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CMB 2017: Rare Grapes of Castilla y Leon

Posted: Friday, 19 May 2017 17:24


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CMB 2017: Rare Grapes of Castilla y Leon

May 19: Although the biggest administered area of Spain, Castilla y Leon is known more for Tempranillo (red) and Verdejo (white), there are some rare gems like Rufete, Juan García, Bruñal, Albillo, Doña Blanca Prieto Picudo and Albarín Blanco, to be discovered in DO appellations less popular than Ribera del Duero, Toro, Cigales or Rueda, writes Subhash Arora who discovered them during a trip to DO Sierra de Salamanca, DO Arribes, DO Bierzo, DO Tierra de Leon and DO Arlanza he visited before judging at CMB in Valladolid earlier this month

Click For Large ViewConcours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB) is an international travelling competition that is held annually in different countries, this year being in Valladolid, the Capital of Castilla y Leon-the largest administered region of Spain, which has famous wine regions including DO Ribera del Duero, DO Toro, DO Cigales and DO Rueda for white wines (and DO Bierzo for the last couple of decades).

The names of Vega Sicilia, Dominio de Pingus, Pesquera come to mind instantly when one thinks of the region-especially the current hot favourite DO Ribera del Duero. Tempranillo is the king grape with almost 60% of the total grapes being this variety currently finding several takers in India as well (I have been a great proponent of the grape variety after tasting Charosa Reserve Tempranillo in 2013). It is known by various names here, like Tinta del Pais, Tinto de Toro and Tinto Fino.

I was very inquisitive when there was an opportunity to visit 5 DOs that are not very popular (one of them Sierra de Salamanca is in fact the smallest DO in Spain). ‘Castilla y León authorities (Junta de Castilla y León) have put together a unique programme designed to reveal the hidden treasures of this major wine region-and new wave producers. It is a one-off opportunity to broaden your knowledge of Bierzo and discover the emerging – and fascinating appellations of Arribes, Arlanza, Sierra de Salamanca and Tierra de Léon. The trip is an outstanding opportunity to uncover the region, its history, culture and gourmet food offerings by immersing oneself in the new wave wine culture of Castilla y Léon,’ said the invite and it was too tempting to pass up!

Tasting Rare Grapes

Click For Large ViewI might have tasted between 400-500 varieties of grapes by now during my 100+ jaunts overseas but the excitement of tasting new varieties for the first time is always very powerful. Here are the new grapes we tasted during out visits to the 5 DO appellations (details of which will be at a later date):  

Le Rufete

This unique grape variety is profound in a very small area, in DO Sierra de Salamanca. Donning a French name, this variety is presumed to have been popularised by viticulturists of Burgundy. It’s predominant red grape variety that grows on the terraced hills and bears similarity with Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. About 99% vines are over 20 years old, 80% are over 40 years old and 50% are over 80 years old. The grapes have taken very well to the soil of this area, which is mostly granite and slate.

Rufete grows in cluster of small size and tight bunches with a grain of medium size and fine skins. It is a subtle variety, of complex elaboration, that brings delicate aromas with memories of red and spicy fruits, with sweet and soft tannins that contribute elegance and complexity. It grows at an altitude of 400-1000 m and thus has variations in flavours. Also, the grapes from very old vines (80 years +) fetch particularly high prices; the yields are low. Interestingly, there is also a white variety La Rufete Blanco which is not allowed so far by the DO appellation laws despite the efforts of winemakers for the last 8 years.  It adds colour, balsamic character and complexity to the wine and helps the ageing potential as well.

Juan García

Juan García is an indigenous red grape variety, found mainly in the provinces of Zamora and Salamanca and is the main authorized variety in DO Arribes red wines. Some wines are varietals but it is also used in blending. It is a pre-phylloxera variety, well suited to the soil here. It has high yields and is resistant to powdery and downy mildew. However, it is quite sensitive to Botrytis. It comes in tight bunches and the grape size is relatively large, with skins being thin and shrivelling.


Click For Large ViewIndigenous, botrytis resistant vine; it is Spain’s answer to Brunello-at least in that it is a very tough and tannic grape and needs several year to make it drinkable. It is a low-yielding grape with thick skins and very dark colour. Hardly 20,000 bottles were produced last year. It’s a late ripening variety and is usually harvested on September 20. But the wines are very tannic and well-structured. They  can sell for upwards of €40 a bottle and can go up to €200 with the fineries of packaging.

It used to be a part of the blend earlier. Since 2003, some producers started making it as a varietal. If the yields could be improved, this grape will be used more and more as a varietal. In any case, based on the response of the consumers, a few companies have ventured into the varietal recently since they are finding takers at higher prices due to genuine higher costs.


Click For Large ViewGodello is popular in Galicia and is also the principal white grape of DO Bierzo. I have yet to come across a white Bierzo wine that I didn’t like. Although the prices have been generally shooting up because of its rising popularity, it is a grape made for Indian palate. It was practically extinct in 1970s but was revived by a couple of enthusiasts and has now become one of the finest white wine grape for wine lovers because of its fruitiness, powerful aromas and reasonable ageing capabilities. It gives juicy wines and gives the wines a reasonably good structure too.

Prieto Picudo

This principal grape of DO Tierra di Leonis rare, dark-skinned variety grown predominantly in and around the city of Leon in Northern Spain. Thanks to its deep pigment red colour, it is used to make light rosés and deeply pigmented reds which can be single varietal or blends with Tempranillo or Mencia. It is distinguished easily by its tight cluster and berries shaped oval and finished with a tip. Their skin is bluish-black, and its flavour and aromas sweet and intense.

Click For Large ViewThis red is also a highly aromatic variety that gives intense colour to wine due to the skin, more so than most other varieties grown in the region. Prieto Picudo has sufficient tannins, retains good acidity and responds well to oak treatments. It makes wines which have redcurrant, blackberry and liquorice flavours. They often have mineral notes as well as vanilla and toast if oak has been used. Rosé wines tend to have aromas of strawberry and raspberry with touches of peach, citrus and flowers. When used as a varietal, the characteristics are closer to Tempranillo.

An interesting aspect as the President of the Consejo explained to us at a seminar at Hotel San Marcos in Leon was that the older vines used a creeping system making the plant dragged along the ground. These days the system has been changed making the trellis system support the mechanisation during harvest.


This variety has nothing to do with the white popular variety Albariño found in Rías Baixas in extreme North-western Spain. The grape is pale greenish yellow flattened circular berries. This also became almost an extinct variety but has been now revived and 19 wineries make white wine with this grape. The rarity of the grape is obvious when told that there are only 80 hAs of this grape cultivated throughout the world, and 60 hA are within DO Tierra de Leon.

The grape is highly resistant to fungus diseases like mildew and botrytis. It yields a very aromatic wine with citrus, floral and sometimes tropical fruit aromas with high acidity. The level of polyphenols is low making it a very fresh wine. Dry, fresh, balanced wine with good structure is the hallmark of this wine. Flavours often include ripe lime, lychee, mint, fig and orange.

It was a matter of great pleasure to taste several wines made from these rare and local grapes during the 3 days of trip to the 5 DOs where these grape varieties flourish as special local varieties. Needless to say it won’t have been practical ever to visit these nooks and corners but for the hosts who organised the trip.

Subhash Arora

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