Participants at the closing session of the Duero International Wine Fest, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference held in Burgos early this month, enjoyed a rather unique treat: a tasting of eight wines made with recovered or minor grape varieties. The tasting was presented by wine distributor Paco Berciano and conducted by Félix Cabello, director of Finca El Encín, Spain's largest collection of grape varieties, and José Antonio Rubio, who manages ligneous crops at Itacyl (Castilla y León’s Agrotech Institute).
The crowded room (some glasses had to be shared by two or more people) evidenced the huge interest that the tasting generated among local producers, eager to find new varieties that may help to shape the future of grape growing in the region. It makes sense given the overwhelming dominance of Tempranillo and Verdejo, which account for 37,000Ha and 12,500Ha respectively in Castilla y León.
A previous presentation by geneticist and grape expert José Vouillamoz (co-author with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding of the comprehensive Wine Grapes) set the tone for a deeper understanding of the cultivars grown in Spain’s largest autonomous region.
Vouillamoz talked about the various peoples that left their mark, their culture and also their vines in the Iberian Peninsula. Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans entered through the Mediterranean until the 5th century; Germanic kingdoms found their way through the north until the 7th century; then the Muslims -who favoured table grapes rather than wine grapes- ruled until the Reconquest came to an end.
Varieties were also exchanged along the Camino de Santiago in the north and on the Vía de la Plata, which crosses the west of Spain. A case in point is síria (known with this name in Portugal according to Wine Grapes), which is grown under different names across this ancient route: Cigüente in Extremadura, Malvasía in Toro or Dona Blanca in Bierzo and Galicia.
Vouillamoz talked about the different theories either supporting or rejecting the idea that a secondary domestication of wild vines could have taken place in the Iberian Peninsula -for a long time it was commonly accepted that all types of vitis vinífera originated in the Middle East.
It’s difficult to step back in time when it comes to cultivar research, but DNA profiling has allowed to explore the genesis of many of today’s wine grapes, explained Vouillamoz. In Spain, Castellana Blanca (also known as Pardina and Jaén Blanco) is one of the so called “founding varieties”. It’s a direct ancestor of Síria (aka Cigüente, Malvasía or Dona Blanca); of Juan García grown in Arribes (its other parent is the Portuguese Alfrocheiro, which is also grown in Spain and known as Red Albarín, Bruñal, Baboso Negro and Caíño Gordo) and the almost extinct Cayetana Blanca (see Photo 3). The latter, together with Savagnin (Traminer) is believed to be the progenitor of Verdejo and Godello, the leading white grapes in Rueda and Bierzo respectively (see Photo 4).
Tempranillo is the most widely-grown grape variety in the Duero valley. It is clearly dominant in Arlanza, Ribera del Duero, Valtiendas, Cigales, Toro and Tierra del Vino de Zamora, and it is grown to a lesser extent in Sierra de Salamanca and Valles de Benavente. Its progenitors were revealed in 2012: Albillo Mayor (called Turruntés in Rioja) is well-known in Spain, but Benedicto is almost extinct; fortunatelly plant material is stored at El Encín grape collection in Madrid.
Used both as table and wine grape, Albillo has lost ground in Castilla y León. According to data compiled by French geographer and historian Alain Huetz de Lemps in his massive work Vignobles et Vins du Nord-Ouest de l’Espagne, in 1751 it accounted for 29% of the surface under vine in Toro.
Tempranillo has followed the opposite trend. It experienced unprecedented growth with the modern style of red wines made in Ribera del Duero and Toro in the 1990s and 2000s. To get a more visual idea of this growth, the graphic (see Photo 5) based on data collected by Kym Anderson’s Which wine grape varieties are grown where shown by Vouillamoz during his intervention speaks volumes.
The most worrisome consequence of this is the loss of diversity. According to Félix Cabello, non-dominant grape varieties in Castilla y León dropped from 2,414Ha in the 1975-1981 period to just 128Ha in 2015.
In this context, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the tasting of recovered grape varieties aroused so much expectation.
