Alejandro Fernandez, one of Spain’s visionary winemakers, is serenading me with an old folk song in his tasting room.
It is 25 years since his Tinto Pesquera red gave Ribera del Duero a future as a serious wine region and he is opening bottles to prove it.
La Ribera, a high rocky plateau bordering the Duero river 90 minutes’ drive northwest of Madrid, produces bold, savory, long-lived reds from the tempranillo grape with vivid fruit, dense structure and scents of leather and tobacco. Though home to collectible Vega Sicilia, the region was little-known until critic Robert Parker called Pesquera “the Petrus of Spain” in 1985, triggering a wave of interest.
Fernandez, who is short and bald with a prominent nose, shows me the tiny 400-year-old stone bodega where he made the first several vintages of Pesquera using a giant wood and stone press. It makes me think of tools from the Spanish Inquisition. Every family in nearby Pesquera del Duero used to have a winery like this, he says in rapid Spanish.
Eva, one of his four daughters, is now winemaker and busily pours the wines. One of his seven granddaughters lingers to practice English, while Alejandro II, his 3-year-old grandson, peeks from behind his mother’s skirt. One day, he may be boss.
Back in 1972, when Fernandez started buying the best vineyards, everyone else was replacing grapes with sugar beets. People called him crazy, but he had in mind a Spanish wine with more color, freshness and fruit than the country’s famous oak-aged Riojas. The high altitude of the vineyards means cold nights and a long growing season, which translate into more flavor.
He ticks off his methods: Fertilizer from his herd of 1,000 Limousin cows, hand-picking, native yeasts, no filtering and shorter oak aging so wines are fresher. He uses traditional crianza, reserva and gran reserva (good-better-best) designations, according to the length of time in the cask.
Bottles from his two Ribera wineries, Bodegas Tinto Pesquera and Condado de Haza, and two others elsewhere in Spain are lined up on a wooden table guarded by a suit of armor. His wife arrives with plates of homemade chorizo and a sheep’s milk cheese as we savor wines that are still classics.
The 2007 Tinto Pesquera ($30) is lively and silky, while the deep, velvety 2003 Pesquera Janus Gran Reserva ($120), made only in the best years, hints of cocoa and tobacco. The rich, concentrated 1996 Pesquera Reserva Millennium ($500 per magnum) is the only one aged in French oak.
Fernandez pauses from his song. “This is one of the best wines in the world,” he says. Well, it’s certainly one of the best Spanish wines.
Earlier that day, I’d passed dozens of new boxy-looking bodegas on the N122 main road as I drove to the white-washed town of Quintanilla de Onesmo looking for cult winery Dominio de Pingus.
Peter Sisseck, a stocky, sandy-haired young Dane arrived from Bordeaux in the early 1990s and fell in love with a tiny plot of neglected 60-year-old vines that he now tends biodynamically.
His first vintage, 1995, yielded 325 cases of a wine he called Pingus, after his nickname from a Danish comic-strip character. He destemmed grapes by hand and crushed them with his bare feet. After the 75-case U.S. allocation sank in a shipwreck off the Azores, Pingus became the most expensive and sought-after Spanish wine. Prices tripled.
In his spare, restored stone cellar, I taste a barrel sample of the voluptuous 2009, with its layered flavors, expansive orange peel aroma and balance, despite its 15.5 percent alcohol. Second-label Flor de Pingus is less complex but a fraction of Pingus’s $600-plus price tag.
Fortunately, Sisseck’s latest project -- 2007 Psi (named for the Greek letter) -- offers authentic Ribera taste for a modest $35. He buys grapes and wine from growers with old vines, helping them improve quality and paying a premium for it.
Sisseck’s success and Fernandez’ earlier example stimulated an investment explosion in new wineries. Over a lunch of local jamon iberico at tavern-style Meson de la Villa in Aranda de Duero, Javier Zaccagnini, co-owner of Bodega Aalto, fills me in on the situation.
“In 1992, there were only 70 wineries in Ribera,” he says. “Now there are 258.”
First came wine firms from other parts of Spain, like Cava giant Codorniu. Then wealthy individuals began buying in.
Antonio Banderas is part-owner of Anta Wines. Ex-Goldman Sachs banker Jose Manuel Ortega, who built a winery in Argentina, created O. Fournier here in 2002. Some are opportunists with vastly overpriced wines. Others, including Aalto and O. Fournier, produce stunners.
While the recession has taken its toll -- about 30 wineries are for sale -- the top producers don’t seem worried about finding buyers for Ribera’s quality wines.
“We sell out,” says Fernandez.
For wine, like most things, there’s always a demand for the best.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)