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I met Esteban Celemín in Pamplona a year ago. When the wines arrived last week I was inspired to reflect on what a strange year of delays kept these wines from the store until now. First wine tariffs, then COVID-19. They have finally arrived and I’m so excited to share them and to highlight the story behind them. This is the first time that these wines are in the United States, and I think they represent something altogether new in the realm of Spanish wines in New York.
Esteban met me in Pamplona last August, where he waited for me when I missed my train from Barcelona. We tasted his wines at 11pm in the hotel lobby, and I’ve been thinking about them and the story behind them ever since.
The story is rooted in Castronuño, Esteban Celemín’s hometown on the river Duero, in the Spanish province of Valladolid. Viticulturally, the surrounding area is well-known for Tempranillo from Toro and Verdejo from Rueda. But Castronuño has its own wine traditions, and they focus on a single grape: Albillo Real. Esteban related to me that the grape arrived in Castronuño in the 1600s (brought, as was often the case, by monks), and was used partially as a table and raisin grape, due to its sweet must, thin skins, and early ripening. Until recently, it was the village and surrounding area’s dominant grape. However, in the 70s, the arrival of the more vigorous Chasselas and large-scale urban migration led to the abandonment or removal of many Albillo Real plantings.
The remaining vineyards of Albillo around Castronuño are mostly very old and own-rooted, planted in sandy soils. Today, we’re excited to offer a wine from one of these ancient vineyards: Las Avutardas comes from a vineyard planted more than 130 years ago. The vines are ungrafted and own-rooted, protected from phylloxera by sand. This vineyard represents the long and almost forgotten heritage of the region and this is a unique chance to taste wine from these exceedingly rare, very old vines.
Esteban has been working not just to preserve, but also to revive this history. He made his first wine with fruit from around Castronuño in 2007 and planted a new vineyard of massale selection Albillo (selected from the old vineyards mentioned above) in 2014. He named the wine from this new vineyard Señora Vale, in honor of his grandmother, and as homage to her generation. Here, the soils are chalky, and the wine translates this minerality.
Alongside these single-vineyard white wines, Esteban makes two red wines from Tempranillo, one from four vineyards in Toro, named Melquiades for his Grandfather, and another, Ultimas Huellas from a single vineyard in Castronuño, and three other white wines. Tinajas de Albillo is Albillo Real done in Tinaja with long gentle skin-contact, Verdeja le Dicen… is a ripe and powerful wine from a vineyard of old pre-clonal-selection Verdejo, and Monemvasia is an orange wine produced from a somewhat mysterious group of old vines that resemble (and probably are!) Malvasia.
Esteban farms all of these vineyards organically, without pesticides or herbicides, and adds nothing other than (in some cases) a tiny amount of sulfur. These are natural wines of gravity and power, that are simultaneously approachable, interesting, and very well-made. They are also incredibly good values.
100% Albillo Real from vines around Castronuño. This is Esteban’s expression of the traditional, slightly oxidative skin-contact wines of the region, made in the classical clay tinaja or amphora. The Albillo Real grapes’ thin skins macerate gently in the juice for 40 days, lending little in the way of color but plenty of flavor and texture. The nose is bright but very bold, with notes of apricot, orange peel, and citrus, while the palate shows concentrated apricot, peach, and pear alongside savory density. The clay and the skins give this a truly unique texture that I find simultaneously substantial and truly refreshing.
Verdeja is the local name for old, pre-clonal selection Verdejo in Castronuño and Toro, and while this wine shows plenty of Verdejo character this is clearly not a wine trying to be Verdejo from Rueda! Embracing Verdejo’s tendency towards oxidation, Esteban Celemín makes this wine in the traditional method of this region, with 1-2 days of skin contact and the inclusion of some raisinated grapes. The result is a very highly concentrated, but totally dry, expression of Verdejo. This shows appealing ripe green herb (fennel, coriander, celery) notes intermingled with charred lemon notes on the nose, and the palate is dense with plenty of mineral acidity and citrus and stone-fruit notes.