In order to be considered a minority grape, three requirements are needed: small surface under vine or in danger of extinction, grown before phylloxera and it must cover less than 1% of the area under vine at a regional level. You can read more about the current state of grape research in Spain and some exciting discoveries here.
According to José Antonio Rubio, in charge of grape research in Castilla y León, most of the new findings occurred in areas that he described as "less evolved", notably Arribes on the border with Portugal, but also long-forgotten terroirs like Merindades, north of Burgos, where claims for a local chacolí still remain.
Rubio said that "using" grape varieties is the best way to have a better understanding and to "confirm or change our previous ideas about them". He enthusiastically announced that "a vast world of possibilities opens up now". The fact that all the varieties we tasted were already included in Spain’s Register of Commercial Vine Varieties makes things much easier for producers.
Discovering new grape varieties is a favourite pursuit for wine lovers, particularly if their names are as appealing as those following.
Rufete Serrano Blanco 2017. The name suggested by Rubio lies halfway between White Rufete, which is already used by some producers in Sierra de Salamanca, and Verdejo Serrano, the one which officially features on the Vine Register. It’s interesting to note that this variety is not a mutation of red Rufete but its ancestor. The wine that was served at the tasting showed good structure and acidity, so it is likely to be suitable for ageing.
Puesta en Cruz (or Rabigato) 2015. The second white in the flight was harder to assess. There are just a few bottles left of this 2015 sample which was a bit tired and evolved. Its good acidity was the most distinctive feature.
Negro Saurí (or Merenzao) 2017. It was interesting to discover that this red variety, which is increasingly attracting attention among Galician winemakers, can also be found in the vineyards of Tierra de León. The wine had moderate alcohol and vibrant acidity.
Estaladiña (or Pan y Carne) 2016. This minority grape grown in Bierzo (there’s even a limited production single-varietal red produced by Bodegas Mengoba) showed more depth than body with earthy notes and dusty tannins.
Mandón 2017. This is called Mandó in Valencia and Pla de Bages (Catalonia). Torres have recovered it in their vineyards, where it is known as Garró -this is the name that appears in the Spanish Vine Register-, so it is striking to find it also in Arribes. Earlier this year I had the chance to taste a red made by Olivier Rivière in Arribes that included Mandón in the blend. The sample tasted in Burgos resembled other Mandós we have tasted so far: good aromatics and the freshness and acidity expected in late ripening varieties. Its juiciness and gentle tannins are suitable to make easy drinking reds or to soften blends.
Gajo Arroba 2017. Another late ripening red variety from Arribes with more structure than Mandón. I liked its fruit notes (red and black berries), freshness and juiciness. It was quite a discovery although José Antonio Rubio warned about high yields.
Tinto Jeromo 2017. This was probably the weirdest red variety we tasted. According to Rubio there are no records about it. It’s a late ripening grape, although I got fully ripe aromas of dark fruit and blueberries. The palate was round and unctuous with some bitter notes on the finish and a rustic edge. Really interesting and a good candidate to blend it with the previous two.
Bruñal (or Baboso) 2017. Expectations for this variety are high in Arribes given its firm structure (this was the fullest bodied red in the tasting) and ability to age. We tried a rosé version (consistent rather than delicate) and a red one. The latter showed punch, powerful tannins and fruit over a rustic background.
The tasting ended with a fun drill. We followed Paco Berciano’s precise indications to mix the four red wines from Arribes. The result? An appealing, balanced red.
While José Vouillamoz concluded that forgotten varieties are the potential stars of the future (“they bring us our ancestors’ heritage and are a source of biodiversity", he said), Félix Cabello wrapped up his presentation on a similar note. The Rioja-born researcher is optimistic and thinks that minority grape varieties will provide Spanish producers with a wealth of well-adapted tools to fight growing challenges (climate change, new trends and styles of wines, lower alcohol, etc.). This heritage is so rich, Cabello says, that there will be no need to resort to international grapes which, with a few exceptions, have not fully adapted to Spain’s vineyards.