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A Few Days in Castilla y Leon

The view from Aalto

I recently visited northern Spain with a UK wine importer: a Serb of Bosnian extraction and a lively travelling companion. He's also a man who knows a great deal about the wines of the region we toured, having worked there and having imported a great many of the place's best wines for years.

There was a thread running through our trip: a single man, justifiably pedestalised throughout Spain by those who move in vinous circles. That man is Mariano Garcia. Son of a vineyard worker, Mariano was born at Vega Sicilia. At that estate he rose quickly to become winemaker at 24 and spent 30 vintages as technical director at what is one of the greatest and most venerable wine estates in all Spain.

In 1978, he started a new winery called Mauro in Tudela de Duero in the province of Valladolid, situated just outside the western boundary of Ribera del Duero. This is now run by Mariano's son Eduardo and produces three stunning wines - Mauro, Mauro VS (Vendemia Selecionada) and Terreus under the denominacion Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon, equivalent to VdP in France or IGT in Italy.

Eduardo Garcia among the bush vines
At Vega Sicilia Mariano developed an interest in the Toro region and his interest led not only to the production of Vega Sicilia's first wine from outside Ribera del Duero - Pintia - but in the first instance a new personal business in the form of Maurodos (i.e. Mauro 2), where are made among Toro's finest wines - Prima, San Roman and Cartago - all from Tinto de Toro (as Tempranillo is known here).

In the late nineties he paired up with his friend Javier Zaccagnini to work on the concept for Aalto. Javier had been head of Ribera del Duero's Denominacion de Origen Consejo Regulador and together they hatched a plan to create a Ribera del Duero wine that could compete head-to-head with any in the world. Between them they had intimate knowledge of the region and its vignerons and between them they put together a portfolio of vineyards of old vines that now amounts to some 110 hectares.

The Aalto winery above sunflowers and vines

The soils of this region vary between sand and red clay with outcrops of limestone. And here is grown solely the Tempranillo grape, known locally as Tinto Fino.

This can be a torrid landscape…during the day that is. Vineyards grow at up to a thousand metres above sea level and day/night temperature fluctuations are significant. It is, in part, these fluctuations that give the wines of the region their finesse. Cool night-time temperatures help to preserve the acidity within the fruit. Whilst these are big wines, concentrated, sometimes a touch sauvages, they also offer freshness, focus and minerality. In short, they perfectly represent the landscape in which they were grown.

Javier has now sold his interest in Aalto. But not one to rest on his laurels, he has a new project on the go in Ribera del Duero: Sei Solo. This wine is, for the time being, made at another estate, but plans are in place for a winery build in the near future. Sei Solo was inspired by a bottle of La Tâche, so little surprise that the intention here is to craft something with an extra dimension of elegance.

And Mariano himself has a new project: Garmon, a winery in Ribera del Duero he runs with his sons Eduardo and Alberto.

Phew. You'd have thought Mariano and Javier's respective empire would be sufficient to fill three days of tasting, yet we finished at an estate in the core of the region: the village of La Horra. Here are found the best vineyards of Ribera del Duero and the proprietor of the biggest chunk of them: Jesus Sastre.

Jesus Sastre among some of his most senior vines

My travelling buddy had come to know Jesus through Javier Zaccagnini. And when asked whom Mariano Garcia's son Eduardo respected most in the Ribera del Duero DO, his response had been immediate and unequivocal. Sastre was the man.

As in Toro and Ribera del Duero, the proprietor was keen to show us the vineyards. The wine, after all, has its feet firmly in the region's soils.

And as in Toro and Ribera del Duero, we passed through slopes of reddish earth and ancient vines trained en vaso, known to the French as gobelet and to the English speaking world as bush vine. These plants form unsupported clumps, the shoots of which try to climb before flopping earthwards under their own weight (and later in the season, the weight of their fruit).

Once thought to be Palomino Fino, Jesus Sastre now believes his white vines 
 to be Cayetana Blanca. Note the red, ferric soils of La Horra
Vines here are not planted densely, a mere 3,000 per hectare being the norm. This is due to the paucity of the soils and the lack of water. Planted closer together, the vines simply cannot compete and fail to thrive.

After lunching on roast suckling pigs' heads, we drove north to spend a day in San Sebastian and the journey was spent mulling over the experiences of our three days' tasting: the wines, the landscape, the people and the food. (And they are obsessed with their food here, with one wine maker suggesting that, with precious else to do, they relish the pleasures of the table more than most.)

I love this place and its wines. There really should be a place for them in any wine lover's portfolio.

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San Sebastian and the river that runs through it
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