Spain’s Best Winemakers Are Breaking Rules to Make Delicious Bottles – Robb Report

Spain’s picturesque Ribera del Duero wine region, one of the nation’s leading producers of fine vintages, is located on a high plain that brackets the Douro River. The rich farmlands run for 71 miles through the provinces of Soria, Burgos, Segovia, and Valladolid in the autonomía, or state, of Castilla y León, north of Madrid. Archaeological evidence suggests wine has been made here for 2,600 years, since the Romans commanded these lands, and the geology explains why. The vineyards sit at 2,500 to 3,600 feet above sea level, and such high altitudes provide what’s known in viticulture as the diurnal temperature shift: Hot, sunny summer days offer ideal conditions for grapes to ripen, while significantly cooler nights allow them to retain their freshness and acidity. 

Locals call Tempranillo, the main grape grown here, tinto fino (“fine red”) or tinta del país (“red of the country”) to set it apart from the same grape grown in other areas, claiming that it has evolved over time in response to the region’s specific environment. And while regulations allow Tempranillo to be blended with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Garnacha Tinta grapes, much of the wine made here is single-varietal Tempranillo. 

But if the grapes are adaptable, the laws that control how they make it to your dining table are not. Each of Spain’s 69 wine-producing regions is governed by its own consejo regulador (or regulatory board), which writes local rules and enforces national standards. Cosecha wines have the lowest minimum aging requirement; you may have heard them referred to as joven (“young”), roble (which means “oak” and indicates wines aged in oak barrels for just a few months), or even generico, depending on the region. 

Ribera del Duero’s consejo allows cosechas to be bottled and sold without any barrel aging, but many producers choose to use the wood vessels for up to three months. Because of this quick turnaround, historically cosechas have been priced at the entry level, around $15 a bottle on the U.S. market. 

The other tiers—in ascending order of required aging and price—are crianza, which must be aged for two years, and reserva, which requires three years. Gran reserva wines, the highest echelon, must age for five years before they’re released, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels and the remaining time in bottles. Ribera del Duero further stipulates that anything from crianza on up must be aged in oak barriques smaller than 330 liters, so winemakers choosing to use larger barrels, such as 500-liter puncheons or 2,500-liter foudres, are barred from using a descriptor other than cosecha.

These rules have been in place since 1982, when Ribera del Duero received Denominación de Origen, or D.O., status. The protection was intended to ensure that wine (or cheese or ham or other agricultural products) bearing the label of a region was actually made there, while also laying out specific regulations for production methods. 

A farmer applies phytosanitary products to a Ribera del Duero vineyard.

A farmer applies phytosanitary products to a Ribera del Duero vineyard.

Carlos Chavarría

But 40 years onward, some producers are making it plain that these criteria don’t guarantee optimum quality. And those in Ribera del Duero, in particular, are using the humble cosecha designation as a platform for experimentation. The results have included exceptional full-bodied wines that are commanding top dollar on the international stage, where the official rules of Spanish winemaking matter less than the flavor and complexity of what’s inside the bottle. While many of the region’s wineries create both unconventional cosechas and traditional gran reservas, those shopping stateside may notice more of the former on shelves than the latter, because these new wines have started to make an impression abroad. So recent is this trend that some Spaniards still defer to the longer-aged designations as the be-all and end-all of the oenological spectrum, even when the cosechas on the menu are comparably priced. 

Case in point: We recently had dinner at a restaurant in southern Spain where we ordered a sharing-sized bone-in rib steak called chuletón de buey and asked the proprietor which vintages from the Ribera del Duero region she had on hand. She returned a few moments later and placed three familiar labels on the table. Without hesitation, we chose the bottle in the center and said, “This one.” 

With a shocked look on her face, the owner lifted another option and said, “No, I think this one will go better with your steak—it’s a gran reserva.” When we replied that the bottle we’d picked, an artful blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot called Bodegas Balbás Alitus, would suffice, we were met with more resistance. “But this is a cosecha,” she protested. “It’s fresh and fruity, and it will be over- powered by the fattiness of the grilled beef.” 

We held firm—this, after all, was a new-style cosecha worth the risk—and were relieved when she grudgingly pulled a corkscrew out of her apron pocket, opened the bottle, and muttered, “As you wish,” which is a very Spanish way of simultaneously acknowledging victory and defeat in an argument. 

