In the years I’ve been writing about wine, I had never seen as many old vines in Ribera del Duero as the morning I spent visiting Jorge Monzón’s vineyards. This young producer (born in the 1979 vintage) has put most of his money and energy into acquiring some of the most singular plots in La Aguilera, the small village where he grew up in the province of Burgos, in DO Ribera del Duero.
For someone who is not yet 40, Monzón seems to have a clear idea of what he wants. “I’m trying to save our wine heritage”, he told me, even if he couldn’t tell the exact number of hectares he owns. His first purchase in 2005 was a hunch: a plot crowning a knoll framed by a pine tree forest with some sculptural old vines, many of them ungrafted. The place is called Cantaperdices, a name that has inspired his new single-vineyard red wine –sourced from this spot, Canta la Perdiz (literally “partridge sings”) will be launched later this year. Fresh, fragrant and almost delicate, it is certainly a new and striking style for Ribera standards.
Dominio del Águila has always had its own identity, ever since Jorge Monzón and his wife Isabel Rodero embarked on this project a few years ago. Every inch of it seems to draw from Jorge’s background and experiences. The style of wines he always saw at home was far from powerful —instead, his family favoured the region’s traditional clarete, a fresh and easy-to-drink blend of red and white grapes. Most importantly, he didn’t do his apprenticeship in Ribera del Duero but in Burgundy’s most legendary domaine: Romanée-Conti.
“The most important thing I learnt there was to love vines. I was in my early 20s and on my first day at work we bottled Romanée-Conti’s 1999 vintage. When we finished we took a walk on the vineyards and I could smell the scent of vine flowers which was new to me —in Spain vines were always treated with sulphur. I had the fortune to work in a place where old bottles were regularly opened.”
Back in Ribera del Duero, he worked for well-known producers like Vega Sicilia and Arzuaga before setting up on his own. Jorge himself wrote an honest and straightforward account of his story and his vision of the world of wine some time ago for his distributor Vila Viniteca’s blog (in Spanish).
Just 10km away from Aranda del Duero (Burgos), La Aguilera lost its status as a village to become a district of Aranda, a fact that in Monzón's opinion "has slowed down its development." Most of its 400 inhabitants belong to the clergy and live and work in the convent-sanctuary of San Pedro de Regalado and in Ciudad de la Educación, a school run by Gabrielist monks.
The creation of the San Pedro Regalado cooperative in the 1950s (which nowadays controls around 200 hectares) led to the abandonment of the traditional, small bodegas with their distinctive underground cellars. It is precisely in one of these old wineries where the wines of Dominio del Águila are made. The tiny facilities have been painstakingly restored and expanded with several caves offering perfect aging conditions as well as quite a few headaches to handle and move barrels. The space is humble and austere, as are Castilians themselves and Jorge’s childhood memories.
Apparently, there were never large landowners in La Aguilera. Farming was the main source of income and ownership was widespread. Jorge’s parents assembled almost four hectares including forest and crops (vines, cereals and vegetables). Today La Aguilera’s greatest asset is the old vineyards, a treasure that survives due to the fact that land consolidation did not take place here, even if Monzón warns that it may be around the corner.
Old vineyards are lost every year, he points out. “They are not profitable. It isn’t true that old vines are sought after or that they command high prices. Producers prefer to buy large plots of land. Winegrowers only make a decent living in Ribera with young vineyards.” Not all old vines are good, says Jorge: “It depends on the soil, the clones...” What does he consider old? “Everything that is older than me", he answers without hesitation.
According to Jorge, Tempranillo from La Aguilera has “thin skins and little colour, and alcohol isn’t too high” but a more detailed look at the area reveals a wide diversity.
For his clarete, called Pícaro, Jorge sources grapes from the cooler, north-facing areas. Hoyo Muerto is a remote, quiet area surrounded by pine forests; it can be very cool too but this spot provides highly distinctive wines in warm years. Pine forests may have different effects on vineyards, reckons Jorge. They favour air flow, but they also bring a wealth of flora and fauna. In fact, many Dominio del Águila vineyards are either surrounded or crowned by pine trees. Hills protect vines from the afternoon sun in contrast with sun-facing plots where alcohol levels may increase from 13º to 15º almost in the blink of an eye. “Each area has a particularity and we have to be able to bring out the best it can give,” he says.
With 300,000 kilos of grapes harvested in 2016, Jorge Monzón is first and foremost a winegrower. Hence, its financial muscle does not rely on the few but really interesting bottles (20,000 to 25,000 at present) he produces but on the grapes and high quality bulk wine he sells.
