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Interview – Peter Sisseck

Creator and owner of cult Spanish wine Pingus, Peter Sisseck insists to STEPHEN BROOK that he didn’t set out to become the critics’ darling

Some 12 years ago, an unknown wine from Ribera del Duero, Pingus, was being acclaimed as one of Spain’s greatest reds. In Spain around that time, I visited Peter Sisseck, the wine’s creator. Before I left, he proposed that we try the new vintage, a bottle of which was standing on a counter.

‘I can’t seem to find my corkscrew,’ muttered Sisseck, rummaging through some drawers. The search was fruitless, and I left without having tasted Spain’s rarest and costliest wine. When I contacted Sisseck a decade later to arrange a return visit, he replied cordially, adding, unprompted, that this time he would make sure there was a corkscrew on the premises.

Peter Sisseck hadn’t changed much in a decade. Perhaps a little stockier, but he had retained his boyish zest and mop of sandy hair. What had changed was the winery. The original cellar was still there, but beneath it Sisseck had excavated a capacious 19thcentury

brick cellar for barrel ageing.

Wine has always featured in Sisseck’s life. His uncle and mentor was Peter Vinding-Diers, a Danish winemaker who transformed the quality of white Graves in the 1980s – unfortunately, just as red wine was coming into fashion on the back of the French paradox. Commercial reverses forced Vinding-Diers to sell up to pursue new ventures in Tokaj and Italy.

Early days in Ribera

Vinding-Diers’s curiosity also led him to examine Ribera del Duero, before it became truly fashionable. Peter Sisseck, having worked with his uncle and taken courses at Bordeaux University, came out here to scout for vineyards. He found 60ha (hectares), but the vines were in poor shape. Rather than develop them with his uncle, he chose to sell the property to a Spanish company. It formed the basis of Hacienda Monasterio, and Sisseck was hired as general manager.

His Spanish employer soon ran into difficulties, especially after two poor vintages, so Sisseck decided to set up his own venture, while staying on as a consultant. While he admired Vega Sicilia and Pesquera – already making waves in the region – he wanted to focus on pure Tinto Fino, a local red variety and a close cousin of Tempranillo, and wanted to age it entirely in French, rather than American, oak.

He hunted for ancient bush vines, and found 5ha of them in the village of La Horra. The first vintage of Pingus was 1995. (The wine may sound more like a new Christmas toy than a vineyard, but it is simply Sisseck’s nickname: ‘My uncle told me there was no room in our family for two winemakers called Peter, so that was that.’) Yields were pitiful: a mere 12hl/ha that year, and even in bountiful vintages they have never exceeded 20hl/ha.

With only a small vineyard, Sisseck could afford to take a perfectionist approach, such as removing uneven clusters to encourage consistent ripening. Organic from the outset, since

2000 Pingus has been biodynamic. In the cellar Sisseck experiments constantly, and no procedure, other than careful sorting, is systematic. Sometimes he destems part of the crop by hand, especially if there are traces of uneven ripening.

‘Whether to crush the grapes is also a pragmatic decision. I act by hunch, and then use lab analysis to confirm whether my hunch is right.’ The property’s second wine, Flor de

Pingus – made partly from bought-in grapes – is fermented in steel, while Pingus is vinified in open wooden fermenters.

Sisseck became notorious for using ‘200%’ new oak, which means that after malolactic fermentation in new oak, the wine was decanted into a second set of new barrels. ‘I did this simply because I felt there would be better natural oxidation. These days I use mostly new oak, but it’s not systematic, and Flor spends some time in tank. Anyway, it wasn’t true that I always used 200% new oak for Pingus.

I only did it for about a fifth of the wine. These days I’m more wary of new oak. Perhaps the wood or the coopering has changed, but today it seems to have more impact on the wine than 10 years ago.’ What, I asked Sisseck, had first made an unknown wine into an overnight superstar? ‘I had luck on my side as 1995, my firstear, was superb. Jeffrey Davies, a Bordeaux négociant who specialises in discovering small-volume wines, took on Pingus as an en primeur wine and the trade went wild about it.

I took a sample along to Château Landiras in Bordeaux, where my uncle Peter was still living. Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow happened to be there and was very excited by the wine. Two weeks later he took a sample to dinner with Robert Parker, who also went crazy about it.

I priced Pingus at super-second Médoc level, which I admit was audacious. But the price kept going up. By the time Parker had reported on it, and very favourably, it was already subject to speculation. I never set out to produce an extravagantly priced wine. It just worked out that way.’

Setting it straight

Last year, at a conference in Spain, Sisseck reacted caustically to a suggestion from Decanter editor Guy Woodward that some producers make wines specifically to suit critics, thus justifying very high prices. Though the barb was not directed at Sisseck, the Pingus owner took exception. ‘That is definitely not the case. All I want to do is make real wine, not wine for a particular market.

I have never had a garagiste strategy. In the 1990s, investors here thought you could make wine out of nothing, planting huge vineyards and building enormous cellars. Nobodyargued that it might be interesting to produce just 325 cases, as I was doing. The whole concept was alien to the Spanish wine industry, with the exception of a few others, such as AlvaroPalacios. It took courage to focus on tiny production wines.’

Our meeting coincided with a visit from his US importer, so we tasted several wines from barrel, including the special cuvée,Amelia, made from 500 centenarian vines. Only one barrel is made, and all 300 bottles go to the US. I relished an opportunity to taste the 2007, which had great intensity, though with another year in barrel ahead of it, it was hard to discern its final character.

We tasted Pingus over dinner at a local restaurant a short walk from the Sisseck cellars. The 1996 Flor had a slightly gamey, leafy nose, a velvety texture, and considerable spice and concentration: delicious, but nearing its peak. Sisseck explained: ‘This wasn’t made from very old vines, and once it was vinified I never touched it. It was a miracle wine, just did its own thing.’

As for Pingus itself, we drank the 2004, which marvellously combined opulence and purity, and developed chocolatey aromas with aeration. As well as a voluptuous fleshiness, it had remarkable freshness and balance. Sisseck seemed pleased with it. ‘It really is well balanced. Old vines and low yields give concentration, of course, but it’s not extracted, is it? Nor are you aware of the alcohol.’

It was true. Pingus is not effortful; it has grandeur allied to a kind of nonchalance, rather like its producer, and I had noted the same lightness of touch in a cask sample of the 2007. By the end of the evening we had somehow managed to drink almost all the wines. The importer was struggling with jet lag, and I was scribbling illegibly as Sisseck’s anecdotes became fruitier, along with his language.

And yet behind Sisseck’s conviviality there remained a certain reserve. He wasn’t secretive, but was dispassionate about his winemaking, his entire career. He even neglected to mention his new wine, PSI, a Tempranillo. He consults for other Spanish wineries, but was less than specific, beyond mentioning that overall he has responsibility for some 500,000 bottles each year.

Today, Flor’s production can be up to 60,000 bottles, Pingus no more than 8,500. ‘Low yields are crucial. Unfortunately the tax inspector – I’m being audited right now – is very suspicious. Since my yields are about half the regional average, he suspects I’m producing other wine on the side. I point out that there is a reason why my wine sells for over €300 a bottle rather than €6, but he’s still suspicious. Perhaps I should invite him to work the harvest here so he can see how much fruit we discard…’

Written by Stephen Brook

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