Sunday, August 2, 2015

Spain Unit 3 - Castilla y León

The following are my notes for the Advanced Study of the Wines of Spain covering the region of Castilla y León. The notes include information about the history, topography, climate, soils, important red and white grapes, the various Denominación de Origen (DO) of the region and the wines I tasted during this study.


Castilla y Léon is located in northwestern Spain and it is the largest autonomía in the country. It occupies a vast arid plateau, known as the Meseta Central, that is about 200 km (125 miles) across and between 700m and 1000m (2300ft and 3300ft) above sea-level located between the Cordillera Cantábrica and the Sistema Central mountains. The Duero River flows westward through the center of the region and passes the DOs of Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Toro, Tierra del Vino de Zamora, and Arribes as it makes its way toward Portugal where it becomes the Douro River.


Castilla y Léon has a continental climate that is slightly moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The region is subject to extreme highs and lows with hot, dry summers followed by sharp, cold winters and temperatures that regularly drop below freezing.


Castilla y Léon was formerly two historical provinces of Castilla la Vieja and Léon but they were conjoined administratively in 1983. It is also home to Madrid, Spain’s national capital. Castilla y Léon is known as “The land of castles” as it includes a number of fortifications built to repel the Moors in the early Middle Ages, including the medieval city walls of Avila, the Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, and Atapuerca. In the 15th century the dynastic union of Castilla y León and Aragon through marriage led to the birth of the Kingdom of Spain. Wine production in the region pre-dates the Roman occupation and may go as far back as the first century B.C. Castilian Spanish was the only official dialect in Spain for two centuries prior to the ratification of the Spanish constitution in 1978.

Vega Sicilia

One of the most important Bodega’s in Ribera del Duero is Vega Sicilia. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves who planted a number of Bordeaux varietals and a small amount of Pinot Noir alongside Tinto del País (Tempranillo) in order to make brandy. The word Vega refers to the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero while Sicilia refers to Saint Cecilia, the patron saints of musicians.

A generation later, the ownership had changed and transitioned to estate-bottled table wines. In 1929 Domingo Txomin, the winemaker, achieved international acclaim at the Barcelona World’s Fair with the 1917 and 1918 vintages of Vega Sicilia’s flagship wine - Único. The wine is a blend of Tinto del País, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is often aged for a decade or more in American and French oak barrels. Today it demands very high prices such as the 1962, which sells for more than $1,300 a bottle. In a sense it can be thought of as a 1st Growth of Spain as Hugh Johnson wrote, “Vega Sicilia is the Latour…”.[1] (See below for notes on the 2004 Unico I tasted).

Yet, Ribera del Duero did not achieve DO status until 1982. That same year the estate was purchased by the Alvarez family, who are members of the Primum Familiae Vini, an association that is limited to 12 family-owned wineries. 

In addition to Unico, Vega Sicilia produces two other wines that also have quite a following. The most rare is Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial - a non-vintage blend of different Unicos, aged at least for 10 years. This wine can include grapes from vintages harvested more than 30 years apart and usually only available to private customers under strict allocation. The other is Valbuena 5°, the “5°” indicates that this wine has been aged for five years prior to release.[2] The wine is composed mostly of Tempranillo, with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Grapes of Castilla y Léon
The most commonly planted grapes of Spain were listed in the Introduction. But there are some unique and less common local varietals in Castilla y Léon as well.
White Grapes
There are far fewer white grapes in number than the red.

