David Williams profiles nine wineries making great strides to help put the wines of Extremadura on the map.
Bodega Encina Blanca de Alburquerque
The first thing visitors are taken to see at Bodega Encina Blanca is a curious granite rock just outside the winery. It is carved with a narrow groove leading to a Roman-era lagar, which allowed grapes to be crushed by foot and begin their fermentation right in the heart of the vineyard. It lends a nice historical counterpoint to the modern winery opened by owner Jose Rivero in late 2016 – a nod to the long winemaking past of this corner of Extremadura.
That contrast of the modern with the deep history is a hallmark of Rivero’s operation. Named after the mature white oaks that share the estate with 15ha of vines planted in 2007, Encina Blanca has earned respect locally for its attempts to recover, understand and work with the numerous local grape varieties (many near extinction, some still unnamed) found in a precious pre-phylloxera vineyard filled with pie franco (own-root) vines over 150 years old. Rivero has partnered with the regional government to identify the 30 varieties, making micro-vinifications from each one.
The Encina Blanca wines – sparkling, white and red – from these viñas viejas are field blends of up to 19 varieties, among them Alarije, Bastardo Blanco, Beba, Ciguente, Folgasão, Pardina and Zurieles. They fit alongside international and Spanish varieties – such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo and Verdejo – in a portfolio characterised by a liveliness of fruit. That’s the result, Rivero says, of the Atlantic influence and the 450m altitude in the west of Extremadura, which deliver a wide, freshness-preserving difference of up to 20°C between day-time and night-time temperatures during the growing season.
There’s a focus on diversity at family- owned Bodega Coloma in Alvarado near Badajoz in the west of Extremadura. The range of varieties (10 in total) is such that the harvest, overseen by winemaker Amelia Coloma, stretches from late July to mid-October, and from Pinot Noir to the local white Cayetana. Amelia has also been involved in the re-emergence of local varieties, overseeing a project that helped provide clean genetic material of Alarije from cuttings found in Caceres.
Originally from Ribera del Duero, the Colomas arrived in Extremadura in the 1960s, believing that the stony soils and local varieties on the estate (50ha now planted with vines) had vast potential for quality red and white wine. They began to bottle under their own name in the 1970s, and have earned a reputation for doing things their own way.
As Amelia’s sister Elena Coloma puts it: ‘Sometimes it’s much easier to follow trends. But we don’t do that. We don’t have the Tempranillo and Verdejo that everyone wants. We grow what we think works best with our terroir. One generation plants what will work for the next. Wineries should be an investment in the long term; you need a 20-year-old vineyard for a really good wine.’
Family winery Paiva is one of the most familiar vinous names in Extremadura, its wines a big hit in local restaurants and shops. But despite the scale of the business – the family has some 350ha of its own vineyards – there’s no coldly corporate feel at the company’s bodega, with its cathedral-like vaulted spaces, its barrel cellar lined with French and American oak barriques, and its cosy but stylish restaurant.
Based in Almendralejo in the Tierra de Barros zone near Badajoz, the core of the Paiva business is Tempranillo, aged in oak for various lengths of time, always with a clarity of richly flavoured ripe fruit. As the family says, there’s ‘more body here, more structure’ on clay and limestone soils than in the Tempranillos produced further north and east.
Initially, as a point of difference – ‘something to open the door’ – the family has also been making a pair of varietal wines from Cayetana and Graciano under its Solo I brand. The white Cayetana shows once again how mouthfillingly interesting this local speciality can be, while the bright, rich red Graciano shows, as the family puts it, ‘that Graciano reaches maturity better here than in Rioja, on this very specific terroir’.
Bodegas Toribio/ Viña Puebla
Tucked away on a quiet street in the quiet village of Puebla de Sancho Pérez in Matanegra (the most southerly part of the Ribera del Guadiana DO), Bodegas Toribio’s headquarters is all about function rather than form. As the Toribio family admits: ‘This is not the most beautiful winery, but it’s very clean, and every inch is used.’
In the context of modern Extremaduran wine, it’s also historic. Navigate the maze of barrels and tanks to a nook of resting bottles and you can still find bottles of the family’s 1996 Tempranillo. Released in 1999, it was the first wine to be bottled under the Ribera del Guadiana DO. It set the seal on a decade of modernisation under Fernando Toribio Muñoz.
Today’s output is varied, with red blends based on Garnacha and Tempranillo and various percentages of international varieties and intriguing oak-aged varietal whites. Macabeo and Garnacha are among the highlights of a range that reflects the specific qualities of this corner of the Puebla terroir and microclimate.
Modern Spanish architecture at its most stark and stylish here, with sleek, clean lines opening out onto wide-angle views of 200ha of vineyards, away from the mainstream of Extramadura wine production in Trujillo. It’s very much in keeping with businessman Juan Tirado’s philosophy – he dreamed up the Habla project at the turn of the millennium with the idea of challenging preconceptions about Extremadura and its wines.
