A century of Spanish treasure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 1999, 12:00am

In a tiny field of sun-baked clay in the valley of Spain's River Duero, there is a patch of bushy tinto fino vines. The trunks are gnarled, twisted and tortured by a century of freezing winters and summers of blazing, arid heat.

This vineyard is an oddity; its vines could be the oldest in Europe.

Inio Manso de Zuniga Ugartechea sweeps his hands over a vista of Castille's high plains. There are clumps of pines, wide fields of golden wheat and the green-dotted slopes where clumps of tinto fino grow like bushes.

In the 1890s, the dreaded phylloxera louse swept the vineyards of Europe and virtually wiped out Europe's wine industries. It was decades before they recovered, planted largely on clippings of American root stock.

But in this small corner of the wide valley of the River Duero, the vines thrived. The valley is surrounded by a swath of sandy soil - phylloxera cannot survive in sand, so these hardy vines kept giving grapes.

They still do, says Inio Manso, pointing to a clump of pea-sized grapes. 'They're still working,' he says with pride. The louse came to the area in 1899, so all these vines are at least a century old. He uses the compact grapes in his most special vintages of Bodega Valduero wines.

For 400 years, tinto fino wines have matured in the family cellars. The grape is a cousin of Spain's renowned tempranillo vine, one that has over the centuries adapted to the high plateau's extremes. The fruit survives by producing small berries. Man helps by allowing the grapes to sprawl over the ground, giving the fruit shelter from the sun.

The resultant wine is of a pleasing purplish hue glinting with scarlet, a penetrating nose and a long-lasting intensity of fruit flavour on the palate.

Imported by Vin de Vin Ltd (fax: 2541 6168), the 95 Valduero crianza is a solid buy for $136. This is a great food wine and goes very nicely with all red meats. I found in Spain that you can also drink this very well with roast chicken and stewed codfish.

Like many regions of Spain, Castille is going to great lengths to re-invent its wine industry. This is particularly true of the Ribero del Duero area, which now has its own self-imposed committee of winegrowers that strictly polices the industry.

To raise standards, the Duero grape-growers and winemakers insist on basic rules. Only the tinto fino grape can be widely grown and all wines bearing the Duero heraldic shield must have at least 75 per cent of this grape in the blend.

The idea is to get away from the image that Spanish wine is stamped out by a bunch of horny-heeled peasants.

Now wineries are crammed with the most expensive equipment from Italy and Germany and the wine matures in expensive casks made of French or American oak.

The most famous vineyard in Spain, Vega Sicilia, is in the heart of the Duero, giving neighbours an example of excellence that they plan to follow.