For some time Ribera del Duero seemed to be only within the reach of large operators with high investment capacity. Things have changed now: some of the most exciting new projects in the region are focused on terroir while others have bought some of the lavish wineries that were built in the 2000s and succumbed to the recession to produce sensible, well-defined riberas.
La Aguilera (Burgos) lost its village status to become part of Aranda de Duero; regardless of this admin downgrade, it is emerging as a hotspot for terroir-driven producers. Its wealth of old vineyards has traditionally attracted famous producers from the area in search of high quality grapes, as well as outsiders like Luis Cañas (the Rioja company established Dominio de Cair here) or Burgundy-inspired projects like Germán Blanco’s Quinta Milú. But it has been Jorge Monzón who has put La Aguilera on the map of Ribera’s finest wines with his Dominio del Águila (águila means eagle) wines and vineyard-comes-first approach.
Monzón, who still sells most of his grapes to other producers, has a new, important buyer in Vivaltus, an ambitious venture set up by Yllera with Jean-Claude Berrouet, former winemaker at Pétrus, as consultant. This is arguably one of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2019 together with the wines of Xavier Ausàs, former technical director at Vega Sicilia.
In fact, new projects from experienced Duero producers are an additional source of novelties in the area. Ausàs, whose new wine is called Interpretación, seeks to stress the fact that he is bottling his own interpretation of the region. Also on the list is Garmón, the first entirely owned winery of the García family in Ribera del Duero. Although Mauro is outside of the boundaries of Ribera, Mariano García and his sons have a deep knowledge of the area; they are co-owners and winemakers at Aalto and used to consult for Astrales.
Lastly, investors like Tresmano, led by La Europea, a leading wine importing and distribution company from Mexico, in partnership with Rioja producer Fernando Remírez de Ganuza and Pedro Aibar, a winemaker from Aragón.
We start with producers based in La Aguilera, Vivaltus and Francisco Barona. In a couple of weeks we will write about Xavier Ausàs, the García family and Tresmano.
Pablo Arranz was born in Madrid in a family who experienced the rural exodus of the 1960s in Spain but every summer he visited his grandparents in La Aguilera. He still has memories of those childhood harvests in which "not a single grape was left in the vineyard".
In 1999 he inherited the only remaining vineyard in the family, an 80-year-old plot planted by his grandfather and his father on a sandy, north-facing slope. This was the spark of a wine dream shared with his wife Andrea. In 2005 the pair left their jobs (he taught young children; she had studied Political Science) and became winegrowers in Ribera del Duero. Andrea started from scratch: she studied oenology locally and learned how to work the vineyard and drive a tractor.
Over time, they have managed to get a bunch of vineyards together. Faced with the lack of generational change, many of the village's older growers offered them to buy or take care of their vineyards. Nowadays they cultivate 20 hectares, mostly their own and located in La Aguilera, and to a lesser extent in Quintana del Pidio and Gumiel de Izán. Andrea and Pablo have named many of them after the people who worked them for so long. In Sotillejo, for example, are Sotillejo del Abuelo, Sotillejo de Mateo and Sotillejo de Teodoro.
Just over half are old vines aged between 70 and 110 years old; the rest are new plantings made with cuttings from their own vineyards. Their own grand cru is El Sardal, in the Gromejón river valley (beyond Gumiel de Izán, between La Aguilera and Quintana del Pidio), where they take care of 30 north-facing plots with shallow soils featuring sand and some clay over the limestone rock. Pablo and Andrea have also bought some vineyards on the opposite south-facing slope which belongs to the village of Quintana. They work organically but are not yet certified. Their plan is to buy a few more plots and gain a certain isolation in order to start using biodynamics.
The couple started working (and still do) as grape suppliers —in 2018, their grapes from old vines fetched between €2-€3/kg. Although they experimented with various fermentations, their first bottling wasn’t released until the 2011 vintage —just a couple of barrels sold among family and friends. Out of the100,000 kg of grapes they produce, barely 10,000 bottles are sold as Magna Vides. They don’t want to go further than the capacity of an old cellar they have and plan to restore soon.
