This female-led winery from Aragon eludes all the clichés usually associated with cooperatives. Their exporting drive and ability to forge alliances with powerful partners has resulted in a qualitative breakthrough.
Travel companions include Eric Solomon, a renowned Spanish wine importer in the US; Gallo, the world’s largest wine company, responsible for 3% of the global wine supply in 2020; and the small but ambitious joint venture with Bodegas Frontonio to produce the range of Cuevas de Arom.
San Alejandro sources grapes from 950 hectares of vines (1,250 plots) owned by 15 families in the region. Of these, 300 hectares are organically certified making the cooperative the largest farmer of organic surface under vine in Aragón. For years, they have been flying the flag of high-elevation, mountain Garnacha at various price ranges. They also managed to stay away from the heavy extractions and generous new oak fashion and continued to produce mostly straightforward, fruit-driven wines.
The cooperative makes good use of the high elevation of their vineyards (800 to 1,075 metres), which means slow ripening cycles and a wide diversity of soils, ranging from slate to gravel and chalk-clay to a lesser extent.
Such flawless track record has a lot to do with the commitment and long-term vision of managing director Yolanda Díaz. Born in Catalayud, the region’s main town, she has always sought to look further afield. She graduated in Business Administration at an international University and spent part of her studies in the United States. Upon her return home, she was hired to set up the export department of Bodegas San Alejandro. As she felt at ease in the wine business, she took a Master's degree in Oenology, Viticulture and Marketing in Zaragoza. A few years later, the cooperative was exporting 97% of its production -at present, this figure stands at 85%.
In 2003, she was promoted into management, thus enabling her to make decisions at a time when there were still many elderly members and the generational handover had not yet taken place. "It was very hard for me, particularly getting to understand the areas of the company that I was not familiar with (balance sheets, investments, renegotiating with the banks...). I wanted to have an informed opinion and contribute my bit, but I also wanted to earn the people’s trust. I think the fact that I am a woman slowed down this process, but subsequently it has no longer been a problem."
With her calm, gentle manners, Yolanda talks convincingly through the logic of her arguments and her understanding of the markets, the winery and the region's potential. She knows the company’s roots, its strengths and its potential. She has the confidence of someone who has been striving to get things right for 25 years.
What is her secret? "I have a good team of very valuable people. Investing in human resources has been crucial and I had the full support of the cooperative’s members. I was given the freedom to choose, perhaps because things were working out. We knew that winemaking and viticulture were essential," she points out.
In this regard, she praises the versatility of the current technical team formed by Juan Vicente Alcañiz and Jorge Temprado (both with their own personal projects in Aragón) and the consultancy services provided over two decades by Languedoc-Roussillon oenologist and producer Jean-Marc Lafage. "We met whilst Lafage was working for a Belgian company that was looking into developing a project with us. When I was able to take decisions, I asked him to be our consultant. At the beginning he used to visit us regularly; now he comes twice or three times a year and we are more focused on trends and future prospects.”
Opening up to international markets has been a great source of inspiration for San Alejandro. "Working with certain importers has helped us to establish quality productive processes and protocols," Yolanda explains.
Eric Solomon had already introduced Garnacha from Priorat to the US when a German friend who worked for Capçanes discovered Baltasar Gracián Viñas Viejas and strongly recommended it to him. The collaboration with Solomon was the origin of Las Rocas de San Alejandro, one of the great successes of Spanish wine in the US. At that time Robert Parker was still tasting Spain, and he gave 93 points to the first 2001 Las Rocas vintage, making it the highest scoring wine in Calatayud.
The strength of the brand led Gallo to buy the rights to sell it in the US in 2008, while Solomon focused on Evodia, the new partnership he had with San Alejandro to make high-altitude Garnacha wines –fresher and more aromatic.
"At the beginning, everything was very formal with Gallo's technical team," Díaz explains, "but the communication became much more fluid over time and they would tell us about projects that we found inspiring. They were also very clear about the fact that they wanted to learn from our Garnachas and preserve the character of the region".
Wine tourism, in fact, was born out of San Alejandro's considerable exporting activity. As the number of American visitors increased, the cooperative realised that they needed to have suitable facilities to welcome guests and show the project at its best. Nowadays there is a reservation-only restaurant and the atmosphere is special and relaxed, combining paintings, murals and interior design to fill almost all the rooms of the bodega with original and welcoming spots.
The facilities have a coherent layout and are divided into spaces to meet different needs and wines styles. The original concrete tanks dating from 1962 are still in use, as well as a sister warehouse built soon after. They like the temperature inertia of the concrete tanks coated with epoxy. Indeed, Juan Vicente Alcañiz believes that temperature is an important part of the "terroir of the bodega."
