|

Two Victorias, twice the pleasure

by William Campbell

Two of the hottest women winemakers in Spain today are named Victoria, so when they banded together to start a new winery, it was hardly surprising that they decided to call it Dos (two) Victorias.

When the first vintage of their unoaked Verdejo won the Best White Wine from Spain award from Revista Gourmet magazine, and subsequent vintages garnered 95-point scores from influential critic Robert Parker, they were described as overnight miracles — angels who had appeared from nowhere.

Yet this writer came away from a recent visit with them in Spain reminded of the parable of the master plumber called in to fix a problem with an ancient boiler, in which the plumber takes out a small hammer and, with one hard thwack, fixes the problem. Upon being presented with a bill for $1,000, the building’s owner says, “That’s an outrage, all you did was hit the boiler with a tiny hammer.” The plumber calmly ripped up the bill, and made a new one which read, “Hitting boiler: $10; knowing where to hit boiler: $990.”

Although they are certainly angelic, the two Victorias — Victoria Pariente and Victoria Benavides — didn’t just descend from vinious heaven; they spent years acquiring knowledge, and they knew just where to hit.

Pariente came from a wine family and grew up skipping through her father’s vineyards. She went on to get a degree in chemistry and oenology (the study of wine and winemaking) at the University of Madrid. Meanwhile, Benavides was studying viticulture at the University of Bordeaux in France.

The two met in 1988, when they joined the oenology laboratory of the local government of Castilla y Leon, Spain’s largest autonomie (autonomous region), which covers 93,000 sq. km in the vast high plateaus north and west of Madrid.

Over the course of 10 years working together in the government office that oversaw regional wine production, the two Victorias were exposed to a full spectrum of microclimates, varietals (from local mutations of Tempranillo to the latest new-world Sauvignon Blanc clones) and winemaking techniques. Primitively made, heavily oxidized rancio wines — literally “rancid” — were still common in some areas.

Their experience at the lab led to the idea to start their own winery, one which would focus on native grape varietals and traditional winemaking techniques. Yet at the same time, Pariente and Benavides agreed they wouldn’t shun modern science.

In 1998, they quit their jobs and produced their first vintage — an unoaked white wine made from Verdejo grapes grown in Pariente’s paternal vineyard in the Rueda region, about 150 km northwest of Madrid.

Rueda Province had been famous for centuries for wines made from the Verdejo grape, although most were heavily oxidized, sherry-style offerings. Pariente and Benavides believed that by limiting oxygen contact during fermentation, they could make a crisp, vibrant white more compatible with modern tastes.

In the meantime, their search for the perfect region for red-wine grapes finally lead them to the province of Toro, directly to the west of Rueda. Toro is wild and remote, with growing conditions that, even charitably, might best be described as “severe.”

Yet precisely this remoteness and these challenging conditions led to the development over the centuries of a variant of the Tempranillo grape known locally as Tinto de Toro. The harsh growing environment (all vineyards are located 600 meters above sea level) and thick skins of the Tinto de Toro grapes result in a wine of greater weight and extraction than the typical Tempranillo.

Their initial attempts to purchase vineyards in the Toro region failed. No one would risk backing two unproven women in a male-dominated industry.

But in their quest for the best old-vine vineyards in Toro, Pariente and Benavides discovered an untapped secret. The old farmers in the region’s small villages possessed finely detailed knowledge of the history of each of the vineyards in their area. In exchange for an attentive listener, the two were taken under the wings of the villages’ wise men and learned the history of each vineyard’s successes and failures.

They were eventually directed to Elias Mora, a wizened, elderly farmer who, charmed by their vision, sold them eight hectares of old-vine Tinto de Toro located just outside the village of San Roman de Hornija, in the heart of Toro.

Now they had grapes, but were only borrowing winemaking facilities.

Soon after, however, their first white wine, the 1998 unoaked Jose Pariente Verdejo (named after Victoria Pariente’s father), won the prestigious Best White Wine in Spain award.

Based on this newfound fame, they were able to secure financing to build their own winery in 2000. Since then, they have produced two whites each year (an oaked and unoaked Jose Pariente Verdejo) and three reds (the entry-level Vinas Elias Mora, Elias Mora Crianza and Gran Elias Mora). The reds are named in honor of the gentleman who sold them their top vineyard, and all are made from 100 percent Tinto de Toro grapes, although only the Gran Elias Mora comes from the eponymous vineyard.

The 2001 Gran Elias Mora, only the second vintage to come out of the new winery, was awarded a whopping 95 points by Robert Parker, who described it as a “magnificent, dense, purple-colored effort, which boasts a sweet perfume of roasted meats, scorched earth, blackberry liqueur and cassis,” which perfectly summarizes the best characteristics of Toro, wrestled into the bottle by angelic winemakers.

If it is true that chance favors the prepared mind, then perhaps the equivalent vinious phrase would run something along the lines of “talent, charm and active listening favor the prepared vintner.”

The Dos Victorias wines are available directly from Spanish trading house Triphol Corporation (www.triphol.jp). My favorites are the unoaked 2005 Jose Pariente Verdejo (¥3,580) and the 2004 Gran Elias Mora (¥11,090). Share your summer wine recommendations by e-mailing vinelandtalk@hotmail.com