Producer in Focus
Els Jelipins, Penedès, Catalunya
Rewilding in Penedès ...
This story starts in the lush green hills of Font-Rubí in Alt Penedès down a remote dirt track leading to a beautiful home enclosed by trees. The steps leading to the entrance are covered in inky purple Irises in their full glory in mid-April. Home to winemaker Glòria, her daughter Berta, grandson Niu, and their much-loved dog Ruski. The heavens opened the day that we met, preventing us from exploring much of the outdoors, so instead, we were warmly welcomed inside and took a seat at the large wooden table that fills the light-filled room overlooking a lush green courtyard reflected in the polished stone floors. Our visit takes place over a glass of the moreish 2020 skin contact Taronga [orange in Catalan] due to arrive with us in the Autumn of this year. We talk about her love of animals and nature, the political situation in Catalunya, their constant quest for independence and her winemaking philosophy. If ever you needed some inspiration to make a change, Glòria’s story as a winemaker in Penedès is sure to inspire you.View Wines
The Quest for Freedom
When I ask Glòria what drew her to the land of Font-Rubí in Penedès, she explained that she first visited at the age of two on family holidays and returned every year with her nature-loving parents as a respite from the hustle and bustle of nearby city life in Barcelona. “The houses here didn’t have any toilets or fridges, just a fire to cook with, and as a city girl, I had everything - I was fascinated”, she explained. So it was no surprise when she decided to completely change her life that she would choose to settle in the remote part of the Catalunyan countryside to pursue a life of moderation and enjoy the simpler things in life. Glòria is almost entirely self-sufficient; her vegetable garden is something that Monty Don would die for; solar panels run her cellar, and what she doesn’t grow from her vegetable garden, she forages from the surrounding forest on her daily walks with Ruski. “I find a lot of things in the forest - like asparagus, mushrooms and blackberries - I’m learning more and more to live like this, and my grandson, who is just two years old, knows what he can and can’t eat in the forest.”
Glòria explains that despite how rural her home is, that she is surrounded by a community of neighbours “we share tasks - helping each other every week with odds jobs in our homes - or there are workshops where we learn how to live sustainably, using less energy and less petrol. We depend so much on petrol. Everything that we use is related to it. It’s useful to learn how to change small things to reduce the number of resources possible. I then try to translate this to winemaking."
Something else which marks Glòria’s life apart from the rest of us is how she governs her time. She explains that she hasn’t woken up with an alarm clock for over 20 years now. “I used to do it, and I found it terrible. I wake up very early but not before my body needs it. I think this is what life should be.” However, when it is the harvest, the shape of her day is very different. Ten to twelve hours every day hand-selecting and destemming only the best grapes “and if it’s not 100% perfect, it won’t go into the barrels” over 5-6,000 kilos, for a petite lady, this is no mean feat.
"It’s complicated to come back to an ancient knowledge, where people live less."
Fortune Favours the Brave
In her former life as an agricultural engineer, Glòria explains how she used to work on the "dark side" of the industry - "the horrible side of the story - this is why I decided to never work in this way again, after eight years in a big company, I had to leave. Everybody asked, what are you going to do? I was desperate to leave this terrible story, and my daughter Berta was just 13 months old, and I was a single parent."
Luckily Glòria found a way to make it work, but after having met her, this is no surprise. She tells me that she doesn't think that she's brave, her goal was to achieve a lifestyle that allowed her to live in Font-Rubí, connected to nature and a better quality of life away from "the system" - "I choose my lifestyle, not a product that's going to give me money." Not long after leaving her job, she met someone who was learning how to make wine in Priorat, and together they learnt how to make wine with abandoned Sumoll vines, some of which are 100 years old.
"The reality was that it wasn't easy at all - we suffered a lot, we didn't have any money, the cellar started off as a 3x3 squared meters horsebox at my father's house in 2003 and 2004. By 2005 Gloria's cellar had moved to its permanent site - underground from where our interview took place, but back then, it was just the cellar, we didn't have the house."
"We decided to make wine in a very natural way without any added chemicals because I was determined not to repeat the story that I lived before. I wanted to completely change my life, - this is the beautiful part of the story."
