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Even if there are still almost unknown grape varieties, or at least rare clones or mutations of well-known grape varieties that have not yet reached the light of day, even in the best-known wine-growing regions of Spain, you can find all those varieties that are well worth thinking about, especially in places where viticulture was once important but is now in danger of being forgotten. Some of these regions, such as Ribeiro or Ribeira Sacra in Galicia, Somontano in Aragón or various country wine regions in Andalusia, are beginning to promote old, traditional grape varieties more strongly again. Other regions are still far away from this, struggling instead for bare survival. And regions like Cangas del Narcea, the only wine-growing region in Asturias, are completely unknown even in Spain.

In Castilla y León there are now nine Denominaciones de Origen (D.O.), plus Sierra de Salamanca, Valtiendas and Cebreros, three regions that want to become a D.O.. Nowhere, however, is the diversity of the unknown as broad as in Arribes del Duero.

Plot structure in Arribes: mini vineyards% often only to be tilled manually; Juan García stands in the plot. (Photo: J. Buchta)

My first encounter with this region was almost thirteen years ago. At that time, shortly after the founding of the "Asociación de Viticultores de Arribes del Duero" (which is always one of the precursors of a Denominación de Origen), this small region in the very west of Castilla y León, where the Duero separates - or connects - Spain and Portugal, was completely unknown. Even the few wine guides that mentioned regions like this one kept a fairly low profile. The reason for this was immediately apparent when I visited the cooperative of the village of Aldeadavila, Coop. Arribes del Duero. The young oenologist Alma García had just moved to the region from Ciudad Real to work in the cooperative. When we visited some of the vineyards and I asked her about the harvest, she explained that they basically did two harvests: one for the varieties they knew and a second for the others. And the quantities roughly balanced each other out.

Those days are over, not least because of the fact that of the 5,000 hectares of vineyards that existed in Arribes del Duero at the end of the 1980s, only 452 hectares remain. There are no really unknown varieties left. But even the "well-known" grape varieties are only known to real specialists.

If one considers the north of Portugal, the south of Galicia and the far west of Castilla y León as a common region, Arribes del Duero represents the eastern edge and thus also the interface to the Meseta, where Tempranillo dominates in different varieties. In Arribes, too, there is a variety of Tempranillo, called Tinta Madrid, which is closer to Arauxa, the Galician variety of Tempranillo, than to Tinto de Toro or Tinta Fina: the leaves are extremely small and strongly indented, the grapes small and compact, without shoulders. Nevertheless, Tinta Madrid plays only a subordinate role in the old vineyards, which all consist of a very broadly diversified mixed set. In the meantime, Tempranillo is being newly cultivated in some places, but these are clones that come from Rioja or Valencia and have nothing in common with the traditional.

The bodega of La Setera. (Photo: J. Buchta)

To explore the traditional grape varieties, I set out to visit some plots around Fermosselle. My companion was Francisco Martínez, known to everyone as Patxi, winemaker and owner of the Bodega La Setera. He is the only one to cultivate a total of no less than six autochthonous grape varieties. After a few hundred metres, between huge granite boulders and wildly growing undergrowth, we stop at a small plot of land, light-coloured stones shining on deep red clay soil. It is a very typical plot for the region: framed by a small wall, about half a hectare in size and planted with different varieties. Nevertheless, about 80 percent of the grapes here are Juan García, by far the most important grape variety in the region.

How much Juan García still exists at all is not known, even the Consejo Regulador has no exact data. Patxi explains that the fourteen plots he cultivates always have around 50 to 65 percent Juan García. The old vines bear little, 2,500 kilos per (virtual) hectare is almost considered an abundant harvest. In addition, the berries are small, the must yield is just 60 percent. If you add up everything that is harvested in a normal year in the D.O. Arribes - Ribera del Duero has processed away the addition of the name del Duero - and add a little for the various cuvées and the still existing cask wine market, one arrives at about 625,000 kilos of Juan García in the entire region, which would be about 250 hectares, a good half of the total vineyard area. That may be about right.

