Spain: The Wines of Old Castile

Jul 8, 2009

Night of Castile;
The poem is spoken,
Or, better, not spoken.
When everyone is sleeping,
I’ll go to the window
- Antonio Machado, from Canciones


It is spring, 711. Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Muslim Umayyad general with a band of some 7000 Berber soldiers is crossing over from northern Africa into Visigoth Spain. The charismatic leader and his troops, under the shadow of the mountain soon to be named in his honor (Gibraltar - gebel = mountain, al-Tar = Tariq)  are about to encounter an army and government weakened by internal corruption - easy prey.

Within several months of the historic landing, the Visigoth presence in Iberaia is dissolved in the wake of Tariq's untimely invastion. By summer, King Roderic falls in the Battle of Guadalete and the Muslim general is made governor of the region, ushering in a new era of Muslim culture, technology and architecture.

For over three hundred years, the Muslims hold control over the vast majority of the Iberian Peninsula and cities such as Cordoba, Toledo and Granada prosper. Fountains, gardens and lanterns adorn the golden streets and beautiful mosques and palaces are erected for the emirs. Men of science, literature, music, mathematics and philosophy practice their esoteric art in libraries and in courts. 

The Muslims conquerors are, for the most part, tolerant people and continually encourage religious freedom. Many Jews rise to prominence and power while a small population of Christians or Mozarabs (‘wannabe Arab’) contribute to this society. In the main, being Muslim simply affords citizens adequate tax breaks, inspiring many converts.

Yet, in the far wet north, another band of exiled Christians cling to the green coastline of present day Galicia, Asturias and Basque country. Their faith can’t be broken by tax incentives nor by what they perceive to be the lax culture of the Muslim-dominated south. After several humiliating defeats by Moorish marauders, these Christians slowly begin to retake the peninsula. From their little Kingdom of Asutrias, a small settlement of Spanish culture, Christians cross south over forbidding mountain ranges (now called the Cordillera Cantábrica) into Northwestern Spain to retrieve what they believe to be their land. 

By the 10th and 11th century, the conquerors, like those they once conquered have begun to grow weak and corrupt. Internal strife breaks down the varied layers of government.

Asturias expands and joins forces with León and then Castile.

Today this territory is known as Old Castile because the reclaimed land south of Madrid became New Castile. 

It was King Alfonso VI, King of Castile and León in the 11th century who took Toledo from the Moors. 

In the 13th Century, King Alfonso X helped solidify the Spanish language so Castilian (mixed with Arabic and Latin) became the vernacular of the north.

By the 15th Century, Old Castile was a thriving centre with a university in Salamanca and the royal court in Burgos. 

In 1469, Isabella, heiress to the throne of Castile, married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragón. Through this union, Castile and Aragón -as well as lands of La Rioja - fell under their control. The capital moved from Burgos to Valladolid (Isabella’s home city). 

The wealth from sacked Moorish cities fell to the nobles.

Observers of history, of western civilization note that wherever there is money and wealth in society, there is bound to be a wine market.

In Old Castile, the wine trade did exceedingly well. Local dukes, bishops, professors and physicians possessed palates that needed pleasing and the nearby vines and merchants served them well.

These wine traditions have endured to this day. “Castilian wines are still made to suit Spanish tastes: powerful, high-strength, full of fruit, with a hint of oak” (The New Spain).

Now, let us take a look at the five wine DOs (Denominación de Origen) of Old Castile

Bierzo is located in the province of León in the far west, bordering on Galicia. John Radford in The New Spain calls it the ‘maverick in the Castilian corral’ for the landscape is a far cry from the dusty, dry, arid slopes of Toro, Cigales, Rueda and Ribera del Duero. This hermetic region (once the location for the headquarters of the Knights Templar) is surrounded by mountains, dwelling in a meditative cocoon of verdant, rolling hills – the Cordillera Cantábrica to the west and north, the Sierra de Cabrera to the south and the Montes de León to the east.

In the time of the Romans, it was a rich, golden landscape. Today it is a coal-mining district although one wouldn’t suspect it by traveling amongst the umber and green mountains.

The most famous variety of the region is Mencía. Wines made from this grape may have notes of leather, cedar, black fruit and barnyard. It is very similar to Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. They can range from a gentle, medium-bodied offering to robust and vigorous wines of powerful aromas and fruit.

Situated on the Duero River, some 150 km southeast of Bierzo DO, the ancient town of Toro rests on a rocky hilltop. To the north, one can see the swaying fields of golden wheat and the old Roman bridge, bleached by centuries of sun, spanning the river. South of the town, one can find the vineyards where a genetic variation of Tempranillo, the Tinta de Toro grape, is planted.

Here, through different propagation methods and at a higher altitude (600 to 700 metres) than Rioja (400-500), the grapes, now accustomed to the harsh summer days and continental climes, are riper with thicker skins. The result is a full-bodied wine with a noticeably darker fruit flavour.

Not only big in flavour, Toro wines are big in alcohol. Even in the Middle Ages, clerics, kings and students all wanted to get their hands on the heady wines of Toro.

Many of these wines are of incredible value and highly rated by the famous American wine critic, Robert Parker. If you enjoy bold and beautiful wines bursting with earth, smoky blackcurrant and dark cherry, check out the wines of Toro.

As you move eastward along the winding river Duero, you’ll find Rueda, a wine region now famous for its bright, crisp, clean whites.

