Pesquera is the jewel in the crown of Alejandro Fernandez’ collection of wineries in Ribera del Duero, the wine region of Northern Spain that is attracting a lot of attention. Fernandez, and his winery, are a big part of how that attention came to the region. Pesquera is one of the most prestigious wineries in Ribera and Alejandro Fernandez is its most famous resident, rightfully known as the “King of Tempranillo”, Spain’s greatest grape variety.
Alejandro was not born with that crown on his head. An extremely industrious and tireless worker, he took his first job (to help support his family) at the age of 13. Over his career he has been a salesman, soldier and master carpenter. Upon leaving the military he joined an agricultural equipment manufacturer where he demonstrated great mechanical aptitude which formed the base for many innovations he made at his wineries.
In 1972 Alejandro acquired the 16th Century building in the small town of Pesquera (population 500) that now houses his winery. We pulled up to the winery on a sunny September afternoon as a part of the Fine Vintage Wine Tour of Northern Spain. There to greet us as we got off the bus was Alejandro, shaking each person’s hand as we disembarked and welcoming us to his winery. He speaks only Spanish, but the twinkle in his eye and the warmth of his handshake said everything. It was a foreshadowing of his enormous generosity and personality that we were about to experience firsthand.
We begin our tour in one the 500 year old buildings on the property that now houses a huge wine press that is several hundred years old. It remains as a symbol of Alejandro’s deep respect for tradition. But tradition is just a foundation at Pesquera, a platform from which new ideas can find a stable footing; but never a force that inhibits progress. The traditional is coupled with the modern at Pesquera and an up-to-the-minute video is played for us against an ancient stone wall that provides an excellent introduction to the winery, its past, present and future.
As we tour the facilities we are informed about the philosophy Alejandro has imparted on the winery. He is setting out to make the best wine that will partner brilliantly at the table, age gracefully for decades and stand in quality with the finest. His vineyards cover 70 hectares along the bank of the Ribera del Duero, with some vines being up to 100 years old, planted only to Tempranillo. While Alejandro is proud of the age of his vines, he is also no prisoner of tradition. Much of Ribera’s old vines are head-pruned goblets that stand on their own. Alejandro uses trellises to train the cordons low to the ground where they get greater exposure to the heat from the rocks in the vineyard. While irrigation is shunned in parts of Ribera, Alejandro will uses it a few times a year to keep the roots from becoming overly stressed and drawing potency from their grapes. He uses an assortment of modern and traditional techniques, whatever method will produce the finest grapes.
The harvest dates are set by his grapes, not the calendar, and not what any enologist or other winemaker happens to say or do. Grapes can be picked anywhere from the end of August to the middle of October. When we were there, all of the grapes were in; it was one of the earliest harvests on record. Ripeness is determined by tasting in the vineyard, by observing the smoothness of the grape’s skin and by the colour of the pips. When the colour of the leaves have turned ochre they will have passed their vitality on to the grapes and indicated the time for picking.
Winemaking at Pesquera involves a minimum of intervention, as one would expect from a house so dedicated to quality. Fining and filtration (each a process of removing solids from the wine to maintain clarity) are never used as Alejandro believes they can strip the wine of some of its flavour and character. Whole clusters are fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel after de-stemming. Oak barrels are a fundamental of the Spanish wine making process. At first Pesquera used only American oak but now French barrels have joined the mix. Barrels receive different levels of toast and are blended to consistently replicate the house style while still expressing the vintage characteristics. The Reserva wines will rest in barrel for at least 18 months while the Gran Reservas will stay in oak for at least 24 months.
