Since he made the first 1975 Tinto Pesquera, Alejandro Fernández has been listening to his heart. An unconventional winemaker who will turn 83 on August 11th, he has always been –and still is– completely indifferent to fashion trends. Alejandro just keeps on crafting the wines he likes to drink: powerful, fruit-driven Tempranillo reds capable of ageing.
It was a pleasure meeting him a few days ago in his hometown of Pesquera del Duero (Valladolid, Castilla y León), where everything started. This small village on the banks of the river Duero (pop. under 500) would have remained just another Ribera wine-producing enclave if it were not for Alejandro and his Tinto Pesquera. The label —redesigned over the years as shown in the collages above— displays the entrance arch to Pesquera’s main square where Alejandro drove me to. As we passed along a lookout where retired village people usually gather, Alejandro rolled down the car window and said to them: “I hope it takes me very long to join you here.”
Despite his age, Fernández is not retired and looks amazingly energetic. He gets up at 6am to visit Dehesa La Granja, his wine estate in Zamora, and comes back home for lunch at Pesquera. He seems to know every nook and cranny in his winery, including the new visitor centre whose construction he personally oversees. It will encompass a restaurant and, more important for collectors, a shop selling old vintages, magnums and other large format Pesquera, Janus and Millenium bottles.
There are currently over 20 wineries established in Pesquera de Duero but things were rather different in the 70s when beet and cereal crops were far more profitable than wine. Alejandro Fernández started to make a living selling and later manufacturing beet harvesters. His small business, which was locally known as mini-Fasa (a playful take on the big Fasa-Renault car factory in nearby Valladolid), managed to produce 300 units per year together with various patents that provided the financial backbone to follow his father’s passion and launch his wine venture. “I wanted to make a wine in my own way together with my wife and my family; a great wine like the ones that used to be made in the past; a wine that would be known worldwide,” he explains.
The goal has been fully accomplished. Fernández and his family own a small red wine empire which spreads across the Duero and beyond and employs around 130 people. It includes 270 hectares of vines in and around Pesquera del Duero, 250 Ha. for his second brand in Ribera (Condado de Haza in Roa, Burgos) and 130 Ha. in Zamora (Dehesa La Granja) whose wines are sold as VT Castilla y León. His La Mancha red wine, called El Vínculo, sources its grapes from local growers. In recent years, the family business has expanded onto wine tourism with its Pesquera AF hotel in Peñafiel, a village near Pesquera.
Alejando’s wife Esperanza has been instrumental in building the company. Their four daughters, Lucía, Olga, Mari Cruz and Eva manage the business with Eva, who trained as a winemaker in Spain and France, overseeing the winemaking.
The first Pesquera vintages were vinified at an old lagar shared by Alejandro’s father with other local producers. It has been carefully restored and visitors are shown a video explaining how it worked. It’s worth noting that the Ribera del Duero appellation was created in 1982 with only seven wineries (today there are over 282); surface under vine has increased from 6,560 hectares in 1985 (according to data provided by the Consejo Regulador) to 21,993 Ha. in 2014.
Steve Metzler, Pesquera’s importer in the US, first heard about Alejandro in the late 1970s. He read in a Spanish publication about Alejandro’s solitary efforts to establish new vineyards in Ribera. The label also seemed promising. “Information about wines from France, Italy and Germany was widely available, but Spain –especially the areas that most interested me– required a visit,” says Metzler. He was unable to meet Alejandro on that first trip to Spain, but he managed to purchase some bottles to carry home. His colleagues in Seattle were so taken by them that he returned to Spain a few months later.
Pesquera rose to international acclaim after Robert Parker gave high scores to the 1982 vintage and described the wine as “the Spanish Petrus”. This occurred immediately after the powerful US critic had made a big name for himself judging the legendary 1982 vintage in Bordeaux.
Almudena de Llaguno, Metzler’s wife and partner at their Seattle-based import company Classical Wines, recalls Pesquera 1982 as “really impressive and completely different from any other Spanish wine”.
Paco Berciano, who has been distributing Pesquera in Burgos since the 1986 vintage, has known Alejandro for almost 30 years. “The man is absolutely entwined around his wine”, says Berciano. “Pesquera brought a big revolution to Spanish wine at a time when light Rioja reds were the main choice. Alejandro created a completely different style of powerful, full-bodied deep-coloured reds.”