Most of the grapes are bought by Yllera and go to an ambitious project in which former Pétrus winemaker, Jean Claude Berrouet, is acting as consultant for the first time in Spain. Jorge Monzón also sells to Mauro after the García family launched its own project in Ribera, the Vega Sicilia group or PSI.
Monzón uses blind tastings to find out the style of wines that other clients are after, so that he can provide the right type of grapes or wines. “Most of them say they want to make fine, elegant wines, but power is still in great demand here in Ribera”, he says.
As a winemaker, Jorge keeps away from the beaten tracks. He fought hard to recover the clarete style he enjoyed so much in his youth and to include that word on the label. Currently sold as a “Clarete de viñas viejas” (Old vines clarete), Pícaro is a remarkable rarity: a structured but fresh wine due to the high amount of white grapes included in the blend and suitable for aging. La Aguilera’s answer to the currently trendy rosés retails above €20.
All of his reds are fermented with whole bunches –he doesn’t even have a destemmer, so they can occasionally have a rustic character compared to other Ribera wines. “With the right viticulture and given that we are at 800m above sea level, that shouldn’t be an issue,” Jorge says confidently. As an example we tasted a markedly herbaceous wine during my visit; it was the first time he had vinified that plot and he acknowledged that the work in the vineyard should have been more thorough to avoid such notes.
Jorge’s main contribution in terms of red wines may be his staunch defense of Ribera’s ability to age and the return of extended barrel aging times. As odd as it may be to see a young producer advocating for Gran Reserva, the region has legendary examples like Vega Sicilia Único or Pesquera Janus. Monzón’s contribution to the category is a single-vineyard red with grapes sourced from the Peñas Heladas plot (literally “frozen rocks”) which he has called Peñas Aladas (“winged rocks”) in tune with the bird-inspired name of his project (Águila means eagle).
Displaying a wax capsule and a wire mesh (a traditional way to prevent counterfeiting), the first vintage in the market was 2010. With production slightly over 1,000 bottles and a price tag of €185, it was aged for over four years in barrel. No doubt that those old wines tasted at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti provided inspiration for this. Next to come are the 2014 vintage which has just been bottled and the excellent 2016 from which I was able to taste a small sample: pure concentration and seriousness at this stage.
The more affordable red version of Pícaro (€22, 14,000 bottles in the 2014 vintage) is aged in barrels for 18 months and provides a good introduction to this producer. Dominio del Águila Reserva (€57, 7,000 bottles) is arguably the epitome of Jorge’s philosophy with aging times (up to 35 months in the 2013 vintage) also exceeding the standards but unlike what is so common in the area, oak doesn’t play a dominant role in the wine. The label shows a landscape of vines with a mountain peak on the background shaped as an eagle head.
Varietal diversity is another distinctive feature in Monzón’s vineyards which include some gorgeous plots planted at the beginning of the 20th century. He is very respectful of the identity of each vineyard both in terms of red varieties —Bobal, Bruñal, Monastrell, Carignan and Garnacha— as well as in whites (mostly Albillo), which are planted next to the dominant Tempranillo. I was surprised to find during our walk in the vineyards that many of these minor varieties have been uprooted, undesirable as they may be nowadays for most grape buyers.
Next to come will be a Dominio del Águila white made from 100% Albillo Mayor. Set to be released this year, this white was the star of the tasting held at Vila Viniteca’s Wine Contest in Pairs in Madrid a few weeks ago. Even if this is, in theory, less interesting than Albillo Real from Gredos, the complexity, depth and salinity of the wine was impressive, specially considering that it is a 2012 and it shows a lot of life ahead. Less than 1,000 bottles were made and retail prices will be predictably high. The DO Ribera is set to accept whites soon, but this first vintage will not carry the appellation’s seal.
Like his friend Eduardo Garcia from Mauro, Jorge Monzón is not a regular at wine events. He prefers to be in his vineyards rather than pouring wine at fairs and tastings, but he never misses his annual trip to Burgundy where he spent some of the best years of his life: “With around 40 working cellars, Vosne-Romanée is full of life; sometimes I imagine that La Aguilera must have been like that too.”
Despite his youth, Jorge does not want to rush things. “The best things of life take their time to happen,” he says. “Maybe I could be rolling in it if I had made a Roble [a red wine aged briefly in oak], but that is not our style,” he says. “I have always been grateful for having the opportunity to learn from the people around me, including the postman in La Aguilera, Aubert de Villaine or cellarmaster Monsieur Noblet in Burgundy.”
A remarkably gifted producer, Jorge has demonstrated to have a keen eye, not unlike the eagle on his labels —he now owns over 30 hectares of unique vineyards in Ribera del Duero. And he doesn’t stop there: “Working with vines is a very long learning curve”, he muses. “Generations come and go and we still don’t know that much about them”.