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Alfredo Maestro pulled over to the side of a rocky, winding road and jumped out of his truck. Gesturing into the valley below, a curving patchwork of tiny, heterogeneous vineyards on chunky white limestone soils, he proclaimed: "Welcome to the Ribera del Duero of 100 years ago!"
We had spent the day visiting Alfredo Maestro's majuelos, the local term for small family-owned vineyards, and ended up in the Valle del Botijas in the province of Segovia to meet his "sherpa" - an organic vinegrower named Thomas, who for nearly ten years has been Maestro's guide to the family vineyards around the village of Cuevas de Provanco.
Maestro's wines have always dazzled us with their clarity, freshness, and elegance across vintage and price point. They are textured, multi-dimensional, totally natural vinifications of Tinto Fino (Tempranillo), Garnacha, and Albillo Mayor (genetically distinct from Albillo Real in the Sierra de Gredos), enhanced by a multitude of local varieties that historically were grown together in the vineyards around the Duero River and her tributaries. When I met Alfredo Maestro four years ago, I was able to align his conviction, passion, and monumentally high standards with my assessments of the wines. It was not an accident that they were wild yet crystal clear, structured yet fluid, bold yet layered, deep and sometimes dark, yet in no way heavy. But it was in this pastoral valley of tiny vineyards and gnarly vines, lands sliced and diced over centuries as ownership passed to successive generations, that I began to grasp what really makes his wines unique.
Less than ten miles away is Maestro's hometown of Peñafiel, the heart of the Duero, a picturesque village built around an imposing 10th-century castle. Starting in Peñafiel, the Milla de Oro ("golden mile") of the extremely famous Ribera del Duero D.O. (Denominación de Origen) heads west, flanked by long, straight, and (predominantly) conventionally-farmed rows of Tinto Fino vines that feed the production of some of Spain's most prized and popular wines. I was struck by the sterile feel of this strip, which, despite its fame and fortune, contrasted starkly with the life and health of the vineyards we visited with Maestro.
Alfredo Maestro tends dozens of majuelos, in some of the most prestigious areas of the Ribera del Duero D.O. as well as outside the appellation's geographical limits in places like Valtiendas (classified today as a Vino de Calidad, a step below Denominación de Origen) and the Valle de Botijas, both located southeast of Peñafiel. Prior to the implementation of the D.O. in 1982, many of the Duero's satellite regions were prized for cultivation of vines and admired for their range of alluvial, limestone, and clay terroirs, as well as a variety of microclimates and high elevations that result in fresh and vibrant wines.
In order to engage with the rich diversity of grape varieties, clones, and terroirs that lie outside of the appellation's geographic limits, Alfredo Maestro chooses to forgo working within the Ribera del Duero D.O.. His wines are labeled ambiguously as Vino de la Tierra Castilla y León. Even if all of his vineyards were in prime Ribera del Duero territory like Peñafiel, Maestro would still have to work outside of the appellation to make his wines. Albillo Mayor is the great white grape of the Duero, present in most of the region's older vineyards, yet Maestro is the only winemaker he could think of who bottles a white wine from 100% Albillo Real for commercial sale in the region. (The D.O. only allows for red and rosado wines.) He is resistant to beliefs that confer prestige on artificial boundaries, not to mention approaches to winemaking and agriculture that are not natural or traditional: "Ribera del Duero is the best, Tempranillo is the best, oak is the best...," he recited sarcastically. "This is all nothing!"
All of Alfredo's grapes come from vineyards that are farmed organically (some certified) and biodynamic methods are incorporated "sin fanatismo" depending on the demands of individual vineyards. Some of Maestro's most distinctive Tinto Fino fruit comes from around the town of Valtiendas in Segovia - marvelous, rugged old vineyards covered in river stones akin to those in the Southern Rhone but at much loftier altitudes of nearly 1000 meters. Valtiendas has a unique pulse and a special local clone of Tinto Fino with smaller berries and bunches, which yields tense, gripping, more red-fruited and acidic wines, and makes up a large percentage of Maestro's "basic" Viña Almate cuvee. It is impeccably fresh, detailed, and expressive across vintage, with no added SO2.
It was on his regular commute between his vineyards in Valtiendas and his vineyards in Castrillo de Duero (Valladolid) that Maestro caught on to the magic of the majuelos of the Valle del Botijas. Passing through this variegated swath of ancient vines up to 125 years old, growing at 935 meters altitude near the base of a massive limestone cliff, "The plants were singing to me..." he recounted nostalgically.
Ten years and 40 majuelos later, Maestro has learned the voices of their vines and channels their fruit into wines that beckon with songs of their own. This valley is cooler and greener, with more rainfall than Valtiendas; its low-yielding, old vines of Tinto Fino, Garnacha, Garnacha Tintorera, Bobal, Albillo Mayor, Palomino, Moscatel (and many more) are planted together and trained en vaso. Maestro carries out up to three harvests per vineyard, depending on its makeup: first, for Albillo Mayor and Garnacha Tintorera; second, for Tinto Fino; third, for Garnacha. The resulting wines are fresh and floral, wih higher acidity than those from the hot heart of the Duero (which are routinely acidified in the course of commercial production).
