Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

As many of you will know, I have a deep love and passion for the wines of Spain. Taken as a whole I think Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries in the world. Of course the most famous region – other than Sherry – is Rioja. I like Rioja, I admire Rioja. It is a wonderful region, a lovely place and it produces many fabulous wines, I have written about it often. However, there is much more to Spain than just Rioja and it pains me greatly that so relatively few wines from other regions of Spain are widely available to UK consumers.

Although I will carry on writing about anything and everything that I find interesting in the world of wine, I thought that every now and again I would share some thoughts about Spain’s wine regions with you. Recently I have been tasting quite a few wines from Ribera del Duero, which have reminded me just how good a region it is, so I decided to start there.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

As you can see from my map, Ribera del Duero is in Castilla y León, or Old Spain. In many ways this region to the north west of Madrid is the original heart of Spain, the original home of those that ‘reconquered’ the peninsula from the Moors. Of course it is also home to the language that we usually call Spanish, but is more properly called Castellano or Castilian.

The Duero River – it becomes the Douro in Portugal – cuts through the region and gives the place its name, bank of the Duero.

For centuries this was border country and was defended by castles which are a common sight to this day and explains why it is called the land of castles – Castilla. There are records from about 800 of the Moors calling it Al-Qila, or ‘the castled’ high plains.

As far as wine is concerned, for millennia there must have been wine made here, as there was all over the peninsula, but it must have been fairly rudimentary and just for drinking rather than thinking about.

It was not until Don Eloy Lecanda y Chave returned to his native Castilla y León from Bordeaux, where he had been trained as winemaker. His family owned an estate near Valbuena de Duero, about as far west as you can go on my map and still be in Ribera del Duero, and he returned brimming with ideas of how to transform the wines. He brought French grape varieties, oak barrels and modern French know how and set about creating wines on the Médoc model. He called his wine Vega Sicilia and it remains one of the finest, most expensive and sought after of all Spanish wines. Rioja was being developed in a similar way at the same time and this article about the history of Rioja might help.

For decades Vega Sicilia was all on its own as the sole fine wine of the region and it was not until the twentieth century that others saw the potential for quality wine here. Firstly the Protos cooperative in Penafiel was created in 1927, but it was not really until the 1980s that the Ribera del Duero revolution took place, with new vineyards being planted and wineries built.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

What happened was that modern knowhow had allowed these new pioneers – chef amongst them Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera – to craft wines that were quite different from Vega Sicilia. More modern, with less oak ageing, more ripe fruit characters and more focus on the the local grape instead of the French varieties.

That grape is a clone of Tempranillo – the grape that made Rioja famous – but in Ribera del Duero it is traditionally called either Tinto del Pais (country red) or more fancifully Tinto Fino.

The wines – and the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) /Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) only allows reds and rosés – have to contain at least 75% Tinto Fino with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha or even the excellent local white Albillo grape.

The climate is one of extremes, with hot, short, summers and pretty hard winters. Basically the place is a high plain and the vineyards sit at around 750 to 800 metres above sea level. The cooling benefits of this altitude are very useful with summer temperatures often reaching over 40˚C. Then there are really big night time drops in temperature, often as much as 20˚C. This Diurnal Temperature Variation allows the vine to rest overnight and preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, which can make the finished wine more elegant and fine. It also slows down the ripening process, so you have a better chance of producing balanced ripe grapes, rather than overly ripe, alcoholic, raisin-like grapes.

Historically these cool conditions made ripening the grapes very hard indeed and would have produced pretty thin wines. So in the main it had to wait for modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge and techniques for the region to reliably produce wines that could take their place on the world market.

Vega Sicilia is a style and type of wine on its own and has very little in common with most of the red wines of the region – much like Château Musar being quite different from the rest of the wines of Lebanon.

What I like about the region’s wines is how unlike Rioja they are. They may technically be made from Tempranillo, but they never have that dry, savoury tinge that is the hallmark of Rioja to me. No, a good, Ribera del Duero should display concentrated, dark fruits. They should be vivid and rich, with sometimes an almost new world softness to them. However, running through them there should be a backbone of acidity – but not to Sangiovese or Nebbiolo levels – that makes them excellent with the rich, fatty meat dishes that are normal in these parts.

There are a great many wines from Ribera del Duero available. Some are great, many are good and a few even disappoint, but I think there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this exciting region’s wines.

Technically they use the same labelling system as Rioja; Reservas are aged for at least 12 months in barrel, Gran Reservas are aged for at leat 12 months in oak barrels and a further 2 years in bottle, while wines that do not mention either of those terms are considered to be joven / young wines and would have either no oak ageing, or less that a year.

