A New Frontier in Spain
Located in the Sierra de Francia mountains near the Portuguese border, Sierra de Salamanca is one of the newest D.O.s in Spain. Rufete is an indigenous grape to the region, and therefore its flagship grape and primary viticultural focus. Besides wine, Sierra de Salamanca is also known for incredible ham and its rugged and mountainous landscape. The region is dotted with old terraced vineyards growing native varieties hanging on above the Alagon River: 80% of the vines in the region are 50 years old and 50% of the vines are over 80 years old! These old vines are the foundation of this new D.O. because they produce quality wine that highlights the unique soils and varieties found in Sierra de Salamanca.
Terraces of Rufete by André Tamers
Sierra de Salamanca has been growing grapes and producing wine since the Romans first came to the area. By the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the area already had a cooperative, which enabled this rural area to conserve its vineyards, incorporate new technology, and evolve with the rest of the wine world. However, it did not survive the age of rural depopulation in the mid twentieth century, when most of the wineries in the cooperative closed. Efforts in the 1980s helped some of the wineries to reopen and the cooperative was restored. Miquel Udina arrived in the area, "la Sierra", in November 2007 to work for a cellar that no longer exists. Miquel is an agronomist by trade and commissioned various technical maps detailing the topography, soils, etc. of the region. He said, "I had the intention of working only for one vintage but I [fell] in love [with] the landscapes, the grapes and the people of the region," and he is still there working for the D.O. today. In 2010 Sierra de Salamanca was officially declared a D.O. with 26 municipalities. The focus of the region is on low production of high quality wine, utilizing old and native vines while protecting the natural landscape of the region.
Soils of Sierra de Salamanca
Sierra de Salamanca is particularly interesting because it is also home to Las Batuecas National Park and the Sierras de Béjar Biosphere. Preserving these natural areas is a priority of the growers and they organize their farming practices around maintaining the environment. This is an ideal region for grapes with its characteristic Mediterranean weather consisting of short, mild winters and long, hot, dry summers with cool nights. Autumn and spring tend to be fairly rainy, which compensates for the low water retention of the soil by providing the vines with water when they need it the most. Even though it is a small region with only 482 km² of vineyards, it has a great deal of diversity in its landscape, and consequently, its soil. The region is known for having acidic soils and a wide range of soil types. There are two areas of sandy soils deriving from granitic rock ranging between 600 and 1000 meters. Between these two regions, there is an area comprised of slate soils, which is the lowest part of the region at 400 meters. For more detailed information, see the soil map.
Topography of Sierra de Salamanca
The vines range in elevation from 400 meters to 1000 meters, continuing to add to the diversity of flavor profiles in the grapes through different soil types at different elevations, as well as different weather conditions. Since the slopes are so steep, the vineyards are often terraced. Terracing also has many advantages: aeration of clusters ensuring vine health, preventing erosion, maintaining richness and structure of organic soils. Terracing also forces the wineries to practice a sustainable method of farming because machinery is not an option in these steep terraced vineyards.
Rufete grapes on the vine
The flagship grape of Sierra de Salamanca is the indigenous Rufete grape. It was commonly believed that the grape originated in Portugal, but recent studies are suggesting that it could have come to the region from France through the Camino de Santiago. In Sierra de Salamanca, they pride themselves on producing wines that highlight their unique terroir, and there is no better way to do that than through native grapes and old vines. Rufete is genetically close to Touriga Nacional, Tinta Pinhera, and Puesto Mayar. There is debate as to whether or not Rufete came from these grapes or vice versa; the answer to this would determine Rufete’s geographic origins. This rare grape tends to produce wines that are lighter in color with high acidity, but low in alcohol. It is characterized by delicate aromas, sweet tannins, and soft fruits that bring elegance and complexity to the wines.
Rufete Blanco is another native grape to the area. At first it was thought that Rufete and Rufete Blanco are not genetically related, but recent studies conducted by a PhD candidate at INRA Montpelier have found evidence suggesting that they do share ancestors. Rufete Blanco also goes by the name Verdejo Serrano, however, it is not genetically related to Verdejo. This grape is truly native to the area, and almost extinct. A few wineries have been making wines with Rufete Blanco since 2010. It has been giving excellent results and is continuing to prove the true potential of this grape. Although many people are growing Rufete Blanco in Sierra de Salamanca, it is still not an officially registered grape in the D.O.
These are not the only two grapes grown in the region, but they are the primary focus. Many wineries also grow Calabrés, a clone of Garnacha, and Aragonés, a Tempranillo clone. All of the old vines of these varieties have adapted to the characteristics of the region over several centuries and therefore highlight the terroir of Sierra de Salamanca as well as the native varieties.
There are fewer than ten registered wineries in the region, and as a whole last year the region produced 80,000 liters of juice; 60,000 of those liters came from a winery called La Zorra. This winery is setting a high standard for quality in the region and is helping to build the reputation of Sierra de Salamanca.
Agustín Maillo by André Tamers
Agustín Maillo started La Zorra by making wine for his restaurant, but later decided that he wanted to expand to a commercial-size winery to share all that this little region has to offer. His focus is highlighting many different soils (slate, sand, clay) and show the variety of flora that is associated with this region. This focus also allows him to showcase Rufete by making wines that connect the drinker to the soul of Salamanca. All of his vines were planted between 1925 and 1950 and he is focused on maintaining old vineyards of Rufete, Tempranillo, and Garnacha.
In speaking on the advancement of D.O. Sierra de Salamanca, Miquel Udina stated: "I think we have done a lot of work, the Sierra de Salamanca is known for its special and unique wines, and they have an image of prestige that they did not have a few years ago. That has been really important for people like Agustín and Olga with their La Zorra project." La Zorra exemplifies all that Sierra de Salamanca is trying to achieve. Agustin is making a limited quantity of beautiful wines from old vines of native varieties. Not only is he introducing the world to Sierra de Salamanca, but also the exciting new varietals of Rufete, Rufete Blanco, Aragonés, and in the future a Calabrés wine.