Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Visiting old friends in Castilla y León

During the Circle of Wine Writers' trip to Castilla y León earlier this year we visited modern bodegas in newly demarcated, promoted wine regions in this beautiful part of northern Spain. There was one exception, however, to all this modernity: Bodegas Otero in Benavente, a wine business that was created in 1906 by the grandfather, yes, the granddad, of the current owner, Julio Otero!

Ten years ago, when I was running Webber's Wine Bar in Billericay, I won the Spanish Wine List of the Year award. The prize was a trip to northern Spain where a small group of us visited several regions and wineries there.

On that trip ten years ago we had seen bodegas in Rioja, Navarra as well as Rueda, and we didn't really know what to expect when we arrived in the sleepy little town of Benavente, where many of the roads were unmade, to visit Bodegas Otero. I do remember that we were very impressed by the quality, as well as the honesty, of their wines. At the time Julio was running the bodega with his father Manuel and both were very proud of their achievements.

Ten years later we arrived in a smart, modern town - where there is still time to sit and chat. When our coach pulled up outside the bodega Manuel came out to greet us. Looking very dapper he is now retired, although he still keeps an eye on everything! We both recognised each other and reminisced of my last visit.

We entered the bodega through the cellars that had been excavated in the early 1950s enlarging the winery from its original shop premises. Concrete tanks with a capacity of 300,000 litres are still used and there are barrel cellars as well as a Cape Canaveral of stainless steel tanks. In total Bodegas Otero produces 1.3 million bottles of wine, of which 250,000 bottles are 'quality' wine.

Their quality wine is VCPRD, meaning Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada. In 1986 Otero helped form an association with the other five major producers in the region and they decided not to try to achieve the higher category of Denominación de Origen because of the cost of controls and they didn't want to have to increase their prices. This value for money quality was demonstrated when we tried the wines in their smart tasting room.

First, Julio told us about the particular red grape variety of Leon, and Benavente: the Prieto Picudo. Rather like talking about a wayward child of which one is proud, Julio said: "It is difficult to cultivate, its branches and spurs go every which way, there are leaves all over the place and it needs lots of room! But it does make good wine".

They own 12 hectares of Prieto Picudo as well as 14ha Tempranillo, 5ha Cabernet Sauvignon and 2.5ha each of Merlot and Mencia, another local red variety. There are also 8ha of Verdejo for white wine. In all they have 44ha of vineyards and, as you can guess from their total production, they do buy in a lot of grapes.

Rosado wines are an important part of their business and, as it is Spain, always has been: ros
é is no modern fad in this part of the world! And the Otero rosado is special. It is made with classic red grapes that are harvested early in order to preserve the acidity, which are pressed and fermented as white wine. This method produces a well rounded wine with good acidity which can age well too, as we saw with the collection of bottles from previous vintages.

The first two vintages we tried were delicious; deep pink in colour with the 2008 showing a hint of blue, which Spanish winemakers delight in telling you! (Nobody in France or elsewhere shows such pride in this trace of blue in the colour spectru...). Both wines were dry with fine balancing acidity; the 2008 with bright red fruits on the nose, the 2007 more Morello cherry.

Then, as some of us assembled a range of their rosados to photograph against the light, Julio opened a bottle of their 1970 rosado which was enjoyed by everyone, especially as the wine still had lots of life in it exhibiting hints of concentrated spicy black fruits.

We concluded the tasting with four reds, all made with their enfant terrible grape, Prieto Picudo. First the 2008, a viña joven (no oak) which was lively with good red fruit notes. The other three all had had 12 months in French oak and it was interesting to try to discover the characteristics of this indigenous grape variety. The youngest, 2006, had hints of coffee with red fruits on the nose and on the palate accompanied by gentle tannins. 2005 showed bright ripe red fruit with stalky hints, as did the 2002 though with deeper flavours.

The last red,
labelled VO, was from their own vineyard, Pago de Valleoscuro. This 2007 was a blend of Prieto Picudo and Tempranillo that had been aged in concrete tanks in the cellar: a lovely wine with rich fruit, gentle tannins completed by a long finish.

These wines are very reasonably priced starting at €2 going up to €7 – no D.O. you see! In the UK the retail price would be from £5 to £14, though currently no-one is importing them.

The tasting was followed by an al fresco lunch, which was very convivial with two sorts of empanada, tuna and tomato, and chorizo served at the tasting table, accompanied by the wines we’d tasted, which were even more delicious!

It was great to be back at Bodegas Otero in Benavente where the town shows considerable improvement from when I was last there. The wine, however, is as good as ever as is the very warm family welcome and hospitality. I look forward to returning to renew my friendship with Manuel and Julio very soon.

If you enjoyed reading this post do have a look at another I've written about this trip: "A Fantastical Night in Zamora"

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Amanda Hamilton said...

What an excellent and informative blog - have you ever been to the Montilla Moriles Wine Route I wonder? Will ask you via Twitter as I'd love to know - I'm a BIG PX fan ..

Gabriella Opaz said...

Great write up Brett. There is nothing more enjoyable than visiting a winery that shows integrity, passion, and above all else, honesty. Grapes can be stubborn little fruits, and to have a winemaker admit its follies, gives the resulting wine a greater level of depth and complexity. It reminds us that the wine in front of us took a level of determination and risk that we generally don't want to imagine. The romanticism "seems" be lost when we lay our cards on the table. However, for me, it's a breathe of fresh air, and a lovely reminder that any good thing takes a lot of elbow grease and considerable amount of hope!

Wink Lorch said...

Wow - from a wine educator's point of view that 1970 rosé must have been the real exception that proves the rule. 39 year-old rosé going strong when we wine educators usually tell everyone drink rosé within a year or two of the vintage!