Ribera Reinterpreted

By Patricio Tapia

Goyo Garcia Viadero is walking among the old vines that he and his team have pruned. Some have been pruned well. As for the others, he takes his shears and fixes them.

Ribera

It is winter in Ribera del Duero, and as usual, it is one of the roughest winters in all of Spain. The strong wind blows cold and without mercy, bringing with it a thin sheet of drizzling rain that accentuates just how miserable the weather really is. The small, bare vines, their trunks thick and dark, stand out like coffee stains on a tablecloth of gravel—some are an intense maroon, but most are light brown. A few months from now, the darkness will turn to brightness. García Viadero’s wines offer that—a fruity luminosity so intense and fresh that it is impossible not to wonder if this red really comes from Ribera del Duero— a region known for its powerful, ripe wines.



 

Sometimes Ribera del Duero reds manage to reach a surprising, even elegant balance, justifying the fame the area has in the wine world. At other times, however, what you may find in Ribera are just monumental moles of hypermature fruit and excessive oak. But in either case, Ribera del Duero is synonymous with concentrated and powerful reds, borne out of a rough climate where it might be difficult to produce anything else.
    During the past year, however, I’ve discovered a few wines that challenge that preconception. The work of a small handful of producers, these wines may be precursors to a trend, or merely exceptions to the rule.
    García Viadero studied agronomy in Madrid, and after he graduated, his father asked him to take over some 2,500 acres his family farmed in La Mancha. That was his acid test as a farmer, he tells me. He had to take care of the fruits, the crops, the cows and the vineyards as well. He did it all. He was there for ten years until 2003, when he decided to return to Ribera del Duero.
    García Viadero’s family is from Burgos, and in 1983 they were pioneers in revitalizing the wines from Ribera del Duero by inaugurating the Valduero bodega, which, by 2003, was already one of the most important in the region. But as tempting as it seemed to take charge of the family winery, García Viadero stepped aside. “I realized that there were already many roosters in the same pen,” he says in reference to his father and two older sisters, who were in charge of the bodega.
    So García Viadero decided to go the independent route and started by taking a job as a viticulturist at the Torre de Anguix winery. As he developed contacts and consultancies in different parts of Ribera del Duero, he got to know the region better, especially the Burgos area, north of the Duero River. Little by little he fell in love with the old tinto fino vines that he pruned so that others could make wine—even if he did not love their wines.
Garcia    “The wines that I drank back around the 1980s in Ribera del Duero were very different from those we were drinking in those years when I went back to settle down. Around the first half of the 2000s, the trend was new oak, and especially overripe, enzymatic wines because indigenous enzymes clearly were not able to handle all that alcohol,” he recalls.
    So he decided to focus not only on other people’s vines, but to make his own wines as well. And he began in the vineyard. “My first idea was to detox the vineyard,” he recalls, “starting with the herbicides, which was the simple part because you just stop. No big problem. Then the artificial fertilizers or the insecticides, which was the hardest part. The plants get used to them and can die from any minor illness.”
    The vineyard’s detox process lasted about four years, and in 2008, he picked the first grapes for his wines. Today he has just three bottlings—all from specific vineyards. Viñas de Anguix comes from the area of the same name, at 2,300 feet above sea level. The soils are essentially clay, which, according to García Viadero, gives his most concentrated wine, what he jokingly refers to as a more “Ribera” style. “It is a denser wine, riper and with more breadth. It’s also the one I give more oak to because I think it needs it to tame those tannins. It’s three-year-old oak—the newest I use,” he says.
    Viñas de Anguix may be the most concentrated of the García Viadero wines, the least floral, the most intense. However, in the context of any Ribera tasting, it would taste like a rosé from the Loire.

