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 what’s next for Ribera del Duero wines.
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 a bottle of Pícaro Tinto, I couldn’t believe it was a Ribera del Duero wine! I generally associate Ribera del Duero with large, earnest wineries, so something smaller and more experimental seemed impossible.
Jorge takes Ribera del Duero’s agricultural past into account: the old bush vineyards that remain in some places; the parts 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’s met have helped him to 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 the maître de chai Bernard Noblet for two years, before returning to Spain where he worked at Vega Sicilia.
He explained: “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."
Ribera del Duero: A Rapidly Rising Region
Ribera del Duero is a relatively young DO, established in 1982, but it has received huge recognition since then, with its top wineries rivalling Rioja for prestige and reputation. Ribera del Duero 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.
In the ten years since Dominio began producing Ribera del Duero wines, their connection with the landscape of home village La Aguilera and its 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. This 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’s 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, sand, and a bit of silica, but a lot of height,” Jorge explains.
Reviving Traditional Spanish Wine Styles
Around 30 years ago, 80% of Ribera del Duero vines were concentrated in higher-altitude plots (850m) next to Burgos. Today, the main centre of production for these Spanish wines is around Valladolid, with Tempranillo and Albillo Mayor as the main grapes. Jorge has a particular passion for Albillo Mayor, and produces one of the most interesting Spanish white wines on 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 wine, with a minimum of 75% Albillo Mayor.
Ribera del Duero: Leading The Way In Spanish Wine Innovation
Another sign of what’s changing today in the world of Ribera del Duero wine is the reintroduction of Clarete. This is 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 grape varieties were planted together in old vineyards. At a time when the understanding of viticulture wasn’t as advanced, this acted as an insurance policy - depending on the conditions each year, at least some grapes would thrive. This style has since been abandoned and has lost its important place in the daily life of the inhabitants of Ribera del Duero.
Dominio del Aguila were the first Ribera del Duero producers to bottle a Clarete: a blend of Tempranillo, Albillo Mayor, Bobal, Garnacha, Carignan, Mourvedre, Tempranillo Gris, and other varieties from old vines. The magic of its 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 matches well with food.
“Climate and soil are more important than grape varieties. Nature is simple, the best result is when you vinify it as it is in the vineyard,” says Jorge.
What’s Next For Ribera del Duero Wines?
In the ten years since Jorge and Isabel began to produce Ribera del Duero wines, both their project and the region have evolved. They are well placed to face the challenge of global warming, thanks to their old vines with their deep roots and robust frames better able to withstand high temperatures. Additionally, the height of their vineyards helps to preserve the freshness in the grapes.
Moving forward, 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 their years of learning and gaining experience, Jorge and Isabel have continued to buy and restore old vineyards. They’ve brought together an important heritage of sites with huge potential, including Grand Crus, where Tempranillo is the lead actor, coexisting with other varieties, such as Blanca del País, Bobal, Garnacha, Albillo, and Tempranillo Gris.
Today, the use of whole bunch fermentation is in vogue. Jorge decided not to have a de-stemmer in his winery from the start, because it’s so small and they don’t have the space. Another factor in the decision was that 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 standardise wines, which is why Jorge wonders about the future of Ribera del Duero wine - 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: they keep their freshness, but at the same time respect the style of the appellation, where concentration and strength of tannins is a signature and essential for ageing.
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 is the person who grows, cares for, and recovers the vines, then makes the wine, stores it, and then releases it to the market.
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