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Asturias: Green Spain’s last wine secret?

by Patricio Tapia
July 21, 2016

Vineyards at Las Escolinas in autumn.

June 19, 1959. Cangas, southwestern Asturias. Suddenly the sky darkens to night and stones begin to fall, tons of stones, some of them the size of an egg, frozen and grey. The hailstorm lasts at least an hour and, after that, desolation. The storm destroyed what few vineyards remained in Cangas, not only for that season’s harvest; the destruction of the plants left the region without grapes for three years.

José Marcós, then 28, lost everything after the storm. The vineyards his mother had bought less than a decade before were now destroyed. Left only with debt, he had no alternative but to work at the local mine.

Marcós spent the next 20 years of his life extracting coal from the mountains. However, unlike many of his neighbors, he never abandoned his vineyard. “I worked at night in the mine, and during the day I went to the vineyard to take care of it,” Marcós recalls. He is now 85 and walks slowly, hunched over, towards the gazebo next to his house where the view opens up to the river flanked by lush green mountains. Forests occupy most of the territory, broken up by hayfields on the hillsides. There are also some vineyards, perched along the slopes.

Asturias, tucked between Galicia and the Cantibrian Sea in Spain’s northwest, is known for producing cider to quench the thirst of Spaniards in summer. Also for Cabrales cheese, the creamy, salty, Spanish response to Gorgonzola, or for fabada asturiana, the bean stew with chorizo, blood sausage and meat that is as simple as it is delicious. But not so much for wine.

fabada asturiana fabada asturiana

That day in June there were not many vineyards to be destroyed by hail. By 1959, phylloxera and other pests had whittled the region’s plantings down from 12,500 acres of vines to no more than 450. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the high wages offered by the coal mining companies in Cangas was the coup de grace. Today, according to the Consejo Regulador, there are fewer than 175 acres of vines.

The tradition of making wine, however, dates back to the Middle Ages, when Benedictine monks built an impressive monastery above the banks of the Narcea River. They spread viticulture throughout the southwest corner of the region, where mountains protect the vines from wind and there’s less rain and more sunshine hours than the rest of Asturias. Apples can ripen elsewhere, but not grapes.

Aside from the Cangas sun and the slopes to shelter vines from the cold northern winds, the vineyards also benefit from the slate soils, capable of draining off more than 1,000 millimeters of rain a year. In the end, annual wine production in Asturias barely exceeds 100,000 liters, while cider reaches far into the millions.

José Marcós and his sons are owners of one of the eight wineries currently operating in southwest Asturias. Bodegas Obanca bottled its first wines in 2002, but the family has been making wine since José’s mother bought her vineyard in the early 1950s. Today they have about 10 hectares (25 acres), all old vines of local grapes that are little known, even in Spain.

José Marcós and his sons own one of the eight wineries currently operating in southwest Asturias.

José’s son David took me through Castro de Limes, a 3.7-acre vineyard planted mostly to carrasquín. His father bought it in the early 1960s and the family considers it their top site today. David’s brother, Isaac, who works the vineyard, believes the vines are more than 140 years old. He found the planting dates recorded by the people who once worked the vines, written on the walls of a small cottage in the midst of the vines.

Today that cottage is gone, but the carrasquín vines are still there on that hillside facing south, a sunny, protected spot to ripen carrasquín in the cold of Asturias.

Obanca produces 6,000 bottles a year from Castro de Limes, and it tastes like walking through the fanfare and fireworks of this small but intense world of Asturian wines. Despite its 14 degrees of alcohol, the wine is breezy and fresh, with red fruit, juicy acidity and intense mineral notes that bring to mind some of the best Ribeira Sacra reds, about 60 miles to the west as the crow flies.

Nicolás Marcós, owner of Dominio del Urogallo, also works with old-vine carrasquín. I meet him in the center of Cangas and together we drive to his winery, located right outside of town. It’s a spacious and modern building that he bought at auction. “You will not believe what I paid for it,” he tells me, as we walk through the large wooden doors that lead to the tasting room.

Marcós comes from Toro, in Castilla y León, where his younger brother was a bullfighter. As we drive to one of his vineyards, we talk about how Marcós learned to make wine in Toro, producing a million liters a year, and we also talk about bulls. Together with his bullfighter brother, he toured many of the most important bullrings in Spain and Latin America. He recalls their adventures, the wild parties and the women who were always surrounding his brother. He speaks of bullfighters as a special race, of what it means to be there, in front of the bull, facing death, of how they are treated like rock stars. “Those were fabulous years,” he says, smiling.