Here are a few of my favourites from the region, so are very affordable, while others are more expensive, but I think they all offer value for money.

fincaresalso2015 Finca Resalso
Bodegas Emilio Moro
This is the entry level wine from Bodegas Emilio Moro which is one of the very best producers in the region and I think the pedigree really shows. It is relatively light and fresh, but the fruit is nice and ripe, the tannins are smooth and there is a little vanilla and spice from 4 months in oak. 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 a bottle from:
Majestic – £8.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

legaris-roble-8695482014 Legaris Roble
Bodegas Legaris
I really like this estate, they make deliciously drinkable, velvety smooth wines that are always enjoyable. This is the baby of the range, but no less enjoyable for that. This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged in American oak barrels for 3 months and has big, soft ripe fruit, some spice and smooth tannins. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from:
Hennings Wine & Ocado.

b_alta_db_ecologico2015 Dominio Basconcillos Ecológico 6 Meses en Barrica
Dominio Basconcillos
I only discovered this producer recently, but was really impressed with this, their entry level wine. Aged for 6 months in new French oak, this vividly deep purple wine is big, chunky and richly fruity and has silky tannins. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from £12 a bottle from:
Vinceremos, Vintage RootsOrganic Wine Club & Abel & Cole.

valdubon-roble_hi2014 Valdubón Roblé
Bodegas Valdubón
The Valdubon Estate really do make some lovely, polished wines and this is a deliciously straightforward example with loads of fruit, smooth tannins, creamy ripeness and a light lick of rather nice mocha tinged oak – it is aged for 4 months and Roblé, meaning oak, is an unofficial category that is used to make it clear that it has some oak ageing. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 a bottle from:
Marks & Spencer & Ocado

pago_de_los_capellanes_roble2015 Pago de los Capellanes Roble
Pago de los Capellanes
One of my favourite producers, this artisan estate (Pago means estate) never fails to excite me. This Roble wine spends 5 months in French oak and is juicy and sumptuous, yet smooth. The tannins are nicely integrated as is the oak. The fruit is rich and concentrated, but a little glimmer of red fruit makes the wine fresh and elegant. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

crianza2014 Emilio Moro
Bodegas Emilio Moro
Yes, I could not resist another wine from this great producer – they have many more too, but you get the picture. This full bodied red spends a year in French and American oak and you have the coconut and the spices to show for it. It is plush and rich with deep black cherry fruit, chewy tannins and some mocha and dark chocolate too. 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for £16.99 a bottle from:
Majestic – £14.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

sainsburys-condado-de-haza-ribera-del-duero2014 Condado De Haza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
This second label from the great Pesquera estate is 100% Tinto Fino aged for 18 months in American oak and it is always something of a blockbuster, full-bodied with big, bold fruit and something of a Napa Valley style. There is some freshness though and and elegance too. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £15.00 a bottle from:
Sainsbury’s.

tinto-pesquera-crianza-20132012 Pesquera Crianza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
Further up the range from Pesquera, you really begin to see why wines from this estate put the region on the map in the 1980s and were frequently compared to the wines Pomerol by wine critics of the time. I still think it is more Pomerol meets Napa, but either way this is a plush, concentrated, hedonistic wine, full of deep ripe, almost creamy fruit, smooth tannins and seductive milk chocolate. 18 months in oak has given it some vanilla, cedar and mocha notes. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £21 a bottle from:
Roberson Wine & Tanners.

pago-de-los-capellanes2014 Pago de los Capellanes Crianza
Pago de los Capellanes

This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is even more opulent, concentrated and delicious than the Roble. It’s a little young, but nothing decanting a few hours in advance won’t solve – or you could age it for a few years. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £22 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

Another producer that I really admire. This is Tinto Fino aged for 12 months in French oak and blended with little dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The extra maturity shows in the nose as it offers rich fruit together with smoky and balsamic notes. The palate is still very lively and has lots of dark fruit together with something nutty and seductively savoury. 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from:
De Vinos.

pago-de-los-capellanes2013 Pago de los Capellanes Reserva
Pago de los Capellanes

Good though their Roble and Crianza wines are, this Reserva is on a different level of richness and concentration, but elegance too. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels and that riches shows with cedar, spice and mocha, while the fruit is dense and plush. The tannins still offer a little bite, but nothing too astringent.  93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £38 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

vega-sicilia-valbuena-5-2009-es-bl-0199-09a2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5˚
Bodegas Vega Sicilia

This is often described as the ‘second wine’ of Vega Sicilia – the ‘grand vin’ is called Unico – but I think it is really just a different wine. For a start it is 100% Tinto Fino, whereas Unico is a blend, and secondly it is only aged in oak for 3 years – and then a further 2 in bottle before being released in its 5th year – hence 5˚. This is a brilliant wine from a fabulous vintage, it is complex, fine and perfumed too. There is a lot going on and the tannins are just beginning to be silky, serve it with lamb. 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £84 a bottle from:
The Wine Society.