José Luis González Cledera, who at the time was head buyer at Vinoselección, Spain’s largest wine club, recalls he didn’t like the wines when he first tried them. “They were too tannic and structured, with no elegance in them; they even felt as if they had fermented with stems —which was quite usual in Pesquera’s earlier vintages”. Despite being so different, they were selected for the club a couple of years later and have been offered to members ever since.
From an international point of view, Meltzer says that Parker has catapulted many wines to fame, but thinks the case of Pesquera is different. “Alejandro Fernández was at the forefront of one of the greatest wine stories in the 20th century: the late renaissance of an old and truly noble wine region which was subsequently responsible for the international rebirth of the entire Spanish wine sector. This story has fascinated the press and the international public”.
Alejandro Fernández is not just a highly intuitive character. He firmly believes in what he does and is comfortable going against the tide. Moreover, he skips most classifications and his winemaking practices can sometimes feel contradictory.
He pioneered wine growing in Ribera’s plateau. How did he come to think about it? “Anyone who has hiked to the area’s hills knows that a jacket is not needed in the afternoon, but once you are back in the village the jacket becomes necessary. At night, however, temperature is far lower in the plateau”. This surely must be the most singular description of day and night temperature changes, a key element to achieve optimum ripeness in Ribera del Duero wines.
He is not a traditionalist either. Although grapes are harvested by hand, all of his vines are trellised and include drip irrigation systems. Alejandro is convinced that in very hot years extra water must be supplied to plants “in order to avoid roots sucking too much from grapes”.
He is convinced that the most crucial element in winemaking is the harvest. “Grapes must be picked with smooth skins, just like the stretched, wrinkle-free face of a young lady,” he famously likes to say. But he may pick earlier or later than others. “I don’t care about the calendar; neither people nor grapes have calendars”. Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus values Alejandro’s contribution to “bring balance to the region, especially at a time when extreme ripeness was the norm in Ribera”. For his part, José Luis González Cledera has always regarded Alejandro as a great wine grower.
Pesquera reds are notable for their pronounced varietal expression and generous fruit-driven character. “I have never filtered neither used egg whites,” says Alejandro categorically, who pioneered this technique in Spain. Paco Berciano remembers that the winery gave away decanters with the wine in the early days. “Alejandro didn’t filter the wines because he thought they would lose flavour; not that he really knew that; he was just an intuitive winemaker”.
Tempranillo (and this is an open secret) is Alejandro’s great love. How many times have we heard him saying it is the best grape variety in the world? All his reds, whether they come from Ribera del Duero, Zamora or La Mancha are made with local Tempranillo clones. In the early days he only used American oak for ageing but French barrels have been progressively introduced in most of his wineries.
He has his own ritual to serve wine, which he has maintained over the years. He uses a two-prong corkscrew and a decanter; wines are served cool, around 12-13ºC, at cellar temperature. He never tries to describe aromas or flavours; he just points out how good the wines taste and that’s it.
Everyone who knows him well acknowledge his commercial skills. As effective as they are atypical, Alejandro is all about getting as many people as possible to taste his wines regardless of their social status or location —he has even offered Pesquera on board a flight to the US.
One of Alejandro’s happiest days, José Luis González Cledera recalls, was his first visit to Zalacaín at the time when the restaurant was considered to be the best in Madrid. Cledera introduced Alejandro to sommelier Custodio Zamarra and they drunk a bottle of Janus. Alejandro rejoiced when he found out how expensive it was on the wine list.
Zalacaín would become a reference point to drink Pesquera. “Alejandro would personally bring the wines, usually including some rare and old bottles that couldn’t be found anywhere else,” Zamarra explains. When he came to dine he used to ask Custodio to pour his wine to other diners. “Then he would rise from his chair and approach them to tell them how good his wines were”. Some distinguished guests that were offered Pesquera at Zalacaín in such an unconventional manner were the US ambassador to Spain and the late Atlético de Madrid soccer team president Juan Gil, who was dining with well-known Spanish writer Camilo José Cela. Both of them by the way were dining with water.
