Verdejo - Part I

The white wine grape Verdejo is local to the Rueda DO, in the area around Castilla y Leon. Often industrially farmed, machine-harvested and over-manipulated, Verdejo is experiencing a quiet renaissance, led by three exceptional winemakers in the region. Manuel Cantalapiedra, Esmeralda Garcia, and Ismael Gozalo are producing what we consider to be the very best examples from the Verdejo grape. From organically farmed, hand-harvested grapes, always fermented with indigenous yeasts, without acid addition or other manipulations, these wines represent the most authentic and terroir-driven Verdejos available, albeit only comprising a sliver of a percent of overall production. 
As we learn from Wine Grapes (J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz), "Verdejo, the pride and joy of the Rueda DO in Castilla y Leon in northern Central Spain, is the country's fifth most planted white wine variety... Since the 1970s when Marques de Riscal saw the potential for dry white wines in Rueda, once more famous for its fortified styles, Verdejo has been a rising star. Wines are very aromatic, with notes of laural and bitter almonds, medium to high acidity, full-bodied but rich and smooth showing a hint of almonds on the finish. " 
We find the wines on offer today not to be too aromatic, but otherwise agreeing with the general characteristics listed above. We would add that they show notes of dried herbs without being herbaceous or grassy, like many of the wines from the region that are blends of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, and most are fermented with selected yeasts that produce grassy and citrus-driven profiles to fit an international style. Verdejo, in the right hands, and benefiting from deep root systems that impart mineral structure and complexity, should produce a crisp and balanced white that can hold its own alongside a good Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, Chablis, or Galician Albarino. What's more, the best Verdejos exhibit a level of depth and length that elevates the playing field completely. I've titled this offer: Verdejo - Part I, because we only have a few single-vineyard wines of this latter category on offer today, from Esmeralda Garcia. Manuel Cantalapiedra's top whites have become some of the most sought-after white wines from Spain in a matter of years, found now on top restaurant lists in Spain and quickly purchased by those in the know here in New York. Ismael Gozalo's best Verdejos are exquisite, but produced in very small quantities. Both will be included in Verdejo - Part II, but for now, without further ado... a few quick bios, and the wines!
(Manuel Cantalapiedra (l) with his father, Isaac)
Manuel Cantalapiedra comes from a family that has been growing grapes near Valladolid, in what is now the Rueda DO, for many generations. His grandfather planted vines in 1949, and his father and grandfather sold most of their grapes to larger producers in the area. After his grandfather passed away, Manuel joined his father in the early 2010s, transitioning the estate to fully organic viticulture, and in 2014 they began to bottle and export their first estate wines. Manuel's wines are precise and accessible, with mineral cut and balanced acidity, but never austere or stern. Each year we have been more and more impressed with his vision and the resulting wines, and it seems like all of a sudden, many other wine aficionados, in Spain and the US, simultaneously discovered how fantastic his wines are!
We're happy for Manuel, as he has been working very hard in an area that at the very least does not understand (or appreciate) what he is doing, in a DO that is not particularly recognized on an international level. Farming organically, fermenting with indigenous yeasts, never acidifying his wines (a common practice in the area), his approach is far from the norm, and the accolades he is receiving for his wines have led to jealousy from others instead of pride for his achievements. Alas this is a common story in many parts of Spain, let alone in Europe as a whole. Due to the timing of our offer, we only have an entry-level, Summer sipper called 'Lirondo' available, but we will most definitely be highlighting his 'Cantayano' and the beautiful single vineyard wines when they arrive later this year!
Esmeralda Garcia has roots in the town of Santiuste de San Juan Bautista, about one hour south of Valladolid. After studying winemaking and working at estates around Spain, she returned home in 2012 to take over her family's vineyards, which are almost entirely populated with pre-phylloxera ungrafted vines. This is a truly special spot, with high winds and a high percentage of sand, both elements that keep phylloxera at bay. When I tasted with her earlier this year, I mentioned the wines of Manuel Cantalapiedra, and with no ego or air of exceptionalism, she explained that these are amazing wines, but are completely different because of their location and soils. I didn't understand it at the time, but a 45 minute drive can make a world of difference!
Esmeralda has a total of 5 hectares across four sites, all farmed organically, and varying in altitude, climate and soil type. These ungrafted bush-vines (some more than 200 years old) represent the most ancient biotypes of the grape, linking them to the early plantings that were planted in Rueda by the Mozarabs sometime between 800-1400AD, most likely originating from North Africa. She produces one white called Sant'yuste that is a blend from her four parcels, and her other wines she calls 'Vinos de Paraje' and are site-specific single vineyard bottlings. 
From US importer's website: "From the beginning, Esmeralda chose to make natural wines without any additives or sulfites. Bunches are hand-harvested and undergo a short skin maceration before passing through a vertical press. The wines then ferment spontaneously with indigenous yeasts in 500L dolias (Spanish clay amphorae) and age on their lees for 6-12 months before bottling without fining or filtration. Esmeralda's connection to the land and the vines is deeply personal and rooted in her own history. As Rueda continues to modernize and adapt to international palates, the riveting wines from Esmeralda's ancient Verdejo vineyards become of even greater historical importance." (MFW Wines)
(Ismael Gozalo (photo:
Ismael Gozalo is renowned for his work with the Verdejo grape, native to his village of Nieva, in the province of Segovia in Castilla y Leon. This is the land of industrial Verdejo production, and Ismael's commitment to producing genuine and exciting wines with the traditional local grape makes him an outlier: while other vineyards have focused on intensive agriculture and mechanization, the vines that produce the grapes for the MicroBio wines are from 5 hectares of organically farmed old vines on the most prized sites. Some of these vines include old ungrafted vines that have never been subjected to industrial agriculture or chemical treatments, like the vines of Esmeralda Garcia, who is about 15 minutes from Ismael's town. These ancient vines (some up to 200 years old!) are truly a rarity in Rueda, which was almost entirely replanted between 1890 and 1922 owing to the arrival of phylloxera. The soils for most of Ismael's vines are necessarily sandy (as the phylloxera louse, which threatens all own-rooted vines, cannot bear sand), but are studded with argilic clays. These sandy soils are difficult for grapes, and the struggle of the vines produces uniquely balanced wines: freshness and acidic structure are in tension with fullness of fruit and length on the palate.

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