Sierra de Salamanca, pure, unspoilt vineyards

2 June 2022

In Spain there are still wine-growing corners that remain untouched by the advance of time. One of them is in the Sierra de Francia, which owes its name to the repopulation initiated by Alfonso IX of León with settlers brought partly from France (Gascons and Burgundians). The Sierra de Salamanca Denominación de Origen is located in this corner, a place far from large urban centres and with winding roads that have served to maintain the essence of the place almost unaltered and in its purest state. 

To speak of this appellation is to speak of a place where there was no entry of foreign varieties, where vineyards were not replanted, at most they were abandoned due to the scarce profit margin left by these vineyards of steep slopes and costly tillage. That is why it is easy to understand that the most cultivated variety today is rufete (50%), tempranillo (40%), garnacha (5%) and only 5% of white varieties, mainly white rufete. This appellation is one of the smallest in Spain, with barely 120 hectares of vineyards in production, a trifle if we take into account that the area registered nearly 3,000 hectares of vineyards in the 1980s, which shows the dramatic decline of the vineyards in this unique landscape in just a few years.

Mogarraz, DOP Sierra de Salamanca headquarters

Sierra de Salamanca has all the arguments of an area of oenological interest. Vineyards settled on a diversity of soils, mainly granite and clay, but also Cornean soils, a transitional soil from slate to granite, and some corners of limestone not yet explored. It has different altitudes as a result of the confluence of three mountain ranges, La Sierra de Francia, Sierras de Béjar and Quilama and also plays with different orientations. Although in the past the most widespread orientation was East, the truth is that more and more producers are looking for freshness by playing with this orientation, which allows them to better adapt to the fluctuations that climate change is already generating. All these factors allow them to achieve different wine profiles.

The reds, the most developed category in the area today, pivot between single-varietal Rufete wines and those that are blends of varieties. Within the Rufete universe, there are two well-differentiated lines of work, those oriented towards the production of subtle and savoury wines, where barrel ageing is usually just another element to work with, and others where this ageing becomes the essence of the wine itself. Fortunately, the former are the most abundant, and when we say abundant we mean a tiny handful of wines, taking into account that only 40 references have been assessed this year in total, perhaps the most plentiful year in the Peñín Guide's memory.

What does Rufete smell like?

It is a little-known grape that is only present here and in Arribes del Duero, but it keeps interesting arguments inside that make us foresee that it will be more and more demanded. It is a grape that does not offer very alcoholic wines, and has a rich acidity and medium tannin, which makes it ideal for long ageing. Aromatically, it offers interesting hints of red fruit, such as strawberry, which, together with its refreshing acidity and low extraction, makes for wines that are easy to drink, but with the necessary intensity so that they do not pass the palate unnoticed. They also have a tendency to get reduced, so it is advisable to aerate them with time before tasting. This reductive tendency also acts as a limiting factor to oxidation, another argument for their producers to explore more openly the ageing of these wines.

The finest wines in the D.O. today also offer interesting nuances of wild herbs that turn Rufete wine into a kind of rustic wine. I understand this rusticity as a positive argument that takes us back to the rural and herbal essence of the environment, rich and varied as far as its plant population is concerned.

Although there are only 11 wineries, Sierra de Salamanca has doubled the number of winemakers in just a few years, which gives us an idea of the sweet moment that this young PDO, which was born in 2010, is going through. Of all the projects being developed there, there are two that have given a special boost to the area in recent years. We are talking about Cámbrico and Vinos la Zorra, wineries that bring us closer to the genius of the red rufete, but now also to the white rufete, a grape about which we still know very little and which has recently been incorporated into the DO, after finding out that it was found in its vineyard mixed with its red varieties and that it was not the white verdejo grape as initially thought.

Rufete blanca, opening the doors to the production of new wine profiles

In the last edition of the Guide we reported on a wine that opened up great possibilities for the area, the white rufete. It was through Viñas del Cámbrico Rufete Blanca 2019, one of the nominees for revelation wine of the year. Rufete was once, along with Calabrese (local clone of Garnacha) and Aragonese (local clone of Tempranillo), one of the most widely planted red grapes in the area, and Rufete Blanca was one of the most widely planted white grapes until phylloxera, when it began to be discontinued due to its low production. The most striking feature of this variety is its thick skin and good acidity, which translates into wines with greater weight on the palate and a freshness that will presumably allow it to age well. This was the first year we have been able to taste it under the protective seal of the Sierra de Salamanca DO, but the examples tasted do not yet have the same sensory interpretation. We have been able to see notes of white flowers and also that acidity we mentioned earlier. However, new olfactory registers have also appeared, such as aniseed notes and wild herbs, which makes us still doubt about the true character and varietal profile of this singular grape.

Rarely have we seen such a rapid rise of a producing region as this one. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Cebreros PDO, which we recently told you about. Both regions owe their soils to the origins of the Central System Mountain range, although they are different foothills. The most striking thing about Sierra de Salamanca compared to Cebreros is that its closer proximity to the Atlantic Ocean means that they have an average rainfall of over 1000 mm. The Sierra de Francia makes the prevailing climate in the area sub-humid Mediterranean, as it retains the clouds over its vineyards, as opposed to the continental Mediterranean climate that we can find in Cebreros.

The coming years will be frankly interesting in this small wine-producing corner, where the singularity of the environment only gives rise to the emergence of small producers. It is an opportunity to fight against the abandonment of the villages, very marked in the autonomous region of Castilla y León and especially in the province of Salamanca.

    Written by Javier Luengo, director editorial de Peñín

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