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Producer profile: Aalto

In less than 16 years, Javier Zaccagnini and Mariano Garcia have achieved their aim – to make a wine in Ribera del Duero equal to the world’s best. Sarah Jane Evans MW meets the duo and discovers the secrets of their success

Aalto at a glance

Appellation Ribera del Duero

Vineyards Owns or rents 110ha, made up of 200 plots, none bigger than 1ha, sourcing from nine villages, and some new sites including in front of the winery

Grape variety Tempranillo, known in the region as Tinto Fino, with a thicker skin and a smaller berry. Verdejo planted for a white wine project Soils Vineyard sites reflect Ribera del Duero’s diversity: clay, limestone, sand and pebbles

Production Aalto’s production has been steady at around 200,000 bottles, but is now increasing to 250,000. Production of PS is no more than 10,000 bottles

Exports 70% of production exported

How has Aalto made it to the top so quickly? The plan in 1999 was to ‘make a wine that in the space of 15 to 20 years should reach the quality of the best wines in the world’. Many would say it has already achieved this ambitious aim. Three facts are significant in explaining the rapid ascent: old vines, insider knowledge and the remarkable duo behind the project.

To start with, the old vines. By seeking out plots of mature bush vines, Aalto never had to go through the usual process of planting vines and having initial years of moderate success while waiting for the wines to mature. Here comes the insider knowledge. Aalto winemaker Mariano Garcia had been in charge of the wines at Vega Sicilia for 30 years, even before the advent of the current owners. Meanwhile, managing director Javier Zaccagnini had been the director of Ribera’s regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador, for six years. Between them, they knew exactly where to look.

Meeting the pair, they seem an unlikely combination for success. Zaccagnini has an MBA, speaks four languages, and is a man bounding with nervous energy, constantly alive with ideas. Classical music is the soundtrack to his life and endless car journeys, and his partner is a professional musician. Garcia is tall and long-limbed, with the glamour of a mature rockstar. With his white hair and silver beard, plus a gold chain round his neck, the word debonair could have been invented for him. If you attend a vertical of Vega Sicilia, you’ll be tasting many of Garcia’s wines.

The two became friends working in Ribera del Duero, when Zaccagnini would bring visitors to Vega Sicilia. By that time Garcia had already established his own project in Castilla y León, Mauro, one which is now run by his son Eduardo. His other son Alberto is running the Astrales winery in Ribera del Duero. When Garcia left Vega Sicilia, Zaccagnini’s proposal that they start again, in the same region, to make the best wines using the best vine material, in the way that he wanted, was too good to turn down.

In the beginning

Zaccagnini’s achievement has been to build a business where Garcia felt free to develop his ideas and follow his own way of working. At dinner, he stresses Garcia’s significance: ‘Mariano is 80% of our success.’ The fact that we are all talking over a very good dinner is a reminder that Garcia likes to make time for a really good meal. He’s recognised throughout Spain for his seriousness about food: his office in the Mauro winery is covered with plaques from organisations recognising the importance of his contribution to gastronomy. His wine philosophy owes a good deal to his pleasures in the kitchen: ‘Don’t manage the wine too much. Intervene at little as possible. The same goes for chefs.’

Garcia was ‘born in the vineyards’, as his great grandfather’s family had land in Castille. He was encouraged to taste as a young man, and was attracted to the creativity in winemaking. Zaccagnini’s own start in the world of wine was less promising. True, he was born in one of the three great Sherry towns – El Puerto de Santa Maria – and his grandparents had a bodega. However, neither of his parents drank. It wasn’t until he was 29 that ‘I suggested to my brother that we do a wine appreciation course.’ He’d qualified as an agricultural engineer and, being ‘ambitious’, ran not one but two businesses simultaneously. By then he had two daughters but never saw them. ‘I was on the point of a heart attack. One day, driving home, I was so stressed I stopped the car, lay back, looked at the roof and thought if I don’t stop working like this I’ll be dead.’ He moved into a gourmet food business, bringing him closer to the world of wine.

