Sometimes the reasons that I love wine and find it so interesting all come together in a single moment. Our visit to Arribes del Duero was such a moment. A region I had never come across before, making wines on a small scale from a grape variety of which I had never heard. Add to this my deep love and fascination for Spain and I was really looking forward to visiting Bodegas La Setera. In one of those strange political moves, while the region has always been called Arribes del Duero, the D.O. is simply D.O. Arribes. Yes, Arribes del Duero is in Castilla y León, but it is very different. It sits by the Portuguese border, indeed the Duero forms the frontier for the most part. Interestingly the Spanish (east) side is only sporadically planted, as there are very few wine producers there. The Portuguese (west) side meanwhile has intensive Port grape plantings in the Douro International Natural Park. Arribes del Duero, too is a Natural Park as it is an area of outstanding natural beauty and environmental importance because of its biodiversity.
And beautiful it is. The Duero and its tributary, the Tormes, have cut great canyons through the granite of the mountains creating a most dramatic landscape. The region itself is very narrow, hugging the river in the provinces of Zamora and Salamanca and is named for the steep rocky highlands (arribes) along the Duero.
We only caught glimpses of the river and the more wild countryside, as our journey from Zamora (60kms to the east) took us through a barren, but lovely area, reminiscent of Dartmoor complete with roaming goats, dry stone walls and storks perching on every church tower. We didn’t see any, but it is almost the last habitat of the rare Black Stork.
Just before Fermoselle, the local town, we turned off down a narrow winding road to the hamlet of Fornillos de Fermoselle, a picturesque little place barely a kilometre from the banks of the Duero itself. This is home to La Setera a lovely winery and cheese farm. The place is beautiful, a collection of ancient and tiny stone buildings straddling a little lane. Indeed the buildings are so small the new bottles have to be stored outside.
What stood out for me was the wonderful feeling of peace, despite the arrival of a coach-load of wine writers. Standing outside the winery was unbelievably tranquil and lovely, for a Londoner the warmth of the Spanish spring was a joy and the blossom on the trees truly uplifting. I can certainly see why Sara Groves-Raines, who hails from Northern Ireland, was attracted to the place with Patxi her Spanish wine maker husband. They originally came here to make cheese, which they continue to do extremely well (we had some at lunch), but they were encouraged to make wine by their friend Telmo Rodriguez.
Wine has been made here since Roman times and it has one unique grape variety, Juan Garcia. This is a thin skinned black grape with smallish berries that seems to be quite hard to grow and to use, which is presumably why it is so rare. It only comes from this region and was for a long time considered best for rosé and everyday reds. Like so many disappearing traditional grapes, modern techniques have rescued it and made it possible to preserve its delicate characters during the wine making process. Like Gamay it is high in acid with a bitter minerality that needs to be tamed.
It is a pity that whoever replaced the McWhirter twins, at the Guiness Book of Records, wasn’t with us as at La Setera. It must be a contender the for smallest winery in the world; only three of us could get in at a time! They have a capacity of 12,500 bottles and the barrel room is home to 15 French oak casks.
Sara and Patxi have 7 hectares of vines, mainly Juan Garcia on plots dotted about the area and ranging in age from 50 to a 100 years old. The vineyards are mainly on steep slopes or terraced vineyards at some 650 metres above sea level. They are so hard to get to by road that horses are used for ploughing. It is a pity that as a consequence of them being so inaccessible, the only vines we saw were on flat land next to the main road and the turning into Durius.
The only chemical used at La Setera is Bordeaux mixture, with manure being spread every four years or so. Everything else is left to the poor stony soils, the high density planting, the extreme care lavished on the vines and the localised Mediterranean climate.
For those of you who like to know these things, the winery is named after the local stream that rises in the village and flows into the Duero, in turn the stream is named after the seta mushrooms that are prolific there.
As the winery is so small we decamped to a local hotel, Posada De Doña Urraca for a wonderful lunch and a tasting of the la Setera wines and cheeses:
La Setera Malvasia 2008
Creamy and honeyed nose with a fresh herb feel and nutty notes.
Mouth-filling with a little fresh citrussy lemon pith and lemon peel acidity with a full and viscous texture. Really characterful with a tangy grapefruit finish, quite long and balanced.
A terrific dry white wine, one of the very best of our trip and truly memorable.
This was followed by two vintages of the Vino Tinto Joven made from pure Juan Garcia, for me the 2007 needed a little time to show its potential whereas the 2006 was showing well:
La Setera Joven 2006
A deep black purple colour, thought those skins were thin?
Enticing aromas of tea and spice and cherry stones together with touches of herbs, minerals and an earthy note.
The palate was quite smooth with delicate spicy flavours, the fruit falls away quite quickly leaving a touch of bitter tannins & a smoky finish.
Next up were the Crianzas, again pure Juan Garcia, which get some 6 months in French oak barrels, we tried the 2005, 2004 and 2003. For me the 2004 and 2003 were developing nicely:
La Setera Crianza 2004
Lively aromas of fresh fruit and wild flowers.
Quite austere, but with a silky and fresh start. The dominant flavour is smoky bacon with a drying bitter black cherry finish. Perfect with the local hams and cheeses.
La Setera Crianza 2003
Showed a slight browning on the rim together with an almost Burgundian nose of rotting twigs & marmite, which became more fragrant & bright in the glass.
The palate is dry and leathery with green fruit characters and a red cherry stone acidity giving a lively and fresh lift and a silky texture to the finish.
Then Patxi unveiled his secret weapon, a red made from Touriga Nacional grapes grown over the border:
La Setera (Touriga Nacional) 2007
(This is experimental only and made from Portuguese grapes, it is not for sale and is just for them to see what the variety can do.)
A lovely bright colour, opaque and bright with an enticing and fragrant nose of sugar plums. Sweet ripe fruit made it full and fat and textured in the mouth with silky smooth tannins and a smooth finish; this was a beautiful wine of great intensity that was quite different from the Juan Garcia and much more international and modern in style.
I really want to love Juan Garcia, but it is not a grape that will work for everyone, it makes honest wines and local wines, not modern wines. Patxi eventually wants to blend Touriga with Juan Garcia, so I mixed a 50/50 blend with the Touriga and the Juan Garcia Crianza 2004 and that worked well making the wine much smoother, plumper and more rounded than the Juan Garcia on its own. I look forward to seeing what the future brings.
Finally Patxi gave us his wonderful dessert wine, which was a real surprise:
La Setera Vino Dulce Natural 2006
Vino de Mesa (as it is Merlot, which is not permitted in the D.O.)
Just 429 bottles produced. 7 months in French oak. 16% Vol.
Bright & fresh nose rich with ripe plums, fruit cake and spice.
Very indulgent & hedonistic wine with mulled wine spice and a sumptuously rich palate.
The visit was a delight, memorable for so many reasons and one of those moments that reassures you that wine is as much about the little guys making interesting wines in beautiful places as about the big brands and prestigious names.
See more photos of La Setera here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quentinsadler/