Glòria explains how they didn't have a story in the wine world, the first four vintages were especially tough - "we had to invest a lot of money buying grapes; the wine was still ageing, so we had to wait a long time before we were able to sell, and it was a disaster because we didn't have any money to travel. The restaurants in Spain didn't like the wines; they found them to be too rustic. My partner was really frustrated, but fortunately, we found foreign sommeliers who understood the wine and agreed to buy it."
"I'm very stubborn and said I don't care. This is the style that I like, and so we kept going"
To add to this, the Jelipins were up against the powerful influence of the American wine critic Robert Parker. This period was commonly known as the Parkerisation of wine. "Even in Rioja, the effect was felt with some producers changing their style in favour of big powerful, dark, fruity, oaky, full-bodied wines in an attempt to please Parker and get his points, and the wine was sh*t! It was just scorched wood, coffee, toasted, horrible… but this style sold in the states, and there we were with our wine which was delicate, pale in colour and high in acidity, and people were saying, what is this? It was very frustrating, so we drove our wines to the top restaurants in the Basque country and would sleep in campsites with our cases of wines and in the morning we would visit the restaurants - "hello we are the Jelipins" - thankfully we found sommeliers who got it and the rest was word of mouth."
Despite Glòria's global success today, she still faces challenges - mainly due to the weather. The Sumoll grape is a thin-skinned, late-ripening varietal that can get severely damaged when the heavy rains arrive in October. In 2018 the rainfall was so intense that Glòria had to forgo making red wine and could only produce a rosé.
"You have to make decisions during the harvest. I didn't ever plan not to do the red, but when I saw the skins, there was no way that I could do it."
This Lady Means Business
Glòria and I laugh about how she's known as the lady who lives up in the hills telling the old farmers what to do, challenging the status quo. She tells me how she doesn't own any vines but invests in long-standing relationships with local farmers. This way, she can offer them a very good price for the grapes, and it allows her to persuade them to work the land more sustainably and respectfully.
"You should see how to old farmers look at me. Now everybody knows me, but at the beginning, nobody wanted to trust a woman - can you imagine for the old farmers, a woman telling them what to do! - no way!"
“I tried to convince them to leave the cover crop, but they thought that it would compete with the water for the vines. But in 100-year-old vines that have roots that are 2,000 meters deep, a small bit of grass isn't competing at all, the more organic matter you leave in the field - the better, to help keep humidity and so that the earth can nourish itself - they burn the organic matter in this country. It's a job to convince them to do things differently. In the beginning, I had to show them how I wanted them to prune. They are used to pruning for high yields, but I don't want yield - I want quality. Initially, they were used to collecting everything in one day. I'd say… okay, first I'm going to pick the grapes for rosé, can you see that this grape is ripe and this one isn't? This is especially true in old Sumoll vines - each grape matures at different times, so we have to pick each grape individually. For one plant, we pass many times. When we harvest, a small team of friends and family help, and I explain how to look out for perfect ripeness across different days.”
"I aim to express how I think about life through my wines."
Glòria's hands-off low intervention style of winemaking is best described when she explains that her approach is similar to bringing up children. "If you try to educate them in a very strict way, not allowing them to be who they want to be or how they want to act. You frustrate the soul of the child. You have to keep an eye on them to prevent danger - like with wine to stop it from becoming vinegar, but no more than this. A good starting point is good health. And for me, the most powerful tool that I have is my palate, so throughout the entire process, I taste a lot. Another vital element is to trust the wine. Believe that things will work out well."
"Things must live in freedom in order to develop their soul"
Today Glòria's total production never reaches more than 2,000 bottles of red, 1500 rosé from the notoriously tricky Sumoll grape; and 1,000 Montòniga for her orange wine. Her wines can be found as far as Australia and Taiwan and next year Glòria will take on more Sumoll vines, which will increase production but only by about 1,000 bottles.
"I've never felt the need to grow; people don't understand. I don't need to. Even if I could make a huge amount, I wouldn't want to. I always wanted a small project that allows me to live, and I continue to feel the same way. Especially now that I have a grandson (and waiting for the second one), I feel more motivated to slow down and be a grandmother; why not!"
Despite this, Glòria tells me, that every year they aim to create something new. The 2020 vintage brought a “young red” with a shorter maceration on the skins. This wine will be released this autumn  alongside the 2017 red - which we cannot wait to try! Until then, we can only hope that the weather will be kind to Glòria and her much-loved Sumoll grapes.
With thanks to Glòria and Berta for your hospitality and for sharing your inspiring story with us.