Since its original inception, Viñedos Alonso del Yerro has been an exemplary project. At this family-run winery, grapes are sourced exclusively from their own vineyards and they are determined to produce an accesible range of terroir-driven wines with just two labels in their portfolio.
Located in Roa (Burgos), Santa Marta estate covers 26 hectares of vineyards divided into 30 different plots. In 2007, a second venture was established in the DO Toro, to the west of Ribera del Duero. Both projects share the same philosophy, although Toro is smaller, with just 9 hectares, mainly very old and ungrafted vines dating from 1930 and others planted in 1988. Paydós, made from the local variety Tinta de Toro, is the name of the only wine produced here.
Serial entrepreneur Javier Alonso and his wife María del Yerro, a philologist and translator, had ambitious ideas for their project right from the start. It became pretty clear when they hired prestigious French consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, who is very well considered in Bordeaux. In fact, Alonso del Yerro was the first winery outside France that he advised. To celebrate their 10th anniversary, the winery held a vertical tasting last November. Derenoncourt joked about how terrified they all were: “the owners were unfamiliar with wine and for me it was a big challenge: a completely new region and a grape variety, Tempranillo, I had never worked with before”. Attendants could also see the extent of the family's commitment to the project, with both parents and their five children present at the tasting.
As well as Derenoncourt, French winemaker Lionel Gourgue was recruited for the project. With prior experience in Bordeaux and various New World’s wineries, he joined the winery in 2006. Since then, the wines have entered a new, more mature phase and have a more defined personality.
The input of soil expert Claude Bourguignon has also been crucial. His aim was to reflect in the wines the limestone subsoil found in the area- a character traditionally associated with France's greatest wines. A large part of Bourguignon’s work focused on burying roots further to reach deeper limestone layers. He also measured biological activity in the vineyard –a soil with millions of tiny microbes boosts oxygen levels– in order to have healthy vines that express terroir.
Two wines are made at Viñedos Alonso del Yerro, both of them from local grape Tinto Fino (Tempranillo). Alonso del Yerro (€20, around 70,000 bottles) is their flagship wine, while María (€50, 7,000 bottles) is the top cuvée. Grapes are sourced from four different vineyards –Santa Marta, Quinto de Pedro, Viña Montserrat and Pago de los Mayores– which are further subdivided into various plots covering 26 hectares dating from 1989. Vines are trellised and planted at 800-850 metres above sea level with average yields reaching 30 hl./ha. Wine geeks may enjoy Alonso del Yerro's detailed maps reflecting the complexity of the soils in Ribera del Duero.
The winery produces its own compost and plants cereal among vine rows in order to avoid soil compaction and a second sorting table is used after destemming during the harvest. It also favours malolactic fermentation in barrels, bâtonnage and microoxigenation.
In terms of their wines, Alonso del Yerro is a good example of the estate’s varied vineyards and soils. Individual plots (or similar groups of plots) are vinified separately and the 12 resulting lots are then aged separately prior to blending. Unsurprisingly, aging times vary according to the characteristics of each wine. By contrast María is the result of combining two different vineyards: one of them has fine sandy soils resulting in elegant and floral notes in the final blend; the clay-limestone ground in the second plot adds backbone and power.
Being an area with a rather extreme climate, wines are heavily influenced by the character of each particular vintage. This fact is more evident in a winery like Alonso del Hierro, deeply committed to working the vineyards. Decidedly, 2007 was Alonso del Yerro’s annus horribilis –the estate endured violent hailstorms and autumn frosts. María was not made, production fell significantly and the label of its flagship wine was slightly redesigned with its trademark rose changing colour from blue to red. The effort paid back and the resulting wine was harmonious -albeit scarce- as it benefited from the best vineyards in the estate (those usually intended for María). In 2008 and despite a very tough vintage, the family crafted some of the most elegant and balanced wines in the appellation, specially a fantastic Alonso del Yerro, without having to trade up to the more expensive María. It must be said that their vision of the vintage was masterful.
This winery thrives on challenges. Take 2009 for instance. Although it was an easy vintage with perfectly ripened grapes, it feels that terroir has been overpowered by fruit. Nevertheless, 2010 looks incredible. It was also an outstanding vintage but not as easy to understand as 2009 and yet again Alonso del Yerro have managed to wisely bring out its fresher and most elegant expression.
Meanwhile, the warm an extremely dry 2011 vintage was released just before summer. The wine offers a very ripe plum character with enough juiciness to counterbalance alcohol. As for María, the winery has rethought its style and from 2011 it will be released one year later. It is a sensible decision, given that the wine is usually closed and decanting is essential.
Below you can read my notes from Maria’s vertical tasting held last year to celebrate the winery’s 10th anniversary. I think they are particularly telling of the style and philosophy at Alonso del Yerro. All bottles were uncorked (not decanted) the previous night.
María 2003 Tinto. Deep cherry colour. It takes time to open up; chocolate and spicy notes, a hint of leather. Mouthcoating and oak tannins on the finish. Clearly a very hot vintage but the wine is well made.
María 2004 Tinto. Deep cherry colour with an orange rim. Quite expressive and complex, spicy aromas and notes of cocoa and hazelnuts. Lots of fruit on the mid-palate and good acidity. Oak also plays an important role in this vintage.
María 2005 Tinto. Deep cherry colour. Much more character: ripe plums, hazelnut, pine bark, evolving to liquorice and bergamot. You can feel terroir here. Tight and firm on the palate with a long life ahead; balanced and persistent. It perfectly reflects the style and potential of this winery, capable of making elegant reds in powerful vintages.
María 2006 Tinto. Dark cherry colour. Fresh and balsamic on the nose; perhaps not that complex, but expressive and savoury, evolving towards mushroom and earthy aromas. Performing well on the palate, with nice fruit although it seems less mineral that other vintages.
María 2008 Tinto. Deep ruby colour. Quite elegant and expressive, boasting creamy notes, preserved dark fruit (plum) in liquor. Feels fresher on the palate, with good structure. Definitely more consistent than what you would expect from this vintage in the region.
María 2009 Tinto. Deep purple colour. Ripe redcurrant, spicy notes, roastbeef, fallen leaves. Powerful on the palate, with nicely wrapped up tannins. This is a much more direct and jammy style.
María 2010 Tinto. Deep purple colour. Its complexity and high levels of concentration reminds me of 2005. Seductive black fruit, nutty caramel and chocolate aromas. Powerful and structured on the palate, with well-defined fruit. It has huge potential.
María 2011 Tinto (it will be relased in 2015). Deep purple. It smells “Ribera” at its best and it’s obvious that we have a great vintage here (at least at Alonso del Yerro’s). Deep and perfectly ripe plums on the nose, a forest hint, very complex, almost hipnotic. Big on the palate, firm and high quality tanins, lovely fruit, long finish. It’s both powerful and elegant. Great wine.