Spain’s best wine region using an ancient technique of ‘layering’ centuries-old vines

José Antolín grew up in a small village in Spain, which was home to only a few hundred people in the 1930s to 1950s; even today, only about 250 people still reside there. Like many of their neighbours, her family was very poor as there was very little work and just putting food on the table was a constant weekly challenge. Almost an hour away, in the historic city of Burgos, there was an opportunity for the Antolin family to open a garage to repair cars and tractors as many wheat farmers surrounded the town as well as a booming industrial economy where many locals earned a good living. In 1950, José and his brother invented rubber-to-metal steering joints in automobiles helping to extend the life of this component; Fast forward to today, the family business, Antolín Group, a Spanish multinational that designs and manufactures parts for car interiors, has sales in the billions of dollars and has its components in nine of ten best-selling vehicles in the world.

But over time, the threatened rural way of life began to concern José Antolín. He feared that many small villages, like the one he grew up in, would disappear and industrial agriculture would take over the land. And so his deep love for the century-old Tempranillo bush vines that existed in the Ribera del Duero wine region, which surrounds the charming city of Burgos – extending to the west and east – will lead him and three other business partners to create the wine company Bodegas Imperiales in 1998.

José named the winery Abbey of San Quirce after the 12th century abbey he purchased in the region and the name of the winery is a symbol of his fierce commitment to protecting the history of his homeland. Over time, José bought out the other owners so he could run Abadía San Quirce alone because he was fiercely passionate about maintaining the old ways of growing vines, which didn’t make financial sense, and he keeps alive a technique called ‘overlay‘ which allows the century-old vines to live, in a way, indefinitely.

Abadía San Quirce in Ribera del Duero

Abadía San Quirce sources the fruit from vineyards they own and works with multi-generational winemakers, and almost 20% of the vines they work with are pre-phylloxera vines over 100 years old. Pre-phylloxera vines are today rare and precious pearls because many vines in the world must be grafted on American rootstocks to fight against the phylloxera louse which devastated European vineyards in the middle of the 19th century; therefore working with some of the oldest vines in Ribera del DueroSpain.

But the ancient technique of layering will allow these centuries-old vines to survive beyond their own lifespan. Vines can reproduce asexually, and so if one bury a shoot from an existing century-old vine right next to it, the buried shoot will be able to grow roots from the dormant buds in that shoot. Over time, a vine, which will be trellised like a bush vine, will grow and will be an extension of this century-old vine. The mother vine (original 100-year-old vine) and the new daughter vine (produced from the mother’s shoot) will stay connected for as long as necessary, according to Abadía San Quirce winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos. But sometimes the sprout is cut off if the daughter vine has matured enough to have deep roots, but it will still be as close as a vine can get to that mother vine as far as its DNA is concerned. Diana notes that their old vines are part of the expression of their terroir (sense of place) and therefore going all the way to keep some of these centuries-old vines alive, even in another century, is essential for Abadía San Quirce. .

Diana said the older vines produce significantly lower yields and the grapes are much more concentrated and complex – expressing more of a sense of place than the younger vines – but there is an added benefit of their high tolerance to drought and to diseases. She even experiments with these qualities in their other vines which are between 50 and 65 years old and says the wine produced from these older vines is more “balanced” than what is made from younger vines. Abadía San Quirce likes to bottle their “younger vines” in their own bottling as the grapes have much more fruit expression which can be enjoyed younger, however, the youngest vines they use are at good maturity between 15 and 25 years old, which is remarkable considering that many other wine producers around the world consider vines to be at the end of their life at 25 years instead of the beginning.

Whether owned by Abadía San Quirce or family growers, all vineyards are managed solely by hand without any mechanical assistance, as this is the best way to avoid damaging old vines. All of their vines are bush vines which are buried directly in the ground without the use of foreign rootstocks, as they are not concerned that phylloxera will destroy the roots or the base of the plants as they have sandy soils in their vineyards that phylloxera does not like. . “Every vine we plant intends to one day become a century-old vine,” Diana explains.

Living in the Vines

The distant past becomes more vivid as one ages and the immediate present begins to fade. It may be because when you no longer have to work long hours to build and maintain something important for your family, you can rest and reflect on the values ​​passed on to you as a child.

There were many difficult times for José Antolín who grew up poor in a sparsely populated rural village, but there were also beautiful times when a community came together to maintain these precious aspects of their village, such as the sweat and blood that have been given to the care of these people. bush vines, so that those same plants can be passed on to their great-great-grandchildren and beyond.

And so, even though José Antolín gave back a thousand times to his great community in his province by creating an automotive components company that created jobs, resources and opportunities, he never forgot the small farming villages that represent the heart and soul of his family. And so he does everything in his power to ensure that the people of these rural townships have a reason to stay and can pass on the old vines for centuries to come…ensuring that the sacrifices of past generations do not die if fast but instead are always there to remind future locals who they are, where they come from and the pride that comes from being rooted in such a place.

All Abadía San Quirce wines are made from the bush Tempranillo grape – known in Tinta del País in the villages where their vineyards are located in Ribera del Duero. They only use vineyards on their estate, or family vineyards they have helped run for decades, they will never buy grapes from other vineyards even if yields are meager due to frost. Most of the vineyards peak around 800 meters above sea level and are mostly made up of sandy soils that bring an “elegance” to their wines, according to winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos.

2020 Abadía San Quirce ‘6 Meses’ Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo that are between 20 and 25 years old – some of their youngest vines. A deliciously generous wine with notes of dried blueberries and candied currants with hints of cinnamon bark and a round body with a juicy finish. It is only aged six months in oak barrels and hence its name.

2018 Abadía San Quirce, Crianza, Ribera del Duero: 100% Tempranillo from bush vines that average around 40 years old. Dusty rock with pretty red strawberries and a good weight on the palate with an intriguing note of sandalwood incense with a fine texture.

2016 Abadía San Quirce, Reserva, Ribera del Duero: 100% Tempranillo from bush vines that average around 50 years old. The Reserva has not yet been released and is therefore a preview bottling. Complex nose of fresh leather, black olive and rich cassis with tighter tannins and deeper concentration – built to age.

2019 Abadía San Quirce ‘M9’ Ribera del Duero: 100% Tempranillo from 65-year-old bush vines. This is a unique wine-growing site made in small batches, and the vineyard is located 920 meters (over 3,000 feet) above sea level, hence its name ‘M9’. This wine has more of a continental quality as the temperatures are much cooler in this vineyard, so it has intense minerality and marked acidity with hints of granite and blackcurrant leaf and a long, aromatic and expressive finish.

2016 Abadía San Quirce ‘Finca Helena’ Ribera del Duero: 100% bush vine Tempranillo from vines over 100 years old. This is another single vineyard made in small batches that has been isolated and has a unique expression. Winemaker Diana Moreno Grávalos said there may be other sites they will start separating to do more single-vineyard bottlings in the future. This wine is much deeper and darker than the ‘M9’ with hints of blackberries and hints of blueberry scones with a mineral undertone that has hints of broken limestone with a big body that has muscular tannins with nice quality silky, so although it is a wine with a lot of structure, it has a nice quality that caresses the palate.