On the morning of October 3rd, I arrived at Barcelona Airport for a visit to some of the wine regions in the Northeastern part of Spain, more specifically to Somontano and Ribera del Duero. The trip was organized by Singular Estate Wines by Gonzales Byass. Singular Estate wines bring the best of their different single vineyards to the market, with vineyards located from the Pyrenees to Cadiz in the south of the country. Even though the wineries are far apart in distance, they do share common values as they are driven by passion and authenticity and how the terroir, climate, and grape varieties express themselves year after year. The trip was hosted by Toni Batet, spokesman for Singular Estate wines. The other two participants were Kristel Balcean, champagne ambassador for Belgium and founder of wineandwords.be, along with Bjorn Bittner, wine blogger and influencer from Germany on his blog BJR le Bouquet. After a trip of nearly three hours landing inwards east of the city of Barcelona, we arrived at the very beautiful town of Alquezar. Even though the town is rather small, with around 300 residents, both the surrounding nature and the southern medieval architecture make it a magical place to visit!
The town lies within the sub-region of Somontano, which is part of the larger region of Aragon. A region famous for its firm and bold red varieties like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo, accompanied by the smooth and silky Merlot, the fruit-driven Garnacha, and the rich, age-worthy white variety Viura. Alquazar lies on top of a ravine of the river Vero and the nature park of Sierra ensures us fairytale-like hikes, in the magnificent wilderness of this area. The town center itself lets you dream away as you stroll through the narrow streets, during its infinite historical walks. All the houses and buildings are built with the local soil of limestone and clay. This is also the soil where the above-discussed varieties are grown, however, this is not what identifies the wines of these regions, it is mainly the altitude that defines the character of the wines. The first winery of the group that we visited was the one of Blecua located in a once-abandoned villa just 15 minutes outside of Alquazar and has been remodelled since the late 90’s, where it was transformed into the high-quality winery it is today. Rebuilt in the image of Italian architecture, the winery opened in 1997 with respect for the local past and history of the site. The Blecua name comes from the last inhabitant of the villa, the lady Carlota Blecua, even the original elderflower logo found on top of the window frames, became the logo of the established vineyard. Before the villa was built in 1888 the place was a hotspot for Benedictines in the area. In the cellar, the original sandy rock can be found in the rooms where they used to live in. The question remains unanswered however if they already made wine in those days. Coming back to the wine they produce; their aim is to produce the best wine of all of Spain. A very ambitious plan, but the wines do reflect how well they try to achieve this goal! A lot of selections take place in order to succeed. First of all, they select to harvest grapes from only the best vineyards, second, they select the types of varieties used. The varieties commonly used are Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Syrah. However, it is not always sure that every variety will be selected for each vintage, the selection only takes place when the varieties provide the best quality. Mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are chosen to add structure to the wine, while others are chosen for their fruitiness. For the fermentation and aging process, we come to the third selection and that is the one of the barrels. And this is not a simple question whether to use French or American oak. Before I get into that, let’s look a little deeper into the fermentation and aging, because there is another sneak selection going on there! The selected varieties, so already the best grapes of the best vineyards are fermented and aged in new French oak barrels for 8 months, each variety separately. From these separate barrels, the ones with the best results get selected for the blend, which will age in French barrels for another 12 to 16 months. With the above knowledge in mind, we know that every blend will each year be different.
The beauty of Blecua is, that focusing purely on quality, gives the freedom to experiment in order to get the best results. For instance, the aging of the different blends will be made in different casks coming from forests in different areas. Some of them come from Burgundy, while others will come from the Loire Valley. It even goes so far that there will be made a difference in how long the barrel has been heated for it to curve. The passionate winemaker José believes that this would all impact the flavor of the wine. And he is right! I got to taste firsthand how this has an impact on the taste and some of them have a distinct difference that I was so amazed by! It made me realize that the world of wine is so endless. For a second I felt really confronted about how much I still needed to learn, however, this turned to excitement quickly when I started to think how much fun it would be to experience and continue to learn about the endless possibilities in the wine world.
