Although Extremadura has been a little behind in the revolution of Spanish viticulture, it is evident that the area is now making a firm commitment to improve and modernise viticulture and oenology in the region. Many wines of the region reflect this new lease of life while holding on to their own extremeño style. It is therefore not surprising that new visionary winemakers and wineries have, as they have in Alvear, set up wineries in these latitudes to produce modern and personal wines.
The history of viticulture in Extremadura is one of the oldest in the peninsula. First evidence of growing grapes in Extremadura dates back to the fourth century BC at a site in Medellín, where it is believed that wine was given as an offering during funeral services. There are also references to viticulture on the mosaic of Augusta Emérita, found in a third century Amphitheatre with a mosaic depicting three people treading grapes. The presence of the Roman Empire saw important developments in grape growing and wine production, with wines from the Hispanic provinces of Andalusia and Lusitania taken to Rome. It is known that the Phoenicians, with positions in the Mediterranean, penetrated these inlands and established colonies for obtaining metals. The Greeks also roamed these latitudes in search of mercury.
The development of viticulture in Extremadura in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries must be understood within the framework which involved the occupation of Christian contingents in the north of the Peninsula. The handover of Coria to Christian rule in 1142 and the foundation of Plasencia in 1186 set the right conditions for establishing new settlements of northerners who came in search of new lands and new possibilities. However, viticulture saw a decline after this long episode in history, although it never disappeared from the region. Viticulture saw a revival with the conquest of the Americas, included in testimonies given by the biographers Pizarro and Hernán Cortés, who apparently drank Trujillo wine. Numerous documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth century refer to wines from Almedralejo and the surrounding areas. During the last century there was an abundance of wineries in the area and wine from Cañamero was probably the most famous and well appreciated. At that time, wines possessed a high alcohol content, therefore many of them were destined for the production of alcohols, which were easily sold to the largest producers of brandy, due to its proximity to the Andalusian region of Jerez.
The DO Ribera del Guadiana was officially founded in 1999, and takes its name from the river that runs from the east to the west of Extremadura. The DO Ribera del Guadiana is situated in the south east of Spain, bordering Portugal, in the Autonomous Community of Extremadura. The region unites six different subzones, which are divided between the two provinces of the community: Badajoz to the south, and Cáceres to the north. The DO is home to 27,000 hectares of registered vineyards, with around 3000 winegrowers in the six subzones: Cañamero, Montánchez, Ribera Alta, Ribera Baja, Matanegra and Tierra de Barros, the last of which is the largest and also the most famous for exporting wines under the Vino de la Tierra classification. Currently there are only 20 wineries under the DO, 10 of which are cooperatives, although there are around fifty wineries waiting to join the Denominación de Origen.
Nowadays, even though the traditional ‘pitarra’, a homemade rustic wine (‘vino casero’) made for household consumption with an uncertain commercial future, is still being produced, a large number of wineries and wines in Extremadura are in very different situations. Although cooperativism reigns in the region, years ago, winemaking philosophy in Extremadura started out in clear pursuit of modern wines of higher quality. Today, the more advanced wineries, including some cooperatives, now know that the quality of the wine begins in the vineyard. This first important step represents a clear move for the planting and cultivation of native varieties, like Alarije, Cayetana, Pardina and Montúa, among others being restored, such as the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Parellada which grow alongside internationally renowned varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay.
Subzones of the DO Ribera del Guadiana.
Cañamero. The region is situated in the Sierra de Guadalupe, with vines growing at an average altitude of around 849 metres. The subzone is home to a rather rugged terrain, and the vines are planted on slopes. The most common variety in the subzone is the native white Alarije grape, which covers 75% of the vineyards. In much smaller proportion, the subzone is also home to the white varieties Chelva, Malvar, as well as the reds Tempranillo and Garnacha.
Matanegra. This is the most southern subzone. The most common grape varieties here include the white varieties Eva (or Beba de los Santos), La Montúa, followed by Pardina, Cayetana Blanca and Macabeo, as well as the reds (in order of vineyard area), Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Montánchez. This is the most northern sub-zone, home to a difficult terrain, with many hills and valleys where the vineyards lie at an average altitude of 638 metres. The most abundant grape variety is the white Borba, which occupies around two-thirds of the vineyards, followed by the white varieties Alarije, Cayetana Blanca and Pedro Ximénez. The region also cultivates the red Tempranillo and Garnacha varieties, although these are very much in the minority.
Ribera Alta. This is the flat region in the province, Vegas del Guadiana, the flatlands of Serena and Campo de Castuera, that link in the eastern part with the Vegas Altas, and Tierra de Barros. Table varieties have a strong presence and if we refer to the grapes used for vinification, the most abundant include the white varieties Alarije and Borba, and the reds Tempranillo and some Garnacha.
Ribera Baja. Quaternary deposits left by the Guadiana and its tributaries have resulted in the Ribera Baja with an average altitude of 286 m. In regards to grape varieties, the white varieties Cayetana Blanca and Pardina dominate, with some plots of Macabeo, as well as the red varieties Tempranillo and some Garnacha.
Tierra de Barros. This subzone is located in the centre of the Badajoz province, and is practically flat, with fertile soils, rich in nutrients and with a high capacity for water retention. The vineyards in this sub-zone lie at an average altitude of 521 metres above sea level. The most important grape varieties in the region include the native white Cayetana Blanca and Pardina, as well as the red varieties Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon, and there are also abundant plantations of Montúa and Macabeo.
Climate, Soil and Varieties.
