Located in the province of Soria, in the eastern end of Ribera del Duero, Atauta is one of the most fascinating places in the appellation. Declared a site of Cultural Interest in 2017, the ancient bodega district lies at the foot of the village in the centre of a small valley stretching along four kilometres from east to west. It is proof of a long, prosperous relationship between man and vines. The scenery, with small plots planted with hundred-year-old, mostly pre-phylloxera vines and gentle slopes, has remained virtually unchanged over the last century and a half.
One cannot help thinking that a place exuding so much energy must produce wines of great personality. Beyond the excitement that such a backdrop of surviving vines brings to any wine lover, it is comforting to discover this somewhat hidden and wild landscape, far removed from the flashier and more renowned side of Ribera.
From my first visit to Atauta, during the days preceding the harvest more than a decade ago, I can still recall the fragrant scent of aromatic herbs in the vineyards and the imposing vultures flying over the valley.
Jaime Suárez, technical director at Dominio de Atauta, the producer that put this remote region on the map of fine wines, says that the distinctive character of the area is the result of several factors: “The balance between elevation, climate and geographic location, together with the complexity provided by the soils and the old vines.”
Soria-born wine merchant Miguel Sánchez fell in love with the place and launched the first Dominio de Atauta wines in the 2000 vintage. In the late 2000s, the estate was acquired by Avante Selecta, a group owned by the Jové family which was later renamed Terra Selecta. So far, three winemakers have left their mark in the wines. Frenchman Bertrand Sourdais went on to establish his own project in Soria and is a leading producer in Ribera; Almudena Alberca MW now oversees the wines at Viña Mayor on the western end of the appellation, and Jaime Suárez, with ample experience in Toro, joined the winery in time for the 2016 harvest. He says Atauta is above the people and adds that the valley shapes the character of the wines.
As we walk across the vineyards on a cloudy February morning, Jaime mentions the optimum sanitary conditions of the grapes that grow here. All of their vineyards are planted at 920 metres or higher, so elevation is a key quality factor. So is the constant wind given that the area is wedged between two major mountain ranges: Sistema Central and Sistema Ibérico. Sharp temperature changes in the days leading up to the harvest are more pronounced in this part of the DO. "We go from 25-30ºC during the day to 4-6ºC at night; this prevents botrytis, which has no incidence below 10ºC," Suárez points out. More surprisingly, the region did not suffer downy mildew in 2020, a year which saw widespread attacks of the fungus all over Spain. And wood diseases are non-existent here.
In contrast, they face heavy frosts and have to cope with roe deers and wild boars -hence the fenced vineyards. Given the tiny size of plots, it is relatively common for growers to join forces to protect their grapes. Smallholdings are the norm here. The 40 hectares of vines overseen by Dominio de Atauta (half of them are their own; the other half belong to local growers) are distributed in no less than 600 plots! According to the producer, these plots represent 85% of the pre-phylloxera vines remaining in the valley. Boundaries are usually signposted with small boards like the ones pictured below.
“As we have a better knowledge of our plots, we are fermenting a larger number of them separately. For instance, we used to do a field blend of the grapes from La Mata, but we now separate high, medium and lower areas,” stresses Suárez. Differences are not only the result of varying soils but also of the work carried out by the various growers.
Vineyards in Atauta stretch along the central area of the valley and a little bit southwards. One kilometre further down, San Juan is a small valley running parallel to Atauta -grapes for the most subtle wine in the portfolio are sourced from here. Altogether, 25 different terroirs have been established.
According to Suárez, vines in the valley are all ungrafted, except for a 90-year-old plot. Phylloxera cannot survive in sandy soils and these are dominant in Atauta. The oldest vines are in La Roza and are believed to be 165 years old. Tempranillo is the dominant grape both here and in rest of the appellation. Given the narrow vine spacing inherited from the old days, all the work is done by hand.
The winemaker at Dominio de Atauta praises the efforts of Ismael Sanz to recover neglected vineyards. Sanz, who is in charge of viticulture since 2010, has been focusing in recent years in La Roza and San Juan, two sites that used to produce single-vineyard wines in the early 2000s but were discontinued for some time and resumed in the 2013 vintage. Dead vines are usually replaced with plant material from the same plot. If a plant can be saved, they proceed as explained by Suárez in the video (in Spanish).
Under the common pattern of a limestone bedrock with varying amounts of sand and clay, Atauta represents, according to Suárez, a true “soil patchwork”. The depth of the bedrock varies from merely 70 cm. at La Mala to two metres in the bottom of the valley -unsurprisingly, this area is known as El Hondo (the deep).
The soils determine the style of the wines in the range. The entry-level red Parada de Atauta (the 2017 vintage costs €17.20 at Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher) is the only wine in the portfolio to blend grapes from outside the valley. Suárez looks for sandy soils to obtain gentle wines with round tannins for immediate consumption. Grapes are sourced from San Juan and the Ines valley which extends eastwards. Fermentation is carried out in concrete tanks and the wine is aged in French oak with 50% new barrels. They now are trying to increase the number of 300-litre casks. The current 2017 release shows generous red fruit and blueberries and very nice acidity for a relatively early harvest.
Given that Soria is a cold area with late budding, the frost at the end of April was less devastating than in other parts of Ribera del Duero. In fact, final yields here increased 3% and 2017 is considered to be an amazing vintage.
