A single-minded vigneron unlocking the potential of Ribera del Duero

A single-minded vigneron unlocking the potential of Ribera del Duero

Jorge Monzón and Isabel Rodero, from Dominio del Águila, are shaking up the way Ribera del Duero wines are seen, where rich, ripe and bold is the norm, these are elegant, restrained and terroir expressive. Paz Levinson spoke to Jorge about his influences and where next for this exciting project.

Paz Levinson: Jorge Monzón has been on my radar for a while, Spanish sommelier and fellow Decanter wine judge Rubén Sanz Ramiro told me about him, and I’ve met Jorge several times in France.

The first time I saw the bottle of Pícaro Tinto I said to myself, this cannot be a Ribera del Duero wine! I generally associate Ribera with large, earnest wineries, something smaller and more experimental seemed impossible. Jorge takes into account the agricultural past of Ribera: the old bush vineyards that remain in some places; the part with less production, but more quality. He’s not the only one working in this way, but I believe that the experience he gained in France and the people he met have helped him find his way.

Jorge studied viticulture in Bordeaux and Burgundy, his first position was at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, where he worked side-by-side with Bernard Noblet the maître de chai for two years, before returning to Spain where he worked at Vega Sicilia.

“I have worked at the most famous producers in the world, I saw small and large. I worked for the elite of Burgundy and Ribera, and spent time in Bordeaux, but what has changed is the freedom I have with my own project. Today I can do what I always wanted, without being tied to the market, to the conventional recipes for success".

"I don't have to talk to a marketing group who want to sell the wine now, I don't have to produce a wine that I'm not comfortable with. Everything I do comes from my soul, from my dreams"

A rapidly rising region

Ribera del Duero is a young DO, established in 1982, but it has received huge recognition since then, with the top wineries rivalling Rioja for prestige and reputation. It has grown from 24 wineries at the beginning, to more than 300 today. The vineyards now cover around 23,353 hectares across the provinces of Burgos, Segovia, Soria and Valladolid.

El Fuentarron vineyard. Jorge and Isabel look after just over 30 hectares of vines across around 120 small plots around La Aguilera

In the ten years since Dominio began, their connection with the landscape of home village La Aguilera and their vineyards has strengthened. They have focused on buying and restoring old plots of vines, which otherwise would have been grubbed up and replanted with modern productive Tempranillo clones. Jorge and Isabel are farmers above all, and continue to supply grapes to the most prestigious wineries in the region, while saving the best parcels for their own project. That is why Jorge is passionate about the differences in soil types, altitude and microclimates that can be found in this appellation. Jorge speaks of true crus, and it is crucial that in such a large and diverse region they have begun to talk about specific places and communicate the differences.

“There are many types of vines that can grow well in gravels, but for me there is nothing like Tempranillo planted in the hills. The Ribera del Duero that interests me is Burgos and Segovia, especially the freshest terroirs of gravel and sand and a bit of silica, but a lot of height”.

Reviving the traditional styles

Next to Burgos there are higher altitude plots at 850 meters, 30 years ago 80% of the vines of the DO were concentrated here, now the centre of production is around Valladolid. Tempranillo and Albillo Mayor are the main grapes. Jorge has a passion for Albillo Mayor, and produces one of the most interesting whites on planet earth! Until 2019 you couldn’t label a white wine under the DO, it had to be called plain Vino de España. However the appellation listened to the producers, and today it is possible to make a white Ribera del Duero, with a minimum of 75% Albillo Mayor. Jorge makes his white in a very precise way, with huge attention to the detail, a lesson he learned working in Burgundy. This gives his white incredible tension and freshness on the palate and huge aging potential. Luis Gutiérrez awarded the 2016 vintage 97 points, calling it: “One of the finest whites from the region (and from Spain)”.

Another sign of what is changing today is the reintroduction of Clarete. A traditional wine, with a vibrant flamingo pink colour, made with a blend of red and white grapes that are fermented together.

This mirrors the way different varieties were planted together in old vineyards. At a time when understanding of viticulture wasn’t as advanced, this acted as an insurance policy so depending on the conditions each year at least some grapes would thrive. The style had been abandoned and lost its important place in the daily life of the inhabitants of Ribera. Dominio del Aguila were the first to bottle a Clarete: a blend of Tempranillo, Albillo Mayor, Bobal, Garnacha, Carignan, Mourvedre, Tempranillo Gris and others varieties, from old vines. The magic of it’s history is that capricious, random co-plantation that has mostly been lost with the homogeneity of new plantings, El Clarete is a joy to drink and a matches well with food.

“Climate and soil are more important than grape varieties”, says Jorge. “Nature is simple, the best result is when you vinify it as it is in the vineyard”.

Looking to the past and the future

In the ten years since Jorge and Isabel began to produce wine, both their project and the region have evolved. They are well placed to face the challenge of global warming, with their old vines and the high altitude of their vineyards. The height helps to preserve the freshness in the grapes, and the old vines with their deep roots and robust frames withstand high temperatures better than the young ones. But now they are focussing more on leaf canopy work, to protect the fruit from the sun. And looking at soils to find plots where the varieties suit the soil temperature.

Throughout all the years of learning and gaining experience, they have continued to buy and restore old vineyards. They have brought together an important heritage of sites with huge potential, true Grand Crus, where Tempranillo is the lead actor, coexisting with other varieties such as Blanca del País, Bobal, Garnacha, Albillo, Tempranillo Gris, and others.

Tasting from barrel: Jorge and Isabel have bought and converted a series of underground caves in La Aguilera, which have the perfect cool conditions for slow ageing of their wines.

Today the use of wholebunch fermentation is in vogue. Jorge decided not to have a de-stemmer in his winery from the start, partly because it is so small and they don’t have space, but also because this is the traditional way to make wine in the region, so working with the stems is something intrinsic to the winery and the style of the wines.

Fashions can standardize wines, which is why Jorge wonders about the future of the Ribera del Duero, will the new styles he sees age like the great examples of the region. Dominio del Aguila wines are notable for their balance and concentration: keeping their freshness, but at the same time respecting the style of the appellation, where concentration and strength of tannins is a signature and essential for aging. What attracts me to this producer is his thoughtfulness, and the way in which he embodies the figure of the vigneron, in a region that was in danger of losing this important character. Vigneron, the person who grows, cares for, and recovers the vines; makes the wine, stores it and then releases it to the market.