The imposing abbey, which was part of the network of monasteries built to consolidate the Christian Reconquest of Spain, is strong evidence of the long winemaking tradition of this estate located in Sardón de Duero (Valladolid) which, between 1952 and 1966, happened to be in the same hands as Vega Sicilia.
But while production of Vega Sicilia’s legendary wine has continued from the early 20th century right to the present day, Abadía Retuerta’s vineyards languished until they completely disappeared in the 1970s due to the sharp fall in grape prices.
Located just a few kilometres from each other, both properties overlook the section of the N122 road called the “Golden Mile” of Ribera del Duero. Unfortunately, when the appellation was established in 1982, Abadia Retuerta was not included within its boundaries, as not one single vine was grown on the estate. It would take some time longer for the estate’s new owners – since 1988, the pharmaceutical company Novartis – to be convinced of its potential for wine growing.
The person who did the convincing was Juan José Abó, a relevant lawyer in the health sector, but also a great connoisseur, wine broker and, at the time, secretary of the International Wine Academy. Highly aware of what the estate could become, he persuaded the Swiss group to invest in a completely unfamiliar field to them: wine.
At the tasting held in Madrid on the occasion of the 25th anniversary a couple of weeks ago, Abó noted that "the abbey connects the estate with the history of the greatest wines in the world" and mentioned the monastic origin of mythical terroirs like Chambertin in Burgundy.
He also recalled that the aim of the project was “to make good wines more accessible, so that people could drink them and dream, without breaking the bank”. Juan José, who thinks that in difficult times “it’s better to open a bottle than pay €100 in psychiatrist fees”, also led Abadia Retuerta to Bordelais winemaker Pascal Delbeck while championing a terroir-driven approach.
The event was also something of a reunion. A great effort was made to bring together almost all the experts and journalists who attended the first presentation of the wines in 1997 (see photo above). Also present was Vicente Sotés, Professor of viticulture at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, and the man behind the comprehensive soil survey carried out in the early 1990s. In fact, what we all are looking at in the aforementioned image is a recreation of the main soils identified in the estate while Pascal Delbeck (pictured with thick beard) explained how he had tried to reflect such diversity through different wines and styles. It was relatively uncommon at that time in Spain to pay so much attention to soil composition, let alone to develop such a wide range of wines according to soil variation.
Pascal could not attend the tasting held in Madrid, but Ángel Anocíbar, who according to Delbeck, was hired as winemaker because of their personal and vinous chemistry, explained how the wines have evolved since he joined the winery in 1996. Ángel recalled being terrified that the wine facilities would not be finished in time for the first harvest. In fact they weren’t totally completed (see photo above) and winemaking had to be undertaken in the open air. However, all stainless steel vats arrived in time, so that the different plots could ferment separately and so did the so-called “ovis”, used to avoid pumping-over by using the rack-and-return délestage system to break the cap.
Although little given to lavish, Anocíbar is a great connoisseur of Ribera del Duero’s extreme and often treacherous climate. I recommend this video and the post (in Spanish) he wrote for the blog of Vila Viniteca, Abadía Retuerta’s distributor in Barcelona, which was appropriately titled "25 years is no time at all". It concludes with this thought: "Making great wines is a process that does not happen by chance; it requires experience, observation and many, many hours of sacrifice, but nature is ultimately the one who is in charge and can either help or snatch everything from us, even humility.”
The wines were the real highlight of the event. The winery had no qualms about showing the 1996, the first vintage made from 3 to 5 year old vines. While the Selección Especial had lost some structure and felt a bit acidic, the two Cuvées (Palomar and Campanario) which were discontinued in the 2000s and the single-vineyard wines Negralada (Tempranillo) and Valdebellón (Cabernet Sauvignon) did not only show to be in pretty good shape but developed nicely in the glass. Cabernet added structure and made for fleshier palates both in Valdebellón and in Palomar where it represented 50% of the blend. Tempranillo showed slightly earthy tannins but they were perfectly counterbalanced in Pago Negralada by a juicy palate and the fine texture earned over time.
Far more surprising was to taste the first experiment with white wine at Abadía Retuerta. The wine, a 1998, was the result of a mistake, when several hundred Merlot cuttings planted in the estate turned out to be Sauvignon Blanc. Ángel Anocíbar fermented and aged the wine in barrels following the style of white Bordeaux. It’s such a pity that there are only five bottles left of this beauty offering amazing balance and creaminess. No wonder it was the starting point of the current white Le Domaine which includes some Verdejo in the blend.
We also tasted the Pago Garduña 2000, a fruit driven, velvety syrah and the PV (Petit Verdot) 2001 which seemed frozen in time, showing dark fruit and meaty notes with enough structure and acidity to be cellared for many more years. Abadía Retuerta has managed to take advantage of their lack of DO status by using grape varieties and winemaking techniques that are not allowed in the Ribera del Duero appellation.
The range of wines has evolved with the coming-of-age of the vineyard. Gone are the basic reds Primicia and Rívola, as are the middle-priced Cuvées whose grapes are now blended in the Selección Especial (roughly 300,000 bottles, around €20 in Spain). The single-vineyard wines are also single-varietal reds retailing at around €60 in Spain except for the Petit Verdot which just exceeds the €100 mark. Quantities are small, between 2,500 and 5,000 bottles, barely 1,500 bottles in the case of PV.
No one should be more surprised by the evolution of the estate and its wines than those of us who attended that presentation back in the late 1990s. Despite the brand-new, high-tech winemaking facilities, the restoration of the abbey seemed unthinkable at the time. But the huge financial injections provided by Novartis (€12 million between 1991 and 1998 to boost the winery and €30 million just to transform the abbey into a luxury 5-star Relais & Château hotel) have made the transformation possible.
An exciting project is currently underway around the so-called historic vineyard through the patient recovery of plant material from some pre-phylloxeric, wild, climbing vines that were discovered at the estate some years ago. There is now a chalky plot grafted with this clone that stands somewhere between Tempranillo and Tinta de Toro and the first fermentations have already taken place.
What will the future hold? Boosted by the talented wine duo made up by Delbeck and Anocíbar and backed by Novartis’ financial power, Abadía Retuerta seems to have all the ingredients to make up for lost time and compensate for its darkest years in leaps and bounds.