But Alejandro also offered his wine to a large group of builders who were having lunch at an inexpensive restaurant on his way back from the Basque Country, recalls Paco Berciano, who accompanied him.
Don’t expect Alejandro Fernández to lead a formal tasting. Rather unorthodoxly, he would rather use some of his legendary sentences like “wine is good to make love” or “no one gets drunk or has a headache after drinking Pesquera”. Inappropriate? Perhaps, but everyone remembers him.
“Regardless of their country of origin”, says Almudena de Llaguno, who has hosted innumerable tastings with Alejandro, “everyone in the room ends up singing his Pesquera songs at the end of his presentations”.
Don’t expect a boutique or glamorous winery. No micro-winemaking takes place here; instead, big stainless steel vats with no cooling jackets are the norm with simple windows to air the cellar. Ah, and Alejandro never reveals production figures.
He is specially proud of his 10,000 m2 underground cellars (“as big as a soccer field”, he proclaims) where bottles age at a constant 12ºC with plenty of humidity due to the proximity of the Duero river. His personal collection of old Pesqueras is quite impressive. Most of the bottles are stored in vertical position as he finds the wines taste better this way.
While visiting the winery we tasted the highly consistent 2014, which was being barreled, and a 2013 with rather green tannins. I asked him what he looks for at this stage and he answered: “Fruit, acidity and body”. I was surprised by the quality of the tannins in the recently released Pesquera Reserva 2011 and the way they were seamlessly integrated in the wine. Once again Alejandro pointed to picking dates as a crucial factor.
Having in mind that Alejandro Fernández is such an intuitive person, it comes as no surprise that he has occasionally bottled specific wines other than his Crianza and Reserva which, it must be said, he has kept at surprisingly moderated prices at least in Spain (the Crianza retails at around €16 while the Reserva can be purchased for €25-30). His premium range includes Janus, which he launched in the 1980s (it has been made in 1982, 1986, 1991, 1994, 1995 and 2003, according to the winery’s records) and Millenium, which dates from the 1990s and has been made in 1996, 2002 and 2004. Some Pesquera Gran Reserva (no vintages provided by the winery in this case) can also be included in this group. These wines, along with some old vintages of Pesquera Reserva, is what he calls his “elderly wines”. As with people, he hates to use the word “old”.
The main difference between Janus and Millenium is that the former comes from the best Viña Alta plots while grapes for the latter are sourced at El Llano de Santiago. Both are particularly large vineyards located in the plateau roughly at 900 metres high.
The Janus range is released as Gran Reserva while Millenium, although with enough aging times to be Gran Reserva, is sold as Reserva. Pesquera fans should note that Janus 1982, 1986 and 1994 were made blending wines that had undergone fermentation in stainless steel tanks with others fermented in the old lagar presumably with their stems.
The Pesquera 1975 which Alejandro poured for me had the vintage year on the cork but no label on sight. It came from a batch that had been recently found in the winery and which apparently had always remained there in perfect storing conditions. I guess this explains the vitality it displayed. Beneath a dusty note, it displayed a fine bouquet of fading flowers, red fruits and tobacco. On the palate it showed plenty of finesse with an inky character indicative of a full-bodied red, lively acidity and an earthy note, yet with a perfect velvety texture and a long finish.
Alejandro’s reds remind Paco Berciano of some Tondonias in the sense that they may seem about to fade but still keep in good shape for many years. Another similarity is a kind of natural decanting effect that makes them extraordinarily smooth and fine textured —obviously within more structure in the case of Pesquera.
Berciano also thinks that Alejandro’s reds have remained unchanged: “They used to be the most powerful reds but as trends evolved, they now feel more balanced; they also used to be expensive but as prices haven’t climbed that much, now they are even cheap”. For Metzler, “it is the non-manipulated quality of Alejandro’s wines that continues to set them apart; wines with a distinctive personality resulting from the uniqueness of their origin and their producer.”
It is unusual to find such a symbiosis between a wine and his creator. Where does the man end and where does the wine begin? Starting in 1975, Alejandro Fernández and Tinto Pesquera have been (and still are) one of the greatest stories in Spanish wine.