Juan García is a rather delicate grape variety. The grapes ripen late, the alcohol content is moderate by Spanish standards, but the acidity is quite noticeable. The wines of this grape variety are best when they mature for a few months in large, not new barrels to open up, but without being plastered with wood aromas. In Arribes del Duero, just six Bodegas Juan García produce single-varietal wines: the above-mentioned cooperative from Aldeadavila, another cooperative from Fermoselle, which is now in decline, two Bodegas that have settled in the old cooperatives of Pereña de la Ribera and Villarino de los Aires, respectively, as well as Abadengo, the largest producer of the variety with about 100,000 bottles.

Gobelet cut à la española in the Sierra de Gredos. (Photo: J. Buchta)

Outside Arribes del Duero, the grape variety is hardly to be found. Neither in Alto Douro nor in Tras-o-Montes, the two Portuguese regions bordering Arribes, nor in Monterrei or in the Sierra de Salamanca, does one come across Juan García. In the D.O. Tierra del Vino de Zamora either. Only the Bodegas Armando have a little north of Zamora, because they also cultivate vineyards in Arribes and need more quantity.

After we have examined various plots, all of which are more or less dominated by this grape variety, we stop on a small hilltop. Once again, there is a vineyard framed by a small wall. It slopes gently to the north, but also to the south. The special thing about this plot is the soil structure: Arribes del Duero consists of 90 percent granite soil with a more or less sandy overlay. However, as is so often the case when granite is the base, there are also some narrow strips where slate can be found. Here, both variants are found in just one plot: from the crest towards the north, one encounters slate, while granite soil predominates in the south. However, we are not here to talk about soil science, our goal is the white grape varieties that are found here in abundance.

The most important white grape variety in the Arribes is called Malvasía. At least that's what people thought for decades. Because the leaf shape of this variety resembles the leaf of the Malvasía, but the shape of the grapes is different. And above all, the wines do not taste like Malvasía at all. A similar phenomenon can also be observed in the Zamora region and even in the D.O. Toro. A few years ago, the University of León studied the variety and found that it is not Malvasía at all, but the grape variety Dona Branca (Doña Blanca), which is quite common in Monterrei, but also in Bierzo or Valdeorras, and which produces complex, but not particularly aroma-intensive wines that are well suited for barrique ageing. Even though this seems to have been clarified, both the Consejo Regulador and most bodegas stick to the old designation, although internally they do talk about Doña Blanca. A little bizarre.

Landscape in Salamanca: the bare spots are former vineyards. (Photo: J. Buchta)

Besides Doña Malvasía, there is another white grape variety in the undulating hinterland of the Duero Gorge, called Verdeja Blanca. It has nothing to do with Verdejo from Rueda. This is where a very complicated topic comes into play that actually belongs in Galicia and should only be mentioned in passing here: Godello versus Verdello, which is called Verdelho in Portugal. Both come from the same family, but have developed differently. In this context, Verdeja Blanca is probably more the Castilian translation of Verdella (Verdelha) Branca, so neither Verdejo nor Godello. Nevertheless, the quantity is so small that it is almost not worth writing about it. In the summer of 2011, Francisco decided to make an experimental wine. But to get a good 1,000 kilos of grapes, he had to ask various winegrowers around Fermoselle to allow him to harvest these grapes from their plots, because he couldn't even fill a barrique with just his own.

The biggest white speciality of the region is - that name again - Verdejo Colorado, which again has nothing to do with all the other varieties that go by this or similar names. Verdejo Colorado is a colouring grape, the must is pale pink, for a long time the few grapes of this variety were eaten as table grapes. After a few hours of maceration, you get a light pink must that smells intensely of cherries (the size of the berries also corresponds roughly to that of a cherry). Where this variety comes from is unknown. There is a grape variety in Bajo Aragón, near the border with Catalonia, called Teca, which has similar characteristics. Verdejo Colorado is even rarer than Verdeja Blanca; the first harvest, in which the neighbour's vineyards were also used, yielded just one hundred litres of wine.

The range of red varieties is much wider, although the varieties are somewhat better known. Arribes del Duero is one of the very few places in Spain where Touriga Nacional can be found, even if in very small quantities. It is mostly grown on slate and presents itself warm and full-bodied, fruit-dominated, but less mineral than in Alto Douro. An at least autochthonous mutation of another grape variety is Bastardillo Chico. This, however, is a classic Galician grape variety: In Monterrei it is called Bastardo, in the other regions of Galicia Merenzao. Serrated, not too indented leaves, compact, very small cylindrical grapes, small and round berries. Very aromatic, relatively acidic, well suited for barrel ageing.

