Alta Pavina Citius Pinot Noir: A Spanish Wine Revelation
by Ken Gargett
This is a tale that verges between something out of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not playbook and stories for a small world.
A few months back, I was at a tasting in Helsinki (the annual, or biennial depending on the organizers, amazing tasting of the world’s great wines, for Fine Magazine and www.tastingbook.com), chatting to a friend from Venezuela.
I mentioned I was heading down to Madrid afterward – my absolutely favorite European city and one I get to visit far too rarely (fantastic people, great friends, amazing galleries – if you have not seen the Black Paintings of Goya in the Prado, or Picasso’s Guernica, they alone are reason enough to visit – plus there’s stunning food and a new wine bar every few yards).
My friend immediately suggested that I look up his business partner, who was based there. “We make Pinot Noir.”
So, a Venezuelan is telling an Australian, in Helsinki, to go to Spain to drink local Pinot Noir. You could not make that up.
To be honest, what is most extraordinary about it is the thought of a Spanish Pinot Noir. If Eric had said, “We breed unicorns,” I probably would have been less surprised. Spain makes many great wines, from indigenous to international varieties, but Pinot Noir is certainly not usually considered to be one of them.
No matter. I was keen. I made contact with Diego Ortega from Alta Pavina, and he kindly invited me to dinner. I was in Madrid for more than fun, researching some pieces, and so was flat out busy for a few days.
By the afternoon of the day I was meeting Diego, I was ready to relax. So I headed across the street with the designated restaurant several hours early to find a bar, have a drink and a cigar. It wasn’t hard. A footpath bar/restaurant had three locals all enjoying cigars, so in I went.
Immediately they adopted me. And we had a hoot. One was a world authority on bullfighting, and I learned more about Hemingway’s favorite sport that afternoon than I would from any textbook.
At one stage, I was told that if I did not drink sherry, did not smoke cigars, and did not take long lunches I was not a man. In fairness, that is a low bar. I mentioned that I had visited my favorite bar in the world, La Venencia, earlier in the week (actually, every day).
It serves nothing but five different sherries, is basically a hole in the wall, is dim, dark, and brown from decades of smoke, but was once a haunt for those fighting against Franco and is a wonderful place. For this, I got a standing ovation.
Turns out that one of my three new friends begins every day with a glass of sherry at La Venencia. And has done so for 30 years.
Another takes a phone call, a friend of his from Jerez. After the call we chat, and I realize that the call was from a gentleman I had met in Jerez a few years earlier. Coincidences don’t come much more bizarre.
But I digress.
I meet Diego at the appointed time (no doubt far earlier than he would normally head to dinner to accommodate my non-Spanish ways). The restaurant, Amazonico, is wonderful and surely ground zero for Europe’s beautiful people (yes, I felt very out of place, but I loved it).
Amazonico was absolutely full, but Diego tells me we got in because he sells them some of his wines (I learned later that his wife is one of Spain’s most famous actresses, which may have helped). They have a wonderful cellar, even a few top-notch Aussies, but I am keen to see Diego’s wine, Alta Pavina Citius Pinot Noir. The 2014, this time. It is a revelation.
Citius is clearly a high-quality wine, and I am fascinated that Diego and his partner have chosen Pinot Noir, although many winemakers around the world, in less likely regions, have chased the same Holy Grail.
Turns out that the family has been making Pinot Noir in the Ribera del Duero region for more than 30 years. Diego and his brother, Hugo, now run the operation, but it was founded by their father back in 1985.
Ribera del Duero is, of course, world famous for its Tempranillo wine, but when Pinot Noir takes hold of a winemaker, it inevitably becomes an obsession.
Alta Pavina vineyards
So how do they do it? The vineyards are located some 1,000 meters above sea level, which provides them with the cooler conditions more suited to Pinot Noir than many parts of the region.
Their vineyard, situated around two kilometers from the Duero River near Valladolid, is some 35 hectares, providing a total production of around 250,000 bottles, but it is not all Pinot Noir. Cabernet is also extensively planted, and there is some Tempranillo.
They make half a dozen different wines, including some where Pinot Noir is blended with other red varieties. The winery and vineyards are not far from such stellar names as Pingus and Vega Sicilia.
The soil is calcareous loam; the climate is continental; the region sees low rainfall; and the contrast in temperature recorded throughout the year is described as “striking.” They have invited famous soil scientist Claude Bourguignon to work with them as a “special vineyard assessor,” showing just how serious they are.
The wines spend around 18 months in new French oak, but that is not immediately apparent or at least not intrusive. There is a very gentle oak note to be ascertained, but the wine is fresh and vibrant with lovely red fruit flavors of strawberry and raspberry. Delightful aromatics, these flavors continue on the palate. Fine, almost cushiony tannins. Decent length.
There is evidence of early complexity. Fair to say that it is not likely to knock Domaine de la Romanée-Conti off its perch just yet, but this is a delicious Pinot Noir. If nothing else, it will completely change your opinion of Spanish Pinot Noir.