Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Groupo Bodegas San Valero
The ancient kingdom of Aragón, and its capital Zaragoza, are at the center of the resurgence of Garnacha, a Spanish grape varietal that is flourishing – under a number of different names – in the central and western Mediterranean.
As part of a small group of three wine and gastronomy writers from the US, I visited Aragón and the town of Cariñena (about 47 kilometers southwest of Zaragoza), home to Groupo Bodegas San Valero (BSV) – one of the largest and oldest co-op wineries in the area with approximately 700 grape-grower members growing high quality grapes. We had tasted some of their wines at earlier events in 2009 and 2010 in New York City, and we were eager to taste the full range at the winery, as they bottle wines under a number of brands, specifically targeting the market they export to, by using wine blends and branding unique to the export country. The co-op has been creating premium wines since 1944, when it started with only 16 members and, a bit later, two wineries, Bodegas San Valero and Bodegas Grand Ducay. The BSV Group relies on a staff of 2 oenologists, a number of field consultants and lab personnel to control the quality of the wines from the vineyard to the bottle. All the corporate officers come from the co-op membership and live in the town of Cariñena; they are hands-on producers, spending as much time at their vineyards as they spend at the winery managing the operation.
The vineyards are located around the city of Cariñena, in a limestone, sandy and light clay terroir, with good drainage. Most of the vineyards we saw were dry-farmed, although here and there, depending on the grape varietal planted and soil variations, a few were drip irrigated because of the considerably low annual rainfall. The climate is Mediterranean, with cool nights and very warm to hot, but very windy, days. The varietals planted include primarily Garnacha Tinta (many old and very old vines), Tempranillo, Macabeo, Mazuela, Cariñena, and a few other traditional Spanish varieties. Planted are also international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah that thrive under the local climate. Most of the Garnacha vines are trained in the "bush" method, also called En Vaso. Basically, the vine is grown quite low to the ground, so that the leaves protect the grapes from the wind, which is quite strong even in the summer and on very hot days, from the sun. Traditionally, getting the grapes manually picked was not a problem, but now the wine world is moving towards mechanization, so many of the vines are being re-trained in the double guyot method, to allow machine harvesting.
To give us an idea of what life is during harvest, we were taken to a cottage in a vineyard, where we were introduced to the owner’s father, a gentleman almost 100 years old who still comes to visit his vineyard and supervise the harvest. It was an ancient, simple structure of just two rooms – a larger kitchen/living area and a bedroom - where a family would stay at harvest time. A black-footed Teruel ham sliced paper thin, cheese, white asparagus, green and black olives and, of course, wine were brought in for a repast. I thought it was lunch, until we were taken to a finca - a large farmhouse - filled with dogs, chickens, horses, and lambs. Here, we were given another feast, this one featuring traditional dishes including fried breadcrumbs with garlic, onion and a small amount of air-dried ham (migas de pastor); grilled chorizo; char-grilled lamb chops and pork chops; vine-fresh tomatoes; grilled sweet onions; and fresh bread, again washed down with plenty of wine.
Depending on the wine quality required, grapes are either machine harvested or hand picked (higher quality) very early in the day. They are then brought to the winery, at the outskirts of Cariñena, to be destemmed and pressed. The must is piped into stainless steel fermenters for controlled-temperature fermentation (there are more than 300 large stainless steel vats). The old winery near the center of the old town, which is no longer used for production as it has been converted to a museum, guesthouse, barrel and bottle storage, and retail store, had lined concrete vats for fermentation. They are now part of the museum that also includes an old bottling line, labelers, hand presses, laboratory equipment and other old winery paraphernalia. The basement is still used to store the cava bottles, while aging.
Approximately 400 wine samples are tested daily at an in-house laboratory equipped with the latest computerized technology. Oak barreling (mostly American oak) is of limited duration, usually 4 to 8 months depending on the varietal and market, to avoid the backlash that many overoaked wines are currently experiencing. Also, for the same reason 3rd and 4th year barriques are also used to keep the oak taste to a minimum. Bottling, packaging and case stacking is completely automated, with 3 lines that can handle from miniatures to magnum sized bottles – though there is a very limited number of magnums bottled, mostly for display purposes. The vast majority is 750 ml. i.e. standard Bordeaux-styled bottles. But, right next to the automated lines, a small group of local women hand wrap and package the special reserve wines.
The still wines are either 100% varietals or blends, and some of what I consider the best, are blends of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah or Merlot. A very nice sparkling wine (Cava Grand Ducay) is also produced using the methode Champenoise in both white and rosé versions. A small number of Moscatel Romano and Moscato d’ Alessandria vineyards produce a sweet, unctuous, dessert wine.