As you can see, there are is a great variation in price, but all these wines are very good examples at their different levels. I am absolutely certain that any serious red wine drinker would enjoy these wines, indeed I could have included a few more, but I had to stop somewhere! So the next time you are choosing a red to go with that special dinner, give one of these a go.I am sure it will be just the thing.

Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

When a wine lover thinks of Piemonte, or Piedmont, then the chances are that their very next thought is of Barolo. This small area of wine production south of Turin is capable of producing sublime red wines from the local Nebbiolo grape. They come at a price though. Barolo can be very expensive indeed and even the everyday examples are approaching £20 a bottle nowadays. That being said, those basic examples of Barolo are now generally much better than they used to be some ten or fifteen years ago.

Nearby the wines of Barbaresco, also made from Nebbiolo, can also be wonderful, and often much more charming than Barolo, but are often also very highly priced – and prized.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

A glance at my map will show you the geography of Piemonte. Turin sits in an ampitheatre surrounded by the Alps that mark the frontiers to the south, west and north and so the flatter south eastern part of Piemonte is historically the most productive. Together the Langhe, where you will find Barolo and Barbaresco among other wines, and Monferrato, where many wines including Asti are produced, account for over 90% of Piemonte’s wine production.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas on Piemonte’s northern fringes, Alto Piemonte, were once very imporatnt. Many have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries, and could possibly be famous again.

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Piemonte, one that focussed solely on these more northerly and less well known wine areas. Not for us the well worn path to Barolo and Barbaresco and the rolling Langhe Hills. No, our little group of wine writers was whisked north of Turin to the very foot of the Alps. Here, over the course of several days, we visited vineyards and sampled the wines from twelve wine producing areas, only two of which were known to me beforehand. I even tasted a grape variety that I had never, ever heard of before – which is always an exciting experience.

Many different grape varieties are grown in Piemonte, but for the really famous reds, it is Nebbiolo that is considered to be the true aristocrat. Indeed together with Sangiovese it is traditionally regarded as one of the noble black grapes of Italy. The grape gets its name from the thick fogs – called Nebbia – that descend from the mountains in the late Autumn, just before harvest, and so causing ripening problems for this famously late ripening grape variety.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

Spanna – Nebbiolo in the North
Further north Nebbiolo is also widely grown, but in the past they often called the grape Spanna up there. Although it is Nebbiolo, it is a different clone of the grape and so gives subtly different results, a bit like Tempranillo and Tinto Fino. I remember seeing Spanna on wine labels in my very early days, but as far as I can see true Nebbiolo has either taken over in the areas where Spanna once ruled supreme, or is just treated as though it and Nebbiolo are completely the same. Certainly – again much as with Tinto Fino and Tempranillo – some growers told me that Spanna and Nebbiolo are identical, just different names for the same thing, while others were certain they were different. Whatever the case, I am sure that Nebbiolo is easier to sell than Spanna, just as Malbec is easier to sell than Cot and Tempranillo than Tino Fino.

Centuries ago this area was much more important than it is now, with the wines enjoying more fame than those of southern Piemonte, but all sorts of things changed that. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant high up than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades . The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they couldn’t pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north.

This was all new territory to me and it was tremendously exciting. We visited three districts, with Piemonte being the region. These districts had PDOs and also contained village level appellations – Crus in the same sense that Fleurie is a Cru of Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé a Cru of Mâcon. The Italians producers themselves seem to only use the word Cru in the specific vineyard sense, as in the Grand Crus of Alsace.

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Coste delle Sesia
Our first visits were to the Coste delle Sesia. This DOC – or PDO – covers vineyards near the River Sesia in the Provinces of Vercelli and Biella. One white can be made from Erbaluce, a new grape for me, but from what I saw it was the reds that rule supreme here and these must contain at least 50% of Nebbiolo, Bonarda (Uva Rara), Vespolina, Croatina or Barbera.