Pushed to name his “favorite child,” García Viadero points to Valdeolmos, from a very old tinto fino vineyard, with about five percent of albillo, a white variety. It is found at 2,600 feet in the Olmedillo zone, a couple miles north of Anguix. The soils are sand and gravel, with a significant limestone component; they create a wine with a firm, chalky structure, crossed by sharp acidity. On top of that base, however, are floral aromas and scents of red cherries: a Ribera that appears delicate on the surface, with a tannic structure as hard as bone.
    El Peruco runs in a similar direction, but it is much lighter and fresher. It is García Viadero’s highest vineyard, at 3,000 feet, in the Anguix zone. The old tinto fino vines are interplanted with albillo (about 15 percent) on gravel soil with a bit of sand. “El Peruco is more of a trago largo, the kind of wine that is very easy to drink. It is very floral and smooth, with a lot of fresh fruit,” García Viadero adds as we taste the 2010 vintage of this Ribera del Duero red, one that I would drink nice and cool, sitting by the pool, and hopefully with some scallops. It’s that fresh, that vibrant.
    While we eat lechazo, the baby lamb that is a specialty of Ribera del Duero, emptying the bottles of Peruco and Valdeolmos dangerously fast, I think of the other wines from the area that I have gotten used to drinking. There is no difference in the soils or altitude. There are hundreds of wines that begin with similar conditions. The differences are elsewhere. “It’s not the alcohol level I’m interested in when I harvest; it’s the acidity. Just that. When the acidity is fresh and lively, and the flavors are just as fresh, that’s when I go and pick,” he says.
    Due to an early harvest, the alcohol levels of his wine tend to be much lower than those of his neighbors. Both El Peruco 2010 and Valdeolmos 2009 clock in at 13.5 percent. “Because I don’t use sulfites or add acids, having good natural acidity is key to keeping the wine healthy as it ages,” he says. And speaking of aging, he does not have a set method or specific length of time. There are wines that can stay in the barrels for two years and others, just two months. “It all depends on the vintage. What is important, though, is the barrels. We use old barrels—with six or seven uses—the ones that no one else wants.”
    It could also be the albillo in the blend that lends that somewhat more fragile side to the firmness of the tinto fino. It’s all picked at the same time, “like they did in the past,” García Viadero says.
Alfredo Maestro    The first time I tasted Alfredo Maestro’s wines, I had a similar reaction—a big question mark popped overhead. Reds and whites with great purity and drinkability, wines that seem both complex and easy to drink at the same time—Was this Ribera del Duero or Chambolle?
    Maestro met me in his bodega in Peñafiel, the heart of Ribera del Duero. It is a simple shed with white walls, some barrels, some plastic vats and a couple of steel tanks. He is not a winemaker—his professional work is in finance. In the mid-1990s, Maestro decided that it would be fun to make wine, so he planted a hundred vines in his back yard. And three years later, in 1998, he made his first wine. Back then he read every enology book he could get his hands on. And he also listened to what the winemakers had to say.
    Once again, it was a time when the reds from Ribera del Duero were known (and highly praised) for their strength and ripeness. And Maestro believed that was correct, but the young vines in his backyard just didn’t cooperate, so he listened to the advice of some winemakers. “‘Look, you need to add this powder for more color and this other one to improve the flavor and aroma,’ and who knows what else,” he explains.
