Transforming Tempranillo

Based in Ribera del Duero, the García family is producing some of Spain’s most impressive wines.

From the Oct. 15, 2010, issue

The Spanish wine region of Ribera del Duero emerged from obscurity in the 1980s and today challenges Rioja as the country’s premier region for Tempranillo-based wines. Much credit for Ribera’s rapid ascent goes to Mariano García and his extended family of winemakers, who oversee an impressive array of winery projects.

Mariano García Fernández, 66, has been a key influence in Ribera, beginning with his long tenure as winemaker for the region’s most prestigious producer, Vega Sicilia, then with his own Bodegas Mauro. His family’s impact now extends across northern Spain. His son, Eduardo García Montaña, 32, and nephew, Isaac Fernández Montaña, 47, are two of Spain’s brightest young winemaking stars. All the family’s projects emphasize old vines over winemaking methods, and aim for wines that express their terroir.

“Mariano is a great guy and a great professional,” says Peter Sisseck, owner and winemaker at reference-point boutique bodega Pingus, in Ribera. “He also has something very important that many of us don’t have. He has been making wine in Ribera since 1968. His family has known the area for many generations, and this gives what is so often missing in new areas: the history to connect to how things were and how people used to work in the vineyards. At Vega Sicilia, he was extremely privileged to work with great vineyards at a house known for quality. He’s a very historical figure in Ribera.”

García founded Mauro in 1980 with two partners, working in a 17th-century stone building with vineyards just outside town in Tudela de Duero. Because of a quirk in the mapping of the Ribera del Duero Denominación de Origen (DO), these vineyards fall within the lesser Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León designation.

By the mid-1990s, the winery was gaining international acclaim. A new winery was built in 2004; its sleek lines seem appropriate for display in a museum. The functional, gravity-only winery has generous, well-lighted work areas, a design resulting from Mariano’s years of experience. With his hearty laugh, the goateed Mariano is jovial greeting a visitor. He seems a warm bear of a man, like a favorite uncle who horses around with the kids.

Before Mauro, Mariano was the first degree-holding enologist at the iconic Bodegas Vega Sicilia. From 1968 to 1998, Mariano produced many legendary vintages of Unico, the flagship wine that sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle. He was a key part of a team that created Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, Vega Sicilia’s modern-style Ribera wine introduced in 1991.

Ribera del Duero and Tudela de Duero are exceptional winegrowing areas. The air is crisp and the hours of strong sunlight are many. At 700 to 1,000 meters elevation, with low rainfall, the vineyard’s frequent day-to-night temperature drops of up to 50° F help grapes develop optimal acidity and balance. Compared with Vega Sicilia’s vines in the western end of Ribera, Mauro’s old vineyards are west of this area, in a warmer, more protected microclimate, but in soils with a similarly high percentage of limestone.

“My concept of winemaking is hands-off, to respect the wine, do lots of work in the vineyard, and make wine with a very pure style which reflects the identity of the grape variety in the context of Tudela de Duero’s terroir,” says García. “Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) on the western side of the Duero valley [where the Mauro vineyards are] is perfect for producing intense and concentrated wines but also with a gentle, fresh and fine character.”

About 160 acres of vineyards are mostly estate-owned, with some under long-term contract. Mauro’s basic red, Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León (about 23,000 cases per year), is 90 percent Tinto Fino and 10 percent Syrah. García says of this wine: “[It is] always a safe bet for a clean, fresh and bright fruit character. The exotic floral note of Syrah accompanies the red fruit character of Tinto Fino. Very attractive to drink in its youth.”

The Vendimia Seleccionada (2,100 cases), which debuted in 1994, is 100 percent Tinto Fino, made from selected parcels of Mauro’s oldest vineyards. García describes this wine as “generous, opulent, seductive, complex and rich, in a refined, velvety style with precise tannins, vibrant black fruit and excellent focus,” adding that it offers “wonderful aging potential.” Introduced in 1996, the Terreus Paraje de Cueva Baja (about 625 cases) is made from a single Tinto Fino vineyard planted in the 1930s. “Big, intense, mineral, brave, compact and concentrated, it is a force of nature surprisingly fresh and balanced. A wine for cellaring,” says García.

García partnered with Javier Zaccagnini, former president of the Ribera del Duero DO, to form Bodegas Aalto in 1998. “The concept is to produce personal and top Ribera wines of 100 percent Tinto Fino, selecting the best old vineyards and plots in different areas with the incredible diversity in soils and microclimates of Ribera del Duero,” García says of the project.

Aalto (15,000 cases) is “a young, meaty, ripe and powerful Ribera, more accessible to drink young than Aalto P.S.,” says García. Aalto Pagos Seleccionados (up to 1,250 cases) is made only in select vintages.

