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In the mountains of Bierzo Alto, at the limit of winegrowing possibility, Germán Blanco makes his delicious Casa Aurora wines in the tiny village of Albares de la Ribera. This is the home town of his grandmother and mentor, La Señora Aurora Garcia, who was the first female in the area to work in the coal mines, following the early death of her husband. 110 years ago, Aurora planted La Galapana vineyard to Mencía with a bit of Garnacha Tintorera at 980 meters altitude on rocky granite and iron-rich red clay soils, and vinified her grapes at the priest's house (the town's communal wine press). At the age of 100, she enrolled in classes to learn how to read and write, with the goal of writing letters to her adoring grandson, Germán.
We wrote last year of Germán's great pride in Aurora's legacy and his commitment to the future of her village. Germán hopes that his efforts to recuperate the abandoned piezas (small family vineyards) of Albares and adopt others from retiring growers will inspire young people to follow suit. So far, Germán is the only independent winemaker in the village, but if the high caliber of his fresh and memorable wines is any indication, he might not be alone for very long.
The vineyards of Albares are planted between 780 and 1000+ meters above sea level to a distinctive mix of red and white grapes. Mencía -- the most famous red grape in Bierzo -- is present in all of the vineyards, alongside comparable percentages of Garnacha Tintorera and Garnacha, which exert a dominant influence on the personalities of the wines. Trousseau is here as well, known by locals as Portuguesa. The white varieties Palomino (called Jerez), Doña Blanca, and Godello constitute a minimum of 25% of the co-planted piezas.
All vineyards for Casa Aurora are farmed organically. German says that when flowers begin to grow in his recently-converted vineyards, it is time to vinify them as single parcels and to study their individual identities. "From little things, big things grow," Germán says. "If I blend these special things into each other, you can't taste it. And you may not like it... but it's special!"
Adventurous wine drinkers are the beneficiaries of Germán's focus, as the single parcel wines from Casa Aurora are some of the most distinctive and thought-provoking in Spain. They are deeply pigmented, with intense acidity, concentrated black and purple fruit, and moderate alcohol levels (between 12.5% and 13%). It takes grapes a very long time to reach maturity in Albares, which is one of the last mountain villages where it is possible to cultivate vines. La Galapana is almost entirely Mencía, a fascinating option for devotees of Ribeira Sacra or Bierzo wines looking for a new expression of the grape; La Vendañona is balanced, accessible, and floral - a perfect introduction to the typical local blend of grapes; Valdecontino is perfumed and vibrant, dominated by Trousseau; Valle del Rio is a mind-bending outlier and perennial favorite due to its opaque, inky hue and forceful mineral expression of cool-climate Garnacha Tintorera.
In an effort to translate clearly the terroirs of Albares, Germán makes all of his wines naturally and simply, as Aurora would have done: foot-trodden, nothing destemmed, fermented in amphora and/or open top barrel, then aged for one year in 4-8 year-old french barrels of varying size (depending on the parcel). A pinch of sulfur is added at bottling.
Today we are pleased to offer the excellent 2015 vintage of Germán's single parcel wines, as well as Poula, his multi-parcel blend, foot-stomped in stone lagar and co-fermented, a tribute to the fresh, young wines that were traditionally made in the village. Casa Aurora benefitted from healthy yields in 2015, which was a warm year, lending generosity of fruit to balance the acidic cut of these typically austere reds. At a recent tasting in Spain, the 2015s were packing juicy, high-toned berry fruit with crunchy minerality and loads of texture.