In the course of a number of tastings, we tried Groupo BSV’s many styles of wines, mostly Garnacha in various forms (unoaked, oaked, light and fruity, substantial-bodied with higher alcohol) but also Tempranillo and some higher priced new styles, aged in French oak that the company is presently marketing. After the final tasting, journalists and the Groupo BSV staff gathered together to have lunch catered by the El Patio de Goya restaurant, located in the nearby town of Almunia de Doña Godina. El Patio’s kitchen specializes in mushrooms a traditional local specialty, and it offered spectacular small dishes — many of the courses could rival the best international restaurants in the world.
That same evening we strolled as a group through the town of Cariñena. During the stroll, we saw sites typical of village life - the church, shops, and city hall. Most remarkable was the fountain in front of city hall (la Fuente de la Mora), which spurts wine instead of water on the feast-day commemorating the end of harvest. Apparently producers also set up tables and give away wine on the streets during that day.
The wines are exported to the UK, Canada, United States, Brazil, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Germany with a considerable number now also going to China. Of the various brands we tasted I will concentrate on the ones that can be found in the US, Canada and the UK, as these were the most compatible with my palate. Please don’t get me wrong, all the wines I considered very well crafted, but the wines below are the ones that got me excited as, when they accompanied some of the local cuisine, they were delicious with both the Spanish- and the Continental- styled dishes.
First and foremost, the limited selection Gran Reserva 8.0.1. It is a blend of three grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) from 3 different harvests. The first 8.0.1 was produces from the 1998, 2000 and 2001 vintages in 2004, but every year the selected vintages change, although the 8.0.1 designation now remains as a brand. It is a full bodied wine with a peppery Syrah palate and hints of plums, blackberries and wild strawberries. The wine spends about 16 months in barrels (4 months in American oak, the rest of the time in 3rd and 4th year barriques), and the result is elegant and very well balanced. It was en excellent accompaniment to both tapas, at a very typical tapas bar in the old quarter of Zaragoza that displays on the walls bullfighter pictures, posters and memorabilia (El Marpy), and continental dishes at the spectacular Casa Montal restaurant, a Renaissance palace that serves impressive food on the second floor, while the ground floor is an upscale wine shop and the basement houses a small local museum dedicated to Torre Nuevo, a local leaning tower that was razed in 1892, but is still considered a hallmark edifice in this town.
Sierra de Viento, Garnacha Old Vines; Sierra de Viento, Tempranillo. These wines have Old World elegance and New World aromatics and taste and are targeted towards the US market. They are ready to drink on purchase. Temperature control and daily density checks during fermentation, as well as judicious pumping over, create wines with deep garnet color, a lighter garnet hued rim, and violet highlights. After fermentation is completed, the wines are transferred to new French oak barriques where they are left for three months, then to American oak where they continue aging for five more months. The Garnacha Old Vines is a very elegant wine with aromas of ripe red fruit, spicy, toasty notes, and hints of cedar, pine, and vanilla. The structured palate is powerful, with well-balanced tannins. The Sierra de Viento Tempranillo was a very young wine as tasted, with a strong purple color and high aromatics – very floral but less fruity than the Garnacha – that almost reminded me of a good, young Beaujolais.
Available mostly locally, the Colección Héroes and Colección Heroínas is a group of monovarietal wines that include Syrah, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Macabeo, Garnacha and Merlot. Agustina de Aragón is a wine named after an Aragonés heroine and is made out of 100% Garnacha. Two other local heroines lend their names to a Macabeo wine (Madre Rafols – founder of the sisters of charity of Santa Ana) and a Merlot (Condesa de Bureta). Packaged as collections of 3 wines, each package includes a book “Los Sitios de Zaragoza” and a music CD. The wines are aged in mostly 4- year old oak barrels for only 3 months, so the oak is almost imperceptible.
Available only in the UK, the Gran Bombero is privately branded since 1983 for the Times Wine Club, and is a Garnacha blend made from both old and young vines. It is very popular in the UK and is aged with limited time in oak.
The Monte Ducay line. A red (Tinto Joven) blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. A young wine that sees no oak. Macerated and fermented in stainless steel at a constant temperature. Brilliant cherry red color with a pale violet rim. Intense fruity aromas. Soft tannins. Long finish. The Blanco Joven Monte Ducay is made of 100% Macabeo grapes. It is light and quite fruity. And the Rosé Monte Ducay, is a blend of Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. Reminiscent of a South American rosé, it has a brilliant raspberry red color and a fruity nose. The Monte Ducay Gran Reserva is a blend of select Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Nose is spicy with hints of black forest berries, balsam and cedar. Velvety and elegant with an extended finish.
Finally we had a number of barrel samples of a Syrah and Cabernet blend, a very young Syrah, and a limited edition Garnacha. I have to admit that the heavily oaked Garnacha killed my palate and for at least an hour after that everything tasted of heavy oak no matter what wine was served. So, what do you do? You wait for lunch. And that paella lunch was very remarkable.
My thanks to Grupo Peñín, that organized the trip, and all the officers and staff at Bodegas San Valero for making this journey not only very enjoyable but also very informative.
To your health.
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