    As he made his wines, he also tasted the wines of others, and gradually his taste changed. “I began to like classic Rioja, for example,” he says. It all made sense, however, when someone recommended using sulfuric acid to improve one of his wines. He stopped to think about that. “I asked myself how it was possible to use that if someone was then going to drink that wine. Drink sulfuric acid!” he exclaims, with that exaggerated but funny tone he has when he speaks. His eyes shine. He gets passionate about telling how it all went from one extreme to the other. “And then I realized that if it came out of The Matrix, there must be a parallel world where wine could taste like grapes,” he adds.
    His winery is not equipped with any technology. Not even cooling systems. The tanks full of wine are outside in the icy Ribera winter, and that’s where we tasted Lovamor, his albillo, a white made from grapes that he gets from a very old vineyard in Peñafiel, Cuatro Caminos. “The owner could not handle the vineyard anymore, so he told me that he would pass it over to me to work, otherwise he would pull it up. Among the old garnacha and tinto fino vines, I found this albillo.”
    As far as he knew, the aromas of wine were primarily in the skins, and because he did not plan to use enzymes to bring out those aromas, it occurred to him to macerate the must with the skins. “So I did that and I loved it,” he says, while drawing a sample from the tank. Lovamor is a cloudy wine, with great concentration; it has the size and stature of a red wine, while still offering the aromas of walnuts and white fruits of a white. “Although almost no one vinifies it anymore, albillo was historically planted in with the tinto fino. Because it ripens fast and lends sweetness, our grandparents’ generation picked and fermented it with the reds to calm the acidity in the wines, which was very high in those days,” he says. This 2011 is the second vintage of his albillo—cloudy, delicious and hearty, like a liquid version of pears with cinnamon.
    Maestro has gotten access to most of his vineyards the same way—by talking with the growers in the area. That is how he arrived at La Guindalera and La Olmera, which now may be his most famous wines as well as the furthest (in reds) from what we are used to drinking from Ribera.
    The two vineyards are side by side in the town of Bocos, three miles northeast of Peñafiel. Both are one hundred percent tinto fino and very young, planted toward the end of the 1990s. Maestro got both in exchange for wine. He agreed to work the vineyards and pay their owners with a barrel of wine, half of what he makes.
    La Guindalera is a small hillside with clay soils, while La Olmera looks exactly the same except for a stain that runs from one side to the other, a white streak of limestone. “La Olmera gives a more mineral tinto fino, more timid, more closed, but also more profound, while La Guindalera is livelier, fruitier, fresher and easier,” Maestro says.
    Both wines, however, share that fresh side with red fruit, that type of inner electricity that makes them so drinkable yet tense and firm. Maestro’s first harvest from these sites was in 2009, and little by little he has begun helping the fruity expression along with biodynamic practices and early harvests. In the cellar, however, his work seems rather intuitive.
    He explains with metaphors: “If you want to know a horse, first you let it loose, you give it full rein. And then you start training it; shortening the reins and coaxing the best out of it. With both wines, and depending on the year, I see more maceration or less maceration, more stems or fewer stems. I try to extract the most from both—without making the burly one put on a tux or the featherweight hoist a hundred kilos.”
    Like García Viadero, Maestro does not use new oak, and his approach to tinto fino is to go delicately, extracting everything as slowly as possible. “My view is that if you let her be herself, tinto fino is an elegant variety, fresh and subtle, and not what you usually find in Ribera del Duero.”