I tasted a few excellent wines from this appellation, but the real excitement came from the examples that had a grape variety on the label too. I was very impressed by some of the Coste della Sesia Nebbiolo as well as the few examples of the deliciously spicy Coste della Sesia Vespolina that we got to try. As far as I can see, Vespolina is a very appealing grape that only grows arpound here and a little over the border in Lombardy.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, especially their Orbello red and Majoli rosé.
Pietro Cassina, especially his delicious Coste della Sesia Vespolina.
Travaglini, who really produce Gattinara, but who use their younger vines in an excellent Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia

The Communes of the Coste delle Sesia
Wholly contained within the Costa delle Sesia are three commune – or village – appellations, Cru if you like. Many of these had a very hard twentieth century and are desperately trying to come back from that near death experience. A mixture of Phyloxerra, follwed by mass migration to America and Argentina, wars, depressions and then the rise of the local textile industry – it was relief for the locals to earn a steady wage working in the textle factories after so much instability, so they lefy the land in droves – all took a toll and nearly killed off wine producing in these parts.

Climate wise the area benefits from being south facing, so good sun exposure and having a long growing season, just what Nebbiolo needs. There are also big night time temperature drops which helps retain acidity and finesse in the grapes, as does the cool air that descends from the Alps, tempering the summer heat.

P1160908

The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

Lessona DOC is a tiny PDO which only makes red wines and as far as I can see deserves to be better known. Fundamentally they are made from Nebbiolo – 85% minimum, but a little Vespolina and the wonderfully named Uva Rara is permitted. The wines must be aged before release for a minimum of 22 months, 12 in wood, usually big old 3000 litre wooden foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riserva wines are aged for at least  46 months, 30 of which are in wood.

Once upon a time the area had hundreds of hectares under vine. Now most of those have returned to forest and by the mid 1990s there were only 6.5 hectares of grapes left, but a modest rennaisence is underway and there are now somewhere around 23 hectares with a few new producers just getting started as well, which bodes well for the future.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, this producer’s top wines are all from this PDO. With a history going back to 1671, Sella has long been the commune’s beating heart and the wines are very impressive.
Pietro Cassina is a new producer, but his previous profession as an architect seems to have given him an eye for detail that ensures his wines are very good indeed.
La Badina, especially their Lessona Riserva 2010.

Massimo Clerico, my new favourite drinking buddy makes very good wines that age pretty well – his 2005 is perfectly mature.
Proprietà Sperino, an exciting producer created by Paolo De Marchi whose father founded the Isole & Olena estate in Chianti Classico.

Bramatera DOC is another miniscule PDO that makes good Nebbiolo – or Spanna – wines. Again they are oftem blends with a maximum of 30% Croatina, 20% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina.

The wines must be aged for a minimum of 22 months, 18 in wood, again normally foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riservas are aged for at least 34 months, 24 of which are in wood.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, I know it’s repetitive, but they make very good wines and have vineyards in three different PDO areas.

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

Gattinara DOCG is perhaps the most famous of all the PDOs in the northern part of Piemonte. Once upon a time it was more highly praised than Barolo. Indeed it was famous before Barolo had even decided to make the wines as we know them today. I saw old photographs which showed the hills to the north of Gattinara town to be completely covered in vineyards. This was only in 1906 – just four years before my aunt was born – but today just 60 hectares remain.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi - my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn't open one.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi – my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn’t open one.

In Gattinara it’s normal, and traditional, to soften the potentially hard edged Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 10% Uva Rara and 4% Vespolina. The wines have to be aged for at least 35 months, 24 of which are in wood. Riserva wines receive at least 47 months, of which 35 are in wood and sometimes a proprtion are aged in barrique – 225 litre barrels. Like a good few of the PDOs around here, Gattinara has some volcanic soils in the mix which can often boost acidity and produce elegant wines.

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

From what I experienced, the quality here is very high. I was hugely impressed by the wines that I tasted, they had real class, elegance, finesse, whatever you want to call it, but they were very good wines indeed.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

Recommended producers: Nervi, the oldest producer in the area is now under new ownership and appears to be in fine fettle. I loved their wines, which seemed to have the merest touch of modernity to them. The whole range was first rate including their standard Gattinara, but the Valferana and Molsino Cru wines from specific vineyard sites were maginificent – only a tiny proportion of the very best parcels of the Crus are bottled seperately, the rest is blended in to their Gattinara. I also greatly enjoyed their traditional method pink sparkling Nebbiolo called Jefferson 1787 and really regret not buying a bottle now.

It was particularly fascinating to taste the 2013 Molsino Cru from 4 different wooden vats, Austrian oak, Slavonian (Croatian) oak, Swiss oak and Vosges oak from Alsace. The same wine went into the 3000 litre wooden vats, but 4 entirely different wines came out, which got me seriously wondering about terroir! For me the Slavonian oak was the clear winner, as it really tamed Nebbiolo’s firm tannins.

Finally a decent sized bottle - being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder's great grand-daughter.