In 1992 Ribera’s fledgling Consejo Regulador, then just 10 years old, appointed him as director. It urgently needed a blast of the Zaccagnini management magic. For instance: ‘We had 600 growers producing fruit. At vintage they had to fill in paperwork for every load. By the end of the harvest we had 30,000 chits to process. It took the consejo till March each year to add up them up!’ His solution: a credit card for the growers.

A consejo is not always the most exciting place to work. But it was magic for Zaccagnini. He ended up with the dream of having a bodega of his own.

Why call it Aalto? Because it’s a short, internationally pronounceable word, and one that has the real advantage of appearing top of the list in any guide.

Careful selection

Aalto is a pure expression of Tempranillo. It might seem a curious choice to commit to one variety when with a more extreme climate than Rioja there’s a risk of losing the crop. Garcia is unperturbed, and loves the character of the wine: ‘Even St-Emilion [with Merlot] lacks the subtlety of Tempranillo.’ He explains, ‘The Tempranillos in Rioja, Ribera, Toro, are all the same genotype. But they are unlike the Ribera Tempranillo, which has adapted to our different climate.’

The key to Aalto’s complexity is the choice of the best fruit from across Ribera del Duero’s diverse terroirs. The top villages include Roa, La Horra, La Aguilera, Fresnillo and Moradillo. People were territorial, set on keeping cuttings within each village so that today there is much variation between villages. Zaccagnini says, ‘We could do a Burgundy style classification here in Ribera if we wanted.’

Certainly there’s a lot to be said for the Burgundian comparison: turn the map of Ribera 90˚ and it shows the same long, narrow shape and spread of villages. Indeed, Peter Sisseck of Pingus, Hacienda Monasterio and Psi is part of a new long-term project with the Consejo to map these soils. At Aalto, each plot is harvested and handled separately, with different oak treatments. Aalto spends usually 20 months in oak, 50% new French, the other 50% one- to three-year-old French and American. The small-production PS (Pagos Seleccionadas) sees 24 months in 100% new French oak. Both PS and Aalto are blended after ageing.

In good company

How then do they differ from Vega Sicilia? In one sense they are not directly comparable, as neither Valbuena nor Unico is 100% Tempranillo. The former has a little less than 10% of Merlot and Malbec; the latter, a similar dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Vega Sicilia wines also undergo a different ageing regime. Valbuena spends 30 months in barrels and vats of different ages and origins, with a further two years in bottle. Unico has 10 years of ageing before release, while the Reserva Especial carries on the tradition of blending across three vintages. These are wines built for the long haul.

Aalto and PS, by contrast, both 100% Tempranillo, with between 50% and 100% new oak, are an obvious new generation, altogether more concentrated, bolder and more direct wines. Liquorice, dark fruits, and fine oak dominate the palate. Perhaps the better comparison is with Alión, a Vega Sicilia project started in Garcia’s time, which is a bold, modern statement of 100% Tempranillo with 100% new French oak. Both share the same approach of superb ripe fruit, with a similar focus on selection and concentration. Both are made for drinkers who like their wines younger. Yet Aalto is still a baby compared to Alión, which was launched 13 years before, and it promises plenty.

After Aalto’s first decade, it acquired new backers in the form of the Masaveu family, which owns the Fillaboa estate in Rías Baixas, among others. Zaccagnini is very comfortable: ‘They understand the nature of the wine business and are very hands-off. Everything is reinvested into the very best equipment for the winery.’ Their support means that building has begun again on the discreetly positioned winery, as well as the continued investment in plantings of carefully selected vines for decades ahead.

Looking forward to the next 15 to 20 years, Garcia and Zaccagnini will have to think about a succession plan, for a new team to build on their achievement. Surely no successors will ever be as interesting, diverting and contrasting as Garcia and Zaccagnini – or as good company. Whoever it is, though, can be sure that Aalto has been created on that most secure foundation, fine old vines.

Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW

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