Aalto’s 178 acres of owned and contracted vineyards, farmed under Mariano’s strict supervision, hold old vines located in Ribera’s northern central area within Burgos province, mainly near the villages of Roa and La Horra, where one neighbor is Pingus. The soils there contain a higher percentage of clay and sand, resulting in wines that are brawnier than those from the limestone-rich soils of Tudela and Valladolid.

Since 2001 at Mauro and Maurodos, the latter in the nearby Toro DO, Mariano advises at a strategic level while Eduardo García heads day-to-day winemaking operations. Eduardo is carrying on his father’s forward thinking with a number of high-profile projects.

Eduardo drives a visitor from the Maurodos winery, an hour west of Tudela, to vineyards near the winery. A deep reddish brown from its high iron content, the clay soil has just been tilled and lies about in large chunks the size of melons. Toro’s dense soils impart great concentration to wines that are among the most powerful Tempranillo-based reds from Spain. Well before noon, the relentless sun is already baking the flat landscape, and the cooling breeze, a constant in Tudela’s vineyards, is gone.

Scanning the scene, Eduardo reflects, “When I go on holidays, the thing I miss the most is the vineyards, more than my father, my family … I go to the beach one week, and after four days I’m thinking I want to go to the vineyards. It’s always a problem for my girlfriend, who tells me, ‘You love the vineyards and the wine too much!’ Maybe it’s true, but I can’t change. It’s my life.”

With degrees in viticulture and enology, Eduardo worked internships under Bruno Prats at Cos-d’Estournel in Bordeaux, Hubert Lignier in Burgundy and California’s Paul Draper, all winemakers known for terroir-driven wines.

Mariano bought vineyards and land for Maurodos in 1996 and completed the bodega in 2000. Today, 160 acres of estate and contract vineyards are farmed for the label. Predating the better-known Numanthia by a vintage, Maurodos’ San Román 1997 was arguably the first modern-style wine from Toro. San Román (6,200 cases) is 100 percent Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo). Prima (12,500 cases), with 10 percent Garnacha, is Eduardo’s concept for a fresh, young Toro, introduced in 2003.

“I adore the vivid force of the vines in Toro,” Eduardo says. “Especially from 2004, I’m trying to refine the brave character of San Román. I want to keep the wild side of the wine, its sincere minerality, opulence and explosion of licorice and black fruit flavors, but I like a polished texture and enticing fresh finish. Prima is more casual, with primary fruit but firm and deeply colored.”

Similar to Maurodos, several of Eduardo’s other projects too are unique expressions of old vines in distinctive terroirs.

The Romera de la Cruz family founded Bodegas Los Astrales in the Ribera del Duero DO in 2000. Eduardo became winemaker there in 2001. Astrales (3,250 cases) and Astrales Christina (150 cases) are 100 percent Tinto Fino wines made from vineyards near Anguix, in the cooler, northern central part of Ribera, where sand- and clay-rich soils produce “a cooler, fresh, more sophisticated expression … with crisp fruit, vibrant acidity, consistent and long,” Eduardo explains. “The Anguix terroir is not suited to a heavy, overripe, too tannic style.”

In 2002, Eduardo, his brother Alberto and two partners founded Bodegas y Viñedos Paixar in the Bierzo DO. Bierzo is northwest of Toro, on the edge of “green Spain,” where maritime influence from the Atlantic gives a cooler, wetter climate. The region was languishing in obscurity until vintner Álvaro Palacios and nephew Ricardo Perez-Palacios began working there in the late 1990s, but is now producing some of Spain’s most exciting red wines, based on the indigenous Mencía variety.

Paixar (420 cases) is made from 100 percent Mencía vines planted in high hillside soils of schist and slate, similar to the llicorella terroir of Priorat. “I love Mencía because it’s completely different from Tempranillo,” Eduardo says. “Paixar is personal, earthy, seductive, pure, spicy, herbaceous, more Northern Rhône in style. A very traditional kind of winemaking produces clean and bright wines, very influenced by nature around the vineyards.”

Eduardo describes two other projects which, like Mauro, operate outside the DO system: “Bodegas Leda and Ramiro Wine Cellar are based on recuperating small, 1-acre plots of old vines of Tinto Fino in the Duero Valley to extract all the character from magnificent raw material with less intervention. For Leda, I usually select plots from Cigales (a region just northwest of Ribera del Duero) and Tudela de Duero; for Ramiro, I only work with Toro and Ribera vines.”

Like his cousin Eduardo, Isaac Fernández is a prolific winemaker with projects across Spain.

Though his parents were not in the wine business, Isaac drew inspiration from Mariano, his maternal uncle. Like Mariano, Isaac graduated from the Madrid School of Winemaking and Viticulture, among Spain’s top enology schools. He then worked at Bodegas Mauro from 1984 to 2005, becoming manager of winemaking and technical organization. Today, his main area of interest is Ribera del Duero.