Dominio de Atauta (€25.95 at Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher) aims to epitomise the valley’s distinctive character. Grapes are sourced from vineyards planted on clay soils in the centre of the valley. According to Suárez, “clay soils result in fresher wines, with distinctive red fruit, full body, lower pH and higher acidity.” Between 10 and 12 sites are usually blended in. “Whenever possible, wines are aged separately; then we look for typicity in the blend,” he says. The 2017 vintage has the fragrant quality that distinguishes the estate (dried herbs, violets, lavender) with dairy notes, fruit preserve and a rich, silky palate with smoother tannins than in the past.
The vintage on release for single-vineyard wines is 2014. It was a good year, but it lacks the freshness of 2017. There were plenty of water supplies thanks to the generous rain in winter and early spring, but drought marked the rest of the vine growth cycle. Climate change notwithstanding, Soria usually stands out because grapes bud and ripen later than in other areas of Ribera del Duero. Take 2015, an easy vintage with good ripeness in most of the appellation. But things were a little trickier here. Frost meant that none of the single-vineyard reds were produced that year. In contrast, 2016 was an excellent year -fresh, balanced and with higher yields than usual.
It was very interesting to do a horizontal tasting of all of the 2014 single-vineyard reds, one of the latest vintages overseen by Almudena Alberca MW, and 2016, Jaime Suárez’s inaugural vintage. It was also helpful for me as I could go through the distinctive features of each site. After all, Dominio de Atauta was one of the first producers in Spain to adopt a Burgundian approach. Grapes are usually cold-macerated for a few days before fermentation in stainless steel tanks and the wines are aged in second use French oak barrels. Some of the changes introduced under Jaime’s guidance include harvesting slightly earlier and extra malolatic fermentations in barrel.
We have published several pictures provided by the winery showing the plots whose grapes go the different wines. They are listed in the same order as I tasted them. Unfortunately, due to the limited bottlings and high prices these wines are not within everyone’s reach.
Llanos del Almendro. Located on a north-facing slope, this is one of the terraces clearly visible from the winery. It is planted with 140-year-old vines at 940 m elevation (the bottom of the valley stands at 920 metres). Out of the plot’s 2.32 ha, only 1.39 ha distributed in 19 plots make their way into the bottle. The soils are sandy and the limestone bedrock lies 1.20 m below. With fresh herbal aromas, 2016 opened up quickly and felt more expressive and expansive than 2014. The latter was more fruit-driven with some mint and lavender aromas and powerful on the mid-palate. Price: €115.90 via Wine Searcher.
La Mala. The site stands on a gently sloping, north-facing terrace on the eastern edge of the valley. This is the shallowest vineyard: 0.60 m of sand and 0.10 of clay before reaching the bedrock. It is formed by 10 tiny plots covering 0.70 hectares whose grapes go to this bottling. Five of them are owned by Dominio de Atauta; the rest are in the hands of five different growers. These are 130-year-old vines at 950 m elevation. The name “La Mala” (the bad) might refer to the poor yields of the Tempranillo clone found on this site with distinctive loose bunches. The wine is mineral, full and deep, less fruit-driven but with evocative aromatic herbs on the background. Whereas the lovely texture of the 2014 wraps the tannins well adding finesse, 2016 is more exuberant, with distinctive minty aromas. Both vintages share a distinctive chalky minerality. Price: between €90 and €115.90 via Wine Searcher.
Valdegatiles. To the right of Llanos del Almendro if you look at the valley from Atauta or the winery, Valdegatiles is a north-facing plot at 930 m elevation with completely different soils: two metres of red clay over the limestone bedrock providing a distinctive character to this wine from the rest of the range. The site comprises 15 plots totalling 1.62 hectares but only nine (1.09 Ha.) are used to produce the wine. According to Jaime, these 120-year-old vines have the lowest pH and are highly consistent, so more bottles are filled than in the other single-vineyard wines (between 1,200 and 1,400). It took quite a while for the 2014 to open up but it finally displayed cocoa, mint, liqueur chocolate and dried herbs aromas. Sapid, well-defined and consistent, the almost explosive finish made it particularly memorable. 2016 was fresher and more expressive on the nose with highly evocative herbal aromas. Very good on the palate too: juicy, with firm, nicely integrated tannins and notable persistence. Price: €115 via Wine Searcher.
San Juan. On a parallel valley one kilometre south of Atauta, this is a south-facing vineyard. 18 plots on 2.28 ha have been recovered so far but only seven (see chart; 0,45 ha) are farmed for this wine. It is planted with 140-year-old vines and stands at 959 m elevation. These are extremely poor soils with a 1.2 m layer of sand with very little clay and lime content resulting in a particularly subtle wine within the range. The 2014 was very closed at the beginning but developed beautifully to display cocoa and aromatic herb aromas. It’s so delicate that I think it would have liked to taste it before Valdegatiles. 2016 was deeper and longer with a very complex nose, probably benefiting from a fresher vintage. As a result of the very limited production (300-400 bottles), San Juan costs twice the price of the previous wines, so for the time being this is beyond the reach of most wine lovers. Price: €230.15 at the winery online store.
La Roza. Back to Atauta valley, this site lies on one of the stretches of land extending southwards. It stands at a higher elevation (965 m) and looks wilder as it is surrounded by a holm oak forest. Soil compositon is complex featuring one metre of sand with gravel over a thin layer of sand with clay, and an additional metre of clay. Covering 2.39 ha, only three plots totalling 0.24 ha are used for the wine. This site is being recovered, so only 300 bottles of the 2014 vintage were made, but in 2016 they managed to double production. This was the freshest and juiciest of all the 2014s, with lovely texture, depth, persistence and very fine firm and fully ripe tannins. The same pattern emerged in the 2016 vintage showing the biggest potential of the flight. It is a pity that once again, price and scarcity will make this wine pretty elusive. Price: €230.15 at the winery online store.