Verdejo is one of the two dominate white grapes in Castilla y Léon. The grape originated in North Africa and was spread to Rueda in about the 11th Century, possibly by Mozarabs (Christians living under Muslim rulers in Al-Andalus).[3] It is now best known in the Rueda region of Spain. The grape is easily prone to oxidization so it was originally used to make a strongly oxidized, Sherry-like wine. Now, due to modern wine making techniques (such as night-time harvesting, cool fermentation and the use of an inert gas blanketing) have led to the delicate and youthful aromatic freshness of the wines being preserved. It is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to add body and richness to Sauvignon’s aromatic lift. Its best example is Rueda Superior, which must contain a minimum of 85% Verdejo. Typically Verdejo dominated wines are crisp with soft, creamy, nutty overtones, and sometimes accompanied by notes of honey.[4]
Viura is one of the two dominant white grapes in Castilla y Léon. It is also known as Alcañón, Macabeo or Macabeu (as it is known in Catalan) and is widely grown in the Rioja region of northeastern Spain. It is primarily used in blending or to make sparkling wine (Cava).
Also known as Albillo de Toro, Albillo Real, Blanca del Pais and Pardina. At a young age Albillo has a distinct golden-yellow hue. It is a fairly neutral white grape with a light perfume aroma. The wines tend to be heavy with glycerin and usually exhibit touches of residual sugar and expressive notes of tropical fruits. It is often blended with Muscat à Petits Grains in Spanish versions of Moscatel or used as a blending grape with Garnache to lighten red wines and for added aromatics. It is planted primarily in the Ribera del Duero region, and also in Vinos de Madrid DO, Ávila and Galicia.[5]
Albarín Blanco
Also known as Raposos and White Verdin and although the name may sound similar it is not related to Albariño. This grape is autochthonous from the South of León and Asturias, in the South-West, the area of Cangas de Narcea. It is a recommended grape in the Principality of Asturias and an authorized variety in Cantabria and Castilla y León. The berries are bright yellowish-green color, early maturing, and produce wines with strong muscatel flavor (sweet floral aromas intermingled with orange and lemon notes) and high alcohol.[6]
Red Grapes

The dominant red grape in Castilla y Léon is Tempranillo (also known locally as Tinta del Pais, Tinto de Toro and Tinto Fino) except in Bierzo, which favors Mencia. The name is derived from the Spanish word temprano (“early”). It is native to northern Spain and is widely cultivated in Rioja and as far south as La Mancha. It is an early ripening variety that tends to thrive in chalky vineyard soils found in the Ribera del Duero DO. Table wines tend to be ruby red in color, with aromas and flavors strawberries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herbs. In Portugal, it is known as Tinto Roriz and Aragonez and is used to make fortified Port wines.[7]
Also known as Jaen, Fernao Pires Tinta, Giao, Loureiro Tinto, Mencin, Negra, Negro, Mencia Roble, Tinto Mencia and Tinto Mollar. The grape is primarily found in the Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras regions. The grape produces light, pale, relatively fragrant red wines with slight smoky and peppery notes intended for early consumption.[8]
Prieto Picudo
The name Prieto means “dark” as it is a dark-skinned grape and Picudo means “peaked,” which refers to the sharp taper at the bottom of the bunches. It is planted in Valdevimbre on about 5,000 hectares (7400 acres) of land around the city of León in northwestern Spain and is permitted for use in the Tierra de León, Valles de Benavente, Valtiendas DO. It is sometimes blended with Mencia and as a varietal it produces wine with similar characteristics to Tempranillo.[9]

Denominación de Origen (DO) of Castilla y León
There are 8 DOs in Castilla y Léon which are as follows:[10]
Arlanza DO
Established as a DO in 2008. It is located east of Cigales and directly north of Ribera del Duero. The vineyards are located in the middle and lower areas of the River Arlanza Valley. The principal white grapes are Albillo and Viura which are used to blend with red grapes to produce rosé wines. The principal red grapes are Tempranillo (Tinta del País), which represents 95% of total plantings followed by Garnacha, Mencía, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.
Bierzo DO
Established as a DO in 1989. It is located in the mountainous northwestern corner of Castilla y León bordering Valdeorras in Galicia. There are about 3,980 hectares (9834 acres) under vine. The dominant white grape is Palomino but plantings of Godello and Doña Blanca are increasing. The primary red grape is Mencía, which comprises a minimum 70% of red wines and 50% of rosé wines. White wines are also produced, and while wines made from Godello and Doña Blanca show more promise, Palomino still dominates the vineyards.
Cigales DO
Established as a DO in 1991. It is located northwest of Ribera del Duero and 13 km (8 miles) north of old capital city of Valladolid. The dominant white grapes are Albillo and Verdejo but there is also some Sauvignon Blanc. The principal red grapes are Tempranillo (Tinto del País), Garnacha Tinta and Garnacha Gris. They also grow some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region produces red wines as well as rosado and nuevo (primeur) rosado.
Ribera del Duero DO
Established as a DO in 1982. It surrounds the towns of Aranda de Duero and Peñafiel in the Duero River Valley. When Ribera del Duero received DO status, there were only 9 wineries in the region but today there about 300. 

