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Reviving Ancient Spanish Vineyards, Building New Traditions

NAVARREVISCA, Spain — Old vineyards dot the landscape surrounding this village about an hour west of Madrid. But to find the tiny, astounding Rumbo al Norte vineyard, where 70-year-old garnacha vines grow on granite and sandstone slopes threaded with quartz and strewn with gigantic boulders, you not only have to know someone, you have to earn their trust.

For as long as anybody can remember, old vineyards like this one in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos mountains have been cherished by a dedicated few, who nurtured the vines through hot summers and cold winters. The work was exhausting, especially in the years before automation and automobiles. Simply getting to the vineyards, which can approach 4,000 feet above sea level, was an arduous project. Even today, they are tended almost entirely by hand.

The reward? For decades, the garnacha, as grenache is known in Spanish, went to the local cooperative, which made bulk wines that ended up in anonymous blends. Many growers lost money on their vines. But their attachment to the land was deep, transcending economics.

Beyond the elderly caretakers, whose children were seldom interested in carrying on their stewardship, not many valued these old vineyards. Twenty years ago, the few commercial wineries in the area were planting cabernet sauvignon and merlot on the flatlands in an effort to appeal to international markets.

Many of the old vineyards have been abandoned over the decades. You can sometimes see traces of them, their ancient stone terraces fading back into the hillsides. Only in the last decade has it become apparent that the area could offer agricultural riches to those willing to seek them out.

Nobody has searched harder for these old vineyards than Fernando García and Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi, two 40-ish men who make fresh, precise, delicate wines under the curious label Comando G. And nobody has worked harder to demonstrate that the grapes from these vineyards could make world-class wines.

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Over the last 10 years, Mr. García and Mr. Landi have tracked down vineyards that were only legends, whispered about in taverns or in the fields. They befriended farmers and earned their trust and respect.

“We have a big, big treasure here,” Mr. Landi said. “The big heroes are those who worked and maintained these vineyards, even as they lost money selling to the co-ops.”

Mr. Landi, who goes by Dani, said the vineyard prospecting has required a great deal of research.

“Talking to old guys in bars,” he said. “I found when you drink beer, you find good vineyards.”

Today, along with Comando G, a handful of producers working in the Sierra de Gredos is showing how distinctive the wines can be from an area that was ignored for so long.

Among them are Bernabeleva, which makes superb reds and whites of garnacha and albillo real; Daniel Ramos, whose wines are quite good, though they still seem to be grasping for an identity; and RuBor Viticultores, which makes natural wines that can be both fascinating and challenging.

But the bottles with the most finesse and nuance, and which have drawn the most interest, are from Comando G, whose wines are now among the most compelling in Spain.

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