Finally a decent sized bottle – being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Travaglini is not quite as old as Nervi, it was founded in the 1920s, but is still run by the original family and appears to be more traditional and, I thought, sees itself as the keeper of the flame of Gattinara. Whether that is true or not, I loved their wines which are all produced from their own fruit grown on the slopes of Gattinara. Real passion came through into the glass and the whole range shone. The standard Gattinaras are very fine, while the Riserva really thrilled me. Travaglini chose not to bottle the Crus seperately, but to blend them all together as they believe that gives the best expression of the region.

I also fell for their white sparkling Nebbiolo. Named Nebolé Brut, they have only made one vintage so far, but it was voted best sparkling in Italy last year by a Sommelier’s association – not a bad start. The wine was pure and mineral and fine and sadly we drank the last bottle. I would also recommend the salami they make that is flavoured with their Gattinara, it is delicious.

Colline Novaresi
East of the Sesia River is the Colline Novaresi – Hills of Novara – which does a similar job to the Coste delle Sesia in the west. Again the white wines must be 100% Erbaluce with the reds made from a minimum of 50% Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Croatina or Bonarda.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Villa Horta Vespolina and Abate di Cluny.

There are four commune PDOs here; Boca DOC, Sizzano DOC, Fara DOC and Ghemme DOCG. Sadly I only have experience of Ghemme, but the others are so tiny in terms of production that it would be very unusual to find them in the outside world, indeed, I didn’t even get to try them there!

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

Ghemme DOCG is yet another miniscule PDO of just 60-65 hectares. The wines must be at least 85% Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 15% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina. The standard wine must be aged for at least 34 months, 18 in wood, while the Riservas must be aged for at least 46 months, with 24 in wood.

At around 400 metres above sea level, the vineyards are the highest on this side of the Sesia River, while the soils are very mixed, but are not volcanic, so the wines can feel a little fatter than in Gattinara.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Ghemme and Collis Breclemæ Cru Ghemme.
Torraccia del Piantavigna, make a wide range of wines, but it their standard Ghemme that shone out for me, although their Gattinara was pretty good too.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

Carema DOC
Our last Nebbiolo visit was to Carema, a place I had heard of and I had even tried the wines, but never visited before. It is an astonishing place, right on the border with the Valle d’Aosta, that tiny Italian region sandwiched between France and Switzerland. We are truly Alpine here, indeeed the landscape reminded me of Switzerland’s vineyards to some degree.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

It only makes red wines in the DOC and they are made from pure Nebbiolo. Standard wines have to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, 24 of those in wood, while Riservas have to be aged for at least 36 months, again 12 in wood. These times have been seriously reduced recently, which I suspect has done the wines no end of good. I found the oak to be well integrated and the tannins very well controlled.

The place is extraordinary however you slice it. The vines grow at between 300 and 600 metres above sea level, making them amongst the highest in Europe. There are only 16 hectares grown – roughly 32 acres – and bear in mind that in my mid 1990s copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson MW states that there were then 60 hectares, then a lot have been lost very recently.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

What’s more, 14 of those 16 hectares are controlled by the excellent local cooperative, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, which has 78 members, so each holding is miniscule as well as being almost perpendicular. The only other producer – yes only two companies make this wine – is Ferrando Vini.

In the past there were many more vineyards, but such back breaking work doesn’t appeal to younger generations, and hasn’t for decades, so people have left the area for an easier lifestyle. However I am willing to bet that the wines have never been better. I tasted the co-op’s Carema Classico, black label and their Riserva, white label, and I was seriously impressed. The wines were lighter perhaps than the other Nebbiolo wines that I tasted on the trip, but they were at least as complex as the Gattinaras and had great concentration of fruit as well as silky tannins. Like the wonderful wines of from Etna DOC in Sicily, I believe these are worthy of DOCG status.

Alpine Piemonte
All in all it was an excellent trip and really fascinating to discover a part of this hidden corner of Italy. The quality of the wines was very high and the passion and commitment of the producers was very clear. They struggle though, as they don’t have the simple clear message of success that their colleagues in the Langhe enjoy. In many ways, with the possible exception of Gattinara – which has a little fame, they have no clear message to make their wines accessable to the outside world. We had a round table conference about this and I tried to help. I came up with the phrase Alpine Piemonte, which I think does give a clear message, certainly more than Alto Piemonte. As long as you know what Piemonte is and know what Alpine is, then surely it’s clear? I would be willing to let them use the slogan for some fair renumeration, a holiday home in Carema perhaps?

Anyway, I urge you to try the wines, I think you will be surprised and excited by their quality and often by the value they represent as well. We visited a few other wine districts too and tasted some really interesting white and sparkling wines that I will write about another day.