Our Spanish friends have suggested that if there’s a way to bend a rule, a Spaniard will be the first to figure out how. This rebellious streak permeates every part of life: Spain has one of the world’s largest populations of Catholic citizens, but it was also one of the first nations to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2005—and its divorce rate is among the highest on the planet. We even know vegans here who go to bullfights. 

So when we asked a dining table full of Ribera del Duero vintners why they were ignoring the rule book, we weren’t surprised by their passionate response. Xavier Ausàs, owner and winemaker of Ausàs Bodegas y Viñedos, replied forcefully, “Because the rules are for delinquents. I don’t need the government to tell me how to make wine.”

He punctuated that declaration by banging his right fist on the table, causing nearby silverware to jump and glasses to wobble slightly. 

After the meal, he was even more emphatic, replacing the word “delinquents” with “criminals.” In his mind, although the rules laid out by the local consejo may stop “scammers” from selling low-quality wine to unsuspecting consumers, strict aging requirements also prevent real winemakers from turning out superior vintages using their own instincts and judgment. 

At 55, Ausàs is no upstart; he was technical director at Vega Sicilia, Spain’s premier winery, for 25 years before starting his own project in 2016. Since then, each year he has made around 35,000 bottles of Ausàs Interpretación from a 7.4-acre parcel of Tempranillo grapes in Nava de Roa, supplemented with small amounts of fruit bought from other growers to add structure and other attributes as he feels necessary. Rather than being classified reserva or gran reserva, as one might expect, the small label on the back reads cosecha

“[One of] the three elements that we believe are part of the pureness that every wine from the Ausàs Interpretación brand should have is a limited time in the barrel, so the wines don’t become too syrupy (liqueur-like) to preserve the aromas of fresh fruit,” he explains later via email. He also limits the use of new barrels, so the wines get only a hint of oak, and uses 500-liter barrels because they better protect the flavors of the grapes. 

Despite the fact that the 2020 vintage aged for only 14 months, Ausàs Interpretación fetches about $75 per bottle in the U.S. Other well-made cosechas from Ribero del Duero can command between $100 and $200, with a handful reaching north of $500. Using the low-status cosecha designation rather than reserva or gran reserva allows winemakers the flexibility many say is needed for a dynamic product. Across the region, winemakers are seeking the freedom to age wines according to weather conditions, a grape’s particular terroir, and their own personal preferences. 

“We want to be free to age the wine for as long as we want,” says Marcos Yllera, whose family co-owns the Bodega Vivaltus winery, just outside the town of Peñafiel. “If we are forced to age it for a longer time, just to have the name crianza or reserva in the label, we will be compromising the profile of the wine we want to make.” 

Like its cosechas, Bodega Vivaltus’s angular design and integration into nature give it a starkly different look than its medieval neighbors have.

Like its cosechas, Bodega Vivaltus’s angular design and integration into nature give it a starkly different look than its medieval neighbors have.

Carlos Chavarría

Situated between two medieval castles, the starkly modern Bodega Vivaltus is a relatively new addition to the landscape: The grapes for its first vintage were harvested in 2016. Vivaltus, its namesake wine, sells for around $100 to $120 per bottle in the U.S. and is made with consulting winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet, who worked at the renowned Petrus in Bordeaux from 1964 to 2008. 

One of the innovations that Berrouet brought to Vivaltus is maturing portions of the wine in oak barrels, stainless-steel tanks, and terra-cotta and clay amphorae, respectively, before blending them together. Yllera points out that using amphorae or steel tanks is permitted only for cosechas. But Berrouet’s method is a reaction to higher temperatures caused by climate change, and Yllera embraced it as a way to “find alternatives to complement oak aging in order to keep freshness and elegance” in the end result. 

Vivaltus uses oak barrels, terra-cotta amphorae, and stainless-steel vats to get the desired flavors from its grapes.

Vivaltus uses oak barrels, terra-cotta amphorae, and stainless-steel vats to get the desired flavors from its grapes.

Carlos Chavarría

For other winemakers, the focus is less on methodology and more on storytelling. Among Bodegas Emilio Moro’s wide range of offerings is Emilio Moro Clon de la Familia, which you can find stateside for between $500 and $600 per bottle. (The family grew and sold grapes for over 100 years before it started selling its own wine in 1989.) Composed of 100 percent Tempranillo and aged in 500-liter French-oak barrels for 18 months, the wine is produced only in exceptional years—but it’s labeled cosecha due to the relatively short time it spends aging. 

