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Alfredo Maestro

When we first Google Alfredo Maestro, the top video search that pops up is ‘Alfredo Maestro on finding aliens in his vineyard’ and we know instantly that Alfredo is our kind of winemaker. This comes as no surprise to us. After all, we’ve been obsessed with Alfredo’s ‘El Marciano Garnacha’ cuvée for as long as we can remember, so we’re more excited than ever to sit down and chat to the rockstar of the Ribera del Duero region.

This region is one of Spain’s most conservative and classical wine regions. It takes serious gumption to work non-conventionally in a region known for its hard-nosed approach to winemaking, but Alfredo works to his own rules and conventions. He starts off by telling us that, although he’s technically within the Ribera del Duero region, he classifies himself as being part of Castilla y León. There’s more of a sense of community, he tells us, and he is not confined to the D.O. regulations of the region. It makes complete sense. These are wines for sharing with friends and family—your community—and let’s be honest: there’s a time and a place for taking life a little too seriously, and this is certainly not it.

From the second you sit down with Alfredo (albeit through a screen), you feel at ease. Nothing in life is too serious; too pressing. We laugh about technology failing us (the hot topic of 2021) and then all of a sudden a duck quacks in the background, and we’re instantly transported all the way to his bucolic home in Castilla y León. One more quack, and we can’t help but cease caring about the technological hiccups. 

Ducks and aliens. We tighten our metaphorical seatbelts. 

Meet Alfredo Maestro

Alfredo is a modest pioneer. Entirely self taught, Alfredo began working with wine in the late 1990s after having studied Economics in the Basque Country. Originally hailing from Peñafiel, a village in the middle of Spain in Castilla y León, Alfredo transitioned to wine simply because it was his passion.

“Neither my father nor my extended family have any relation to wine. My family were actually fishermen, and at the age of 30 I was still living in the Basque Country, in Bilbao.” 

Life as an Economist wasn’t for him, but we brush over the topic because it’s evident that it’s just not important. Despite his studies, it was always going to be wine. And, specifically, back to his roots in Peñafiel.

“My very first contact with wine professionally was whilst doing a tasting with friends in Madrid.” 

The match that lit the flame. Having grown up amongst the vines in the Ribera del Duero, Alfredo was accustomed to the ins and outs of winemaking; he had seen many old winemakers and growers work their farms through the years. But despite being passionate about wine, the idea of becoming a winemaker and selling his produce hadn’t yet crossed his mind.

“The next step for me was planting some vineyards in Peñafiel (in 1998) at the back of my father’s house. But this wine was for our family to drink — my father, my brothers, my friends. I never thought that I might sell the wine in Spain… or anywhere else in the world for that matter.” 

Commercial interest or not, Alfredo continued with his mission to make wines for his community. 

“Step-by-step I studied auto-diadactially. I studied books and then I practiced the technical stuff from the books. And step-by-step, I made a wine — a couple of wines — and then I aged them. This was an older style of Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero. It was a ‘Super’ Tempranillo.”

This very first vineyard planted was ‘Almate’ (an acronym for Al-fredo; Ma-estro) on the Rio Duraton near his home town in the Ribera del Duero, planted to 100% Tempranillo. With this first experimental cuvée came the realisation that both his friends and family enjoyed his wine—really enjoyed his wine.

And then, by chance, an elderly man from Peñafiel offered Alfredo his old vineyard. He was no longer able to maintain the vines because of his age.

“I began to recuperate the land because it was completely intoxicated from the herbicides and other things that it had been fed. I put my knowledge of biodynamics and natural farming techniques into practice. I began to take these grapes from the very old vines, and started to experiment with making different wines: white with Albillo Mayor, and rosé with Garnacha Tintorera.”

And despite his very first foray into wine being fairly classical,  it didn’t take long for this self-trained grower/winemaker to veer off-piste—not only by working organically and against the grain, but also in his inadvertent decision to start making wine to sell.

“This kind of winemaking is not often allowed in Ribera del Duero but I’m not defined by Ribera del Duero; I’m in Castilla y León. From then on I began to make different wines using local varieties. In Ribera del Duero, they only permit Tempranillo. But I use Garnacha Tintorera, Albillo Mayor, and of course a little bit of Tempranillo, and Garnacha.” 

He smiles, 

“My friends and my clients tasted these wines and they said they were good; interesting. It was a new imagining of the Ribera del Duero.”

The Vineyards

Over the next few years, Alfredo became known for his work restoring and reviving overgrown and neglected vineyards. Consequently, more and more elderly and retiring winemakers began to hand over their struggling vineyards for Alfredo to rejuvenate.

“Because of this, I started to move to other areas around Peñafiel. Nowadays I make wine mainly in Ribera del Duero, in Cigales, which is the capital of Castilla y León and famous for rosé, and also Sierra de Gredos, which is my newest discovery. I discovered Gredos in 2012; it’s surrounded by two huge mountains just near Madrid.” 

He adds,

“These days, I’m making roughly 115,000 bottles per year, across 13 different labels.”

