I recently attended a showing of the documentary film, “La Bobal and Other Stories
About Wine” (La Bobal y otras historias del vino, in Spanish), hosted by its
creator, Canadian-British artist and filmmaker Zev Robinson, who lives in Spain. See:
http://www.artafterscience.com. Bobal is a dark-skinned grape indigenous to the
Utiel-Requena region of Valencia. It is also widely grown in some of the nearby provinces.
Utiel-Requena's high altitude favors a red wine with greater acidity and less alcohol than is
common elsewhere in southern Spain. I tasted some of the Bobal wine both before and after
the film. I adored the chunky tannins and the mouth-filling fruit, and if it were up to
me…but of course we have international markets to consider. For generations, Bobal
was a bulk-produced blending grape, but today dedicated hands are trying to make it
Robinson takes his time weaving the story of Borbal in Utiel-Requena, allowing viewers to
loll around traditional vineyards and wineries, hang out with village cats and dogs on a sunny
afternoon, or buzz with the bees around vines-full of developing Bobal grapes. The visual
surcease is necessary because when people speak in this documentary, they tend to have
strong opinions, and express strong emotions. Wine made from Bobal has either a brilliant
future, or else no future at all, depending on where you find yourself in this full-length film.
A major visual and auditory punctuation in the film consists of recurring scenes of green wine
bottles clanging against each other as they move down a bottling line. Is this a vain effort, or
will those bottles fill with wine and cross the ocean to us?
“I got the idea for this film by walking around the small village in which I
live,” Robinson explained to a group assembled at the Gabarron Foundation Carriage
House Center for the Arts in Manhattan. “I started filming fields of grapes, doing
interviews, and discovered that Bobal is a unique grape, now mostly produced by old-time
growers whose children don't want to continue the tradition.” Young winemakers,
however, including several cooperatives, have been getting involved at the production end.
Fields of Bobal have a distinct look, reflecting Gobelet pruning: stand-alone bushes without
training supports, widely spaced in the vineyards. These vines, often up to 80 years old, are
completely dry farmed. As a wine, Bobal may appear in a fairly tannic rustic style or in a
softer, more fruit-forward style. In either case, this high-altitude wine shows rich layers of
aroma and flavor, direct fruit, spice, meaty notes, something for everyone.
Potential or no, Bobal, with its difficult-to-shed bulk wine heritage, has not attracted the
investment it needs to function as a modern varietal on the international stage. Today's
growers get very little for their grapes, while wineries cannot ask much for their wines.
Quality is up, however, although the consensus is that the solid research to develop the vine
clones necessary to produce the best Bobal has yet to be done. Low yields are the key to
quality, but when these intersect with low prices, the math is direct and it is rather grim.
While the elderly participants in this film gripe and complain that they are ruined, the
younger speakers put rather a better light on Bobal. Weaned on diluted wine as children, now
often trained in business as well as winemaking, these people are thinking internationally.
Even the younger people in this film, however, admit that for most of the world
“Spain is Rioja, and more Rioja.” Several agree that the growers and
winemakers of Utiel-Requena need to act in concert to make progress for Bobal. I imagine
this would be a tough proposition, given the forceful personalities that shine through every
frame of this probing film.
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I am always ready to champion indigenous grape varieties that have the potential to give
the wine drinking public a further range of choices.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman
A scene from the film showing typical Bobal vineyards in Utiel-Requena, Spain.
Those ubiquitous green bottles.
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