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  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
  • Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero
1. Soria's landscape. 2. The bodega district of Ines. 3. Assorted wine vessels at Lunas de Castromoro. 4 and 5. Old vines. 6. Sand. 7. Working in the vineyards. Photo credits: A.C.

Spanish terroirs

Soria: where old vines make a difference in Ribera del Duero

Amaya Cervera | May 18th, 2021

“Soria represents what Ribera del Duero was like 30 years ago,” says Bertrand Sourdais, a French winemaker who fell in love with the region when he joined Dominio de Atauta. He later went on to launch Antídoto and Dominio de Es. Sourdais is one of the producers behind Viñas Viejas de Soria (Old Vines from Soria), an association established in February 2020 to “let the world know about our existence and to draw attention to the area’s precious old vine heritage,” he explains.

Together with Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha and Teruel in Aragón, Soria is one of the most sparsely populated provinces in Spain. Local producers often joke that there are more roe deers than inhabitants in the area. In fact, the region’s traditional vineyards -tiny plots that extend into woodland areas- are a target for local wildlife, hence the increasing number of fenced vineyards. In villages like Atauta, Villálvaro or Ines, vineyards are owned by many different growers, each tending two or three rows of vines. Boundaries are usually signposted, but you can tell the difference by the way the vines are grown.

“There are many plots that barely yield 150 kg,” says Sourdais, who complaints about the indifference of the local authorities towards the smallholdings in the area. In Villálvaro, Luis Mariano López, also a member of the association and the driving force behind Señorío de Villálvaro, explains that the standard way of measuring land property in the village are plants rather than hectares. He owns 7,000 vines.

The quest for elevation and freshness

Located at the eastern end of Ribera del Duero, the vineyards of Soria have always felt far-off, both physically and mentally. Besides the obvious distance from the region's major hotspots (La Horra and Aranda de Duero in Burgos, or Pesquera and Peñafiel in Valladolid), there are significant differences in terms of the character of the grapes and the styles of wines.

The mean altitude of Soria is the highest in the appellation. The Duero river flows through its main village, San Esteban de Gormaz (see photo below), at more than 850 metres above sea level, compared to approximately 800 metres in the case of Aranda de Duero in Burgos and 750 metres in Valbuena de Duero (Valladolid). A significant amount of its vineyards are grown at over 900 metres.

The freshness provided by the elevation is reinforced by the location of Soria between two mountain ranges, Sistema Ibérico and Sistema Central, which translates into more extreme growing conditions. As Sourdais explains, "the soils are not very different from other areas of Ribera de Duero; we have limestone, alluvial and red clay. It is the climate that makes the difference. Vines bud a week later and winter comes in earlier." This means higher frost risk, a shorter vineyard cycle and, particularly in cold vintages, ripening problems. For a long time and despite the unique wines and high scores of Dominio de Atauta in the early 2000s, Soria was seen as a risky venture. 

However, in a global warming context, Soria's vineyards are drawing renewed attention. Peter Sisseck buys here between 15% and 20% of the grapes for PSI, a cuvée sourced from traditional vineyards scattered across the appellation which implies dealing with 800 suppliers to produce 300,000 bottles. In Soria, Sisseck looks for limestone soils, which define the style of the wine, but he says that the small size of the vineyards make it very difficult to find good purveyors. He also finds that tannins in the area are somewhat rustic.

Rioja group Vintae has been producing red wines in Ribera since 2005. Called Bardos, their winery produces 300,000 bottles. From the very beginning Vintae wanted to produce fresh wines so they looked for high-altitude vineyards. Their first favourite spot was the moorland in Moradillo de Roa, but for the last five years they have been working with different purveyors in Soria, many of whom grow their vines in Villálvaro. At present, one third of all their grapes come from this province

The distinctive character of Soria appeals to many different palates. Two years ago, Alcubilla de Avellaneda 2015, the only red sourced from Soria in Legaris’s range of village wines, won the Spanish Red Trophy at the International Wine Challenge and was named best red in show from Ribera del Duero. Director and winemaker Jorge Bombín is a staunch advocate of the style of this village which he describes as gentle and refined. 

