Ribera del Duero—Fighting for Notoriety In a Global Market
Winemaking exists at the intersection of science, art, and business. As an art form, winemaking is a delicate dance of taste, texture, and aroma with all components lying equal to the other in importance. It's a craft that can be handed down from generation to generation. As a science, winemaking is a surgically precise balance of time, temperature, air, grapes, fermentation, and a laundry list of other factors that must be measured and executed to micro-accuracy. Lastly, without the business component, a winemaker is simply a hobbyist. Great wines should be tasted by all.
Within the Spanish winemaking world there are numerous personalities, from craftsmen, to scientists, to businessmen. Jorge Monzon and Javier Ajenjo are two men attempting to bring notoriety and attention to their wineries, albeit in two different ways.
Monzon owns Dominio del Águila, an aged vineyard with a fifteenth century cellar near the village of La Aguilera in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain. Monzon studied at the Universities of Bordeaux and Burgundy, before moving on to the fabled Domaine De La Romanée-Conti (DRC), then Vega Sicilia Group, and nine years at Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro. Even while working at some of the most prestigious winemaking groups in France and Spain, Monzon's calling was to grow and make his own wine buying small parcels of what would become the Dominio del Águila vineyard along the way.
Javier Ajenjo and Bodegas Neo are a newer flashier endeavor. Along with his two partners Julio Cesar Conde and Jose Luis Simon, the three childhood friends pooled their money and resources and started Bodegas Neo. In addition to creating a well reputed wine, the Neo Winery is also home to NeoMusicBox, an active recording studio that marries the owners' love for music with their passion for wine. While Monzon seems uncomfortable with the praise and attention that Dominio del Águila wines receive, Ajenjo with his huge personality and contagious smile is much more comfortable in the limelight.
Within the Ribera del Duero region the tempranillo grape sits on top. While their approaches to wine are varied, both Monzon and Ajenjo have a remarkably similar passion for winemaking and a deep love for the tempranillo grape. It is their benefactor and partner.
" Its very generous," said Monzon. "It's an easily ripening grape and gives a lot of yield. When you treat it well, amazing things will come from it. And even if you don't treat it well, it still treats you well. That kind of generous."
With equal zeal, Ajenjo describes the tempranillo as the "queen of varieties."
"No other grape offers so much elegance and expressivity," explains Monzon. "When we speak about our climate, we say that we have nine months of winter and three months of hell. This incredible difference of temperature gives the tempranillo incredible character."
While the grape may be without sin, both have spent years working to gain notoriety and exposure for their wines in a difficult region of Spain. Difficult not only because of the climate and soil, but also because Spain has spent generations in relative obscurity when compared to their French and Italian neighbors. Many within the old guard of Spanish wineries still cling to their traditions, Monzon and Ajenjo, both in their early 40's, represent a new vision for their wine, region, and country.
"In the world of wine, Spanish wine is not perceived like a first division," explains Ajenjo. "We don't have the glamour of France or Italy, but I believe that Spanish wine should be on the top because we have the best average in relationship to quality and price all over the world."
"But the real problem is that we have lost many years fighting between ourselves, between our (regions), but it's not too late. In the last few years, new producers work together and think about wines from Spain like a mission and look toward future. "
Interestingly, Monzon chooses to point the finger inward: He believes strongly that wine drinkers themselves are a big part of the problem.
"Wine drinkers spend too much time making wine drinking prohibitive to others. It's just wine and it should be pleasurable to everyone. The "best" wine shouldn't be determined by anyone but the drinker, and their own personal preference. Wine drinkers are the ones who establish barriers for everyone else."
When asked about the recent movement toward "organic" wines by some vineyards and wineries, Monzon laughs and declares it to be marketing and money driven. As a naturalist and legacy winemaker, Monzon views mass production as a burr on the industry.
"I use five people for 50,000 kilos, normally it's 500,000 kilos and three people. They use tractors and pesticides, they have higher production, but it's mass production. I work with whole clusters when I make wine, stems and all. Stems are part of the environment, part of the plant and they should be used in wine making. Other producers are into berry selection, they de-stem and just work with the berries. But our philosophy is to use whole clusters, and that's one of the things that sets our wines apart."
When touring Dominio del Águila it's easy to see what Monzon is describing. While most wineries in the region are giant fields of easily harvested plants in organized rows as far as the eye can see, Dominio del Águila has a hill-laden dirt path that connects small parcel to small parcel. The old vines have been revived, but the vineyard exudes the age of an era that precedes mass production.
"There has been a generational gap here," Monzon continues. "Farming is very hard work and not very profitable. So the younger generations abandoned farming and moved to the bigger cities, looking for more opportunities and other lines of work. The generational gap reflects in the fields as well. We have these old vines that need a lot of care and attention to bring them back to life. Nobody was pruning or doing the things necessary to keep these beautiful vineyards going. At the same time this apathy has given me the opportunity to claim these old vines for a reasonable price. And when you have the potential of this vineyard with my expertise and experience in other winemaking regions, we'll see what that sums up to."
For Ajenjo the future looks bright, but the road ahead will be work.
"Ribera del Duero is the second most important region in Spain, but we continue be just a drop of wine in global terms. We have a beautiful region with a special climate, good possibilities for inversions, a bright future, and probably some of the best wines in the world. That said, we must continue fighting and taking care of our beautiful variety."