The old ageing cellar was transformed into a fermentation room to house the new range of organic wines. More remarkable for a cooperative, a separate winery was built in 2017 to vinify the premium wines. This is where the Cuevas de Arom project is based. "As we gradually learned more about the vineyard, we wanted to make wines with greater attention to detail," explains Yolanda. "Now we are able to make practically artisanal wines, but we can also make wines with high turnover and volume and similar precison,” Yolanda claims.
San Alejandro's most distinctive vineyards stretch along the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountain range in the southeastern tip of the region. This includes the villages of Alarba, Acered, Atea and Murero, the latter being the result of the extension of the DO in 2022. In this area, they control some 300 hectares which produce just about 500,000, at most 600,000 kg of grapes. This gives an idea of the old age and low yields of these dry-farmed, mostly goblet trained vineyards.
This is why, along with Garnacha, it is common to find small amounts of Provechón (the local name for Bobal), Moristel or Concejón, Miguel de Arco and Vidao. "This is a poor area with no Cabernet or Merlot. 80% of the surface is covered by Garnacha," the winemaking team explains. Grapes for Cuevas de Arom are also sourced from here.
In this area of influence of the Sistema Ibérico mountain range, the vineyards lie at high elevation (800 to 1,075m) on old, evolved soils. Slate prevails, mixed with varying amounts of clay that retain water, helping plants to withstand the scorching conditions of 2022. Quartzite and gravel are also present.
"Calatayud should be the stronghold of old, dry-farmed vineyards and, if possible, goblet-trained," explains Alcañiz. Both he and Jorge Temprado can tell the difference between wines from dry-farmed and irrigated vineyards in a blind tasting. "Irrigated vineyards show less depth and varietal clarity. Dry-farmed, goblet-trained vineyards feel fleshier; quality in dry-farmed trellised Garnacha is related to yields," they point out.
The other major source of vines for San Alejandro is the adjacent valley to the east, crossed by the Perejiles river and demarcated by the Vicort mountain range. Here, in the village of Miedes, the cooperative has its winemaking facilities. This is a much larger valley with clay soils in the areas close to the river bed, where trellises prevail. Plots gradually become smaller as vines ascend towards the mountains and approach forest areas; soils turn whitish due to the abundance of calcium carbonate, although gravel can also be found.
San Alejandro classifies vineyards into four quality stages: the basic level, which they call báscula (scales), with yields adjusted to the maximum allowed by the DO; levels B and A, with decreasing yields and increasing management requirements; and "extra" for the best quality, linked to the age of the vines.
"Even though we have plenty of room in the winery, we have just three weeks to handle four million kilos of grapes," Alcañiz explains. San Alejandro produces an average of 2.8 million bottles; the rest is sold in bag-in-box and 1,5-litre pouches mainly destined to Norway. The successful brand for this market is Marques de Nombrevilla, a straightforward, spicy, young mountain Garnacha that is sold in all three packages.
Garnacha is expressed to the full in the Baltasar Gracián range (400,000 bottles altogether), named after the famous 17th century writer born in Calatayud. My personal favorite is the fresh, floral, crisp and expressive El Político (€7), a great introduction to the region’s mountain climate. Grapes from old vines picked relatively early are briefly aged in concrete tanks. Whilst El Héroe Viñas Viejas (€11) is riper and more creamy, the Crianza and Reserva include some Syrah in the blend.
Retailing at €16 in Spain, Clos Baltasar used to be San Alejandro's top red. Grapes are sourced from high-elevation vineyards in the Sierra Santa Cruz and the wine is a field-blend, partially fermented with whole bunches and aged in concrete and French oak. The 2020 vintage has the depth expected from old vines and plenty of aromatic herb notes.
Cuevas de Arom, the joint venture with Bodegas Frontonio, “gives us the chance to enter a premium price segment and explore processes that we had not developed thoroughly before,” Yolanda explains.
On Frontonio's side, Fernando Mora MW not only praises the quality of the vineyards and the chance to choose the most suitable for his wines, but also of “the people, the trust of Yolanda and her team and the technical skills of winemakers Jorge and Juan Vicente who, together with Mario López and myself, form a committed, inspiring team. Everything happened at the right time. They wanted to launch different Garnachas and make those plots shine, and we believed that a partnership could accomplish it".
Organic growing is another strong focus for the future. This year will see the launch of the Querencia range including orange and sulfite-free wines. "The goal is to eventually turn the whole winery green with many of our wines going organic in the future," Díaz explains. The transition, on the other hand, proved to be relatively easy, given the good sanitary conditions in the area. "Cooperative members have understood that this is an important step to retain markets and have more marketing tools. In addition, the conversion has not meant lower yields or extra work," she notes.
No doubt that San Alejandro’s organisational approach is a great model for all those Spanish cooperatives in need of a turnaround.