How can Spanish red wine take the next step up? Peter Sisseck of Pingus has a few ideas, writes Jane Anson in her latest Decanter.com column.

Building a great Spanish red wine

You might not expect Peter Sisseck to be the voice of restraint.

And yet, here I am listening to the Danish creator of Pingus, pretty much the original definition of white hot Spain, say, ‘Telmo (Rodriguez, of Remelluri) wants to go back to the artisan roots of winemaking. That is wonderfully poetic, and something that I also believe in, but we have to be pragmatic at the same time.’

I called him to say sorry not to have seen him at last week’s First Encounter of Viticultures conference that was held at Remelluri, and to ask whether he wanted to add anything to my summary of the event, as he was one of the co-signatories of the Terroir Manifesto signed in Madrid in January 2016.

Spanish wine being sold ‘too cheaply’

It turns out that the speech that Sisseck had planned to give at the event would have been in defence of the Spanish DO system; issuing a call to unify behind it and find a way to make a change from within.

‘The main issue for Spanish growers is that the country’s wine is being sold too cheaply,’ he says.

‘We have to help growers get a decent return, but by focusing only on rescuing forgotten grapes and rejuvenating isolated regions we risk not being able to bring about real change’.

Sisseck himself is proof that by focusing on terroir you can bring an appellation to the public consciousness, and more. When he arrived in Ribera del Duero in 1990 the region was already recognised for Vega Sicilia, but the other grape growers in the area rarely bottled their own wines, and even more rarely received any reward for it.

He started off at Hacienda Monasterio but came across a plot of ancient vines and persuaded the farmer to sell him the grapes that became Pingus.

‘I don’t need the DO’

‘Today I don’t need the DO,’ he says with some understatement, ‘but I choose to be part of it. Two years ago I was elected to the board of the Consejo Regulador de Ribera del Duero. One of the first things I asked for was a rewriting of our rules, but I still believe that we need the framework that it offers. Otherwise we are just another new world wine region’.

The reasons for Sisseck’s stand are worth thinking about. He says that at heart, Spain’s issues come from the fact that not enough grape growers are emotionally or economically invested in the final wine that comes from their efforts.

Forcing change

He points out that while Italy and Spain have around the same number of hectares under vines, in Italy there are around 35,000 producers who bottle their own wines. In Spain, there are little more than 6,000.

‘At the same time, there is no economic incentive to harvest the best grapes available. There is no classification of soils, and a hectare of irrigated flat land is often more expensive than land on slopes, despite being clearly less suited for quality grape growing.

‘In Ribera del Duero, unplanted valley floor land might be €12,000-18,000 per hectare compared to just €6,000-10,000 for unplanted land on the hillsides. We know the solution to this, and the Consejo is behind it in principle, but there needs to be greater momentum from within to force change.’

In many ways Ribera del Duero is a victim of its own success. There were 9,000 hectares under vine when Sisseck arrived, and 22,000 hectares today. Grower numbers have gone from 70 to 270, leading to a surplus of grapes but with no incentive to farm on the land best suited to quality grapes, or to maintain low-yielding old vines when they are paid by the ton.

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A revolutionary committee

This is where Sisseck is concentrating his energies, heading up a committee at the Consejo to define the best soils, basing it on a 1990 study by viticulturalist Vicente Sotés Ruiz that analysed over 2,000 plots around Ribera.

At the same time he has launched the Psi wine project with former Alonso del Yerro winemaker Paolo Rubio. This is a wine made in partnership with local growers who are farming old vines grown on slopes with the greatest quality potential. Sisseck and Rubio work with the growers to switch to organic and biodynamic practices – and pay them accordingly.

Priorat has shown the way

‘We can all learn from the example of Priorat. It has shown the other DOs that change is possible, starting with visionary winemakers like Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier but today being supported by the Consejo Regulador.’

In 2007 DOCa Priorat legalised the use of place names on wine bottles – something that Rioja and others are still resisting – by introducing 12 sub-regional Vi de la Villa appellations, and even allow single vineyard Vi de Finca designations.

‘It is not perfect, as too many exceptions are allowed,’ adds Sisseck, ‘but it certainly shows what is possible.

‘The crucial thing for me is that the DOs of Spain represent the history and specificity of an individual region, and if we turn our back on them, we lose the ability to showcase the cultural heritage and terroir of each area.’

Two Pingus wines to try and one Sisseck Bordeaux creation

Dominio de Pingus, Ψ Psi, Ribero del Duero 2010

A joint project started in 2006 with local grape growers farming old vine Tempranillo, this majors on black olives and rich blueberries, with a saline sting on the finish. Rich and beautifully concentrated, yet nothing seems in excess. The old vines that go into the makeup of Psi are proving their worth, and this remains youthful and sparky at six years old, although reaching its perfect drinking window. Such a great value wine. 93 points / 100

Dominio de Pingus, Ψ Psi, Ribero del Duero 2012

A particularly dry and vintage, the old vines of the appellation resisted the heat well, but are extremely concentrated. The 95% Tempranillo, 5% garnacha blend remains tightly closed up at this point. Needs carafing (first time I think I have ever done that for what is effectively a cooperative wine), and opens up to reveal the same tapenade and plump fruit frame of the 2010 vintage. Aged in a mix of differently sized oak casks and cement tanks, with virtually no new barrels. 93

Chateau Rocheyron, St-Emilion Grand Cru 2012

Another ‘smaller’ estate from Peter Sisseck that is worth discovering. This time jointly owned with Silvio Denz. From a blend of 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, all farmed organically (they made no wine at all in 2013), and bottled unfiltered. One of those wines that makes me breathe a sigh of relief for St-Emilion – oak is used here to support and enrich the wine but never to overpower it. Instead the ruby fruit is showcased. This is mineral and fresh, focused summer fruits with gentle black spices and touches of cocoa. 92

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  • “by focusing only on rescuing forgotten grapes and rejuvenating isolated regions we risk not being able to bring about real change” – this is a very good point. All wine geeks love discovering new wines from the Gredos or the Alpujarras or wherever and they help to put Spain on the map and maintain its image as an exciting wine country. Yet the real volume is in places like Rioja, La Mancha, Ribera, Rueda and Penedès.

    Spain and its DOs do need to take steps to make sure they are doing their best to keep the engine room competitive and heading in the right direction. There seems to be a critical mass for change now, the next few years ought to be exciting. But I won’t hold my breath.

  • Vicente Salaner

    You make it sound as if Peter was saying something different from what Telmo and others say. That isn’t the case. Reforming the rules of Spain’s appellations, not blowing them up in smithereens, has always been our purpose within the terroirist movement!