(Bron: Decanter.com Wednesday 11 February 2015 | by Sarah Jane Evans MW)
In less than 16 years, Javier Zaccagnini and Mariano Garcia have achieved their aim – to
make a wine in Ribera del Duero equal to the world’s best. Sarah Jane Evans MW meets the
duo and discovers the secrets of their success
Aalto at a glance
Appellation Ribera del Duero
Vineyards Owns or rents 110ha, made up of 200 plots, none bigger than 1ha, sourcing from
nine villages, and some new sites including in front of the winery
Grape variety Tempranillo, known in the region as Tinto Fino, with a thicker skin and a
smaller berry. Verdejo planted for a white wine project Soils Vineyard sites reflect Ribera del
Duero’s diversity: clay, limestone, sand and pebbles
Production Aalto’s production has been steady at around 200,000 bottles, but is now
increasing to 250,000. Production of PS is no more than 10,000 bottles
Exports 70% of production exported
How has Aalto made it to the top so quickly? The plan in 1999 was to ‘make a wine that in
the space of 15 to 20 years should reach the quality of the best wines in the world’. Many
would say it has already achieved this ambitious aim. Three facts are significant in explaining
the rapid ascent: old vines, insider knowledge and the remarkable duo behind the project.
To start with, the old vines. By seeking out plots of mature bush vines, Aalto never had to go
through the usual process of planting vines and having initial years of moderate success
while waiting for the wines to mature. Here comes the insider knowledge. Aalto winemaker
Mariano Garcia had been in charge of the wines at Vega Sicilia for 30 years, even before the
advent of the current owners. Meanwhile, managing director Javier Zaccagnini had been the
director of Ribera’s regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador, for six years. Between them,
they knew exactly where to look.
Meeting the pair, they seem an unlikely combination for success. Zaccagnini has an MBA,
speaks four languages, and is a man bounding with nervous energy, constantly alive with
ideas. Classical music is the soundtrack to his life and endless car journeys, and his partner
is a professional musician. Garcia is tall and long-limbed, with the glamour of a mature
rockstar. With his white hair and silver beard, plus a gold chain round his neck, the word
debonair could have been invented for him. If you attend a vertical of Vega Sicilia, you’ll be
tasting many of Garcia’s wines.
The two became friends working in Ribera del Duero, when Zaccagnini would bring visitors
to Vega Sicilia. By that time Garcia had already established his own project in Castilla y
León, Mauro, one which is now run by his son Eduardo. His other son Alberto is running the
Astrales winery in Ribera del Duero. When Garcia left Vega Sicilia, Zaccagnini’s proposal
that they start again, in the same region, to make the best wines using the best vine material,
in the way that he wanted, was too good to turn down.
In the beginning
Zaccagnini’s achievement has been to build a business where Garcia felt free to develop his
ideas and follow his own way of working. At dinner, he stresses Garcia’s significance:
‘Mariano is 80% of our success.’ The fact that we are all talking over a very good dinner is a
reminder that Garcia likes to make time for a really good meal. He’s recognised throughout
Spain for his seriousness about food: his office in the Mauro winery is covered with plaques
from organisations recognising the importance of his contribution to gastronomy. His wine
philosophy owes a good deal to his pleasures in the kitchen: ‘Don’t manage the wine too
much. Intervene at little as possible. The same goes for chefs.’
Garcia was ‘born in the vineyards’, as his great grandfather’s family had land in Castille. He
was encouraged to taste as a young man, and was attracted to the creativity in winemaking.
Zaccagnini’s own start in the world of wine was less promising. True, he was born in one of
the three great Sherry towns – El Puerto de Santa Maria – and his grandparents had a
bodega. However, neither of his parents drank. It wasn’t until he was 29 that ‘I suggested to
my brother that we do a wine appreciation course.’ He’d qualified as an agricultural engineer
and, being ‘ambitious’, ran not one but two businesses simultaneously. By then he had two
daughters but never saw them. ‘I was on the point of a heart attack. One day, driving home, I
was so stressed I stopped the car, lay back, looked at the roof and thought if I don’t stop
working like this I’ll be dead.’ He moved into a gourmet food business, bringing him closer to
the world of wine.
In 1992 Ribera’s fledgling Consejo Regulador, then just 10 years old, appointed him as
director. It urgently needed a blast of the Zaccagnini management magic. For instance: ‘We
had 600 growers producing fruit. At vintage they had to fill in paperwork for every load. By
the end of the harvest we had 30,000 chits to process. It took the consejo till March each
year to add up them up!’ His solution: a credit card for the growers.
A consejo is not always the most exciting place to work. But it was magic for Zaccagnini. He
ended up with the dream of having a bodega of his own.
Why call it Aalto? Because it’s a short, internationally pronounceable word, and one that has
the real advantage of appearing top of the list in any guide.
Aalto is a pure expression of Tempranillo. It might seem a curious choice to commit to one
variety when with a more extreme climate than Rioja there’s a risk of losing the crop. Garcia
is unperturbed, and loves the character of the wine: ‘Even St-Emilion [with Merlot] lacks the
subtlety of Tempranillo.’ He explains, ‘The Tempranillos in Rioja, Ribera, Toro, are all the
same genotype. But they are unlike the Ribera Tempranillo, which has adapted to our
The key to Aalto’s complexity is the choice of the best fruit from across Ribera del Duero’s
diverse terroirs. The top villages include Roa, La Horra, La Aguilera, Fresnillo and Moradillo.