Stockist information for the UK:
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando Vini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Travaglini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Nervi are imported into the UK by
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Stockist information for the US:
For Tenute Sella stockists click here.
For Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema stockists click here.
For Travaglini stockists click here.
For Nervi stockists click here.
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Wine of the Week 64 – A is for Albillo

Those of you who read these pages regularly will know that I love finding new things, whether that is new wine regions, new wines styles, new grape varieties or producers. So, I am very excited by my new Wine of the Week.

It is a Spanish white wine – Spain seems to be turning out really exciting white wines right now – made from a grape variety called Albillo. I actually tasted it a while ago, but had failed to tell you all about, so I am rectifying that today.

Albillo is pretty rare, only being planted in Ávila, Galicia, Madrid, Ribera del Duero (where currently it is blended into red wines although the DO is about to start to make whites too) and Burgos Province. I actually mentioned the grape 6 years ago in my piece about the wines of Madrid here.

As with so many Spanish grapes, we have to be very careful as the same name can be used in all sorts of places for different grape varieties. Albillo is no exception as Albillo Real and Albillo Mayor are actually different grapes. My wine of the week is made from Albillo Mayor, which just to muddy the waters a little more and to show how confused wine names can be, is also sometimes known as Turruntés (in Rioja), Túrruntez, Abillo, Blanca del País. And if you were wondering if that means that it is related to Torrentes, well it isn’t. It seems that none of the Spanish grapes called Torrontes, or similar names, are related to the Torrentes of Argentina, although it just might be related to the Albillo Criollo grown in the Canary islands.

Excitingly though, it does seem that Albillo Mayor is one of Tempranillo’s parents, the other being Benedicto, an obscure grape that is no longer grown commercially.

Anyway, whatever Albillo it is, I love this wine so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita dl Conde - click for a larger view.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita del Conde – click for a larger view.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

Ermita-del-Conde-Albillo-2011-640x6402013 Ermita del Conde Albillo Centenario
Bodegas Ermita del Conde
Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León
Burgos, Castilla y León, Spain

Ermita del Conde is a small estate that was created in 2006 by Marta Gomendio, but new though it is the secret here is that they largely use very old vines, which give wines of more depth with lower yields. I am also told that old vines ripen at lower sugar levels than younger vines, so give better balance and often slightly lower alcohol too.

The winery is in the little village of Coruña del Conde, which is outside the Ribera del Duero DO and so the wines have no DO, but have to be labelled as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays. Coruña del Conde is roughly 60 km east of Valladolid, 60 km south west of Logroño and 40 km west of Soria. The estate takes its name from the medieval chapel, ermita or hermitage next door.

Just 2 km away are the magnificent ruins of the old Roman city of Clunia Sulpica, which was briefly the capital of Rome and for a long time the most important Roman city in northern Iberia. In fact the whole area is steeped in history, with Roman bridges, medieval churches and castles dotted about the landscape – this area was for long a defensive frontier, so castles are everywhere.

Marta now owns 16 hectares of old vines that she has purchased off the local farmers and nurtured back to a productive life, this story by the way is replicated across Spain – and elsewhere. Most of the grapes are Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino as it is known in these parts. I have not tasted the red wines, but hope to do so soon.

Apart from the age of the vines, the other thing that makes for great quality here is the height. These vines grow at over 900 metres above sea level. This altitude tempers the extreme summer heat ensuring the wines retain their natural acidity and delicacy. Also, everything here is done by hand with the utmost care, and it shows, what’s more the winery is incredibly well appointed with the most modern equipment that treats the grapes very gently.

This wine is made from vines that are over 100 years old – Albillo Centenario. It is fermented in 3000 litre French oak vats or foudres. Fermentation is spontaneous using the wild yeasts and once complete the wine is aged in the oak on the lees for a further 6 months.

The nose is pretty gentle and clean with delicate aromas of nuts, cream and lemon curd. It is on the palate that you find the excitement. The texture is so lovely that you find yourself smiling and looking around to see what others think as you drink it. It is creamy, yes, but also silky and suave. The flavours are mouth filling too, with apples, lemon, lemon rind, nectarine, almonds and a little butter. I swear there are hints of more tropical pineapple and coconut too as well as a beautifully balanced seam of acidity and mineral characters. The oak is very subtle and beautifully integrated.

I originally tasted the 2011, which was more developed, honeyed and nutty, while this is fresher and more lightly creamy. I like them both, but this wins for sheer drinkability, buy lots as the bottles empty very quickly indeed – 92/100 points.