In the days when Old Castile became the frontier, the defeated Moors, out of a sense of revenge, ravaged and pillaged the area from which they were forced to retreat. This devastated landscape (called Tierra de Nadie - ‘The Land of Nothing’) lay fallow for many dreary decades; however, this time of recuperation brought the soil back to healthy fertility. In the 11th century, King Alfonso VI, ruling from Burgos, issued an edict to his people – if you can work the land, it is yours (the decree accompanied by smaller print, of course).

Verdejo, derived from verdugo or “green shoot” is a grape believed to have been brought from North Africa by the Mozárabs. It became the grape of choice for Old Castile. Jerez, which lay in the hands of the Moors, produced the famous oxidized wine of the region. (Verdejo was a perfect substitute because as soon as the grapes were picked, it oxidized all by itself.)

These wines were eventually designated for the king’s court in the 17th century. In the nineteenth century, phylloxera founds its way in and hit the region hard. During the long replanting period, Jerez reclaimed its place as the fortified wine of choice in Madrid and Rueda faded with the memories of fabled kings and queens. Then the Spanish Civil War struck and Palomino replaced Verdejo due to Franco’s new policies.

The situation looked bleak and foreboding for the Verdejo grape. But thankfully, the world of wine was changing and innovation made its way to Old Castile.

Francisco Hurtado de Améga y Dolagaray (or “Paco” to his friends), director of Marqués de Riscal, consulted his former Professor, Emile Peynaud at the University of Bordeaux. Paco wanted to make a crisp, clean white wine. The two men agreed on Rueda to carry out their project. With the help of modern technology such as stainless-steel vats, cool fermentation, and nitrogen, (an inert gas used to prevent the grapes from oxidizing), they produced the first modern white of Rueda.

If you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you will most likely love Rueda. Some of these wines have a seductive lime-green component with hints of grapefruit and gooseberry. You can find varietal Verdejo as well as blends with Viura (also known as Macebeo in Eastern Spain) and Sauvignon Blanc.

North of Valladolid lies Cigales, a DO that has recently become synonymous with rosados or rosé wines. The region lies between 700 and 800 metres above sea level where large pudding stone rocks literally litter the vineyards. Here the Tempranillo variation is known as Tinto del País and provides the foundations for most reds and is amongst Garnacha Tinta, Verdejo, Viura (aka Macabeo), Palomino, and Albillo in making the rosados.

While walking though the town, tourists may notice what may appear to be monoliths rising out of the ground. “Called luceras, they act as vents, providing fresh air and a little daylight to the cellars situated ten metres or so below ground. Here the temperature never varies, winter or summer” (The New Spain).

Like Toro, Cigales reds are quite beefy and full-bodied. They are the perfect BBQ wine during the summer and pair extremely well with steak.

Our final stop is one of the most famous and - one might even say - the crown of Old Castile. Lying at 750-900 metres above sea level, Ribera Del Duero is the place where the finest Tempranillo wines are made. The summer suns are hot but the nights are cool, giving the grape an adequate period for growth and rest. This is incredibly beneficial for the grapes. In a hotter region like Toro, the vine is feeding off the soil 24/7, while here, the vine can close its eyes at night and open them during the day, thus not absorbing nutrients too fast. And you can taste the difference. Toro often produces full-bodied, hefty wines whereas Ribera del Duero’s output is much more lush, mature and deeper. It is the difference between a passionate, stubborn, overzealous wine and a staid, strong, confident, patient older one.

Of the many bodegas found here, Vega Sicilia is the historic jewel of the DO. In the 1860s, Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves came back from Bordeaux with a few French winemaking tricks up his sleeve. Like his two famous peers, Luciano de Murrieta García-Lemone (later Marqués de Murrieta) and Don Camilo Hurtado de Amexage, the Marqués de Riscal (see my Rioja: The Bordeaux of Spain June 2009) he decided to plant French varieties and age his wines in oak to create a French style of wine.

Through trial and error, he found the local grape variety, Tinto del País (aka Tempranillo), fared much better than the French varieties he had imported. He inspired fellow grape growers and winemakers to follow his lead.

After a long period of quality stagnation that began in the early twentieth century, Vega Sicilia and another famous bodega, Pesquera, raised the standard by balancing modern technology with craftsmanship in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

Visiting Ribera del Duero, one will be taken aback at the vineyards which appear as white as snow. The soil is rich in gypsum and trace elements but chalk is what gives them their snowy appearance.

Wines from Ribera del Duero can run anywhere between $12 to $700.00 in our Canadian market. In the higher echelons, of course, is the Vega Sicilia’s Gran Unico Reserva, a wine released after ten years of aging, if not more.

Not too long ago I had a chance to try the 1996. It had to be the closest thing to an out-of-body experience. From the blackberry fruit to the ashes, to the roses and blueberries, I felt like I’d tasted not a wine but the essence of an unforgettable place. (I even wrote a poem about the experience which I might share in a future entry.)

Spain, along with the Chilean and Argentine offerings, gives the best value for the money. Check your Spanish wine section for any of these wines. These DOs of Old Castile are quintessentially Spanish.

Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Lowney, Chris, A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment. New York, Free Press, 2005.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Menocal, Rosa Maria, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston, Little Brown, 2002
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


Post a Comment

About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

  © Blogger template On The Road by 2009

Back to TOP