“Priorato1 is the true heart of Tarragona, a hot and rocky region of volcanic soil that produces red wines of formidable colour [sic], strength and blackberryish [sic] flavor. Fermented dry, they are more used for blending than drinking. It takes a brave man…”
-Hugh Johnson, World Atlas of Wine, 3rd edition, 1985
The emphasis, is mine. It’s the mid 1980’s. Dire Straits is singing Money for Nothing in heavy rotation on MTV2. Apple introduces the MacIntosh and Reagan and Gorbachev are on their way to Reykjavik. Spain is still hung over from Franco and the fledgling democracy had just survived the “23-F” coup attempt. Al Gore has not yet invented the internet. Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas is the reference wine book. It is the first wine book anyone my age purchased and it remained the reference standard for years, and it sort of still is. Rene Barbier had purchased vineyards in Priorat 6 years earlier, but had not produced any wine on his own. His boss, Alvaro Palacios had just barely purchased what would become Finca Dofi. And the wines, despite visionaries showing interest, were undrinkable. In 1989, 5 winemakers got together and for 3 vintages pooled their grapes and resources to produce what are now legendary labels. Mogador, Dofi, l’Obac, Martinet & Erasmus. It is interesting to note that for 1989, 1990 and 1991 all five labels were the same wine.
I don’t know who the first U.S. importer of Priorat was, but I suspect they were introduced to Priorat by Palacios or his Riojan winemaker, Rene Barbier. I suspect that whoever it was in the early 1990’s, they were excited to introduce Priorat to America. Then, of course, Parker got ahold of it and, well…you know the rest.
Juan Antonio Leza and David Gonzales Marcos are the new Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier. In 2014, these owners and winemakers for Gomez Cruzado in Rioja introduced us to Sabinares, a separate project of theirs “up in the mountains”. In 2015 we went to see it, we had to investigate the new DO. I have spent a quarter of a century as a sommelier, distributor and importer and I have had many great days, but nothing beats May 11, 2015. In the village of Lerma we were warmly received at the Consejo Regulador’s office of D.O. Arlanza. Sixteen3 producers presented to us, one at a time, some waiting up to 4 hours4!
A few of the wines were just good. Many were excellent, and a couple of the producers were astonishing. We were very honored to met the humble, gracious, hard working, smart people who are the backbone of this new frontier for Spanish wine and we left some excellent wines behind. Whether it is from us or someone else, you will know the name Arlanza shortly and the next generation of Sommeliers will definitively know Arlanza.
Arlanza is the new priorat, only cool
The parallels between the two regions are interesting. Almost unknown to the outside world, ancient vineyards, largely ignored by other Spanish winemakers except for a few visionaries, and the potential for amazing quality. Arlanza, in terms of commercial success, and cool factor, can be another come-from-out-of-nowhere story, like Priorat. I have always had a love/hate relationship with the wines from Priorat – the history is so cool and the wines are so hot. Some Priorat inspires, but too often it can also be heavy, clumsy and droll…you know, really bad, like 100 point wine is.
The flavor, structure and alcohol are entirely different in Arlanza, but there is a similar mineral framework underneath the fruit flavors that is always present in great Priorat. The best vineyards in Arlanza are at 1,000 meters above sea level, cool climate, on the edge of viticultural possibility…COOL is the operative climatic and cultural word. I nearly got frost bite in May in those vineyards5. Priorat, at 400 meters stays nice and warm. For comparison, Rioja maxes out at about 550 meters and Ribera del Duero at 650.
Geography, terroir and wind
The sorry state of wine maps for Spain is a problem when it comes to Arlanza. There are some beautiful maps, that show Arlanza’s boundaries in all sorts of different configurations, but none that seem to be geographically accurate. Even the official DO and the Wines of Spain people seem taken with maps that are designed for schematic representation, rather than technical accuracy. So officially…I will guess. Arlanza is an area directly north (some maps show it bordering) Ribera del Duero. Some maps show it roughly 2/3 the size of Ribera del Duero, others show it smaller than Cigales, which it borders on the west, on some maps. While the area does cover from Palencia in the west to Covarrubias in the east, there are less than 1,000 hectares planted in an area of roughly 1200 square miles, or 300,000 hectares. Viticulture is not the regions primary concern, as many different crops are grown.
Arlanza has been a DO only since January of 2008. It is named for the Rio Arlanza that flows mostly east-west. These wines were simply labeled ‘Burgos’ in the past and were Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica – think ‘VDQS’.
Lerma is the town at the heart of D.O. Arlanza and Lerma is located almost exactly ½ way between Madrid and Bilbao on the A-1 freeway. Just because we told you where it is, does not mean you can go there. Lerma is unspoiled – stay away. Ignore that the people are some of the best anywhere or that there is the world class Parador de Lerma hotel with museum quality artifacts that costs almost nothing to stay in. And forget about the 5 really great, completely authentic, non-tourista type restaurants in this little village. Just ignore those facts and drive right by on the A1 – you can see the masterpiece, 14th century church architecture from the road, no need to drive in.