Low alcohol wines in the old days

Grapegrowing is deeply rooted in Soria as evidenced by its numerous bodega districts, the most notable of which is in Atauta -it was declared a site of Cultural Interest in 2017. Homemade wine competitions are still held in villages like San Esteban de Gormaz or Berlanga de Duero, a village outside the limits of the appellation. The harsh climate conditions meant that the wines were not particularly renowned in the past. A document written in 1791 compares them to the txakoli produced in the Basque Country. In the 1960s, geographer Alain Huetz de Lemps wrote: "Reds and claretes produced with the same varieties as in Ribera de Aranda hardly exceed 10 % alcohol." Wine consumption was largely local but part of the production was sold to nearby mountain areas that lacked vineyards, either to the north, in the region of Pinares, or to the south in Sierra de Pela, on the border with Guadalajara (Castilla-La Mancha).

Adolfo Tomás, a 75-year-old grower who has inherited several pre-phylloxera vineyards in Atauta, says that vines were grown by his family, as well as cereals, fodder and sheep livestock. “Wine was made in the bodegas district until a cooperative was established in San Esteban de Gormaz. The cooperative was one of the founding members of DO Ribera del Duero,” he recalls. In the past, it was relatively common to have wine presses which were shared among 20 or 30 different families. One of these presses is now restored, so paying a visit to Señorío de Villálvaro is a great way to learn about how wine was made here in the old days.

Climate change clearly benefits Soria. Tomás remembers well the times when grape prices were so low that they could hardly retain their vineyards. Luckily, things have changed. “It is the most profitable crop since the 2000s. You can make a living from it, but you need to have a certain amount of land, and with the current quality requirements, it is necessary to devote more time to the vines,” he points out. 

For David Hernando, a grower and partner of Sourdais at Bodegas Antídoto, the main challenge nowadays is the absence of farmers. “There is a gap of at least one generation; no one aged under 40 years is interested in winegrowing,” he says.    

Pre-phylloxera vines and Albillo Mayor

Out of 227 hectares of vines planted prior to 1900 in Ribera del Duero, 120 ha are in Soria according to official DO figures. They are found, in descending order, in Atauta, Langa de Duero, Bocigas de Perales, Alcubilla de Avellaneda, San Esteban de Gormaz and other villages.  The appellation’s new labelling requirements limit the mention “pre-pylloxera vineyard” to this small group of vines. In general terms, the province is a true treasure trove of old vines. Despite representing only 5% of the vineyards in Ribera del Duero, Soria boasts 25% of all the vineyards planted prior to 1950 totalling 638 hectares.

According to Agustín Alonso, technical director of the Consejo, this patchwork of ancestral plots represents a complex, fragmented reality. In fact, one of their most challenging tasks right now is to match the vineyard register of Castilla y León with the often incorrect data provided by SIGPAC (the Ministry of Agriculture's geographic mapping system for farming plots) in order to have a reliable overview of the vineyards in this area.

On my trips to Soria this year, I have enjoyed the beauty of hundred-year-old vineyards in Atauta, Ines, Villálvaro or Langa de Duero and discovered sites like Los Arenales (literally sandbank, as the soil resembles sand beach) in Miño de San Esteban. Atauta and Dominio de Es source some of their prized single vineyard wines from these areas, as do producers like Bodegas Gormaz, with the fine Finca Los Arenales. And we will see more wines in the future coming from these areas.  

Age of the vineyards   Ribera del Duero   Soria
Before 1900                                         227              120
1901-1930                                      1.146              204
1931-1950                                      2.636              638

The traditional wines from Soria were not reds but rosés. They were called clarete in Ribera, but in Soria they were referred to as “ojo de gallo” (rooster’s eye). These wines were the natural outcome of vineyards planted with 20% to 50% of white Albillo Mayor grapes. As they were of little interest, many were sadly uprooted. Fernando Ligero, vineyard manager at Bodegas Gormaz and with his own family project called Lunas de Castromoro, explains that farmers used to mix all the grapes in the winepress, treaded them and left them to rest for 24 hours before initiating the fermentation without previous destemming. Ligero himself says that 30% of his 3.3 ha under vine are Albillo Mayor plants. 

