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the wines of Félix Solís. Part I

text and photographs © 2005 Tom Cannavan

Bodegas Félix Solís is a family owned wine company with headquarters in Spain. It is best known in the UK for its Viña Albali brand from Valdepeñas, though the company also own wineries in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In part I of this two-part profile we visit their most important wineries, In part II we taste a dozen wines.

go straight to part II

Pagos del Rey, Ribera del Duero

Approaching Ribera del Duero at the end of a long drive across the flat plains west of Madrid, over the Sierra de Guadarrma mountains and on through rolling farmland, the remoteness of this area is startling, but a sense of excitement is almost palpable. We pass new bodegas being built, lorries carrying shiny winery equipment, and signs of growth round every curve in the road.

The established names of Ribera del Duero like Vega Sicilia and Pesquera are being joined by more and more wineries, intent on tapping into this high quality region to service a strong demand for Ribera del Duero wines in the restaurants and bars of Madrid, and in export markets worldwide. Amongst them is Pagos del Rey, Félix Solís's dramatic new winery that rises from the vineyards of Olmedillo de Roa. It is currently the largest in the Duero.

From a distance the Euro 22 million winery appears like a huge, rather monolithic hangar, but then the textured surfaces of the walls and dramatically cantilevered roofline come into focus as you draw near, crowned by a glistening wall of outward sloping windows that surround the top of the massive walls and reflect the Duero countryside. The winery opened in 2002, and the first fruits of their labours are being released now, with the youngest Joven and Roble wines. Other wines in the range, including Crianzas, Reservas, Gran Reservas and a Vino Especial, will follow over coming years, some not until 2007 after the long ageing times required by the rules of DO Ribera del Duero. (right, International Director Félix Solís Ramos)

Notes on the wines follow, but the Altos de Tamaron Joven is already in Sainsbury's at £5.99, making it one of the cheapest wine on the shelves from this glamorous appellation. The company philosophy is always to employ economies of scale, and to invest relentlessly in technology and back-room systems, to make sure their wines over perform within their price range.
 


   The project is extremely impressive, from the beautifully designed reception and office areas, to the vast working winery, constructed as one continuous space with no pillars to interrupt the workspace. Natural light floods the area through windows that ring the top of the sheer 40-foot walls, but that cantilevered overhanging roof protects the interior from the baking heat of the sun. This is a cleverly designed space glistens with stainless steel and the latest in wine making technology. One floor below, the beautifully constructed showpiece barrel cellar contains 7,000 barriques (mostly French) and is filled with classical music and opera as the wines slumber in air-conditioned cool.

In fact, the Solís family have a long association with Ribera del Duero, including Felix's maternal grandfather, who was a grape supplier to Vega Sicilia. Visiting the vineyards immediately explains why the family have invested so much in this region.


Winemaker Gregorio Ruiz takes great pride in hectare after hectare of old bush vine Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto del Pais. 70-year-old vines, with trunks as thick as small trees, yield just one and a half kilos of concentrated grapes in four or five heavy bunches.

There is no need to green harvest (crop thin) these vines: all that is needed is an experienced hand on the pruning sheers, to form the characteristic crown shape, where the vine's thick foliage shields the grapes from the worst excesses of the mid-day sun. The average age of the Bodega's vines is around 35 years, even with extensive newer plantings.

Right, Gregorio, Félix and their chief viticulturist assess the almost ripe fruit.

Having nibbled a few of the sweet, intense grapes from the older vines, I did the same with some from recent trellis-trained plantings. The juice was just as sweet, but the flavour was not nearly so intense - even though these vines had been pruned severely to restrict yields. These extensive old plantings of Tempranillo are worth their weight in gold.

 

Time will tell whether Pagos del Rey can join the upper echelons of Ribera del Duero. There is a fanatical attention to detail and a willingness to invest in quality that is obvious in the operation. Given the wonderful raw materials of those ancient, dry-farmed grapes, the future looks very promising indeed.

Viña Albali, Valdepeñas

To reach the town of Valdepeñas you will travel hundreds of kilometres south, passing through the vast windmill-dotted plains of La Mancha, so familiar from Don Quixote stories. Here, The Félix Solís HQ was established in the 1970's, and has been continually modernised and expanded since.

Home of UK favourite Viña Albali, this is a winery on a massive scale. With a vinification capacity of over 180 million litres per vintage, and a bottling capacity of 120,000 bottles per hour, it is one of the biggest wineries in the world. The advantage brought about by economy of scale is obvious here, with fantastically streamlined production facilities, and state of the art climate-controlled warehousing all on site.
 

Valdepeñas can trace grape-growing and winemaking back to Roman times, centred on the town of Acinippo, which translates as "grape seed". In the 15th century records show a new importance for the area, when Spain moved its capital to the city of Madrid, just to the north. The area is vast, covered in a reddish chalky soil, and enjoys a continental climate with summers often touching 40C. It is also an arid area, with little disease, and where irrigation of the vineyards is rare. In this harsh land, old, bush-trained vines perform best.


  Viña Albali and the popular Los Molinos brand - also made here - rely on a combination of estate and contract-grown fruit. The estate vineyards for Viña Albali cover 340 hectares, mostly of Tempranillo (in this region known as Cencibel), Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. 85% is on unirrigated bush vines. Another 180 hectares is farmed for the Los Molinos label, and there is an experimental vineyard where everything from Shiraz and Merlot, to Gewürtztraminer and Pedro Ximinez, is grown and vinified in a research programme.

Nowhere is the scale of this operation better demonstrated than in the barrel cellars.

New-world producers can opt to use oak chips, staves and a battery of technology to recreate the effect of barrel ageing. But here, within the strict code of the Denominación de Origen, the investment is enormous, with unthinkable mountains of barriques filling the air with a luscious sweetness as one enters the massive cellars. 70,000 barriques lie in temperature and humidity-controlled cellars, where they age for up to five years in the case of the Gran Reservas. The majority of the oak is American, though the percentage of new oak has been toned down over recent years.
 

The wines of Viña Albali - Tempranillo-based and aged in American oak - have always been compared to those of Rioja. Though this pains Félix Solís Ramos slightly when mentioned yet again, he and Albali winemaker Antolín Gonzáles explain that, like most of Rioja's best estates, they have concentrated in recent years on reducing the more obvious influence of American oak with its dominant coconut and vanilla flavours. They now work hard to retain more vibrancy of fruit, through changes to barrel and ageing regimes in the cellar, and working in the vineyards to ensure ripeness and concentration.

To "over-deliver" is the rather clichéd ambition of many wine producers, but Viña Albali really seems to achieve this holy grail. In a global market, they compete head-on with the unfettered New World and its access to almost unlimited vineyard plantings, oak chips and all the paraphernalia of modern mass-market wine. But this modern-thinking producer compensates by making the best of the region's traditions, sharpened with a cutting edge of technology.

When one remembers that Viña Albali's wines - readily accessible on supermarket shelves, with even the Gran Reserva costing an "everyday" price - are the product of glorious old vines and the slow, time and cash-expensive process of long barrel ageing, the achievement is even more remarkable.

The Solís family has battled to keep their company moving forward, ploughing profits back into constant modernisation. Their success in gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage for their traditional wines in a tough world market is one for which wine lovers everywhere can be grateful.

go to part II