“It doesn’t mean the wine is not aged; it just means that it is not aged according to [the government’s] specific requirements,” says Nacho Andrés, the winery’s director of business development. “As these criteria don’t require having better-quality fruit, we don’t consider it necessarily better, just more influenced by oak.” 

The large foudre containers Bodegas Emilio Moro uses for aging some wines result in less obvious oak flavors than the smaller barriques in the foreground.

The large foudre containers Bodegas Emilio Moro uses for aging some wines result in less obvious oak flavors than the smaller barriques in the foreground.

Carlos Chavarría

Vicente Pliego, coproprietor of Bodegas Pinea del Duero, makes a wine called Pinea from grapes grown on vines more than 50 years old in a lone high-elevation vineyard, La Encina. Producing a single-vineyard wine carries risks, especially as climate conditions become less predictable. Pliego bought La Encina in 2017 in order to maintain access to its fruit. Although Pinea is typically aged long enough that some years’ wines may be old enough to qualify as crianzas or reservas, Pliego prefers to define his wine solely on “the value of the vintage and not the aging itself.” 

The García family, which founded Bodegas Mauro in 1980, is similarly committed to small-lot viticulture. Its Gármon wine is created with only Tempranillo grapes from a selection of 40-to-80-year-old vines cultivated on small parcels of land in the eastern part of Ribera del Duero. Aged in oak barrels for 20 months, Gármon 2019 could have been released as a reserva, but as Paula Lopez de Partearroyo, head of marketing and communications at Bodegas Gármon Continental, tells Robb Report, “We are more interested in explaining viticulture and winemaking,” adding that Gármon is a product of the García family’s “commitment to ancestral, small-holding viticulture based on tiny Tempranillo vineyards.” The Garcías, like many of their neighbors, would rather produce and sell a cosecha that expresses such a rare terroir accurately—but defies easy categorization—rather than a reserva in which the flavor of oak dominates. 

Pago de Carraovejas, founded in 1987, makes a $250 bottle called Cuesta de las Liebres—part of its Grandes Añadas project—which is produced, as the project’s name suggests, only in the finest years. (Grandes añadas is Spanish for “great vintages.”) This single-vineyard wine, the winery’s only 100 percent Tempranillo product, comes from a southwest-facing plot whose name means “slope of the hares” and that receives sunlight late into the day. 

“From our point of view, the qualification of wines through aging times does not fully reflect many of the true characteristics that make a vineyard, an estate, or an appellation,” says Pedro Ruiz, the winery’s project manager and technical director.

Pointing to the vineyard’s sandy loam and limestone soils, he adds, “The main difference of [our] terroir is that the combination of all these characteristics, in the best years, gives us grapes of exceptional quality.” 

Like parents who have gradually acquiesced to children rearranging certain long-established boundaries, Ribera del Duero’s consejo seems to have accepted its members marching to the beats of their own drums by leaning into the vague wording in its original 1982 D.O. designation. The definition refers to cosechas as “wines that don’t meet the traditional criteria but often exceed classification requirements”—and the official line is that this flexibility had been the intent all along. Via email, Miguel Sanz Cabrejas, general director of the D.O., echoes the sentiment we heard from almost everyone we spoke with, writing, “In Ribera del Duero, to give more options and more freedom to the wineries, we created the broader concept of cosecha.” 

A view from the highest point in Ribero del Duero, near the Bodegas Emilio Moro winery.

A view from the highest point in Ribero del Duero, near the Bodegas Emilio Moro winery.

Carlos Chavarría

Still, some think Sanz Cabrejas and company are using the blurriness of the original rules as a cover to minimize any fallout from the local revolt. “I don’t think they knew this was going to happen back then,” says a Spanish-wine insider who asked not to be named. “I believe the expectation was for wineries to stick to the conventional classifications set by the Spanish agriculture department to brand different-quality wines.” 

At this stage of the game, the initial goal of Ribera del Duero’s regulations is beside the point. Once upon a time, it may have been possible to determine the profile of a wine from the region based exclusively on its level of aging. But with so many winemakers now working outside the traditional framework of maturation requirements, the best way to wrap your brain around the experimental new vintages is actually quite straightforward: Open a bottle or two and taste the finished product for yourself. 

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button