This is a serious white wine of great quality and deserves to be much more famous. I drank it with pork, but am sure that it would be equally good with poultry or a pice of fish.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society.

 

Tempranillo Day – Celebrating the Tempting Tempranillo

Tempranillo & Mazuelo vines at Contino in Rioja Alavesa

I cannot claim to have a favourite grape, let alone one that I drink to the exclusion of all others. I find the less trodden wine paths to be so fascinating that I simply cannot resist lesser known grapes – Carmenère, Zweigelt, St Laurent, Grenache Gris, Nascetta, Romorantin and the like all speak to me and demand their attention. I am never professionally happier or more excited than when experiencing a new grape variety for the first time.

A fine Riesling would probably be my desert island wine of choice as I never seem to tire of that beguiling grape, but for the rest I enjoy a wide spectrum of grapes with very different characters. Regular readers will know though that my passion for all things Spanish often breaks through and trumps my affection for wines from other places, so I think that if push comes to shove Tempranillo might well be my favoured red wine grape – unless I happen to be in a particular Cabernet, Pinot or Syrah sort of mood.

Very different conditions for old vine Tempranillo / Tinto del País in Castilla y León

And why am I so fond of Tempranillo? Well I cannot give you a neat answer to that really, but it speaks to me. Unlike the classic French grapes, which are only grown in specific areas of the country, Tempranillo is used all over Spain and so produces a wide range of wine styles and yet they often seem to be attractive wines to me – the well made examples anyway. Even at quite low price points Tempranillo can be enjoyable to drink.

Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero

As someone who celebrates diversity in wine it pains me that the differences are being ironed out. Many marketeers seem to believe that wine should be simplified for the UK consumer, even if they have to stretch the truth to do so. Nowadays you are more likely to find Tempranillo on a Spanish wine label from whatever region it hails when to my mind they should have used the old local name: Cencibel in Valdepeñas, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinto del País in Cigales, Tinta de Toro in Toro and the poetic Ull De Llebre in Cataluña. What’s more many people believe these grapes have evolved apart and so are now only very closely related rather than being absolutely identical to Tempranillo – not least the great Carlos Falco, Marqués de Griñon.

Tempranillo and olives in Utiel-Requña

It is Tempranillo’s fame as the main grape of Rioja that brings it to most people’s attention, but given Rioja’s popularity it always amazes me how few people grow Tempranillo outside Spain. It has become a dominant grape in Portugal – where it is called Tinto Roriz and Aragonez depending on where you are. There is even some grown in the south of France and I have tasted some from Virginia and Texas and even had one from Peru the other day, but Tempranillo has not yet become a true international grape. The plantings outside Europe remain small and relatively inconsequential, except in Argentina, but even there it is treated as an everyday grape rather than being given the star treatment it deserves. Surely Tempranillo is capable of challenging for Malbec‘s Argentinean throne?

Tempranillo in the softer Tuscan landscape

Perhaps it is this very diversity that I like about Tempranillo? That sense of never knowing quite what you are going to get. As with Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans there is no one flavour to Tempranillo. Some people taste black fruit and some red, some regions produce dry savoury wines from it while other areas make richly fruity examples. Some wine makers craft bright, modern Tempranillos that celebrate fruit and liveliness, while many winemakers stick to the traditional silky, oaky style that made the grape famous in the first place.

Although most famous as the principal grape of red Rioja, Tempranillo – and its near relatives – is also responsible for an array of lovely wines from across Spain and in my opinion it deserves to be as celebrated as much more famous and widely used grape varieties. Which is why I made sure that I tasted some on 8th November which just happened to be International Tempranillo Day:

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

2011 Beronia Tempranillo Rosado
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo 

The colour is a vivid strawberry juice hue, but it looks like real fruit rather than a confection. The nose is fresh, floral and gently fruity while the palate is dry, rich-ish, crisp-ish, nicely balanced  and very nice to drink with almost anything. It won’t win any prizes for complexity, but will make lots of people happy. Spain makes very good rosé, but why isn’t Tempranillo used for more of them? Personally I think it is much more suitable than the more normal Garnacha – 86/100 points

Around £9.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2010 Beronia Tempranillo Elaboración Especial
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo (in Rioja it is traditionally blended with Garnacha and others to make the wines fruitier) aged 8 months in new American Oak barrels.