According to the Consejo, there are 100 ha of Albillo Mayor in Soria - nearly 8% of the total surface under vine- compared to 264 ha (1,5%) in Burgos and less than five hectares in Valladolid. Albillo has become an object of desire after white wines made with this variety were given the go-ahead in the appellation. Several members of the Viñas Viejas de Soria association already produce white wines and others like Bertrand Sourdais or Dominio de Atauta are set to release theirs soon. 

An eclectic group

With 14 members, the Viñas Viejas de Soria association has managed to attract wide representation. The flagship names of the region like Dominio de Atauta and Antídoto, and major producers like Bodegas Gormaz, which bought the facilities of the San Esteban cooperative, coexist with small, out-of-the-radar bodegas.

The case of Aranda De Vries, a tiny natural wine producer that is not part of the appellation, is unique. Ellen de Vries and her husband, painter and poet Carlos Aranda, fell in love with old vines and settled in Ines, a village in what is called España vacía (empty Spain), where they have created a small oasis. They have refurbished the small building that serves as a winery, the house where they live, a small rural lodging called Casa del Vino (house of wine), a woodshed and two old cellars in the ancient bodegas district. In addition, they have helped to restore and convert the old school into a museum. In the centre of the village, Carlos has built "the garden of wellbeing", a quiet outdoor space to sip a glass of wine while enjoying an exhibition of his paintings and sculptures.

Luis Mariano López’s efforts to build a producing winery in his village is equally praiseworthy. He dreams of making a living with wine one day and settling down in Villálvaro. As for Fernando Ligero, he has returned to his native Soria after working for almost 20 years in wineries like Bodegas Aragonesas, Muga, Ontañón or El Coto. In partnership with his two brothers, Ligero has set up a small family bodega where he makes skin-contact Albillo Mayor or ages wines in clay vessels.  

Even Valdeviñas, a producer committed to ageing wines for extended periods and whose Reserva 2010 is released later than Vega Sicilia Único, has joined the group. Based in Langa de Duero, close to the boundary with Burgos, Valdeviñas feels that Soria’s distinctive soils and old vine heritage are essential to the ageing potential of the region’s wines.

Other members include Terraesteban; Vino Taruguín, owned by Demencia from DO Bierzo; Rudeles, a family business launched by two brothers and their brothers-in-law with vineyards in Atauta, Peñalba de San Esteban and San Esteban de Gormaz. Bodegas Castillejo was born after the restructuration of vineyards in the village of Castillejo de Robledo; La Quinta Vendimia is the dream come true of 18 friends with connections to Soria who have entrusted winemaker Chicho Ossa to produce their wines. Finally, Señorío de Aldea is the brainchild of Daniel Heras, the grandson of one of the founders of the San Esteban de Gormaz cooperative. 

10 wines to discover Soria

Señorío de Villálvaro Albillo 2018 Blanco. €12 

Rayo de Luna Elaboración en Tinajas de Barro 2018 Tinto, Lunas de Castromoro. 16 € (set to be released in June 2021)

Rudeles Finca La Nación Old Vines 2016 Tinto. €19 

Dominio de Atauta 2017 Tinto. €25 

La Loba 2017 Tinto. €28 

12 Linajes Finca Los Arenales Tempranillo 2016, Bodegas Gormaz. €30 

Alcubilla de Avellaneda Vino de Pueblo 2017 Tinto, Legaris. €32 

Mirat Reserva 2004 Tinto, Bodegas Valdeviñas. €45 .

Dominio de Es Viñas Viejas de Soria 2018 Tinto. €74 

Clos Santuy 2017 Tinto, Galia (VT Castilla y León; grapes are sourced from Piquera de San Esteban, outside the limits of DO Ribera del Duero). €75 €


Bertrand Sourdais: the French winemaker who fell in love with Soria
Dominio de Atauta: making wine in a paradise of hundred-year-old vines
Exploring Ribera del Duero with maps and facts
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