People were territorial, set on keeping cuttings within each village so that today there is much
variation between villages. Zaccagnini says, ‘We could do a Burgundy style classification
here in Ribera if we wanted.’
Certainly there’s a lot to be said for the Burgundian comparison: turn the map of Ribera 90°
and it shows the same long, narrow shape and spread of villages. Indeed, Peter Sisseck of
Pingus, Hacienda Monasterio and Psi is part of a new long-term project with the Consejo to
map these soils. At Aalto, each plot is harvested and handled separately, with different oak
treatments. Aalto spends usually 20 months in oak, 50% new French, the other 50% one- to
three-year-old French and American. The small-production PS (Pagos Seleccionadas) sees
24 months in 100% new French oak. Both PS and Aalto are blended after ageing.
In good company
How then do they differ from Vega Sicilia? In one sense they are not directly comparable, as
neither Valbuena nor Unico is 100% Tempranillo. The former has a little less than 10% of
Merlot and Malbec; the latter, a similar dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Vega Sicilia wines
also undergo a different ageing regime. Valbuena spends 30 months in barrels and vats of
different ages and origins, with a further two years in bottle. Unico has 10 years of ageing
before release, while the Reserva Especial carries on the tradition of blending across three
vintages. These are wines built for the long haul.
Aalto and PS, by contrast, both 100% Tempranillo, with between 50% and 100% new oak,
are an obvious new generation, altogether more concentrated, bolder and more direct wines.
Liquorice, dark fruits, and fine oak dominate the palate. Perhaps the better comparison is
with Alión, a Vega Sicilia project started in Garcia’s time, which is a bold, modern statement
of 100% Tempranillo with 100% new French oak. Both share the same approach of superb
ripe fruit, with a similar focus on selection and concentration. Both are made for drinkers who
like their wines younger. Yet Aalto is still a baby compared to Alión, which was launched 13
years before, and it promises plenty.
After Aalto’s first decade, it acquired new backers in the form of the Masaveu family, which
owns the Fillaboa estate in Rías Baixas, among others. Zaccagnini is very comfortable: ‘They
understand the nature of the wine business and are very hands-off. Everything is reinvested
into the very best equipment for the winery.’ Their support means that building has begun
again on the discreetly positioned winery, as well as the continued investment in plantings of
carefully selected vines for decades ahead.
Looking forward to the next 15 to 20 years, Garcia and Zaccagnini will have to think about a
succession plan, for a new team to build on their achievement. Surely no successors will
ever be as interesting, diverting and contrasting as Garcia and Zaccagnini – or as good
company. Whoever it is, though, can be sure that Aalto has been created on that most
secure foundation, fine old vines.
Aalto: a timeline
1978 Mariano Garcia (above) founds Mauro winery in Castilla y León
1992-1998 Javier Zaccagnini is director of the Consejo Regulador, the regulatory board for
Ribera del Duero
March 1998 Garcia leaves Vega Sicilia, where he has worked for 30 years
February 1999 Aalto founded, to make two wines: Aalto and, in exceptional years, a small
production of PS (Pagos Seleccionados: ‘selected vineyards’)
2000 Planted 12ha in Quintanilla de Arriba, around the site for the winery
2011 First commercial launch of Zaccagnini’s Sei Solo
Aalto: Sei Solo
This is Javier Zaccagnini’s own project, launched in 2011, from 60-year-old wines in La
Horra. As he says, ‘Aalto was Mariano’s project; I wanted one of my own.’ His focus is on
developing a Burgundian-style Tinto Fino with more elegance and less power than is
common in Ribera del Duero. As a result there is no new oak.
The small-scale production is fermented in four small 20hl vats; the alcoholic and malolactic
fermentations are spontaneous; no press wine is added to boost the concentration. ‘I wanted
to forget about structure and power; that’s not my style.’ The wines are matured in 228-litre
and 600-litre, two-year-old French oak barrels.
The final blend creates two wines: Sei Solo, of which there were 1,200 bottles in 2011, and
Preludio, 4,000 bottles. And the name? Stemming from his great love of music, it comes from
six solo masterpieces for the violin, by Bach.
Five of the best from Zaccagnini & Garcia
Aalto, PS 2004
Fascinating insight into ageability of PS (Pagos Seleccionadas) in a very good year.
Gloriously aromatic, floral, and black fruits. Bright, fresh, complex, with a clean, mineral
edge. Still so young, a sign of the potential of Ribera del Duero.
Drink 2015- 2025
Sei Solo 2012
Glorious mineral elegance. A big wine with a warm alcohol depth. Intense dark fruit with a
long, finely textured, intense finish.
Aalto, PS 2011
A vividly powerful Ribera del Duero, showing what this region is capable of using old vines,
and thick-skinned Tinto Fino. Dense and spicy, with black fruits, and liquorice and fennel
complexity. Oak gives fine smokiness. Flinty, mineral finish.
Drink 2018- 2030
Spicy, glossy Tinto Fino, showing a fine-tuned midpalate, with some slightly drying, dusty
tannins. An enticing richness of quality fruit (suggesting sweet blueberries) with a savoury
seasoning. The oak is a feature, but the quality is fine and balances the richness. Very big
with a warm ripple of alcohol. 50% new oak – 85% French oak and 15% American.
Sei Solo, Preludio 2012
Boldly aromatic with black fruits, fine leather and liquorice. Signs of fine oak barrels lead the
palate. Dense, excellent fruit matched by spicy palate. Four-square structure. Fermented in
small oak vats in a corner of the winery and aged in oak barrels for 18 months. A very
promising beginning to the project.