In terms of the wines, there is a fun experiment called Alma de Cántaro that includes very limited quantities of minor grape varieties like Bobal, Garnacha (I recommend the juicy 2017 set to be released soon) and their white Alarije (said to be known as Malvasía in Rioja and Subirat Parent in Catalonia).
Their main range includes the white Alba Vides Albillo (around €25 in Spain, 1,200 bottles, ripe fruit offset by vibrant citrus acidity) and two reds: Vera Vides (€15, 3,500 bottles) and Magna Vides (€25-30, 3,000 bottles). Grapes for Vera Vides are sourced from young vines in El Sardal together with up to 20% of other varieties picked from their old vineyards. Magna Vides blends old vines from Sotillejo with the fresh, fragrant quality of El Sardal. Of the two vintages (2015 and 2016) that I tasted I loved the freshness, grip and expression of 2016. This wine not only leaves a mark on the palate but also contributes to expand the range of styles in the region.
Established in the early 2000s with family vineyards grown in La Aguilera, Hacienda Solano has experienced a notable boost following the arrival of Toni Sarrión (Finca Terrerazo, southeast Spain) as a majority shareholder in August 2017. Sarrión had worked the 2016 vintage in partnership with siblings Nuria, Agustín and Estrella and French winemaker Sophie Kuhn and couldn’t resist fermenting separately two barrels of Bobal and one of Garnacha, varieties that he regularly grows in Valencia.
The vineyards have remained in the hands of the Solano family. Most of them were planted by the two grandfathers who were members of the cooperatives in La Aguilera and Quintana. The current winery stands exactly where the one who was based in La Aguilera used to have a vat to make his own wine.
Hardened in a thousand battles after turning the ugly-ducking Bobal variety into a raising star in Spain’s southeast, Sarrión is one of the few newcomers who is not afraid of the harsh climate in Ribera del Duero —frosts, high vintage variability or the wines’ high pH. All he sees are wonderfully small, loose Tempranillo bunches.
“We plan to carry on trying to make the best wines from these vineyards,” says Sarrión. Small innovations include concrete tanks, which according to Sarrión “work well in vintages with harsh tannins such as 2017”, and experiments with full clusters in open top barrels to see how Tempranillo behaves. Sarrión points out that unripe seeds can be more aggressive than stems.
The range has been streamlined and the labels redesigned. All entry level red wines are now just one —Hacienda Solano Selección (€13.5, 12,000 bottles)— which is made with the youngest vines and some old vines. The rest remains unchanged with Hacienda Solano Viñas Viejas (old vines, €24, 8,500 bottles) and the interesting single-vineyard reds Peña Lobera and Cascorrales (both around €62 in Spain, less than 1,000 bottles), which are now fermented in concrete and open barrels.
Except for a couple of young, wire-trained vineyards, the majority are head-pruned vines aged 60 to 90 years old planted in 40 plots on 25 hectares of land. In 2018, 60,000 kilos were obtained from them. Production barely reached 30,000 bottles which means that some grapes are still being sold to other producers.
The 85-year-old Peña Lobera vineyard lies in an inspiring setting: framed by a pine forest, it features shallow soils on limestone rock and lots of white Albillo vines mixed in with Tempranillo which are usually blended into the wine. The wine is juicy, evocative and delicate with a distinctive floral character. It has been made since 2007 except for the 2008 vintage. The sandy soils of Cascorrales explain the fact that vines are ungrafted. The wine is more structured and needs more time in bottle. I tasted a fantastic barrel sample from the 2017 vintage with ripe red plums, lots of grip, energy, vibrant acidity and even a saline touch.
Sophie Kuhn, who also makes the wines of De Blas Serrano in Fuentelcésped and Gallego Zapatero (Yutuel) in Anguix, explains that La Aguilera generally gives “fresher, intense, delicate reds that show their best earlier than other areas in Ribera.”
