“2015 has been one of the most trouble-free harvests I can think of,” says winemaker Carlos de la Fuente as he apologizes for the building work around us. New offices and tasting facilities are currently being built at Hacienda Monasterio. “We plan to revamp our winemaking premises in the medium term to double the number of vats so than we can ferment in smaller volumes,” he reveals. De la Fuente, whose father worked at Vega Sicilia, was born just a few kilometres away in the hamlet of San Bernardo.
Working plots and grape varieties separately will allow them to further refine the pro-cess. More significantly, the recent purchase of 20 hectares of vineyards bordering their property is not intended to expand production. “Our vines are not irrigated so production can vary considerably from one year to another. We have had problems to meet the supply requirements of our clients so the purchase of the adjacent estate, which shares the same characteristics as Hacienda Monasterio, has brought stability allowing us to select the best”, states owner Carlos del Río.
Hacienda Monasterio enjoys an enviable price positioning among Ribera’s producers. Its flagship red dropped the Crianza category in 2001 and is sold as a generic wine (displaying the vintage on the label) ever since. It retails between €28 and €33 in Spain and production stands at about 170,000 bottles. Around €45, Reserva production ranges from 16,000 to 21,000 bottles, while the Reserva Especial (€70-75) hardly reaches 3,000 bottles and is not made every year. These are wines for special occasions, the latter two very suitable to be lay down. The winery has weathered Spain’s economic crisis, managing to stick to its market niche without being forced (as is the case with many competitors) to launch a cheaper wine.
Hacienda Monasterio is an estate wine project. All grapes come from their own surrounding vineyards which currently total 95 hectares. Although up to 12 different soils have been identified in the property, all of them share a chalky character. Limestone retains water and adds a distinctive character to the wines. Vines are planted across a south-facing slope to ensure good ripeness in such an extreme region where frosts are not uncommon in September right before the start of the harvest. Vintage variation can be especially marked in Ribera.
The estate is located in Pesquera de Duero in the province of Valladolid, close to Valbuena’s monastery and to Vega Sicilia, of which it was part in the 19th century. Danish investors purchased the estate in the late 1980s from the vast Dehesa de los Canónigos property. In barely two years, Hacienda Monasterio changed hands and was sold to a Seville-based company that managed the winery until 1994, when it was bought by a small group of partners from Jerez’s Garvey including sales manager Carlos del Río, financial director Manuel Piñero and manager Francisco Guerrero.
The Danish origin of the first owners led them to seek advice from a fellow countryman. Peter Vinding-Diers recommended the then young winemaker Peter Sisseck who, in 1995, created Pingus, Spain’s most expensive wine.
Sisseck was supposed to spend just a few months in the area before taking up a job at California’s legendary Ridge Vineyards. “In the end I stayed —that was 25 years ago,” Peter recalls with amusement. He has been juggling the two projects over the last 20 years with winemaker Carlos de la Fuente as the perfect support at Hacienda Monasterio. Nevertheless, his commitment to the project is as solid as ever. Indeed until very recently he has been living in an apartment within the winery’s premises.
Sisseck inspired himself in the wines of Vega Sicilia and Pesquera to make the wines of Hacienda Monasterio: “The first thing I did when I arrived here was to taste as many wine as I could. Unsurprisingly, Vega Sicilia was the most complex, yet very classic in style. Pesquera, on the other hand, wasn’t that complex but offered freshness and modernity. I finally decided to use the grape varieties grown by Vega Sicilia and to shorten aging times, just as Alejandro Fernández did at Pesquera; but instead of using American oak, we introduced French barrels”.
Apart from Tinto Fino (as Tempranillo is locally called), Hacienda Monasterio wines are blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Merlot is probably the less appealing grape of them all, even if it plays its role in the blend of the Cosecha, but Cabernet can reach stunning levels of quality and finesse while Malbec adds what Carlos de la Fuente describes as “the Graciano effect” since it adds colour and acidity.
Those who know Sisseck well shouldn’t be surprised by Hacienda Monasterio’s organic commitment. If the Danish producer announced earlier this year that Pingus 2014 would be released under the Demeter certification, the entire vineyard of Hacienda Monasterio has gone organic over the last few years; from the 2014 vintage, winemaking will also be certified as such.
In keeping with this philosophy, the winery makes its own compost (see photo above) with grape waste and manure from an organic farm. "We look for bacterial activity deep in our soils and, in general, micro-organisms to decompose the organic matter so that the vines are able to have a vertical root development," says Carlos de la Fuente. Fermentation with natural yeasts is spontaneous.
If anything distinguishes Hacienda Monasterio’s wines, it is their velvety textures. For me it was a surprise to taste different barrel samples from the 2014 vintage (which, incidentally, may be the best in recent times) to discover well integrated tannins at such an early stage. "From the beginning”, says Peter Sisseck, “we have tried to apply the European concept of finesse”.
More recently, maceration times have been shortened in order to obtain fresher wines with better defined fruit. Alcohol management is another key issue in Ribera. “In good years (when grapes ripen well) we can come close to Toro’s powerful, alcoholic style, but it is important to have vineyards where grapes manage to ripen in cool vintages, so that fine wines can be made on every vintage”, explains Sisseck.
I have pleasant memories of the 2009 vintage in Hacienda Monasterio which, according to Sisseck’s train of thought, should be considered a “good year”. 2011 is also outstanding: just try the voluptuous, mouth-filling Reserva or Reserva Especial currently on the market, even if the latter will benefit from additional cellaring. Hacienda Monasterio wines easily reach 15% alcohol levels, and that is something that winemakers Peter and Carlos would rather change. Experience has helped them to deal with the 2015 vintage, which registered extremely high temperatures in July and was one of the earliest harvests on record. The cool and complicated 2013 vintage, however, commanded all their ability to interpret the year correctly but Peter is positive that “these wines will stand the test of time”. The Hacienda Monasterio Cosecha I tasted from that vintage showed good potential and a distinctive acidity; it also included more Cabernet than usual in the blend.
Anyone willing to learn about the house’s style should taste Hacienda Monasterio 2012: fine red fruit jam and balsamic aromas followed by an elegant, fine-textured palate with enough acidity and a gentle salty note on the finish that adds distinction.
News about the merger of Hacienda Monasterio and Montecastro broke in February 2014 in the financial press. Located to the southwest in Castrillo de Duero, in the province of Valladolid, Montecastro is a young producer whose wines reached the market with the 2002 vintage. With Hacienda Monasterio controlling 50% of the shares, it has become the group’s main stakeholder.
The main objective according to Carlos del Río is “to gain ground in a region where we believe that many wonderful wines can be made at different stages with high altitude vines being a big challenge for us”.
In fact, conditions in Castrillo de Duero vineyards are very different from those in the village of Pesquera. While Hacienda Monasterio’s vines are planted between 730-790 meters, Montecastro’s reach 920 metres, so it takes longer for grapes to ripen here; thus, the harvest usually starts a week later. Soils are mainly red silt, with chalky and stony areas dotted with some boulders. The goal here, explains Carlos de la Fuente, is "to produce fresh, high altitude reds from the winery's own vineyards." For the time being and in tune with Hacienda Monasterio’s philosophy, the entire vineyard is adopting organic practices.
From a strategic point of view, Carlos del Río values their decision to “refrain from launching a second wine at Hacienda Monasterio; Montecastro will allow us to make good wines at a more affordable price”.