Today, we are pleased to offer four wines, through which it is possible to sample the fruit culled from Maestro's many majuelos: Viña Almate, one of the finest, freshest Tempranillos in its price range; La Asperilla, Maestro's newest single vineyard bottling and arguably his best; Viña Almate Garnacha, a rare and exquisitely floral expression of the grape; finally, Lovamor*, his white wine from Albillo Mayor, the profound exertion of many ancient vines from majuelos all around the Ribera del Duero and beyond. Drinking this unique white wine from a "red wine region" one questions why a "red wine region" should ever exist in the first place. In Alfredo Maestro's world, it surely wouldn't. Ariana Rolich
*Chambers Street WInes and Racines NY are pleased to present an evening of Supernatural Spanish Wines by-the-glass on Wednesday, June 22nd, 6-9pm, featuring Lovamor and many more. We hope to see you there!
Fermented with natural yeasts, raised in stainless steel and bottled with no sulphur, Lovamor is a free expression of the intense natural energy which shapes the rugged land of the Duero region. Made from the indigenous white grape Albillo Mayor (not to be confused with Albillo Real, the great white grape of the Gredos) and harvested from many high altitude majuelos of varying soil compositions, the wine, which spends six days macerating on its skins, is robust, dense and tannic, showing earthy, austere notes of celery root, apple skins, sea salt, bright, tangy lemon, and the slight bitterness of freshly husked young walnuts. Sydney Snyder
Alfredo Maestro keeps us on our toes with his inventive, ever-evolving family of wines from his homeland of Ribera del Duero, as well as the Sierra de Gredos and Vinos de Madrid. Almate is 100% Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) from many tiny vineyards in and outside of the Ribera del Duero (Maestro works outside of appellation, so all of his wines are labeled ambiguously as "Castilla y Leon"), farmed organically and raised in stainless steel with no additions or modifications. Supple Tempranillo aromas of black cherry, rose hips, sweet baking chocolate, black pepper, and warm earth meld with supremely juicy fruit and a silty, pleasingly unfiltered texture on the tongue: round yet direct, with rich plum and sour cherries, soft earth, oregano, cafe-au-lait, and a long, direct, mineral-tinged finish, courtesy of the regions' alluvial, clay, and limestone soils. We are perennially amazed by the personality and depth of this complex young wine relative to its price. Ariana Rolich
La Asperilla is an 80 year-old, .5 hectare majuelo (small family vineyard) in Penafiel, Alfredo Maestro's home town in the Ribero del Duero. A placid parcel of 80 year-old vines within view of the castle of Penafiel, La Asperilla is composed of clay and sandy soils, planted to Tempranillo (around 80%) with Garnacha, Bobal, and white grapes Albillo Mayor and Moscatel (and more). The vineyard is horse-ploughed and organically farmed; the grapes are co-fermented and aged in a large chestnut barrel (a traditional vessel in the area). Heady florals (violets, soapy white lily, piquant lavender) and resinous herbal garrigue fill the nose alongside cinnamon sticks, fresh vegetal stalks of rhubarb, and damp soil; the palate is a cool pool of pink and purple berries, with crunchy red delicious apples and skins, a scratch of sandy tannins, birch bark, almond oil, cherry cola, chewy wheat berries, cinnamon, and clove. An informal poll of Alfredo Maestro's biggest fans might reveal that Asperilla is his best wine yet! Pair with lamb, like they do in Penafiel. Ariana Rolich
We don't see much Grenache from the Duero. Neither does Alfredo Maestro! He painstakingly identifies and plucks Garnacha grapes from amidst his dozens of tiny vineyards, most of which are planted to the local Tempranillo with multiple other varieties like Ganrnacha Tintorera, Bobal, Albillo Mayor, Dona Blanca, Moscatel, and more. Alfredo harvests his diverse plantings 3 times: First, for Albillo and Garnacha Tintorera; 2nd, for Tempranillo; and 3rd, for Garnacha. Our favorite Garnachas display aerial and mineral dimensions that create a bond between sky and soil in our glasses, mouths, and minds. This wine is serene and sylvan, with aromas of purple and black berries, graphite, forest floor, and salty black licorice that open into a delicious palate of tart black currants, brambly, bursting wild blueberries and blueberry stems, black cherries and woody cherry pits, wild herbs and flowers, sasaparilla, bitter chocolate, and gunmetal on the end, with breathtaking clarity, fresh and juicy acidity, and a tear-jerking level of quality and pleasure. Pair with venison and mulberries, cookouts, and cheese plates. Ariana Rolich