The evening and the discovery were far from over because we were invited to have a wonderful dinner at the winery serviced by Restaurante Las Torres, Huesca. This high-end restaurant is well known in the area for serving traditional cuisine, made with high-quality ingredients and a modern twist to it. The different wines to accompany were from Vinas del Vero and of course Blecua. Thinking about Somontano as a relatively young area in terms of winemaking, in the sense that the region only has started to get fame for its wines in the last 20 years, the quality of the wines along with the gastronomic flexibility is just amazing! Because of the freedom that the winemakers in the area enjoy, it is possible to experiment with different types of grapes and techniques. For instance, we tasted the Clarion Seleccion from Vinas del Vero of the vintage 2018 and 2013. For the Clarion only the best white grapes get picked from the best vineyards, so for every vintage the blend is totally different. The 2018 had Riesling as the dominant grape, while the 2013 has Gewurztraminer as the dominant. The Riesling blend gave us very ripe exotic fruit characters like mango and pineapple, but still with an herbaceous touch of rosemary and Thai basil, while that typical scent of petrol was left aside. The Gewurztraminer was a lot more floral with rose petals, jasmine, ripe lychee, and ginger. Yet it was very different than what I was used to with this grape. Beautiful aging notes led to a ripe and full body, making me one of the best Gewurztraminers I had! Both wines retained their freshness, so in that way, they matched perfectly with the first dishes served like codfish with green beans and saffron, and artichoke with grilled liver and vintage mustard.
Coming up to the main course, we had a little vertical wine tasting of Blecua red blends. Our main course consisted of a lamb rack with Pyrenees sirloin and sweet potatoes. The vintages tasted were in 2005, 2010, and 2015. As stated above, the blend differs for every vintage, however, it is interesting to see and taste how premium-picked grapes can evolve over time. The 2015 was still very fresh and fruity, leaving some firm tannins in the mouth. That way it was a beautiful match with the lamb rack, with tannins cutting through the fat of the meat. The 2010 had of course softer tannins with some ripened red fruits and animal tones, so it worked like a charm with my rare, cooked sirloin. Vintage 2005 has lost a lot of its firm tannins and the fresh red fruit characters were nowhere to be smelled or tasted, but in return, it has gained so much complexity and rewards you with spices, animal notes, and earthy undergrowth such as leather and tree moss. Due to this earthy dimension, the wine found its match with the side dish of sweet potatoes.
The second day we drove up to the vineyards of Secastilla where the leading role is reserved for the Garnacha grape. Secastilla Valley, meaning seven castles, can be found a half-hour drive to the northeast of Somontano coming from Alquezar. This valley lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, resulting in a unique Mediterranean microclimate, that makes this part different than the rest of Somontano. You can notice when driving up the hill to the vines, passing by olive and almond trees, and you know it will be an ideal climate for growing grapes. All vines are grown organically and due to the poor stony soil of the mountainside,only the resilient grape of Garnacha can thrive here. The opinions on where Garnacha or Grenache originated from can quite differ, but there is no doubt that it has found one of its best homes here in Secastilla! This region provides us with Garnacha which is very fruit-driven, soft in its tannins, notes of spices and dried herbs, and a natural acidity in the grapes due to the high altitude of 800 meters. These conditions make it a wine that is very well-balanced and is worth exploring. Apart from Garnacha used for the making of dry red wines, Secastilla produces rose and white wine from Garnacha Blanca. What was very noticeable about the Blanca was the presence of lively acidity. Normally I find that white Garnacha can have very ripe fruit characters like yellow plums, along with a toasty creamy mouthfeel, which I do like very much. The one from Secastilla, and more specifically the vintage 2020 balanced all this ripeness out with some fresh citrus fruits and a medium-high acidity. This is of course explained by the high altitude and the cooler nights. I strongly recommend tasting these wines the way I did: at lunchtime during a perfect Indian summer day, underneath the shade of an oak tree, on the hills of the vineyard, overlooking the valley of Secastilla. Having it with cold-cut meats, pickled mussels, local cheeses, and too many other things to write down, makes it a picnic that makes all your troubles disappear.