 

sophie kuhSophie Kuhn has a similar take on tinto fino. A winemaker from Alsace, she has lived in Ribera del Duero since 2006 and consults for three bodegas: Blas Serrano, Gallego Zapatero and Hacienda Solano, all focused on fresh and delicate wines —and all too small to hire Kuhn full time.
    Kuhn is 33 years old and her Spanish is completely fluent, although her “r”s still have that “g” sound in the middle, revealing her French origins. Everything else, however, is Castilian—the ease with which she relates to the producers with whom she works, her love for Spanish cuisine (happy as kids, both of us enjoyed the best fava beans of my life at Blas Serrano) and her admiration for wildlife and the gently rolling hills that surround us as we approach Hacienda Solano. “I like it here,” she says with a smile that lights up her pale, freckled face
    The Cubillos family of Hacienda Solano has been dedicated to viticulture for as long as they remember. Estrella Cubillos, a small and very energetic woman, now runs the bodega, along with her sister Nuria, and she tells me that her grandfather, although he made a bit of wine himself, took almost all of his grapes to the cooperative in La Aguilera, the small town where the bodega is located. “Today almost no one sells to the cooperative. They get better prices selling grapes to other wineries in the area. In its heyday, the cooperative had more than three hundred members; today it must be half that,” Cubillos says.
    They sell about 60 percent of the production, but keep the best vineyards, including Peñalobera and Cascorrales, at opposite ends of La Aguilera, not only in geographic terms (both are at the extremes of the area) but also in terms of their soils, the local vegetation and the character of the wines they produce.
    Cascorrales sits in a low area, surrounded by white hills with sandy soils. It is hot there in the summer. Peñalobera, on the other hand, is located on higher ground, hidden among small pine forests and surrounded by rosemary bushes and hawthorns. “It is the coolest sector of La Aguilera, and, as you can see, the soil is very different,” Estrella tells me as we walk through the old tinto fino vines. The soil is gravel and sand, with traces of limestone. The cold makes me shiver, but the landscape is enchanting. The trees that flank the vineyard lend a certain intimacy, as if they were there to protect these vines.
    When we taste the two wines in the bodega, Cascorrales is powerful, rich in black fruits and generously ripe. Peñalobera is just the opposite—much more delicate, its aromas of red fruits melding with the herbal notes in a red wine that is fresh above all else. “The vinification process is similar,” Kuhn explains. “I like to leave some of the grapes whole because that gives more fruit, something like a Beaujolais. They are both aged in barrels for just over a year.” She says she has never liked to extract the grapes much although she does recognize that she uses increasingly more oak and that the harvests come earlier. “I am interested in the acidity because it makes the wine drink well. I think producers usually wait too long for the grapes here. I prefer to pick sooner and gain freshness.”

 

After this visit, I head to the airport and fly to New York for a week of wine tastings for this issue. By chance, it turns out that José Moro is in town. He is the owner of the Emilio Moro bodegas in Ribera, one of the bastions of the zone’s hyper-concentrated powerhouse wines, but also one of the staunchest promoters of the expression of tinto fino in accordance with his vineyard. Although it seems unlikely that Moro would have anything to do with the new style of Ribera I’ve been tasting this past week, I meet him for lunch at NoMad, a few blocks from the office. Of course we order the roast chicken, an issue that ends up being important in this whole thing…
    Moro speaks of new times, of connecting with the market, of making fresher, lighter, smoother wines. I’ve heard this speech so many times in recent years. All of a sudden, everyone seems to be running away from oak, from over-extraction, from the wines that we all loved 15 years ago. So somewhat skeptical, I taste the Emilio Moro 2009, a blend of fruit off young vineyards (15 to 25 years old), and the skepticism is wiped off my face. It certainly does not reach the extremes of freshness—almost à la Chambolle—of Goyo García Viadero, but by Emilio Moro standards, we are in Burgundy. This is deliciously juicy wine, generous in black and red fruits, and so friendly on the palate that it is hard not to pour another glass. And I actually do, but then the chicken arrives.
    I don’t know if you have ever tried the roast chicken at NoMad, with truffles and foie gras under the skin. The white meat does not fall apart in your mouth, it melts, while the skin crackles and crunches between your teeth, getting louder and louder, as if it were your conscience reminding you that eating chicken skin is not good for your cholesterol—but there are essential exceptions in life. And this is one of them.
    And then, inevitably, you find yourself wondering what the real chicken is: the one you’ve eaten all your life…or this little, crispy piece of heaven?
    You could ask a parallel question about tinto fino in Ribera del Duero. Is there a perennial character that isn’t connected with humans, but with Ribera’s terroir? Is it a big, corpulent red, filled with black, ripe fruit…or one of these crazy new expressions that you may want to chill down and drink by the pool? Perhaps it’s too soon to know, but…
    When I smell and taste a glass of Peñalobera…or Valdeolmos or La Guindalera, I still feel surprised, even a bit confused. And then what follows is the sheer joy of knowing that even in one of the most conservative areas of Spanish wine, there are people who look to the other side, who take a risk, and eventually head in a different direction.