7,332 bottles.

Phinca San Julián is a blend of 77% Tempranillo, 14% Graciano, 2% Garnacha and 7% Viura. The grapes are hand selected and placed in open top barrels with the use of 40% full cluster. The wine is foot crushed and fermented without the addition of yeasts. It matures in 225-liter French barriques for one year. In 2016, she produced 960 bottles.

The production of these wines is the same: hand-harvest in 10-kg cases following a rigorous selection in the vineyard. A small amount of sulphur is only added prior to bottling.

I had the opportunity to taste the three wines and instantly fell in love with them. Melanie always loved David’s style of making white wines, which were, unbeknownst to them ‘Orange Wines’. They didn’t know the term ‘Orange wine’ until a visit to present their wines in NYC in 2014 and whilst David was explaining how he crafts one of his white wines, a sommelier told them they are making ‘Orange Wines’. After the appointment they did a google search to understand the meaning. Melanie wanted to take this one step further and make her Hapa wine with extended skin contact beyond fermentation. Hence, the two months of maceration that makes tasting this wine a silky experience. The wine is very fine and elegant, with barely a noticeable touch of wood and with a structure and tannins I simply love. Hapa red is also a very nice wine, well-balanced with the use of concrete vats and big barrels that make the wine show a distinct and particular soul that you can just adore. Finally, in a glass of San Julián you can discover the soil it comes from, the minerality and the spirit of a biodynamic wine.

Melanie’s wines are really good wines and also hard to find, due to the limited production that is mostly exported. But more importantly, they reflect the passion and drive of a person who crossed half of the world pursuing her dreams, not only about winemaking but about finding a new life.

Soon we will talk to Melanie Hickman about her wines and winemaking philosophy.