Even better than the real thing (Ribera del Duero, Spain – Day Three)

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about the complexities of communication. A significant amount of the worlds problems can be traced back to a failure to communicate, through misunderstandings, misrepresentations or ignorance. In daily life it can be so difficult to get your message across and understand your opposite within your native language, let alone someone else’s. It is my firm belief that the major thing holding wine back in the world is communication, rather than economic, political or social barriers. Wine is such a unique product that it is futile attempting to market it in my opinion, all you can do is communicate it. Some might argue that this is the same thing, but communication is only one element of marketing that is the most complicated in relation to wine. In my experience one of the hardest things to convey about wine is more than quality, it is personality, context and the overall mystery of wine. I have always endeavoured to improve the way I communicate about wine, dependant on the audience, and I will continue to do so in the future. When you consider that in todays global wine market there are hundreds of different language and cultural barriers, this further adds to the complexity involved. On my journey I have had several instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication, but my experience today was one of the most frustrating.
Barrels in the cellars of Vega Sicilia

The king of wines in Spain is without question, Vega Sicilia. Apart from the fact that the winery dates back to the mid-19th Century, they were producing world-class wine before anyone had even conceived of it in Spain. Whilst the ownership of the winery has changed hands over the years, the mission has always been the same; to make the best wine. When the business was started the original owner was inspired by the Bordeaux concept of a single estate vineyard providing a chateau wine each vintage. As in other regions in Spain this proved problematic, particularly as much of the vineyards were planted to Bordeaux varieties generally unsuited to the very different climates of the Ribera del Duero. Common sense prevailed with the second owners, as they shifted the model to a single wine produced from different vineyards, and it was not long before a legend was born. The current owners are the Alvarez family, who this year celebrate their 30th year of ownership. Whilst the family didn’t have a background in the wine business and built their fortune in the outsourcing business (cleaning, security etc.), they made the right choice in appointing a visionary team to oversee the running of the estate into the future. From the Vega Sicilia estate they expanded into new territory; first into other parts of the Ribera del Duero with Alion; then into the re-emerging Hungarian Tokaji region; returning to Spain into the Toro region; and more recently into the highly competitive but amazingly exploitable Rioja region. The philosophies and many of the practices are the same across the five estates, but it is Vega Sicilia which is not only the jewel but also one of the most unique wineries in the world.

A Vega Sicilia bottle in storage

Just last week a new chapter of the winery’s history was completed as the new vinification buildings were inaugurated by owners and politicians alike. The product of a 20 million euro investment is astonishing, as no expense has been spared. Down to the last detail the absolute best practices are employed at Vega Sicilia, from the double sorting, refrigeration rooms to cool the fruit before destemming, transportable whole berry fermentation tanks, complete climate control traceability. Joining such illustrious estates as Bollinger, Guigal and Chateau Margaux, the winery has its own cooperage for making barrels. The difference with Vega Sicilia is that they only cooper the American barrels for this and the Pintia estate in Toro, the French oak barrels are purchased from suppliers. You can be sure of the quality of the Vega Sicilia wines, because in spite of the fact that they have vineyards which total 250 hectares, they only produce about 200,000 bottles. Anything that doesn’t make the ridiculously high standards of the winery gets sold off to no doubt grateful customers. The Vega Sicilia Unico wine, one of the most collected and sought after in the world, is truly unique because of its ageing. After two years in new oak barrels after the malolactic fermentation, the wine then spends a further year in used barrels before three years in 20,000 litre oak vats, and at least four years in bottle. That sets the release date at over 10 years after the vintage. The only other wines that are released this way are the finest vintage champagnes. It is a good thing too, because at ten years the wines are just starting to open up and express themselves, as I discovered back in Australia when I tasted the 1999 and 2000 vintages. The wines are all naturally sold by allocation, and you had better take that allocation otherwise you may lose it. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to taste the current releases, as I will explain below.

One of the Vega Sicilia tanks

It is exceedingly difficult planning and executing the trip that I am on. Whilst I spent many months planning the route of my entire trip, during my travels I constantly have to think ahead in terms of logistics, accommodation and ensuring I have appointments in each region I visit. This I have to fit in the actual travel and appointments themselves, not to mention writing on my blog and eating and sleeping when I get the chance. It is pretty hard to do this any more than four months ahead of time, and there are further complications in terms of keeping contact and confirming all of my appointments, as well as getting the pertinent details of them. During a busy period I had received an appointment to Pesquera, and was informed the only time available was on the 20th at 12:30pm. When I was lucky enough to get the appointment to Vega Sicilia after almost six weeks of attempts, I asked if I could come a little later, at 1:00pm for example. When I was told this was not possible, I decided to respect the original appointment I had made to a winery that I was a fan of from back at home. Thus I had to leave Vega Sicilia with great regret and apologies, and was a little late to Pesquera. There I was informed that there was not enough time to have a visit and tasting, but perhaps I could come back at 4:00pm. In other words, I could have stayed at Vega Sicilia and visited the Alion estate, not to mention taste the wines. As you can imagine this was a bitter pill to swallow, but I put it all down to misunderstanding and miscommunication and moved on. I did return, and I’m glad I did because I was reminded why I was a fan of the wines.

The Penafiel Castle above the Ribera del Duero valley

Tinto Pesquera was created in 1972 by Alejandro Fernandez, whose father and grandfather were responsible for the winery of the town to make the wine from a group of growers. His dream was to produce truly exceptional wine but to make it accessible and affordable for everyone, and he wanted to do it using only tinto fino (tempranillo), and in a traditional way. In the first ten years he continued to use the ancient press to process the fruit from many parcels, but when the Ribera del Duero DO was created he was forbidden to do so. Subsequently he began to press the grapes in the exact same way, but do it in stainless steel tanks. He found both admiration and respect for the wines he was creating, and slowly built not only the Pesquera brand but also establishing other estates in and outside of the region, including Condado de Haza near Burgos, Dehesa la Granja near Toro, and El Vinculo in the La Mancha DO.

The gates of Tinto Pesquera

For Pequera fruit is taken from the 200 hectares of vineyards and graded based on quality, then vinified separately based on this. Plots are not necessarily kept separate, and are often added to already fermenting vats. The keys are the harvesting time, which is quite early, and the way the wine is fermented and macerated, which is quite gentle. More than any wine I have tasted in Spain thus far, the Pesquera wines are chasing texture rather than flavour. A maximum of 10% new oak is sued to mature the wines, and interestingly only American oak casks are used, bucking the Ribera del Duero trend towards French oak. The Pesquera wines are not only unique in a region and time when extraction power and expression are so heavily awarded, but they remain exceptional value for money. Thankfully the quality of the wines served to wash away the bad taste in my mouth, although I would have liked to see some vineyards. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Ancient press at Tinto Pesquera

Click here to see more photos from the third and final day in the Ribera del Duero. Tomorrow I venture west towards Portugal, where I will visit some producers in the newest wine region to gain worldwide attention; Toro.

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