There are no whites wines produced. The principal red grapes are Tempranillo (Tinto Fino or Tinta del País). But they also grow Garnacha Tinta, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. Crianza requires two years minimum ageing with 12 months in oak. Reserva requires 3 years minimum with 12 months in oak. Gran Reserva requires 5 years with a minimum of 24 months in oak. Rosados and red wines that do not fulfill the minimum aging requirement for crianza are considered vino joven (young wines).
Rueda DO
Established as a DO in 1980. It is centered on the town of Rueda, located in the province of Valladolid about 170 km (105 miles) northwest of Madrid. The Duero River flows through the area from east to west. The dominant white grape for which the region is known is Verdejo. The grape is easily prone to oxidation and had been produced in a Sherry style of wine until the introduction of modern wine making techniques by Marqués de Riscal in the 1970s. White wines simply labeled “Rueda” must contain a minimum 50% Verdejo and are often blended with Viura. Wines may also be varietally labeled as either Verdejo or Sauvignon Blanc if they contain 85% of the stated grape. The prominent red wine grape is Tempranillo used to produce red and rosado wines which must contain a minimum 50% of red grapes. Sparkling wines (Espumoso) are produced in both rosado and white styles. Brut Espumoso wine is a sparkling wine, made in the traditional method with 9 months in the bottle, aging on lees and require a minimum of 85% Verdejo. A rare dry fortified, oxidized Dorado wine is also produced which is aged oxidatively in barrel for at least 2 years. As the name suggests the wine is golden (dorada means “golden”) in color and it has aromas of toasted nuts and rancio with at least 15% abv. The lighter Rueda Palido is aged under a film of flor, and is similar in style to a dry fino Sherry.
Tierra de León DO
Established as a DO in in 2007. It is located south of the province of León to the south of the Cordillera Cantábrica mountain range where the Esla and the Cea rivers meet. It has a continental climate and its vineyards are planted on alluvial soil that are low in organic matter and have good drainage. The primary white grapes are Verdejo, Albarín Blanco, Godello, Malvasía and Palomino. Red and rosados are made from Prieto Picudo (around 50% of plantings), Mencía, Tempranillo and Garnacha Tinta. Crianza requires 2 years minimum ageing including 6 months in oak. Reserva requires 3 years minimum ageing including 12 months in oak. Gran Reserva requires 60 months minimum ageing including 18 months in oak. The barrique may be made from French, American or central European oak.
Tierra del Vino de Zamora DO
Established as a DO in 2007. The name means “the land of wine” and it extends over the province of Zamora and a section of the province of Salamanca to the west and south of the Toro DO. About 800 hectares (1976 acres) of vineyards are planted on both banks of the River Duero as it follows its course through Zamora. The primary white grapes are Malvasía, Moscatel de Grano Menudo (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Verdejo, Albillo, Palomino and Godello. The primary red grape is Tempranillo but Garnacha Tinta and Cabernet Sauvignon are also planted.
Toro DO
Established as a DO in 1987. It is named after the town of Toro, which is located above the banks of the Río Duero, and it is the furthest west of the DOs of the Duero Valley. The primary white grapes are Malvasía and Verdejo. The principal red grapes are Tempranillo (Tinta de Toro), which makes up 75% Tinta de Toro of red wines, and Garnacha Tinta. Rosados are saignée blends of Tinto de Toro and Garnacha.

