We are at the Valtravieso Bodegas and Vinedos owned by Pablo Gonzalez Bertere, who bought the place in 2002 and makes many different types of Tempranillo based wine, including a new label in partnership with famed winemaker Michel Rolland.
We are in the vineyards and the very last bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon are being picked in the dim grey light. The soil has large broken pebbles, and the ambiance is …. well, bleak. People usually think of the harvest occurring in warm sunshine, yet the grapes ripened late in Ribera del Duero and to be honest, the Cabernet Sauvignon could use a good weekend of strong Miami Beach sunshine.
And frankly … so can I.
Of course, everyone knows Ribera del Duero, region of some of the best wines in the world. Studying wine books in the relative warmth of a “bright lights, big city” apartment is one thing. The region sounds absolutely romantic, conjuring up images of gorgeous grape vines and delicious wine.
Yet this October day is absolutely bone-chilling, and the “village” here is more a string of empty-looking houses than anything else. You will pass several long, lonely miles on the way to this winery, with the landscape looking more like the lunar surface of the moon than anything else.
According to Pablo, winemakers are nervous here – as described above, everything is at the mercy of nature.
Given the cool climate, the first concern is to wait for further ripening and risk losing the grapes to dilution from rain or odium, or pick early for safety and risk green tannins and unripe grapes.
Speaking from the vantage point of my high_heeled encased feet sinking into the muddy vineyard, the sticky purple Cabernet Grapes in my hand do not taste as ripe as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux grapes I taste at harvest. Yet here it is freezing rain and in Napa wine tourists may likely be laying by the hotel pool in swimsuits. These Cabernet Sauvignon grapes actually have a pleasant tart appeal.
I pop over on the other side of the road and taste a few of the head-trained Tempranillo vines and taste a few grapes. Wow. Absolutely delicious! Actually they are perfect, which is why tempranillo represents eighty-five percent of the blend in this region.
In the winery, a team of men and women stand over a sorting table, picking off the leaves. I watch as the glistening grapes fall into a destemmer, with the stems popping into a chute below. From time to time, a man comes to sweep away these skeletal looking stems like a low level worker in a hair salon.
The slightly smashed grapes flow into a tank. Pieces of dry carbon ice are put into the tank to keep the wine fresh.
The grapes spend six days in this pre-fermentation state, picking up sweet tannins, color, and flavors. Pumpovers occur three times a day with a warm fermentation and maturation in French oak, the age of the barrel corresponding with the desired style of wine.
Maturation and Tasting
Pablo is a businessman, not a winemaker, yet he knows as much about technical details as any winemaker and has recently hired a winemaker he calls “young and enthusiastic” to make the wine.
Barrels are all French oak, and he uses a variety of forests and coopers to achieve the desired blend.
You can find a variety of levels here, with the very best wines aged on 100% new oak – an expensive proposition.
Pablo lives in Madrid yet is at the winery often to oversee operations and the seemingly endless issues that can arise, the most serious of which is the risk of frost that can occur in spring or fall and shut down photosynthesis.
Yet the vines, especially the oldest vines, seem accustomed to all the hazards in the vineyard. They’ve seen family members devoured by wild boards, snapped off by frost, or nibbled on by birds and rabbits. Even the ones who survive ultimately end up in stainless steel tanks – that is their fate.
Possibly these grapes may hope those who read this missive will enjoy them.