Pesquera is a distinctive wine, multi-faceted, and like Alejandro, full of character. Taking from both tradition and modernity, Pesquera defies being put in any box. Wine critic Robert Parker found the Tempranillo in Alejandro’s hands to exhibit a roundness of texture found in the best Pomerol and proclaimed his wine to be the Petrus of Spain (sadly, the depth of our experience with Petrus is not so great that we could offer comment)! We have enjoyed many vintages of Pesquera before tasting with Alejandro at his winery and what we can confirm about his wines is that they are certainly among the finest in Spain. The wines possess medium to full body showing lots of dark cherry and raspberry fruit with firm but ripe tannin and tangy acidity. Pesquera develops a wonderful complexity over time. An earthy, savoury quality backs up the forwardness of the fruit and usually offers a hint of tobacco leaf along side. In that regard we can see how Parker’s analogy to Bordeaux is apt.
After our tour we walked across the street to another old building, this one overlooking the banks of the river. There we sat down to one of the most amazing lunches we have ever had the privilege to attend. We were treated to a 4-hour feast that included singing, dancing, some remarkable food and a great selection of wines from Alejandro’s four wineries. It was one of those magical meals that reminds us of why wine is such an important part of our lives. Wine brings people together. They come together to drink the wine, to taste the food, to share the conversation and to connect.
I had the great privilege to be seated next to Alejandro. He does not speak English and I do not speak Spanish. Yet we had the most wonderful time together and enjoyed great conversation. Jeremy Shaw, founder of Iberian Wine Tours (who ran the tour on behalf of Fine Vintage) who sat on the other side of Alejandro, does speak Spanish and helped out as interpreter. But the twinkles in Alejandro’s eyes and the warmth of his laugh said much more than words ever could. The charm of that man is immense. He danced with the ladies and sang the “Pesquera Song” and had all of us joining in at the chorus. The time just flew by as we enjoyed course after course including a spectacular “La Chappo”, a 25-30 day old milk fed lamb from his estate. The only reason we left was because we had to get to our dinner! And of course the wines just shone at this tasting. Alejandro is such an enthusiastic man and is so passionate about his wines and about the region of Ribera de Duero. He asked me where we would go tomorrow and I told him Rioja. He just looked at me and said: “Why would you do that?”
This delicious white comes from the El Vinculo bodega which is in La Mancha, also along the Duero River but outside the Ribera del Duero D.O. It is made from 100% Airen grapes, a drought resistant variety that works well in this harsh climate. Though not well known, it is Spain’s most planted grape variety. It is the grape that makes most of the Spanish brandy. Its deep gold colour foretells the tastes and sensations that follow: honey and melon with a certain nuttiness come through in a medium/full body that has a wonderful texture, no doubt contributed to by the 24 months it spends aging in oak. Notes of apricot were also present. This Alejandro’s only white wine; he is equally adept with this genre as he is with Tempranillo.
This Crianza made from 100% Tempranillo is very approachable. Cherry and plum are delivered in a forward style that will no doubt satisfy many palates. The open-knit texture is great for drinking now and it paired well Jamon Iberico and Chorizo that we enjoyed it with.
Very Good +
This showed amazing texture for such a young wine. Medium body and medium acid, its fruit profile of cherry and plum married well with spicy tobacco notes on the finish. This wine displayed near perfect balance and has an elegance that brings you back to the glass for another sip. Based on past vintages of Pesquera, this should age for 15 years, but is drinking on point right now. Likely to be reviewed as among the best Riberas of the vintage.
Black cherry flavours meld beautifully with the decadently smooth mouthfeel. The tannins are present but they are soft and ripe. Made only about once a decade from a single, special block on a perch at 800 metres above sea level, this and their Gran Reserva, Janus, have become collectors favourites resulting in sky-high prices at auctions. Wonderfully complex, the tobacco notes are joined by herbs and forest aromas. The long finish has a nice peppery note. This wine feels destined for the long run and is likely to improve for another decade or more.
This is Alejanros winery in Zamora, near Portugal’s northern border. This wine reminded us of the Condado de Haza in its soft, up-front style and its approachability. Plenty of extract gives this wine an intense flavour. Cherry and plum join slight leafy notes and are carried on a medium body with medium low acidity. A good dose of oak provides balance to the extracted style and keeps the texture smooth.
Very Good +