The Wines

While studying Castilla y León I tasted the following wines:

2013 Martinsancho Verdejo, Rueda DO

A clear white wine, pale lemon in color with a green tint around the edges and medium- viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of lemon pith, green apple, melon rind, under ripe pineapple, lemon blossom, and wet stone. On the palate it is dry with high acidity yet it has soft edges, medium- body and a long citrus and tropical finish. A great summer wine, it sells for $16.99 at K&L in Redwood City, CA

2013 Mauro Godello, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León

A clear white wine, golden-yellow with moderate viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of dried peach, dried mango, oxidized apples and baking spices with a hint of salty sea breeze. On the palate the nose is confirmed with additional nutty notes, it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium body and a very long finish. This wine sells for $59.99 at K&L in Redwood City, CA. In my last notes on Green Spain I tasted a Godello from Valdeorras DO, which sold $25 less ($34.99), yet I prefer it to this one.

2013 Descendientes de Jose Palacios Petalos, Bierzo DO

This wine is made from 100% Mencia. It is an opaque red wine, dark purple at the core to violet at the rim with minimal variation and medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with medium+ intense aromas of blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, plums, violets with a hint of smoke, damp earth and black pepper. On the palate it is dry but fruit forward with medium tannins, medium acidity, medium+ body and a medium+ length finish. This is the third Mencia that I have tasted in my study of Spain and it is the most impressive. It has a little more weight (14% alcohol) but it is well balanced and all the flavors are well integrated. Seriously, this is a killer wine. The other two Mencia's were from “Green Spain” and closer to the ocean so they both had some green notes from less ripe grapes (thus the lower alcohol). The wine is naturally lower in tannin so it is more geared towards youthful consumption (the wine, not the consumer). This wine sells for $21.99 at The Spanish Table, in Berkeley CA

2010 Pago De Los Capellanes, Tinto Reservas, Ribera Del Duero DO

The wine is made from 90% Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is an opaque dark purple wine with very little rim variation and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of black plums, blackberries and violets with a hint of black pepper and spice. On the palate it is dry with medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, it is full bodied with a medium length finish. This wine sells for $49.99 at The Spanish Table in Berkeley CA

2009 Triennia de Bodegas Portia, Ribera Del Duero DO

This wine is made from 100% Tinta Fino (Tempranillo). It is an opaque, dark red wine that it purple at the core with medium+ viscosity. On the nose it has medium intense aromas of baked strawberry pie, black currant, paprika, with hints of Balsamic notes and toasted oak. On the palate it has medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, medium+ body and a long finish. This wine was brought back from Spain by some friends and it is near-impossible to find in the USA. The Wine Enthusiast lists it for $75.

2004 Vega Sicilia “Unico”, Ribera Del Duero DO


This wine is a blend of 87% Tempranillo and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes that go into this wine come from very low yields and old vines, some more than 100 years. Vega-Siclia ages the wine 10 years in the estate’s cellars and typically it spends 7 years aging in large, new and old oak casks, with 3 years in bottle before release. It is an opaque wine, dark purple in color with medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced intense aromas of strawberry pie, black currants, ripe tomatoes, barbeque potato chips, licorice, loads of coconut, vanilla and sweet oak with a hint of spice and balsamic notes. On the palate it is very rich and opulent, dry and yet fruit forward with medium+ tannins that are refined and velvety on entry, it has medium+ acidity, it is full-bodied and has long full-length finish. This wine sells for $349.99 at K&L in Redwood City, CA.

[1] Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (Simon and Schuster 1989), 429-432.
[2] Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing 2001), 430-435.
[4] Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Rueda:
[5] Jancis Robinson, Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course (Third Edition, Abbeville Press 2003), 100.
[7] Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley Publishing, 2005), 191.
[8] Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2006), 435-436.
[9] Jancis Robinson, Vines, Grapes & Wines (Mitchell Beazley 1986), 214.

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