Dominio del Urogallo’s La Zorrina Vineyard Dominio del Urogallo’s La Zorrina Vineyard

The vineyard where we finally arrive is called La Zorrina, a steep slope surrounded by forests and overlooking the Narcea River. Marcós knows that most of the vineyard is carrasquín (65 percent, he estimates). “Carrasquín is by far the most rustic grape, tougher skin, takes the longest to ripen, the most difficult.” And what he also knows is that there are 16 other varieties in the vineyard, including furmint, garnacha tintorera and cabernet franc. “And some others,” he says. “I don’t have any idea what they are.” From the top of La Zorrina, we can barely hear the rushing waters of the Narcea, the sound muffled in the midst of the ancient trees.

Marcós harvests all the varieties separately. “I have to do seven passes through the vineyard looking for ripe grapes,” he says. When he has enough of one individual variety, he vinifies it separately, hoping to learn more about the site. “But I only arrived here seven years ago,” he says, “so I’m going to die knowing nothing.”

In terms of vinification, Marcós does not use sulfur or commercial yeast, and he doesn’t filter. He prefers to let his wines spend two winters in barrel so the juice can clarify naturally before bottling. La Zorrina 2013 is his best example of this approach. Fermented in vats made of chestnut (“The wood that was always used here,” he says), the wine cascades with mineral flavors, deep and intense, spreading through the mouth in waves. But at the same time it’s crisp, vibrant and refreshing. It’s tempting to drink it just to quench my thirst. “I left Toro because I knew, under that heat, I could never make the style of wine I wanted,” Marcós says. “And when I saw La Zorrina and tasted the wines that the former owner made with those grapes, I realized this was my place.”

The vines at La Zorrina rise up just above the Monasterio de Juan Bautista de Corias. Built in the eleventh century, the imposing stone monastery overlooking the Narcea River is now a luxury hotel. Benedictine monks used the cellars here for centuries, to produce wine from grapes harvested from the thousands of acres of vines along the river.

Juan Redondo set out to continue that tradition in 2001 when he founded Bodega Monasterio de Corias, right next to the monastery. Today, he serves as technical director of the cellars, as well as chairman of the DO Cangas del Narcea, the only DO devoted to wine in Asturias.

Schist soils at La Zorrina. Schist soils at La Zorrina.

Redondo produces close to 50,000 bottles a year at Monasterio de Corias—a significant amount by Asturian standards. But his real interest is in understanding the local varieties. “Our wealth is in these grapes that nobody else has,” he says, “so we have to know them.”

As we walk the vineyard of Las Escolinas, a series of hillsides planted with very old vines perched above the river, Redondo talks about this heritage. “It is likely that after phylloxera, which reached the area by the end of 1880, the number of varieties was greatly reduced. Today, most important are the mencía, which was introduced right after phylloxera, but also the ones that have always been here, like albarín tinto, carrasquín and verdejo negro. We never had a white wine tradition. People planted white grapes to eat
them for dessert.”

At Escolinas, Redondo has been studying the old vines by marking the varieties with small colored stickers. “The carrasquín is the one that ripens the latest. The first is the verdejo negro. Then comes the albarín tinto and mencía.”

A selection of the best old vines of carrasquín at Escolinas goes for Val de Monje Formal, a delicious, refreshing and yet deep red wine in 2013. “In carrasquín, you can really feel the minerality of our soils,” Redondo says. “It is, indeed, the most savage, the most tannic, but also the variety that better shows the minerals of our slates.”

“Our wealth is in these grapes that nobody else has. So we have to know them.”
—Juan Redondo

Over a glass of carrasquín, he mentions the challenge of opening up new markets for these wines. “We’re small, we need further promotion, but people are beginning to talk about us.”

The DO Cangas del Narcea includes five wineries. In the past, Obanca and Dominio del Urogallo also had belonged, but they decided to leave. If Wine & Spirits were a gossip magazine, there would be plenty of material to cover here. Never have so few producers shared so many tales of conflicts and fights, without any prompting.

That acrimony among the eight wineries in Cangas may be one of the factors that have limited the expansion of its wines outside the region. But it’s only a matter of time before these wines catch on internationally. This region of Asturias has it all: a mountainous landscape of breathtaking beauty, a rich and diverse cuisine that mixes the land with the sea in dishes that make you sigh. And wine. Perhaps only a small amount of wine, farmed at vineyards with centuries of tradition by a few passionate growers continuing to make beautiful wines today. Watch for them.

This feature appears in the print edition of August 2016.
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