Our “Wineries to watch” section last November was devoted to this producer who has been recovering old vineyards and grape growing traditions in Roa (Burgos). Barona is a fine example of how small young producers in the region are focusing their efforts on the vineyards. Finding outstanding plots always comes first even if this usually means that they have to sell grapes to the bigger producers —leading wineries who demand top quality grapes and pay for them: Aalto, the García family, Vega Sicilia, Corimbo…
Based in Roa, Francisco Barona champions the slopes of a solitary hill called Cuesta de Manvirgo and some other vineyards in the village of Anguix. He makes full-bodied wines which benefit from some time in bottle, specially his single-vineyard Las Dueñas, but he shares a similar quest for freshness. His tools: keeping grape bunches on the shade, picking grapes with firm skins so that they taste crunchy, and blending in minority white (Albillo) and red grape varieties (Bobal, Garnacha, Monastrell) to rein in the high pH of Tempranillo.
A large player in Castilla y León with headquarters in Rueda, Yllera also produces sparkling wines, the commercial 5.5 sweet frizzante wines, VT red wines and even its own Rioja range. Vivaltus is their first ambitious foray into Ribera del Duero with Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker at Pétrus for over 40 years, and his son Jeff consulting for them. “He only advices one producer per country; his prestige is at stake,” Vivaltus winemaker Ramón “Montxo” Martínez, whose family is also a shareholder at Yllera, told us.
Vinifcation takes place in a winery built on a hill on the outskirts of Curiel de Duero with magnificent views of the castles in Curiel and Peñafiel. It was built and named Entrecastillos (between castles) in the mid-2000s by two architects willing to become wine producers. Yllera acquired the property in January 2015 and renamed it Vivaltus (you can’t miss the prominent sign, with Hollywood-style letters).
Although the purchase included 26 hectares of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot planted around the winery, Vivaltus does not use them. Grapes are mainly sourced from Jorge Monzón in La Aguilera (he and Montxo were classmates) with some batches coming from Roa and Anguix. Another substantial part is sourced from Fuentenebro, a village in the southern end of the province with vineyards planted at 1,000m.
Two Ribera wines which are not strictly Vivaltus have been released so far. Meant as a tribute to the founders, there is Pepe Yllera Roble (six months in barrel, €7.5, 100,000 bottles) and Jesús Yllera Crianza (€22.5, 75,000 bottles). Berrouet lent a hand in the 2015 blends but his consultancy work officially started in the 2016 vintage so this will be the first Vivaltus vintage (16,000 bottles, due to be released in June at a high price) and El Jardín de Vivaltus (second wine, 39,000 bottles, 10% of unoaked wines fermented in Flextanks and amphorae).
Vivaltus protocols are being extended to the rest of the range. This includes earlier harvests (relying on the taste of grapes rather than phenolic ripeness), fermenting with neutral yeasts and no oxygen, and blending after malolactic fermentation.
Bordeaux grape varieties are used to obtain freshness. Cabernet Sauvignon, and to a lesser extent Merlot, are part of the blend in all wines. Their presence is also noticeable in the firmness of the palate and the herbal and spicy notes.
Montxo Martínez’s family has a long long-standing connection to wine. His great-grandfather founded Berberana in Rioja at the end of the 19th century; his winemaker father worked as for Faustino before joining the Yllera family and Montxo himself spent seven years in Argentina at a time when powerful Malbecs were the trendiest wines around. But Berrouet has completely changed their approach to wine: “We have gone back to the origins, to the elegant and refined wines that my father use to make; Berrouet has opened our eyes to give priority to elegance over extraction," Montxo points out.
This delicate, fine profile was particularly evident during the Duero wine tasting conducted by Luis Gutiérrez at the Duero International Wine Fest held in Burgos last October. Although unofficial, this was the first public presentation of Vivaltus to wine professionals.