With barely 400 hectares under vine and only 90 of them within the appellation, the smallest, lesser-known wine region in Castilla y León is aiming to define a space of its own in Spain’s wine scene.
Sierra de Salamanca boasts an appealing uniqueness starting with its red grape Rufete that covers roughly 60% of the vineyard. It could be very well described as a Spanish version of Pinot Noir due to its lightness, delicate floral notes and either earthy or mineral character depending on the type of soil it grows on. In this regard the pattern is very similar to Gredos with both granite and schist areas, yet the diversity is bigger in Salamanca including the rare, extremely hard and black corneal slate.
This green, rugged region on the southern edge of the Salamanca province bordering with Extremadura is perfect for hiking. The area is a biosphere reserve and part of the appellation lies within the Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia natural park. The region is actually known as Sierra de Francia, probably because Raymond of Burgundy, husband of Doña Urraca and son in law of King Alfonso VI, received the order to repopulate the area in order to repel the Muslim advance in the late 11th century. Surnames like Bernal or Gascón have remained in the area until today.
The distinctive architecture of the buildings and villages has remained virtually unchanged. The region’s rich local traditions find a parallel in the way vines have been grown for centuries in terraces, locally called paredones. From here Spain’s Sistema Central range runs east towards Gredos. Rivers on both areas are part of the Tajo basin. In Sierra de Salamanca, river Alagón and its tributaries flow through intricate and often narrow valleys where vineyards are grown.
The climate is distinctively Mediterranean, therefore milder than in other Castilla y Leon regions. In fact the area lies below the Central plateau to the south and is surrounded and protected by mountains. With average rainfall levels reaching 1,000 mm a year, Sierra de Salamanca is arguably the second wettest wine region in Spain behind Rias Baixas. Lush vegetation can exert a great deal of pressure on the vineyards, specially in rainy years like 2016. Abandoned plots can easily be swallowed by forests and bushes in barely three years.
Although it is the same variety as Portuguese Rufeta or Tinta Pinheira, Rufete has clearly adapted to this Spanish area. It has been generally believed that Rufete entered Spain through the Camino de Santiago, yet the comprehensive book Wine Grapes indicates its Portuguese origin and ventures that it might be related to Touriga Nacional and Prieto Picudo from León further north.
On the Spanish side of the border, Rufete is a relatively short-cycle grape. Harvesting usually starts between 8th-10th September —it is often picked before Tempranillo. Bunches are tight with small, thin-skinned berries that give light-coloured wines. Other features are its noticeable acidity and the floral (petals), spicy rather that fruity aromas. “While violet notes are prone to appear on hot years, petals are associated to fresh vintages”, explains César Ruiz, who makes a Rufete wine called Tragaldabas. Be that as it may, Rufete fits in with the trend towards less structured, easy to drink wines.
Until recently Rufete was not easy to find as a single varietal red. In fact, rosé wines (locally called claretes) were the speciality of Sierra de Francia. The first modern red blends were made in the early 2000s after a critical period which saw depopulation, abandonment of vineyards and the closing down of many coops. These were wines made with the main varieties grown in the area: around 60% Rufete, 30% Tempranillo (locally called Aragón) and 10% Garnacha and other grapes. Garnacha is locally known as Calabrés —some growers claim it is a specific clone.
Considering the surface under vine, the number of producers in Sierra de Salamanca is not large. Apart from the cooperative operating in the village of San Esteban de Sierra, the most interesting wines come from small independent producers. Two wineries have pioneered single varietal Rufete wines which are sold in national and international markets. Viñas del Cámbrico (50,000 bottles) was launched in 2002 by local entrepreneur Fernando Maíllo who named it after the geological period when the region’s mountains were formed. La Zorra (50,000 bottles) was founded by Agustín Maíllo –no relation with Cámbrico’s owner. Agustín, who runs the family restaurant Mirasierra in Mogarraz and produced his first wine in 2010, sells his wines in the US through importer De Maison Selections.
On a local level, Cuarta Generación was established in the village of Sotoserrano, in the southern area of the appellation where Tempranillo is widely grown. Further north, in Santibáñez de la Sierra, José Carlos Martín founded Bodegas Rochal (25,000 bottles) in 2002.
José Carlos, who usually blends Tempranillo and Rufete, can be described as a local vigneron. His father used to sell grapes to the village cooperative until it shut down, so José decided to set up on his own following the footsteps of some small producers in Bierzo who built their homes above their cellar. José Carlos, who grows 5.5 hectares of vineyards, champions local Tempranillo clones and criticizes those brought from outside. Unique stone vats can be found in some of his plots. His wines felt the most structured in the area with dark fruit and shoe polish notes, although capable of handling the oak rather well.