The Bastardillo Chico grape variety can only be found in Arribes and in Monterrei. (Photo: J. Buchta)

There is also some Rufete, but it is actually native to the Sierra de Salamanca and is rather rare in the Arribes, and when it is, it is mostly in the south, which belongs to the province of Salamanca. Nevertheless, La Casita del Viñador is the only bodega that mentions this grape variety by name. They talk about ten percent in their wines, and they press just 8,000 bottles.

In the very north of Arribes, where the Duero still flows from east to west and gathers strength for the fall to the south, there is a small enclave that still belongs to the D.O. but is more than 30 kilometres away from Fermoselle. Here, at a good 700 metres above sea level, stands Mencía. This is anything but an autochthonous grape variety from Arribes, but the altitude and the soil structure - granite with extremely scarce crumb - result in a completely different interpretation of Mencía than is known from Bierzo, Valdeorras or Ribeira Sacra.

Bruñal, on the other hand, is typical of the region. However, it is not found in Fermoselle and therefore not in La Setera. Bruñal is found in the middle of the region, near Pereña de la Ribera, where the Duero river climbs most of the 200-metre difference in altitude that it has to overcome in only 60 kilometres. This wine is also available varietally, as an experimental wine, officially Bruñal in Arribes is still not classified. It comes from the Bodega Riberas de Pelaez, Abadengo, which belongs to a bodega of the same name from León. Bruñal is the smooth opposite of Juan García: the wines are lush, almost fat, deeply dark, with slightly sweet notes, which are not least due to the high alcohol content, as well as tight tannins. Abadengo produces just 1,000 bottles, and a few of the bodegas that make cuvées use Bruñal as a kind of colouring wine to conceal some shortcomings. Ten percent is enough to bring about dominance.

Arribes del Duero, the Sierra de Salamanca and the Alto Alberche region have one thing in common: the soil structure. Everywhere there is granite with a sandy surface, but always a little slate with clay or clay marl as the topsoil.

Rock structure in the Sierra de Salamanca. (Photo: J. Buchta)

Unfortunately, they also share the same fate: they are in danger of being forgotten. While Arribes has at least made it into the group of regions classified as Denominación de Origen, the other two have yet to do so. Yet both regions have a rich heritage.

The Sierra de Salamanca is actually called Sierra de Francia, only the wine region bears the name of the province. The mountains and valleys between La Alberca, Garcibuey and San Esteban de la Sierra mark the southwestern border of viticulture in Castilla y León. Three metres behind them begins the Estremadura. That this was once a flourishing wine-growing region can be seen not least from the fact that there were once six cooperatives, the smallest producing more than half a million litres of wine. The most important grape variety then as now: Rufete. Back then - that was about 3,000 hectares, of which 1,500 hectares were Rufete alone. Today, the variety is perhaps still grown on 300 hectares, but no one knows for sure. Because the majority of the grapes harvested in the Sierra de Francia now end up in large trucks that bring them to northern Galicia. The table wine bottlers pay well and quickly - and they don't look at what ends up in the lorries: white, red, ripe, large quantity, it doesn't matter. 39 cents a kilo, the litre in the tetrapack is available in the supermarket a little later for 1.39 euros. A lot of Rufete also ends up in these transports, because it is a high-yielding grape variety if it is allowed to grow; it is not particularly sensitive to vine diseases, only Oidium (powdery mildew) has to be fought.

In recent years, many of the great names of Castilian viticulture have been seen in the Sierra: Mariano García, Telmo Rodríguez, Peter Sisseck, Raúl Pérez. All of them wanted to get something going with Rufete, but none of them dared to take the step. At the moment, the future of Rufete, which is located outside the Sierra de Francia, only in the south of the D.O. Arribes, is at a standstill. Arribes, rests on exactly three shoulders. There are five bodegas in the region, but one of them, located directly on the border with Extremadura, produces wines that stylistically belong to that region. And the cooperative is currently still offering the wines of the 2007 vintage, mostly as a cuvée; varietal Rufete wines are only found to a limited extent.

