Interview: Pepe Mendoza

Pepe Mendoza

The first thing Pepe Mendoza told me when we caught up over Zoom during harvest earlier this year was that his iPhone was broken. It’s a banal detail that Mendoza brought up only to explain the difficulties he’d initially had connecting to the sound for our call. But I’m mentioning it here because there’s something almost too on-the-nose about the fact that the gadget-destroying accident occurred while he was out working the land on one of his tractors.

The story of Mendoza’s winemaking career, after all, is of a man who has grown increasingly disillusioned with what he refers to as ‘technical’ and ‘industrial’ approaches, and who has instead become ever more focused on the land. Specifically his own piece of ‘Mediterranean’ land: the two Alicante DO vineyards where he spends so much time, whether on tractor or foot, and from which he makes a handful of beautifully poised, evocative wines that have challenged preconceptions of what Mendoza calls ‘one of the hottest parts of the hottest parts of Spain’.

Scroll down for five Pepe Mendoza wines to try

Back in August, with his microphone up and running, Mendoza’s apparently limitless enthusiasm for viticulture simply pours out in a torrent of words, as he explains how his philosophy of winemaking has evolved. ‘When I was younger, I believed the solutions were technical,’ he says. Today he’s looking for the ‘interesting point in the centre’ between laissez-faire natural winemaking and more conventional ways of working.

‘The thing about Pepe that I really take a shine to, and that really unlocks the potential in his wines, is his incredible curiosity,’ says Pierre Mansour, director of wine at The Wine Society. He has worked closely with Mendoza on the retailer’s exclusive red wine Mares de Luz. ‘He’s got these roots in making wines of a very high standard in a commercial, clean style, wines that reflect their grape varieties at different price points. He’s a “Volvo” in that way but, because he has that background, it means he had a really solid foundation for that moment when he wanted to get out on his own and start being a bit more experimental.’

A new approach

Pepe Mendoza Casa Agrícola in Alicante

The moment Mansour is talking about came in 2016 when Mendoza set up Pepe Mendoza Casa Agri?cola with his wife Pepa Agullo?. By then, Mendoza had already made his name as the award-winning head of winemaking operations at the successful family business in Alicante created by his father Enrique Mendoza.

But Mendoza, who had started working in the winery when he was just 20, had begun to feel frustrated. ‘I had been working with my father for almost 30 years, and I was happy to stay with him,’ he says. ‘[But] the project was more international: we had 200,000 bottles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir [alone] – in Alicante! I can do nice, drinkable wines with that, but not the greatest wines in the world.’

If he was to have even a chance of making something truly ‘great’ in Alicante, Mendoza had to start doing things differently. At 150,000 to 170,000 bottles a year, his project is significantly smaller in scale than the 1 million-plus he was used to working with. Other non-negotiable features were old vines, organic production, and – the element about which Mendoza seems to be most passionate – local ‘Mediterranean’ varieties. Mendoza focused on 14ha spread across two very different vineyards. Coastal-influenced Marina Alta is near the Costa Blanca resort of Benidorm. Alto Vinalopo? is ‘up in the hills’ at 650m. ‘The youngest vines are 50 years old,’ Mendoza says happily, while the oldest were planted in 1923.

At Marina Alta, Moscatel and the local red Giro? rule the roost – a legacy, Mendoza says, of long-established local wisdom. Both Moscatel and Giro? have short growing seasons that are over by 10 September, the traditional date for the beginning of the season of intense thunderstorms in…

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