The uniqueness of Rufete has proved highly attractive to outsiders, most of whom go for single varietal styles. This is the case of friends César, Nacho, Silvia and Rebeca, work colleagues at wine distributor Alma Vinos Únicos in Madrid. Mandrágora Vinos de Pueblo is the name of their project which aims to produce 25,000 bottles in the coming future. For the time being they have rented a space at Cámbrico to make Tragaldabas, a fresh, aerial, evocative Rufete. The winery has another tenant: sommelier Nicolás Sánchez Monge from Toro who makes Corneana, a riper, rather structured red with more black fruit than floral notes.
Winemaker David Sampedro from Elvillar in Rioja Alavesa buys grapes in the area and produces outside of the appellation a medium-bodied, distinctively earthy Rufete. So does winemaker Ismael Gozalo, formerly at Ossian, who currently makes different wines in Rueda and other areas of Castilla y Léon. Rufián is the name of the wine he makes in Sierra de Salamanca —it is light and floral although it displays sharp acidity on the palate.
La Dama Juana is another wine made outside the appellation by the owners of restaurant La Hoja in Salamanca. Earthy and juicy, it includes Tempranillo and Garnacha in the blend.
In the midst of a contentious debate about zoning and land classification across Spain, Sierra de Salamanca has clearly benefited from being a small area with few producers who get along well. Its board approved the development of a village wine category in May. Further requirements include the compulsory use of 100% Rufete grapes on village reds. Additional requirements may include some organic winegrowing specifications and sourcing grapes from the best vineyards.
It became clear during my visit that the best single varietal wines express both the soil diversity and Rufete’s purest expression. Some of the most interesting wines I tasted haven’t reached the market yet.
The team behind Mandrágora will release its first village wine in September. Starting with the 2014 vintage, it will bear the name of the village it comes from, Molinillo, which epitomizes the expression of corneal slate soils. This single-varietal Rufete is a captivating mix of aerial aromas (lavender and rosemary) and earthy flavours followed by a juicy palate with finely integrated tannins. The wine is aged for at least two winters in the cellar compared to one winter for the regional, entry-level Tragaldabas. According to César Ruiz, one of the great strengths of the region is that “phenolic and alcoholic ripeness come together.”
La Zorra, which makes the excellent Raro Rufete from sandy, granitic soils, is set to launch the new La Moza single varietal from vineyards planted on slate soils in the villages of Garcibuey and Miranda del Castañar. Aging times are expected to be longer since slate adds some extra structure. Starting in the 2014 vintage, this juicy, elegant red with well-integrated tannins will be released in September.
As opposed to the power and occasional heaviness of Garnachas from Gredos grown on schist soils, Rufete can offer notable finesse when grown in this kind of soils even if the wines display dark notes (ink, charcoal). La Moza Calabrés (Garnacha) is part of its portfolio, but the whole production is exclusively sold in the US. If you ever have the chance to try it, you’ll find lots of sweet red fruit, spices and a marked citrus acidity.
For its part, Cámbrico will split its current single varietal Rufete in two different reds to reflect two different villages (Villanueva del Conde and Garcibuey) and soil types (slate and granite).
While it is not a Rufete mutation, I would also like to mention White Rufete, an almost residual but fantastic grape variety boasting the longest ripening cycle in the area. It results in fabulous whites with good cellaring potential given that they combine structure and vibrant acidity. Phinca Durmiente by David Sampedro was my first, notable approach to the grape, but I found the 2013 vintage by Cámbrico really remarkable.
This variety is locally called Verdejo even if it has nothing to do with Rueda’s famous grape. Castilla y León’s agricultural research centre ITACYL listed it as new variety with the name Verdejo Serrano, but producers in Sierra de Salamanca are fighting to call it White Rufete in order to create a more powerful brand for the region. Given that it is a relatively new discovery, White Rufete wines will not bear the appellation label until the grape is included in Spain’s official register and subsequently included in DOP regulations.
Were it not for its size, Sierra de Salamanca could become the next Gredos. Even if it never achieves the reputation of their peers at the other end of Spain’s Central Mountains, they are likely to gain a land classification that will allow producers to explain the singularity of their terroirs on their wine labels. After all, Burgundy still echoes throughout the area.