Arlanza can be divided roughly into thirds. Palencia, Burgos and Sierra de Covarrubias. The western third, drawn by the north-south political boundary between Burgos and Palencia, is Palencia. Burgos is in the center. The north-south A-1 divides Burgos from the Sierra de Covarrubias. Palencia and Burgos, (roughly 2/3) of Arlanza, look and feel like Ribera del Duero – high plains, gently rolling hills. Most of the wines we tasted from there also taste like Ribera del Duero or at least the Ribera del Duero of 20 years ago. I always had a soft spot for those ‘cooked silk’ wines of that era and some were flat out amazing, even if they were a little obtuse. The eastern third of Arlanza, the Sierra de Covarrubias is much higher in elevation, 700-1,000 meters high, with steeper slopes and wind. Serious wind. This is where we found the best wines.
Two parallel roads, The BU-904 and the BU-900 divided by a single range of mountains lead into mountain valleys east from Lerma - these mountains are the Sierra de Covarrubias, foothills of the western edge of the Ibericos and run almost due east-west. The northern route runs along the Rio Arlanza in an ever increasingly narrow valley and ends at Covarrubias - an idyllic alpine village. Don’t go there, either6. UP the hill from there, to the top of the mountain is the Sabinares (named for a type of Conifer tree) vineyard. 980-1,100 meters. Must be about 8-10 hectares but the plants are spaced like planets...the vines are ancient.
Cherry and Plum trees are interspersed in the vineyard. There are FERNS, for God’s sake. Most interesting; the top of the mountain is a raised river bed. The rocks are round and smooth and there are lots of them, small stones...red Quartz is everywhere.
If you drive the (roughly) parallel southern route, along the opposite side of the same mountains you can access vineyard areas as well. For the Valdeagueda vineyard that supplies all of Soraya Angulo’s grapes, the vineyard is accessed from the southern route through her hometown of Castrillo De Solanara. We drove several kilometers north on dirt roads, uphill and came to a hillside with a lone Sabinares tree at the top. The rows are mostly due north facing and it's a young, modern vineyard planted only to Tinto del Pias (Tempranillo) that is trellised. There is an older plot up the hill she inherited from her grandfather also and it is not trellised and it is planted to many different grapes. I would have walked up there, but I had damn near frozen to death after being out of the car for those 3 minutes. As you stand facing north, a frigid wind blows in your face that increases in velocity and decreases in temperature towards the end of the day, we were told.
My Arizona blood freaked out, and it was late May. It was the happiest and simultaneously most uncomfortable I have ever been in a vineyard. I get cold just thinking about that day. Looking due east the next mountain top over was where the Sabinares vineyard is - like looking at Mt Veeder from Howell Mountain. The new plantings are mostly Tinto del Pias (Tempranillo), but the old vines are Prieto Pecudo, Mencia, Albillo, Tintrera, Viura….all of the usual, unusual Spanish suspects.
For the cover of this piece, I chose a photo taken from inside the cellars of Soraya Angulo on the side of a hill in Castrillo de Solarano. It is a light at the end of a tunnel metaphor. Rioja is special… it is the core of what I do. I believe in it with all of my being. Txakoli is fun, to the core, serious fun. Arlanza is something else. It beckons. Mercurial and not yet fully defined it is the unfocused landscape beyond the blinding light at the end of the tunnel. Elusive, wistful & alluring, Arlanza will seduce you with its cool climate complexity and completeness. If you want to find intellect, Rioja is the place. For happiness, I prescribe Txakoli. But if you want to find soul…go to Arlanza.
1 Hugh Johnson can claim that he knew Priorat when they pronounced the ‘o’ at the end. More than one California winemaker has dropped a pronounced consonant from their last name to sound more French…no reason a Spanish wine region can’t sound more Anglicized…we’re the only ones dumb enough to buy those 100 point wines anyway.
2 Little known fact: the ‘M’ in MTV stands for ‘Music’ and at one time, they used to play music videos, commercial free. 24/7. Video may have killed the radio star, but MTV killed the video star. Only people over 45 know this and just look it up if you don’t believe me.
3 Not bad considering that there are only 23 producers in the entire D.O. We already represented a 17th and we visited an 18th while we were there. 18/23 = 78% of an entire D.O.!
4 No one who actually knows us would have waited 4 minutes, let alone 4 hours… we felt incredibly honored!
5 It’s the altitude, stupid. I’m calling myself stupid... I showed up without a coat and in shorts. If I’d had flip-flops on, like usual, I’d
probably be missing some toes to frostbite now. Hey, the Scorpions sang about Arizona, not Arlanza. “Arizona really feels alright”
and I’m pretty certain they were talking about climate. Maybe it was a girl…but I’m pretty sure it was climate.
6 Disney could not build a quainter, immaculate little town. Complete with castle, charm, idyllic natural setting…If you want to
see unspoiled Spain and tread where very few touristas have ever ventured, Covarrubias is the place to go and if you’ve read this far
you deserve to be let in on that secret.