Tim Atkin's top wines from Castilla y León
Several themes emerged from Tim Atkin's presentation of three top wines from Spain's Castilla y León region:
- the shift away from Parker-esque Big, Oaky Reds to something fresher and more nuanced
- high-altitude winemaking become more viable as a result
- the role of soil types
- the quality of regions in Spain beyond usual-suspect Rioja
- the rise, especially, of the Mencia grape and Bierzo region as an alt-Burgundy
Tim's introduction to the region explained that Castilla y León is the largest wine area in Spain by land mass (i.e. not by vineyard area) and includes three of its top regions, all producing very different styles of wine, predominantly reds and mainly from Tempranillo; however it is a varied region with other local and international red grapes as well as whites coming from the Rueda appellation.
Castilla y León sits on the meseta area, the high central plains where it is said there is three months of winter and nine months of hell due to the high summer temperatures. But altitude also brings diurnal variation and a much longer growing season which preserves the acidity in the grapes whilst allowing flavour compounds to develop.
Toro and Ribera del Duero are both on the river Duero, which becomes the Douro in Portugal and affects the soils and climate of the area; Bierzo in the far northwest of the region has a more Burgundian climate with cooling Atlantic influences and the wines are more Burgundian as a result.
Tim went as far as to say that he considers Bierzo one of the most exciting regions in the world and is now an affordable alternative to top Burgundy.
The winemakers then introduced their wines.
Jose Antonio García, Aires de Vendimia Mencía de Valtuille 2018, Bierzo (96 Atkin points)
Made by José Antonio García, one of the rising stars of Bierzo, this superb old-vine blend of Mencía with 4% of other co-planted red and white varieties has lovely stemmy complexity from 100% whole bunches, graceful tannins, sweet wild strawberry fruit and levels of complexity that wouldn’t look out of place in a Premier Cru Burgundy.
The winery is on the Santiago pilgrim route and the area has historic French as well as Spanish influences. The wine shows a freshness and a greenness reminiscent of Cab Franc. They are a small producer in a small area that being more Atlantic-influenced is cooler, wetter and greener than the rest of the region. Their aim is to make drinkable wines.
The grapes are foot-trodden, with spontaneous fermentation and no temperature control in whole clusters to give more structure to the wine by increasing the acidity. The wine is then aged in for a year in French oak of different sizes.
Dominio Basconcillos Viña Magna Crianza 2017, Ribera del Duero (93 Atkin points)
Combining Tinto Fino with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, both from one of the coolest sites in Burgos, this is a superbly balanced Ribera that spends 14 months in new wood, but has the structure to cope. Polished and refined, with mint, cassis and chocolate flavours and racy, palate-cleansing acidity.
Cool, sunny, windy and isolated is the best synopsis of this winery; the vineyards are at 960 metres altitude and just 10km from the mountains, but with a southerly aspect. High winds are frequent which keeps the vineyard free of pests and helps guard against spring frosts.
Tim described the area as brutal and marginal and benefitting from the move towards fresher styles.
The grapes are hand harvested, de-stemmed and then sorted again at the winery; the wine has 10% Cab which is harvested as late as October yet still retains good acidity.
Elías Mora Crianza 2016, Toro (92 Atkin points)
This is ‘just’ a Crianza, but it has lovely perfume, balance and precision, with chalky freshness and brightness, fine-boned tannins, violet and red berry fruit and the subtlest dusting of French and American oak. Elegant, even at 15% alcohol.
Based on the river Douro, the area has alluvial soils of clay with limestone and large granite pebbles or galets of the type seen in the Rhône. All the soil types give slightly different wines; clay gives power and limestone gives finesse. The vines are 50 years old.
They use hand picking and a sorting table with a wooden basket-press for gentle extraction. The wine spends 12 months in French and American oak barrels between one and three years old.
The wine is from a cool year in which only the crianza was produced - as a result, the better grapes that might otherwise have gone into the top cuvee were used in this wine. It is intense, concentrated and well-integrated with good tannin management, belying its 15% alcohol level.