Reactions to a tweet by newspaper El País at the end of January about the unemployment rate in Soria (4.35%) being similar to Norway’s and much lower than Sweden’s prompted a few ironic comments like “In a few years, when it becomes depopulated, it will be 100% active” or “How is there going to be unemployment in Soria when there are hardly any people left?”
With just over 90,000 inhabitants, Soria is the least populated province in Spain and the most remote of the four that make up the DO Ribera del Duero (Segovia plays a minor role). Although the cooperative of San Esteban de Gormaz was one of the founding members of the appellation, the surface under vine in Soria was under 1,250 hectares in October 2016 (less than 6% of the DO) compared to 4,723 hectares in Valladolid and 17,013 hectares in Burgos.
Isolation has enabled the Soria part of Ribera del Duero to preserve a grape-growing heritage that has been lost elsewhere in the appellation. Dominio de Atauta was the first producer to draw attention to this asset. Its driving force was Miguel Sánchez, a Soria-born wine merchant who made a name for himself in Madrid with his company Aseuniv. He laid out the history (like the charming winery district of Atauta, see photo above) and the landscape of old and pre-phylloxera vineyards in contrast with the glamorous "Golden Mile” —a handful of prestigious estates that line up the N-122 road to Valladolid— and the concentration of top vineyards around Roa, La Horra, Anguix or Pedrosa del Duero, in the province of Burgos.
Raised among vines at Domaine Pallus, the family estate in Chinon, in the Loire Valley, Bertrand Sourdais arrived at Dominio de Atauta at the end of 1999. At 23, Sourdais had studied with Ricardo Pérez Palacios in Bordeaux and had long experience working as an intern in Mouton Rothschild and Léoville-Las Cases (Bordeaux), Santa Rita (Chile) and with Álvaro Palacios, Ricardo’s uncle, in Priorat.
“I was always intrigued by Spain and everything behind the Pyrenees. People here are so different; there is a lively, vibrant social life.” Bertrand is fascinated by the way people just “meet, talk and communicate; it has an influence in the way they do business. I always used to meet Miguel [Sánchez] in bars,” he recalls. “In Soria, if you need something, it's best to go to the bar because everything revolves around this social movement,” he explains unaffectedly. The negative side of this, he says, “is the Latin mentality of day-to-day living and the absence of any long-term perspective."
Upon his arrival, when he saw the traditional way of making wine in Soria, the first thing he thought was that people were not good at it. “They blended white and red grapes in the press and after fermentation the wines would 'go back to work' in April [wines finished their alcoholic or malolactic fermentations in spring]. Then they decanted the barrels, transferred the wine to large demijohns and later to smaller ones to carry home for everyday consumption.”. Nowadays, Sourdais himself has brought back that tradition: he blends a small percentage of white grapes in his reds and a generous amount in his refined rosés.
The bond that the 20-year-old Frenchman had established with this region proved particularly strong when, following the acquisition of Dominio de Atauta by the Inveravante group, he returned to his native Chinon in August 2010. “I realised then that I didn't want to leave Spain and that I couldn’t leave behind my ten-year experience in a region with such potential for high-quality wines.”
That’s how he came to set up Antídoto (“My antidote against being laid off”) in partnership with local winemaker David Hernando, who for eight years had overseen the wines of Atalayas de Golbán, the second winery that Miguel Sánchez had established in the area. Some time later, Sourdais launched his most personal wine project in the area together with his partner Olga. Named Dominio de Es, it has a strong focus on very old vineyards in the village of Atauta.
According to Sourdais, the main strengths of Ribera del Duero’s least known province are its old vine heritage, high altitude and the new generation of young producers (we have recently reviewed La Loba and Viñedos y Bodegas Gormaz) working in the same direction.
Weather conditions in Soria are extreme -the average temperature is 1.1º C lower than in Valladolid and vineyards are usually found at elevations ranging from 900m to 1,000m. The Duero river flows at 850m as it passes through San Estaban de Gormaz and descends down to 790m in Aranda de Duero (Burgos) and 730m in Valbuena de Duero (Valladolid). The fact that the area is wedged between two major mountain ranges —the Sistema Central to the south and the Sistema Ibérico to the northeast— is an additional element for freshness. On a bright sunny day in February, the two snow-covered mountain ranges were clearly visible and it is this distinctive location which sets Soria apart from other areas in Ribera del Duero.
This location also entails a greater risk of hail and frost both in spring (less so in 2017 because budbreak is usually later here) and during the harvest. "The numbers don't add up here,” admits Bertrand. Isn't this an insurance to keep the large groups at bay?
Sourdais' first rule is to spread risk. At Antídoto, grapes are sourced from a whopping 600 plots (fragmentation is huge here as there was virtually no land consolidation) distributed in 10 villages. The range of wines is marked by soil variations (even grape growing and pruning can vary from one village to another).