In Ribera del Duero there are three main types of soil. At the bottom of the valley, the soils are alluvial—wines become finer, more elegant and with higher acidity. In the hills, the soil is clay, which gives good ageing, and more structure. The combination of both produces a typical Ribera del Duero wine. At the top of the valley, the soil often features limestone, and is calcareous. The wines produced from this area also tend to have  high acidity, thanks to the high elevation.

“When I planted my first vineyard – Almate – I planted 18% Tempranillo, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Nowadays this vineyard is only for my family, for my home. It’s not something I really commercialise anymore.”

He adds,

“In 2000, I used this vineyard to make the first Vina Almate. I used 100% stems in this wine and I aged it for six to nine months in barrel. Nowadays, it doesn’t touch oak. It’s also 100% Tempranillo - which is so different from what I had imagined ten years ago.”

Every vineyard that Alfredo has inherited – or been gifted – has more or less previously  been in a state of abandonment. After years of little to no work, but a heavy use of chemicals, they were all struggling. But there’s always a silver lining.

“The positive thing was that, since most vineyards were abandoned, the soils had started to recuperate themselves. Most vineyard owners in the area work with a lot of herbicides and so this has often meant that when I take over the land, I need two, three or even four years to recuperate the soils. And I have to recuperate the soil rather than the plants because the plants eat from the soil. The soil is the food, and so I must look after it.”

In Alfredo’s early days as a winemaker, he used chemicals. He doesn’t shy away from this fact – and why would he? It’s an integral part of the learning process for many winemakers. In 2000, Alfredo began to remove chemical treatments and started the process of converting to organic farming. He started by removing all additions in both the vineyards and the cellar, and it was at this time that his friends and family started to tell him that his wines tasted like ‘other’ wines. They meant this in a positive sense – they were not like the typical wines of the Ribera del Duero.

“But I didn't have a system for natural wine. I only know my soul and my history as a winemaker. I discovered that I must express the soil, the plant. If the soil has some characteristics, these characteristics are important for my style of wine. If you want another style of wine, a wine that requires aging for example, you must look for other soil. To know his tools—the soil, the plants, the weather—is the role of the winemaker. He does not need chemical tools.”

Alfredo has taken this belief in his stride. His work in the vineyard reflects his values outside of the vines, and his work restoring and working with older vines and local varieties has not gone unnoticed—in fact, quite the opposite. 

“I’ve been working for 20 years, and in that time I have acquired newer vineyards (around 15 years old) and older vineyards, some of which are 115 years old. I have a mix, but these days it’s roughly 25% older vines and the rest are younger.” 

He continues,

“I have no problem with the younger vines – they produce very good fruit to make a younger wine, like Vina Almate, and the older vineyards are good for making more perfumed, complex, more mineral wines. Having different vineyards also allows me to achieve more acidity. I have a lot of vineyards at the top of the mountains.”

Both the younger and older vines together offer something different to his portfolio.

“They both [older and younger vines] help to give a lot of different colours to the palate. They let me make a good, balanced wine without adding anything external to it. And for me, that’s always a good thing.”

Nowadays, he tells us, the fact that he has a bit more money and is a more established winemaker permits him to work with more natural viticultural methods. The state of his land and work are constantly evolving. 

"Some of the very old vineyards were planted when they were working with 'old tractors'; i.e. horses. So the spacing in between the plants is much narrower on these old plots. Nowadays, the distance between the vines is much wider, because man—and tractors–need this distance. The vines don't need this distance."

Alfredo works according to the ancestral methods where possible:

“Nowadays, I maintain the same ‘machines’ as before—horses, donkeys…”

The Wines

The transition from technological winemaking to artisan, low-intervention winemaking was a no-brainer for Alfredo.

“When I began in 1998, I was studying modern oenology. And modern oenology is technology. The modern oenologist always makes wine with added ‘things’ - yeasts, chemicals, all of it.”

He—like so many other oenology students—began by using all of these additions in the winery. But he didn’t like the wines, he tells us.

“Someone in my family is a really important oenologist in Ribera del Duero. I asked him, ‘Alvaro, why does my wine have less colour than your wine?’ To which he replied; ‘Alfredo, it’s because we add colour to our wines.’’ This answer made me think: why does there need to be so much added? The soil and the grapes become lost, and the wines are no longer really about the grape or the vintage.”

He decided to take out all of the unnecessary additions, only adding sulfites and tartaric acid in the first and second year. 

“Nowadays, I don’t add anything to the wines at all. My friends, my clients, and I all note that these wines are ‘more wine’. They have an ‘air’ of wine; of grapes. In Spanish, we call it ‘vinoso’ which means ‘of relation’ to wine. We shouldn’t have to say this, but we do.”

Some years later, after having made wine in this way for ten years, Alfredo visited some wine fairs in Spain with other natural winemakers. They asked him how he makes his wine.

“I explained it: ‘Grapes. Fermentation. And that’s it, that is the wine.’ To which they replied: ‘Ah, but of course, you make natural wine.’ ” 

He shrugs. 