Due to its location in central Spain, Extremadura is home to a continental climate, with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees in summer, with mild winters rarely dipping below zero. Average rainfall is around 450mm per year, although rainfall varies significantly from one sub-area to another, increasing considerably in mountainous areas such as Cañaremo, where the main problems for winegrowers is summer drought and the effects of spring frosts.
The Cañamero subzone covers 5 municipalities and is the highest subzone where poor soil on a slate stratum predominates. The Tierra de Barros subzone covers 36 municipalities, and the soils are clayey with very good moisture retention properties and high lime content. Further south in the Matanegra subzone, which covers 8 municipalities, the soils are similar to those in Tierra de Barros, but the climate is cooler due to the higher altitude of over 638m above sea level.
The Ribera Baja can be found in the west, and their vineyards are grown on clayey and alluvial soils. And in the east of the region is the Rioja Alta subzone, where the soils are sandy and shallow, and vineyards lie at an average altitude of 427 metres.
Currently there are around 30 different grape varieties, including some that are unknown in other regions of Spain and considered truly native varieties. The authorised white varieties include Alarije, Borba, Cayetana Blanca, Pardina, Macabeo, Chardonnay, Chelva (or Montúa), Eva (Beba de los Santos), Malvar, Parellada, Pedro Ximénez, Verdejo, Cigüente, Moscatel de Alejandría, Moscatel de grano menudo, Perruno and Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, the authorised red varieties include Garnacha Tinta, Tempranillo, Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano, Mazuela, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, Garnacha, Tintorera, Jaén Tinto and Pinot Noir. Evidently there are many different grape varieties, but some of them are merely experimental, such as Pinot Noir which covers just one hectare of vineyard, and in addition, wineries employ far fewer varieties for making wines under the protection of DO Ribera del Guadiana, as they concentrate on those that offer better balance and greater organoleptic quality in wines.
Wines and Wineries in the DO Ribera del Guadiana.
The range of DO Ribera del Guadiana wines are mainly young white, rosé and red wines, although the region is increasingly producing red wines which undergo a long ageing, or even a light oak ageing. In addition, with so many different grape varieties, the region also produces a good collection of single variety wines made with foreign varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but the largest production of red wines is made from the Tempranillo variety. The region also produces some sparkling wines under the DO Cava classification, principally with the Macabeo and Parellada varieties.
Palacio Quemado (Viñas de Alange). This winery belongs to the Alvear Group. Since 2010, the winery has seen a change in its philosophy, both on the vineyard and in the production of their wines. Since the 2010 vintage, winemaking at the winery is carried out by the Envínate group, led by Roberto Santana, known for his wines such as Las Suertes del Marqués de Canarias; Alfonso Torrente, former winemaker of Calzadilla; Laura Ramos and José Ángel Martínez. In January of 2015 the winery became part of the Grandes Pagos de España, a prestigious association of wine estates throughout Spain which defend and promote the culture of ‘Vino de Pago’, wines produced from a single plot which reflect the unmistakable personality of the earth, subsoils and climate. The winery carries out sustainable viticultural and winemaking techniques, producing terroir wines. For this reason, the use of herbicides has been eliminated and they only work the vineyard with sulphur and small quantities of copper, as well as natural plants such as sage, wormwood, cinnamon etc. Very small doses of sulphur are added to the grapes and during the whole process, making use of the carbon from malolactic fermentation during ageing to act as the wine’s natural protector. This means that the addition of sulphur is not necessary during this process. Each plot of the vineyard is worked individually, depending on its needs concerning orientation and soils. The wine is refined in small 500 litre fudres, with the idea of respecting the work carried out in the vineyard. Under the Palacio Quemado brand the winery produces a young red and a crianza, both made exclusively with the Tempranillo variety, as well as a reserva, a blend of Tempranillo (70%) and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 16 months in new and second year French (70%) and American (30%) oak barrels. The winery also produces PQ, also made with the Tempranillo grape, taken from the clay soils of the Palacio Quemado estate, aged for 6 months in American and French oak barrels. The two latest wines to come from the winery are their ‘vinos de finca’ (single estate wines). Firstly, the Palacio Quemado La Zarcita, which reflects the terroir of the Palacio Quemado estate, and comes from the La Zarcita plot, with calcareous soils, worked organically, without the use of herbicides and using only natural products such as cinnamon and sage, in order to fully respect the environment. The wine is refined for 8 months in new and second year 500 litre French oak barrels from forests in Allier, Vosges and Nevers. The winery produces another ‘vino de finca’, Palacio Quemado Los Acilates, which is commercialised as a Vino de la Tierra de Extremadura. This wine is made with grapes taken from a single estate, Los Acilates, an area on steep slopes caused by erosion, north facing and home to calcareous soils with a deeper clay layer. The vineyard is worked organically, with small doses of sulphur and copper used to help preserve the uniqueness and character of the terroir. Alcoholic fermentation is carried out spontaneously with native yeasts, and is aged for 12 months in small French oak fudres and is then kept in the bottle for one year.
Viticultores de Barros. This winery was born from a group of winegrowers in the area of Tierra de Barros who decided to join forces in 1983 and undertake a common project. The winery is now home to modern technology which have helped improve the existing facilities, and boasts around 500 hectares of its own vineyards. Under the Emperador de Barros brand, the winery produces a red and a white wine. El Emperador de Barros tinto is made exclusively with the Tempranillo variety, with a very fruity and mature character. El Emperador de Barros Cayetana Blanco is another single variety wine which offers complex and attractive aromas, where notes of apple and the variety’s white flowers stand out. The winery also produces a rosé wine with the Syrah variety, as well as the red wine Vizana, made with the Tempranillo grape and aged for 10 months in French oak barrels.