“I’m very lucky to start my career and gain experience at a special winery like Mauro instead of a cooperative. The family winemaking tradition is very important. Mariano is one of the most important winemakers in the world and I’m lucky to have him as a teacher. At Mauro, I learned how to make quality wines. As a winemaker, I was born rich.”

Outside Aranda de Duero, a town in the center of the Ribera del Duero DO, lies the new winery of Bodegas & Viñedos Neo. With distressed industrial surfaces and backlit signage, the bodega emanates an MTV-chic aura. One unusual feature is a state-of-the-art multitrack recording studio that is booked months in advance. In the cellar, French barrels are adorned with notes scribbled by visiting celebrities.

Isaac displays an infectious creative energy as he shows a visitor around Neo, where he was hired as winemaker in 2000 (when the project was known by its former name of J.C. Conde Delgado y Otros). Neo El Arte de Vivir and Vivir, Vivir (10,000 cases and 15,000 cases, respectively) are 100 percent Tinto Fino, made with short macerations and aged eight months in barrel for the former and one year in tank for the latter. Both have crisp, fresh dark berry character. “People want wines that are easy to drink. Now we have younger consumers who want to learn about wines. The people who don’t like wine, it’s because they’ve never tasted a good one,” says Isaac.

Grapes for the Neo Sentido (3,750 cases), a joven (young) wine, the Neo (1,850 cases) and Neo Punta Esencia (350 cases), made only in select vintages, come from old vineyards near Aranda de Duero. Isaac says, “The special thing I’m looking for is elegance.”

In 1999, Isaac started working at Bodegas Uvaguilera. Describing its top wine, Palomero (625 cases), from a single vineyard near La Horra, Isaac says, “Traditional-style Ribera, full of concentration, elegance and ability to age.”

Isaac took on duties at Bodegas Arrocal in 2003. The basic Arrocal red (16,500 cases) “is a modern Ribera, with lots of fruit and floral aromas, easy-drinking, especially for younger people,” he says. For artisanal wines Máximo (about 200 cases), Ángel (about 300 cases) and Christina (125 cases; produced in 2005 only), the number of bottles produced depends on the vintage.

Isaac explains, “Each has a unique expression, but with the identity and tradition of Ribera. Ángel is very elegant now and with aging it will be very silky and velvety. Máximo needs long aging, but will be full of complexity. Christina is between these: elegance, smoothness and complexity. A perfect wine to drink now and to cellar.”

Isaac arrived at Bodegas Valderiz in 2005. All the fruit is estate-grown, from 178 acres of vineyards around Roa. For its Valderiz (2,500 cases) and top wine Tomás Esteban (300 cases), Isaac seeks “balance, complexity, elegance and a long evolution in bottle. [Vineyards near Roa produce fruit that is] clean and pristine, so I don’t need to do much in the winery.”

As technical director on so many projects, Isaac works long hours. He visits “most bodegas every day, to teach, make important decisions and solve problems. The most important thing I give to the wines is my own style and touch. It’s challenging and to do it well requires a lot of thinking and heart,” he says.

All these bodegas’ vineyards are in Ribera’s northern central area within Burgos province, where clay-rich soils produce robust and earthy wines with personality.

In September 2009 Isaac began consulting for Bodegas Museum in Cigales. With Isaac’s help, Museum will join bodegas Translanzas and César Príncipe with an eye to raising the profile of this emerging region.

The García family’s entrepreneurial approach springs from energy, vitality and innovation. Seeing potential in emerging regions, their benchmark projects have become examples for others to follow. Their collective work has helped boost the reputations of Ribera del Duero, Toro and Bierzo, and has shed light on projects outside the DO system.

Together, these winemakers are helping to shape modern winemaking in Ribera del Duero and beyond. Their wines bear a family resemblance, thanks partly to their shared grape varieties and terroirs, but also differ, much like the personalities of their makers. It’s tempting to say Mariano’s wines are opulent and generous, like the man himself. Eduardo’s transmit clean, dark berry, herbal and mineral-inflected fruit, drawn from his respect for his vines. Isaac’s expressive, elegant wines fall somewhere in between, a balance of his extensive knowledge of both terroir and winemaking.

A focus on old vineyards, an understanding of grape varieties and local terroirs and a noninterventionist approach to winemaking combine to create wines that marry power and finesse. In letting the vineyards speak for themselves, the Garcías’ many reds display a wonderfully diverse range of expression, each vineyard and wine a new chapter in the history of the García family, the wines of the region, and of Tempranillo in Spain.

Chris Fleming is a freelance wine writer and consultant.