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September 28, 2015

Q & A with Javier Zaccagnini of Bodegas Aalto

Recently Javier Zaccagnini shared with us the following Q & A, which succinctly explains the origins and practices at Bodegas Aalto in Ribera del Duero.

Aalto in autumn

Aalto in autumn

When was Bodegas Aalto founded?

February 1999.

What vintage was its first release?

1999, although that year we had to buy grapes.  We like to consider 2000 our first vintage as we had then achieved contracts for renting vineyards and had full control on the cultivation of the grapes we used.

How many hectares of vineyards do you harvest?


How many hectares do you own?


Where are the vineyards located?

In 9 villages of the Ribera del Duero: two in the province of Valladolid (Piñel and Quintanilla) and seven in the province of Burgos  (La Horra, Roa, Aguilera, Fresnillo, Moradillo, Fuentecen, Baños)


Aalto vineyard locations

What is the average age of the vines?

60 years old

Are all the vines “tinto fino”? Any special characteristics about them?

Yes, we believe that only Tinto Fino ripens to perfection in the Ribera del Duero. But to achieve complexity and balance our winemaking philosophy makes us go voluntarily to owing/ renting old vineyards in as many different villages of Ribera del Duero as possible.

When we founded the winery, Mariano told me: we will only use one grape variety, Tempranillo, but that poses a problem: balance and complexity.  The way to solve it is to buy or rent old vineyards in many different villages of Ribera del Duero, because there are small differences of climate, being a region that “descends” from the 920m of altitude in Soria to 750m in Valladolid. There is a big variation in soils – it changes like in Burgundy; we can drive 3 kms and find three different soils (clay, sand, pebbles, chalk, limestone, cobble stones …)  And very importantly, the type of Tempranillo varies from one village another, if we consider 60+ years old vines. Therefore if we harvest separately, ferment separately and age in oak separately every village, we have a wealth of styles that can be blended to achieve balance and complexity, in the same way that they blend in Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – to achieve the same goal.

Very old vines in the village of La Aguilera

Very old vines in the village of La Aguilera

Tell me about your winemaking techniques:

The most important words here would be “it depends”. Mariano does not follow a predefined technique but adapts his winemaking to the characteristics of the vintage. I have witnessed him have pre maceration ( cold soak) of more than one week, post maceration of nearly one month (!!), or no cold soak at all or no post maceration at all, depending on the years. Also he has sometimes rather early or rather late, comparing to most of the wineries of Ribera del Duero, depending on the years, etc.  After 16 years seeing him make wine and working closely together, I can tell you that he is an artist who feels the vintage, both with technical background and intuition, and acts as his heart tells him.

Are the wines aged in barrels? French or American?

Yes , all our wines are aged in barrels (225 and 228 litre). For AALTO we use an average of 20% American and 80% French barrels, of which 50% new and 50% up to three years old. Malolactic 80% in stainless steel tanks and 20% in barrel. For AALTO PS we use 100% French and 100% new. Malolactic in new barrels.

Aalto Barrel Cellar

The 2012 vintage resting in barrel

What was the 2012 growing season like? How would you evaluate its quality?

Extremely interesting vintage, it made us see that we will never stop learning and understanding Ribera del Duero:  it was one of the most dry growing seasons in the D.O. It didn’t rain practically in November, December, January, February and March. When we called disaster, it rained a lot in April. Then in May the vines sprouted happily as they had water in the earth. But that water was merely 100 litres per sq meter (average in the region 350 to 400 litres) therefore by end of June the water was used and gone.  A hot summer made the plants suffer, speaking in general about the whole of the region, and by beginning of September we were about to throw in the towel – and producers were in despair expecting a low quality harvest. When we got rain the first week of September, about 50 litres, the plants took the water in quickly,  got new energy and tone, processed happily that water and had enough time to ripen with unexpected quality before we started harvest on the 2nd of October.

We at AALTO had a different scenario, as most of our vineyards are very old. In years like this the old plants, that over the years have developed deep roots, do not suffer so much from drought, as they have humidity down below, regardless of the average rainfall of that particular year.  We were both happy and surprised to see how the wines evolved in the barrel to achieve a high quality.

What is your goal with Aalto?

Our goal was from day one to enjoy life through making what we like most: wine. And also to try to make a wine that would reach the quality of the best of the world in 20 to 30 years. We believe that the Ribera del Duero and the old vines of Tinto Fino can offer, in great years, the same quality and therefore potential that any top regions and grape varieties can provide (Bordeaux , Rhone, Burgundy, to name a few). Therefore it was up to us to do the rest, if we proved able to.

How do you see Aalto wines as similar to or different from other Ribera del Duero wines?

Both – it is not a contradiction, I think! Typicity and style are different but not exclusive concepts. We use old-vine Tinto Fino, in many of the best, traditional villages of the D.O., so we make a wine that necessarily and fortunately reflects the typicity and spirit of the D.O. But at the same time, Mariano’s experience and constant evolution in his mastery provides winemaking that is unique to AALTO – even different from Mauro or San Roman, his other two properties. He does not copy himself! I see him as a top chef in a starred restaurant: with the same raw material than others, he can offer his own and personal dishes, different from everyone else.