100% Albillo Real, from Esteban Celemín’s vineyard that he planted in 2014 with clonal selections from surrounding, ancient ungrafted vineyards. The soils in this plot are particularly chalky – unusual in the area, where most soils are clay or sand. In 2018, he harvested this vineyard last, seeking to get the greatest amount of ripeness and concentration possible from these younger vines. Farming is organic, with some biodynamic treatments, and vinification is very traditional: the grapes are foot trodden, then pressed slowly and gently with a basket press into five old 225L French oak barrels, where native yeast fermentation takes place and the finished wine ages for 10 months. In contrast to Las Avutardas, Señora Vale shows slightly brighter fruit notes: white and yellow flowers, freshly sliced apples, green herbs, and Bosc pear on the nose. The palate has a juicier texture as well, with a bright seam of chalky minerality surrounded by notes of bosc pear, butter, and apple. Like Las Avutardas, I think this is a great choice for anyone who enjoys the white wines of the Rhone, or even Chardonnays from warmer sites.
100% Malvasia (of some sort?). Malvasia has had a presence in the area of Castronuño for a very long time but was often pulled up and replaced with Doña Blanca or Chasselas in the last 50 years. Esteban found these vines near a vineyard of Albillo Real that he is working with and hypothesized that they are remnants of Malvasia plantings from long ago that made their way to the area from the Canary Islands or from Madeira. The vines are farmed organically and vinified in a traditional style in large barrels where the skins gently macerate in the juice for three months. This method does not impart a lot of orange color to wine, but the influence of the skins in texture, tannin, and flavor is clear. Aromatically, this recalls other orange wines made from Malvasia that I’ve tasted, with lots of jasmine, ginger, and stone fruit notes on the nose. The palate is dense, textured, and concentrated but still possesses a balanced, mineral acidity. Truly a fascinating and refreshing orange wine!
100% Tempranillo, from a single, very dry vineyard of 16-year-old vines on sandy, nutrient-poor soils in Castronuño. Esteban Celemín farms the plot organically, without irrigation and with some biodynamic treatments. Vinification is very traditional, with some stem inclusion and a gentle, 3-4-week maceration with no punch-downs. Don’t let the relatively high alcohol scare you – this is a medium-bodied natural wine with a refined texture and lots of pretty red and dark fruit. The careful winemaking preserves the grape’s acidity and brightness despite the ripeness, giving notes of clove, raspberry, and black cherry on the nose. The palate is raspberry and cherry, with some notes of leather and warming spice around a cooling, flinty mineral core. A great – and really singular – expression of natural Tempranillo from the continental climate of Castronuño. 1200 bottles made.
This is Esteban Celemín’s Tinta de Toro, made in the opulent style that is characteristic of the region. He named it for his grandfather, in honor of the hard work that he and his generation did in the region. Esteban works with four organically farmed, unirrigated vineyards in four different villages of Toro, seeking grapes that will complement each other, and with the intensity to handle the high alcohol and intensity that the heat, sun, and soil of Toro produces. 2017 was a hot, early, fully ripe vintage, and this is a natural wine that definitely translates the power and intensity of Toro’s terroir. Esteban destems the grapes entirely and lets the skins macerate for more than a month. Fermentation takes place in a single new French oak barrel, where the wine rests for one year before being moved to used barrels for a further year of rest. Melquiades shows intense blackberry, cacao, and game notes on the nose, and the palate echoes them with plenty of cigar-box spice, tobacco, blackberry and cassis. My feeling is that this wine will integrate further over the next few years, but there’s tons of pleasure to be had right now.
100% Albillo Real, from 130+ year-old, ungrafted vines planted in loose, nutrient-poor sandy soils near Esteban Celemín’s hometown, Castronuño. This cuvee is named for the large flightless bustards which are attracted to the sweet, aromatic grapes before harvest. Esteban works the vineyard organically and is very traditional in the cellar: the grapes are pressed very gently with a basket press and spend 11 months in a single old 225L French oak barrel. This wine’s profile is concentrated and intense. Las Avutardas shows the yellow-flower, pear, exotic spices, and oxidized apple aromatics of Albillo Real on the nose. The palate is concentrated, but there’s a saline freshness that balances the dense, oily texture and notes of ripe papaya, apple flesh, fresh butter, apricot, and yellow Anjou pear. The textural presence of this wine, and its length in the mouth are particularly notable; they build as you drink and provide wonderful depth. For lovers of white wines from the Rhone valley, this delivers on many of the same levels.