Rufete vineyard in the south of Arribes. (Photo: J. Buchta)

Ángel Becedas, co-founder of Bodega Valdeaguila, was the first to oppose the disappearance of the region and the Rufete grape. However, he does not rely on single-varietal Rufete wines, but makes all his wines as cuvées. Depending on the type, Rosado, Tinto Joven or Crianza, the proportion of Rufete is 50 to 80 percent. Although he is thinking about a single-varietal Rufete, he has not yet dared to put it into practice. Perhaps it helps that he recently has a "lodger". A restaurant chef friend from the region has set himself the goal of bringing a single-varietal Rufete to the market, initially for his guests, and later also for other customers.

The other two bodegas have been doing this for years. For example José Carlos Martín Sánchez, the owner of Bodegas Rochal. He is based in the east of the Sierra and cultivates about ten hectares of vineyards, 80 percent of which are Rufete. Unlike Valdeaguila, where the variety is grown on slate, San Esteban de la Sierra has granite with scarce crumbs of sandy marl. Sánchez farms many small plots and is currently planning to replant an ancient site that was abandoned about ten years ago. In the course of time, he has taken over various old plots, and in this way at least some witnesses to the past have been saved. After a few years in which he blended Tempranillo with Rufete for the young wine, in 2010 he also began to make Rufete from a single variety. At least part of it, because the Joven for the local market still contains 20 percent Tempranillo. The fruitiness of the Rufete is particularly noticeable in this wine: Raspberry and mulberry dominate. Sánchez presses a total of three different Rufete wines. In addition to the young wine, there is a crianza that matures for ten months in the barricas, and a wine he calls Calixto, his grandfather's nickname. For it was he who planted the four plots more than 100 years ago from which the grapes for this wine come. The grandson would like to press many more Rufete and take over even more vineyards, but the general economic situation is not exactly conducive.

Money is not exactly the problem at the third bodega, Viñas del Cámbrico allows itself the luxury of pressing just 10,000 bottles of wine despite eleven hectares of vineyards. Here, too, there is a single-varietal Rufete, aged for about a year in French oak barrels, produced in 3,000 bottles. Together with what Rochal presses and the wine that is currently maturing in Valdeaguila, there are about 12,000 bottles of Rufete produced year after year.

Stone and wine: granite rocks in the middle of the vineyard in the Sierra de Gredos. (Photo: J. Buchta)

In Viñas del Cámbrico, however, another grape variety is cultivated that also used to be very important in the Sierra: Calabrés, a variety of Garnacha Aragonés. Calabrés, unlike Rufete, is highly susceptible to all kinds of vine diseases and actually only thrives on really sunny slopes, far enough from the valley floor to escape the early morning fog. There are no varietally pure wines of this grape variety; even the quantity harvested in Cámbrico is not enough to fill even one barrique.

Leaving the Sierra de Francia to the east, we first encounter the region of Guijuelo, which is not known for wine, but for excellent ham, for which it has received its own Denominación de Origen: D.O. Jamón de Guijuelo. You only come across vines again once you reach the river Alberche. It runs along the north of the Sierra de Gredos, past Cebreros, El Tiemblo and San Martín de Valdeiglésias, before making a sharp turn just before the foothills of Madrid and flowing back west along the southern edge of the Sierra de Gredos to end its journey near Talavera de la Reina, where it joins the Tagus.

In principle, this area, which includes the far west of the D.O. Vinos de Madrid, the north of the D.O. Méntrida and the Comarca Vitivinícola Cebreros, is Garnacha country. However, there is a white grape variety, long cultivated as table grape, which in recent years has also been used as a wine grape: Albillo Real. In the past, this variety was occasionally fermented as well in order to incorporate and soften the somewhat rough tannins of the Garnacha, and it also gave the mostly acid-rich wines a full-bodied counterpoint that was not particularly acidic. In 2007, Bodegas Bernabeleva from San Martín de Valdeiglésias began to produce Albillo Real as a single varietal, and in the meantime several other bodegas in the region have followed this example. Nevertheless, it has remained a marginal topic: If there are ten Barricas Albillo Real in the entire region, that is a lot.

The Castilla y León region in the wine guide

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