The entry-level Antídoto is made with grapes grown on sandy, gravelly soils like those in Soto de San Esteban on the left bank of the Duero river. Sand and limestone are common in this area producing wines with supple tannins. The purpose is to make an easy-drinking red “to have with friends at the bar”. La Hormiga de Antídoto, in contrast, comes from iron-rich red clay soils on the right bank of the river under the influence of the Sistema Ibérico. The 2018 barrel sample I tasted had floral and liquorice notes followed by a firm, yet enveloping palate.
Grapes for both of the rosés (the entry-level Roselito and the premium Le Rosé) come from Miño de San Esteban, in the southern end of the valley. White grapes are more common here, usually found on limestone soils. Soria accounts for 30% of all the Albillo grown in Ribera del Duero, indicating its wealth of old vines. From his point of view, Bertrand thinks that Tempranillo works best when blended: “In Rioja it is mixed with other red varieties; in Ribera we blend it with Albillo,” he says.
With fine fennel and floral notes, the 2018 Roselito includes 30% of Albillo. Le Rosé de Antídoto (2,400 bottles, over €50) is Sourdais’ attempt at making a great terroir-driven rosé. Grapes are sourced from La Casilla, a small vineyard at 1,000m of altitude with 30 to 50cm of sand on limestone rock. The wine is fermented and aged in two 600-litre barrels from the Darnajou cooperage. Both rosés are made by direct pressing.
After almost 20 vintages in Soria, Sourdais thinks that he has evolved as much as his wines. His perceptions of the landscape have changed too. “Cold areas with eastern and northern exposures are my favourites right now, but I have had to learn when to pick grapes in order to avoid 'al dente' tannins,”, he explains. He is also keen to avoid “hiding the character of the year” because vintage variation is important to him. In his wines, Sourdais also likes to capture the bright luminosity of Spain’s which he tris to translate into “transparent, pure wines.”
Regarding grape growing, he acknowledges that he now cares more for “the well-being of the plant rather than for making a great wine. My 20 years of experience have given me the confidence,” he says. The new winery where he works since the 2016 vintage was also a turning point in terms of winemaking.
Sourdais would like old vineyards to gain some sort of protection status. He says that no wine made with old vines should be sold below €6 ex cellars. “This region has treated me well; I have been able to fulfill my dream of making great wine and I feel that I must do something to return the favour.”
In his opinion, there is much to preserve: "Approximately half of the surface under vine in Soria predates the arrival of clones in the 1970s. Genetic diversity is essential to make wines with soul. In France we are paying dearly for clones in the form of wood diseases that decimate our vineyards every year. Heterogeneity is a natural barrier to these threats,” he concludes.
In this context, the vineyards in the village of Atauta are paradise. No wonder this is the place he chose for Dominio de Es wines, a project involving 25 plots occupying just 3.5 hectares. All of them are rented for 15 years with the exception of La Diva and La Mata, the source of his two scarce and expensive single-vineyard reds.
Grapes for La Diva (less than 500 bottles, €425 and €590 per bottle) are sourced from a small plot at the end of a narrow valley that is protected by a knoll near the ancient bodega district of Atauta. The soil is pure sand on a limestone subsoil. In contrast La Mata (around €390, 600 bottles) has a subsoil of pure chocolate-coloured clay that can be moulded as if it were plasticine (see photo on the slider above). It is a seven-hectare site with 13 different soils and 14 owners. Sourdais works a vineyard that was registered as old in 1904. Protected by a small hill, it is the first to be protected from the afternoon sun.
The only wine under €100 is Dominio de Es (6,000 bottles, €70). Grapes are sourced from vineyards on sandy limestone soils that Bertrand considers to have a premier cru quality. All of his Dominio de Es wines are Albillo blends but while the single-vineyard reds are fully destemmed, some whole bunches go to this cuvée. The 2016 vintage, now on release, shows the distinctive depth of old vines together with an earthy background and floral notes. The label reads "Viñedos Viejos de Soria" (Old Vineyards from Soria), the essential message that should reach consumers. It would surely help to identify this area as one of the top sources of the finest Riberas.
VINTAGES IN SORIA: BERTRAND SOURDAIS' GUIDE
As is common in France, Sourdais usually distinguishes between solar and lunar vintages depending on whether flowering takes place before (solar) or after (lunar) the summer solstice of June 21. With its altitude and cold climate, Soria tends to follow the lunar style, but the impact of climate change has also been felt in the region. Overall quality can vary from other areas in Ribera del Duero as in 2007. It is worth comparing Sourdais’ opinions with those of Jesús Sastre a couple of years ago based on his experience in La Horra (Burgos), some 70 kilometres west of Atauta.