Deep opaque plummy-black colour.
The nose is fragrant and enticing with spice, vanilla and a touch of mocha.
Pretty full-bodied for Rioja (which despite its reputation is rarely more than medium-bodied) with rich sweet black plummy fruit, fragrant vanilla and dried fruit notes too. The palate is round, rich and succulent with rich cherry on the the end of the mid palate together with a touch of fruit cake and a light dusting of cocoa and coffee and a lovely sinewy texture of gentle tannins and oak. This is a terrific wine to drink and enjoy without thinking about too much. The soft, fruity and modern side of Tempranillo and Rioja it scores high for pleasure and sheer drinkability – 88/100 points

Around £12.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2008 Matarromera Crianza
Bodega Matarromera, Valbuena de Duero, D.O. Ribera del Duero
100% Tinto Fino / Tempranillo aged 12 months in mixture of French &  American Oak barrels.

Matarromera were only founded in 1988, but they are in the heartland of Ribera del Duero and are right up there in quality with some of the much more famous producers of this great wine region which needs to be better known in the UK.
Intense aromas of plum, cocoa together with smoky, cedary spices.
The palate was sumptuous, soft and succulent at first with rich plum fruit and other mixed dark fresh and stewed fruit with fig and black cherry. The oak is very tasty indeed, coconut, vanilla, cocoa and coffee with some spice too. the tannins give a lovely fine grain texture which is so wrapped up in ripe fruit that’s there is no astringency. This is a big, but still medium bodied and dry wine and although the fruit is ripe it is not sweet at all. A beautifully balanced and concentrated wine that is hugely enjoyable and quite delicious. Not yet as complex as it will become – it needs time to develop, but it is really delicious and extremely pleasurable already and has much to offer for a long time to come – 91/100 points

Around £25.00 a bottle in the UK from Harvey Nichols.

2010 Finca Constancia Tempranillo Parcela 23
Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, Otero, Toledo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla
Special single parcel bottling of 100% Tempranillo aged 6 months in mixture of new French &  American Oak barrels.

Better known for Sherry, in 2006 Gonzalez Byass created this stunning modern estate in a part of Spain that seems at first glance to be a backwater for wine. However it is in the Sierra de Gredos, renowned for old vine Garnacha and the area is also home to Carlos Falco’s great Dominio de Valdepusa which produces some of Spain’s greatest wines in this seemingly unlikely place.
This will also make many friends as it is a very user friendly, winter warmer kind of wine. The nose really shows that new oak, smoky, toasty and very vanilla and coconut like those marshmallow sweets rolled in coconut! There was rich, stewed blackberry and plum fruit too as well as a dash of spice. The palate was at the top end of medium bodied with ripe plums, sweeter strawberry fruit, rich cherry and a touch herbs as you get in Chianti and all along this sweet vanilla, smooth, leathery oak giving a touch of toffee too. This is one to drink relatively soon and it is a bargain, so gets high marks from me for value – 88/100 points

Around £10.99 a bottle in the UK from the Oxford Wine Company.

There is no doubt that the Ribera del Duero was the finest of these, so do try it if you can, but all the wines showed well and reminded me how fond I am of wines made from Tempranillo and its relatives and the good news is we can drink them whenever we like, not just on International Tempranillo Day.

Red Wine – cool in Summer

Recently I had a couple of red wine experiences that were very interesting – as well as being hugely enjoyable.

Tower Bridge complete with Olympic Rings – the view from Tapas Fantasticas 2012

At this time of year I often find red wine problematic. When it’s hot the temperature of the wine can rise very quickly and a big, modern fruit bomb of a red wine can quickly get warm, which in turn makes it feel gloopy and soupy when you drink it. Now I know that many people seem to have no problem with this – but I do.

So, in Summer I usually fall back on white wines and rosés.

This is mainly I think because being British I have been trained and brought up to think that red wine should be served at room temperature – I have no idea of the temperature in my room, but this seems to be a very loose term which means something like 16-18˚C.

In my mind a cold red wine will be astringent as the tannins will be more harsh, whereas if I serve it slightly warm then the tannins will be smoother and rounder. In the past I have reserved drinking cool red wine for when I am on holiday in Spain drinking wines of no great merit. In fact I have always found it a bit odd that the Spanish generally seem to serve their red wines cold – not just not warm mind, but cold. Continue reading

Great tasting of wines from Castilla y León

Earlier this week I tutored an exciting tasting of wines from Castilla y León.

Wine Regions of Castlla y León

Wine Regions of Castlla y León - click on the map for a closer look

It came about when I was asked back, for a second consecutive year, to The Association of Wine Cellarmen. Last year I presented a selection of Villa Maria wines from New Zealand. This time around, just as they invited me I was about to head off on a Circle of Wine Writers trip to Castilla y León, led by John Radford no less, so I thought it would be exciting to present some of the wines that I experienced along the way. The ever genial Nick Seymour, who runs the Association, luckily also thought this sounded like a great idea.

Continue reading