Soil & Altitude: Spain’s wines of the future

GOCV WSET prize-winner Lauren Denyer shares her winemaker stories and findings from a two-week journey round Northern Spain, visiting thirty wineries on an epic voyage of discovery.

One of the most striking memories of the tour of Northern Spanish vineyards and bodegas is the sheer beauty and awe of the landscapes. From the West coast of Galicia to the East coast arriving after 14 days at Barcelona, Catalonia. It is no coincidence that Northern Spanish wine country is so stunning, the vine growers and wine producers are literally reaching for the stars and growing higher than ever before, partly to achieve more elegant fresher wines but also thinking ahead to the challenges that climate change will bring. Visits to vineyards and wineries atop of hills and in the foothills of mountains of up to 1100m bring glorious, unforgettable views as well as a huge variety of soil types providing such a rich context for these superb wines.

View from Adegas Moure, Ribiera Sacra
View from Adegas Moure, Ribiera Sacra

The trip consisted of over 30 visits to wineries including a number of impressive cooperatives, (Martin Codax – Rias Biaxas, Covitoro – Toro, Santo Cristo – Campo de Borja, Celler de Capcanes – Montsant), bigger scale producers, such as the 3 Gill Family Estates wineries (Toro, Calatayud and Montsant) and Viña Mayor in Ribera del Duero and the huge, more commercial, wineries of Marqués de Cáceres in Rioja, and Raimat in Catalonia. Many of the wineries, including the above, displayed innovative and experimental approaches to the production of their wines, both in the vineyard and in the winery. We were lucky to try examples of these new approaches which were not available to the general public when tasting directly from the barrel or as happy guinea pigs for a new style being introduced.

What was to become a recurring theme for wineries positioned among the vines at such high altitudes was the function of gravity. Here gravity was used to rotate the maceration of the grapes. The vineyards of old vines of the local grape varieties of Albariño, Godello, Treixadura, Caiño, Brancellao, Mencia , Garnacha, Merenzao and Sousóón stretch down to the banks of the river Milo through slate and granite soils. The slopes are at angles of 45-60 degrees in some places ensuring that the manual harvest is not an easy task, drawing comparisons to similarly difficult to access terraces in Priorat where donkeys still have their uses. The benefits of altitude bring natural acidity and increased aromatics due to the increase in diurnal temperature range, periods of longer ripening and more sunlight intensity. All the wines tasted here duly delivered, a particular favourite was the rosé which is the only rosé made in this DO, with structure and vivid fruitiness it is surely a wine that others will try to emulate.

Altitude is hugely influential for both red and white wines. Where I was first struck by it was during the steep drive up through Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra to Adegas Moure at 600m altitude.

Lauren Denyer, wset tutor and GOCV PRize winner 2017

Moving to the most easterly point of Galicia and to Valdeorras we were again driven, this time by Rafael Palacios, up into the hills of the region to various vineyards which were home to shallow slate, ferric and alluvial soils. Rafael was also purchasing and planning the purchase of the highest vineyards of the area, some as high as 670m. Rafael explained that the freshness he was looking for in his wines could only be achieved at around 400m. At these heights the diurnal range was larger and the grapes are able to ripen more slowly with temperatures at around 3°C less. The composition of the soil was also diverse including calcium carbonate, silica quartz and mica. The mica has a very important role, making the earth softer through its expansion when the water oxidises it forcing it to break surrounding rock and allow the roots to penetrate the earth more deeply. Another method to encourage freshness was the use of mulching in the dryer vineyards over eroded granite which enables the retention of some water. Rafael’s wines were all stunning examples of Godello with iodine and metal notes yet still citrus-y and floral with their trademark freshness giving them fabulous ageing potential.

In the neighbouring vineyards of ValdeSil also in Valdeorras we had the privilege of visiting the DO’s oldest single vineyard of Godello with vines planted by Borja’s (one of the current owners) Great Grandfather in 1885. Here there is a big emphasis on the different soil types the Godello was being grown on and this was reflected in the stylish modern bottle labels. These vines were grown around the Sil river and on a variety of soils including: sand, granite and slate. The Valdesil Godello 2014 was a stunner with fennel, apple and floral notes with a rounded full body yet refined and elegant, proving that the decisions in the winery are perfectly complimenting the natural occurrences in the vineyards.

Ricardo Perez in the neigboring Bierzo also seemed to share his uncle’s (Rafael Palacios) obsession with height and was in the process of building a rather grandiose winery at the peak of the hills above the village of Corullón which is also the name of one of the superb wines of Descendientes de J Palacios. In this area some of the Mencia vineyards are as high as 1100m with soils consisting of marble, clay and quartz. This new winery will no doubt take advantage of the uses of gravity for winemaking. Again the troubles of harvesting arose, with the young people of the area not interested in working the harvest and again the need for donkeys, mules and horses.

As we travelled east and more inland it was fascinating to discover lesser-known regions making a comeback such as Campo de Borja and Calatayud. Norrel Robertson MW took us to his old vine Garnacha vineyards in Calatayud with vineyards at heights of 700-1000m. With similar soils to Montsant with large grey and red schist; wine makers like Norrel are hot on the heels of producers in Montsant and Priorat and is most definitely beating them at price point. There is now increased growing and production in areas like these after years of abandonment.

With increasing temperatures due to climate change and the trend for fresher, lighter and more acidic wines, altitude is becoming more coveted and essential in this part of the world.

This is where Ribera del Duero excels and is becoming more widely appreciated around the world for its vibrancy and freshness with plantings at altitudes of 850m. At Villacreces. Lluis Laso, winemaker, perfectly demonstrated this with his stunning wines full of freshness and big cherry and raspberry flavours. Here as well as growing the region’s Tempranillo they are experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and the altitude and climate here appears to favour this potential blending grape. Down the road at Aalto, wine making at their stunning new winery is again taking advantage of gravity (as at Bodegas Baigorri in Rioja) and using innovative and exciting new vessels and machinery, which is clearly paying off as Javier met us clutching his newly won Wine Spectator award!

Javier showing us the innovations at the new Aalto winery and gravity aiding the pumping over

There are, however, regions currently under threat. The situation is somewhat different at neighbouring Toro, with a slightly lower altitude at 600-750m. This region is really feeling the threat of increased heat. With near desert conditions here cooling influences are essential to the quality of the grape. We visited Sobreños which are producing very fruity full bodied wines, it will be interesting to see theirs and others’ responses to this potential change of climate.

What I witnessed overall, during this fantastic two week DO a day voyage of discovery was a world of passion and dedication. Fundamentally there is an understanding and worship of the surroundings and its incomparable influence on the beautiful wines produced. Northern Spain is already producing world class wines to rival the finest in the world. However with winemakers striving further this is an extremely exciting time for the wines of this part of the world.

Notes from the author

There are many other regions and wonderful bodegas I would have loved to include in this report. Those included are just a drop in the ocean of the great practice happening in Spain right now. Check out my twitter account @wine_lauren to see every winery visited on the trip and laurendenyer on instagram for more photos of the stunning scenery.

I have to mention the phenomenal hospitality afforded us at every visit. Thank you to all the bodegas and DO Consejo Reguladors. I have wonderful memories that will stay with me for life. A huge thanks to Angela Muir MW who organised a seamless and wonderful journey and who taught me more than I thought possible. Thanks also to the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino for awarding me this life-changing scholarship and lastly to Arthur and James my fellow Caballeros for their great company on the trip!