After a lot of effort, we were able to tear away from this beautiful site and drove to the train station of Lleida, where we took the train going to Madrid. There was not much time to enjoy the cosmopolitan, because just upon arrival we already departed to what, in my opinion, is the best region for Tempranillo in the world: Ribera del Duero. We resided in Hotel Penafiel Convento de la Claras, which is actually an old monastery that had scenic views of the hilltop castle. This castle of the town of Penafiel stands symbol for the entire region of Ribera del Duero and has been featured on different labels for several vineyards in the area. The next day we left to visit a third winery from the group, Dominio Fournier. We were welcomed by winemaker Marian Santamaria, the main winemaker for this estate. The estate lies in the middle of the appellation of Ribera and produces two ranges of Tempranillo, the Crianza and the Reserva. The river Duero runs along the side of the vineyard, with the Reserva plots right next to the river. All the grapes are grown on bush vines in order to extract more nutrients from the soil and add more complexity to the wines. Some of the vines, especially the ones for the Reserva are over 60 years old. The poor stony rock soils remind of the terror in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with clay and sandstone at the riverside, and more sandy clay in the middle of the vineyard, where the younger vines are growing. Despite their complexity and tannins, the Tempranillo wines from Ribera are very elegant due to their higher acidity. This can not only be explained by the higher altitude of the vineyard, but mostly by the climate with a high difference between the day and night temperatures. Ten- or fifteen-degree difference is not the exception, the grape cools down during the night, retaining its natural acidity.
During the tasting different vintages of Crianza and Reserva were passed on the table. The winemaker decides when she wants to release the wines on the market, after a period of aging in the bottle. That way we were able to taste wines that had not yet been released. We tasted the Crianza 2019 first, which is the current vintage. It has very seductive black fruit characters with notes of black cherries, smooth blackberries, spices, and coffee.
The Crianza 2020 has not been released yet and is still closed off with greenish notes and bitter chocolate. Even the tannins are still a bit hard, and you can clearly smell and taste the presence of oak. Both have a good level of acidity and an aging potential of up to ten years.
The Reserva 2019 is not on the market yet, it has notes of burned coffee and toast, along with dried tobacco, ripe dark fruit, and a touch of balsamic. The tannins are well integrated with the rest of the components. The acidity is at a good high level, without being overly sharp.
The Reserva 2021, obviously not on the market yet either, has the aromas of fresh coffee beans and fresh tobacco with spiced notes and firm tannins. The acidity is still rather sharp however, this will decrease over time and result in a very elegant, well-balanced wine with an aging potential of fifteen to twenty years. According to the winemaker 2021 will be a very good vintage for the entire Ribera del Duero area. This is a vintage to look out for!As a bonus, we got to taste the Reserva 2016. This one is fully ripened and has a lot of animal and earthy notes in the nose, the mouth does give us very ripe, soft red fruit. It becomes a more balanced and well-integrated whole, along with the ripe tannins after being exposed to oxygen for some time. I do suspect that the aging potential for this vintage will be a lot lower than the 2021.
Even though the wines are already brilliant, the winemakers did decide to analyze the soil and the terroir by experts coming from Burgundy. That way they can keep on improving and ensuring each clone of the Tempranillo grape is growing on its best soil. Tasting all these wonderful Tempranillo next to one and other it always confirms to me that the perfect dish to match still is a lamb dish and it turns out this is how the region of Ribera del Duero feels as well. We had the opportunity to taste a typical lunch from the area, which is a lamb roast, that was roasted in an authentic oven for over 4 hours. This makes it the most tender and soft lamb roast that you have ever tried. The meat just falls off the bone and remains very juicy on the inside with crispy skin on the outside. It is a perfect meal to serve in the fall time, with nights getting colder. It amazed me that both the Crianza and the Reserva could hold with this dish, although I did prefer the Reserva because the ripeness went very well with the crisp skin of the lamb. The acidity in the wine combined very well with the freshness of the salad, and some of the ripe earthy characters went perfectly with the potatoes and bread covered with the lamb’s gravy.
The areas we visited will surprise everyone on a culinary, cultural, and natural level. These truly are regions that bring everything together, going from wine and food to history and culture. Thank you very much for this opportunity Gonzales Byass!