“But I don’t know or make ‘natural wines’, this is just my normal wine. If my wine is natural, then that’s perfect — that’s great. However I never use the term ‘natural wines’ for selling or on the label. For me, the most important thing is that the wine must be high quality. And after that, if it’s also natural, then that’s great. But the first requirement must be that the wine is high quality. Always.”

Alfredo harvests by hand. When the grapes arrive in the cellar, they’re hand-sorted and then it is decided if they will be de-stemmed. The decision whether or not to de-stem, and how long the maceration will be, is always done in collaboration with what the grapes are like in that vintage.

“We only do punch downs, no pump overs. We do battonage and pigeage every day, except for the white and rosé. The rosé is always direct-press (without maceration), and the white always has one week of skin contact.”

The winemaking technique for the reds depends on the cuvée. For example, for El Marciano, there are always stems included, and for Vina Almate it depends on the year; whether or not it has been humid, or particularly dry. The acidity also dictates how a wine is thought about in that particular year.

“I try to always have a mix of varieties in different tanks so that I am always able to make balanced blends. To me, wine is always a reflection of place and so therefore one tank can sometimes have very high acidity, which is due to the area the grapes are from. Sometimes, I have to wait for a tank with less acidity to finish fermenting so that I can create more balance in the finished wine."

Alfredo’s 13 cuvées are well known for their playful depiction of winemaking (and of life). El Marciano, Alfredo’s ‘Martian’ cuvée is one you might have spotted from afar on a shop countertop.

“El Marciano has a wonderful history. The Martian is from the top of the Sierra de Gredos, a mountain with 1,200 meters of altitude. I discovered the area because my doctor had taken over a vineyard there when his father died.” 

He smiles,

“He didn’t know anything about the vineyard, and so he said to me, ‘Alfredo, please come here and help me.’ This was in 2012. I went to visit this magnificent area, and I said to Paco, ‘No problem, this vineyard is for me.’ ”

As luck would have it, Paco’s family owned other vineyards in the area which they also gave to Alfredo that same year—four more vineyards. In the space of just eight years, his production increased 20-fold. 

“Year on year, people say to me: ‘Alfredo, this vineyard is for you!’ because the owners and growers are getting very old.”

We digress, back to the Martian.

“This area is so special; I have had strange experiences — it’s a hot area for extraterrestrial activity and for UFOs. On this label, you have two martians working in my vineyards in the middle of the night. I arrive at the vineyard in the morning, and discover the two martians working there. I say to them: ‘Sorry, what are you doing in my vineyards?’ ”

We laugh, and ask if this happened IRL. Alfredo chuckles.

“No, no. This was my imagination. However, the name is singular – El Marciano or ‘the martian’ – and so a lot of people say to me: ‘Alfredo, you are the martian’. That’s you arriving on Mars.”

The wine is 100% Garnacha; showing the potential of this variety in the region, and highlighting Alfredo’s daring and independent way of thinking. 

“Nowadays, all of the wineries here are changing to use other varieties. The problem with Tempranillo is that they clone it — the ‘new’ Tempranillo is very different to the ‘old’ Tempranillo. The grapes from the old selections are similar in size to my hand, more or less, and the ones from the modern clones are more similar to a 1L bottle of water. They’re so big.”

Thankfully, local wineries are starting to change their views with blends introduced across different varieties. Garnacha, for example, is nowadays permitted at a low percentage. But all wines from the region must have at least 75% of Tempranillo, and then there are the rest — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Albillo Mayor. 

Lovamor, another of our favourite cuvées from Alfredo, is inspired by a combination of the words ‘love’ and ‘wolf’ — ‘lov’ and ‘lovo’. A single variety wine made with Albillo grapes, the grapes are harvested from vineyards planted over 100 years ago (between 1981 and 1910), and which were planted at different elevations (between 770 and 1000 metres). This means that the soil compositions vary wildly, giving the vineyards a really special character.

And, of course, the label tells a story.

“Lovamor was drawn by an illustrator; my son’s talented friend Michel. It shows little Red Riding Hood and the wolf kissing. I always say to him: ‘Michel, I have an idea… I went to the vineyard, and I discovered two martians working there…’ and he simply sketches it.”

And then there’s the label inspired by Bowie – El Rey del Glam. Not just the label, but the wine also. It’s 100% Garnacha, half harvested from the Sierra de Gredos and half from Peñafiel. It’s a little bit zippy and unexpected; energetic, just like Bowie himself. 

“But Michel is 23 years old,” Alfredo laughs. “And he doesn’t know David Bowie. So I sent him the song and I said ‘Michel, what do you think of this song?’ and he drew this label from his reaction. All of my labels have a little bit of history, or at the very least, a story.”

And it reminds us that it’s not just at the table that wine unites generations. It’s at every step of the process; from harvest, to bottling, to creating a label (and expressly bonding over Bowie’s music). And of course, you have the ‘history’ told through the bottle, which is as much an indication of the generation telling the story as the wine itself. 

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