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This outstanding Spanish red earns a thumbs up

The wine “Vara y Pulgar” is as distinctive as the traditional pruning method for which it’s named.

This outstanding Spanish red earns a thumbs up.
This outstanding Spanish red earns a thumbs up.Ellen Bhang

When you spy a handsome bottle on a shop shelf called “Vara y Pulgar,” you might be curious about its name. If you have a working knowledge of Spanish, you know that ‘y’ translates to ‘and’ — so do the words on either side of the conjunction refer to a dynamic duo of the wine world? Then you notice ‘Cádiz’ in the second line, which calls to mind the ancient port city anchoring the region of Andalucía in southern Spain. Isn’t that in Sherry country, the region famous for its solera-raised white wine? But the bottle in your hands is red, a fact confirmed by ’100% Tintilla’ printed in tiny, elegant script. That seals the deal. You slip this intriguing bottle into your shopping basket.

“Vara y Pulgar” is a label of winemaker Alberto Orte. The native Madrileño worked at his family’s winery in Montilla-Moriles, south of Córdoba, before studying law and viticulture in Madrid. He returned to Andalucía and settled in El Puerto de Santa María. Today, he owns three organically farmed vineyards, spanning about 40 acres, northwest of Jerez de la Frontera’s city center. He also makes wine in Galicia, Murcia, and Rioja, and is cofounder of Olé & Obrigado, an import company of Spanish and Portuguese wines.


Vara y pulgar, which translates to “stick and thumb,” is the vine-pruning method for which the wine is named. In this sun-drenched region known for its albariza chalk soil, this approach to pruning and vine training has been practiced for well over a century. One arm, extending from the trunk of a grapevine, is allowed to grow long like a stick, while another is pruned short to resemble a thumb. One year, grapes grow on that horizontally trained arm — traditionally propped up by a wooden stake, but nowadays supported by wire — while the thumb-like spur rests. The productive arm is pruned short in winter. Come spring, the thumb from the prior season grows long, taking its turn as the fruit-bearing limb. Practitioners say this approach facilitates healthy sap flow, extends the vine’s longevity, and can be counted upon to foster optimal yields of healthy grapes.

So it’s no wonder that Orte prunes and trains his Jerez vines in this traditional manner. But it might surprise you to learn that he cultivates and crafts tintilla into varietal wine. The deeply colored, late-ripening grape, also known as graciano, is more often associated with Rioja, 600 miles to the north, where the perfumed variety is blended with tempranillo. But prior to the late-19th-century arrival of the vine pest phylloxera, tintilla thrived in Jerez. Orte has made it his mission to rescue and revive dozens of indigenous varieties that might otherwise fade into extinction. Lucky for us, that includes tintilla. From it, he coaxes stunning results.


Ruby in hue with a brick-red rim, the 2017 vintage of “Vara y Pulgar” offers spicy, meaty scents accompanied by a whiff of the sea. Aromas of red fruit, dried floral, tobacco leaf, and cinnamon stick lead to a lithe palate of black cherry, plum, and sweet wood smoke, all brought to life by elegant acidity. The red’s ferrous minerality and salty ocean tang make this pour especially beguiling. Because the winemaker produced just 1,100 cases of this wine, definitely scoop up a bottle when you see one. You owe it to yourself to taste this thumbs-up pour.


Vara y Pulgar 2017 13.5 percent alcohol by volume. Around $24. Distributed by Ruby Wines, Inc. Available at Porter Square Wine & Spirits, Cambridge, 617-547-3110; Formaggio Kitchen (Huron Ave.), Cambridge, 617-354-4750.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com