Tirado believed that Extremadura’s wine business was being held back by the quality of its communications as much as its wines. It needed a bit of style. Part of that came with its innovative marketing approach: the company is best known for its Habla ‘haute couture’ series of wines, sold as a numbered series and packaged in minimalist black bottles, with the blend changing in each release.
But Habla wouldn’t have worked without similar attention to detail for its wines. The building itself is acutely attuned to the needs of a team led by French consultant Florent Dumeau, who has been on hand from the start. The vineyards, planted to a mix of Tempranillo with Bordeaux and other French varieties in 42 plots ‘for maximum traceability’, are organically farmed, with low yields. Grapes are handpicked into small 20kg boxes. Habla may be proud of its reputation as a triumph of marketing, but the quality of the wines means this is no triumph of form over content.
Pago los Balancines
Pago los Balancines is a rival to Habla (see left) for the title of most stylish Extremadura winery. Owner and winemaker Pedro Mercado is also an architect. He also started his project from scratch, travelling all over Spain looking for a location to meet his specifications – a special place, with a special feeling and unique conditions.
What finally drew Mercado to this single estate in its magically peaceful spot a short drive southeast of Merida – where the steel cube of the winery building is now placed in striking counterpoint to the vines and rolling oak-lined hills – was the soil. Stony on the surface, it has some of the highest limestone content in the region, perfect for bringing elegance and balance to the area’s innate power. The wide temperature amplitude – a feature of the region, but extending to more than 20°C here – was another attraction.
Some 62ha of the 100ha estate is now planted to vines since Mercado began in earnest in 2006, with varieties including Garnacha Tintorera (the red-fleshed grape otherwise known as Alicante Bouschet), Garnacha and Tempranillo (including some 35-year-old vines). Dry-farmed, the wines have established themselves as some of the best in Extremadura, marked by freshness, most notably in a new release made from pre-phylloxera Garnacha vines planted way up in the Sierra de Gata mountains.
‘You’ll notice a taste of dust, a taste of clay in your mouth,’ says Fernando Gimenez Alvear, during my visit. You’re not wrong, I thought: it was a long and dusty off-road drive through Palacio Quemado’s 100ha of vines to get to the winery. ‘You’ll find that same taste in the wines,’ he continues. ‘This is a real pago.’
Gimenez Alvear means this is a genuine single estate, one with its own specific terroir transmitted in its wines. The family behind the great Montilla producer Alvear founded it in 1999, in the heart of the Ribera del Guadiana DO, not far from the town of Almendralejo. By 2015, its reputation was such that it was able to join the club of top Spanish single estates, Grandes Pagos de España.
A large part of the credit for Palacio Quemado’s ascendance must go to the group of young winemakers that Alvear employed to run the winemaking operation from 2010 until last year (Portuguese winemaker Luis Lopes is now in charge). The influence of the Envínate group, which also makes small-batch, low-intervention (bordering on natural) wines in Ribeira Sacra and the Canary Islands, is still present in the wines.
They are made from a mix of Garnacha, Syrah, Tempranillo and local (and Portuguese) grapes such as Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira in large 500-litre second-use French oak barrels. The wines have a lightness of touch, silkiness and delightful wildness of flavour – and yes, that includes dust and clay.
Extremadura’s climate and soils are suited to organic viticulture. In the dry, hot growing season, there is little in the way of disease or pest pressure, and little call for fungicides and pesticides.
Still, for a medium-sized family business feeling its way in the market after making the decision to bottle its own wines, converting to organic production is no quick-buck decision.
The three siblings behind Bodegas Leneus deserve great credit for going fully organic for the entirety of their 200ha of vineyards around Almendralejo, which translates to a one-million-litre production of well-made, affordable wines. The focus is on two varieties: Cayetana for whites and Tempranillo for reds, which are each made into a youthful and a barrica-aged wine, plus something a little different (and not to every wine purist’s taste): a white infused with aloe vera and a red with reishi mushrooms.
Pago de las Encomiendas
If organic is ‘easy’ in Extremadura, what about biodynamic? One winery putting the theory to the test in the Tierra de Barros is Pago de las Encomiendas. The Carrillo family has 200ha of vineyards in the area, and has set aside a 3ha plot near its winery in Villafranca de los Barros to work biodynamically.
The family has also built a biodynamic winery, shaped in a dodecahedron to represent the 12 months of the year. Opened in 2018, it also double up as an interactive visitor centre to spread the word about biodynamics.
Even without the new biodynamic adventure, winemaker Diego Carrillo already has a reputation for attention to detail in his existing gravity-fed winery, making some of the region’s best, sensitively oaked, crianza-level red wines from blends of Graciano, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Tempranillo, and with Cayetana for a tropical-scented white.
Translated by ICY
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