It is a bittersweet occasion, however, to welcome these wonderful wines to our shelves this month. The Bierzo was one of many areas hit hard in northern Spain by the devastating frosts that descended upon many winegrowing regions in Europe this spring. Germán estimates his loss at over 30% for Casa Aurora in 2017, following a slim vintage in 2016. (Germán's San Esteban project, down the road from Albares, suffered 80% destruction, while his Quinta Milú vineyards in the Ribera del Duero lost 45-50%.) This means that future allocations of the wines will be dramatically diminished. More importantly, it means that winegrowers who make honest, modest livings from small annual productions of wine will endure potentially extreme hardship from forces of nature beyond their control. We can only aspire to consume their wines in a comparable spirit of humility and respect to that with which they were made! Ariana Rolich
Valle del Rio is emblematic of the focus and depth of the Casa Aurora project, where idiosyncratic swatches of land, planted to previously unimaginable mixtures of vines, are translated into utterly singular sensory combinations that excite intellectual pleasures as well as hedonistic ones. In winegrower Germán Blanco's words: "From little things, big things grow. If I blend these special things into each other, you can't taste it. And you may not like it... but it's special!" Well, Germán, we like it a lot! Valle del Rio is a .58 hectare parcel of 40-100 year old vines at 820 meters altitude, composed of approximately 60% Garnacha Tintorera, 10% Garnacha, 10% Mencía, and 17% Palomino and the rest Godello, planted on a south-facing slope of red clay and decomposed granite. 2015 is marked by mouth-watering, forward purple berries and violet florals, in balance with the typically dominant notes of crunchy blackberries, damp clay, rocks, and ink. Ariana Rolich
2015 Poula was made in the old style of the village of Albares ("My neighbors love it!" winemaker Germán Blanco proclaimed), composed of Garnacha Tintorera, Mencía, Portuguesa (Trousseau), and 40% white grapes Jerez (Palomino), Godello, Doña Blanca, foot-trodden in stone lagars and raised in amphora for 12 months. Poula is the only Casa Aurora wine made from a blend of parcels, most of which are too tiny to vinify on their own (they are listed on the front label). Lively, joyful, teeming with mouth-watering scents and flavors of wild berries, fermented grapes, mountain herbs, silky florals, and a pleasing tickle of tannin. Serve chilled. Ariana Rolich
Señora Aurora herself planted La Galapana vineyard 110 years ago to Mencía (with a tiny amount of Garnacha Tintorera) high in the mountains of Albares de la Ribera in the Bierzo Alto. Peaceful and secluded at 980 meters altitude, facing west on soils of red clay and granite. Surrounded by chestnut groves and flowering broom, La Galapana was recuperated ten years ago by Aurora's grandson, Germán Blanco, who re-grafted onto surviving rootstocks and replanted entirely where necessary in order to nurse the vineyard back to production. There is vital force to the wine that mirrors the efforts of the resolute woman who worked in the local coal mines and single-handedly planted her vines and farmed her land. Aromas of black currants, savory herbs, and mountain air inflect the complex palate of blackberries, resin, black olives, licorice, and ferrous soil. More open than the 2014, though equally complex. Ariana Rolich
La Vendañona is made from two adjacent piezas totaling one-third hectare (belonging to Amor Fernandez and farmed by Germán Blanco). The 100+ year-old bush-trained vines are planted on south-facing slopes of iron-rich red clay soils with gold-inflected granite rocks at 890 meters altitude. 60-70% Mencía and 15% Garnacha Tintorera with Garnacha and white varieties Palomino, Godello, and Doña Blanca are co-fermented in amphora (no destemming) then aged for one year in a single used french oak barrel. Heady floral and herbal aromas recall the wild lavender, thyme, flowering hara, and cardoons that encircle the vines of La Vendañona; on the palate there is soft strawberry and floral cherry fruit, black raspberries, taut tannins, and subtle spice, anchored by bright acidity that makes for a pretty pairing with seared duck breast. Ariana Rolich
Our lone six-pack of 2014 Valdecontina didn't make it onto the boat last year, so we're pleased to receive it now! The most dainty of Casa Aurora's single parcels, Valdecontina measures .08 hectare, south-facing at 720 meters altitude, planted to 30-40% Portuguesa (the local name for Trousseau), with Mencía, Garnacha Tintorera and Garnacha with small amounts of Palomino and Godello, fermented in custom-made 150L clay amphoras and raised in a single barrel of used French oak. Exotic and perfumed, with white flowers and spicy rose, seedy blackberry and black raspberry, tea leaves, citrus piths, and long, stony finish. Try it as a crunchy foil to the fruitier 2015s! Ariana Rolich