Pingus was trading at over $200 before the first bottle was ever released. Peter Sisseck’s monumental 1995 Ribera del Duero, from some of the region’s oldest vines, was just that exciting. While other wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero had acheived international recognition, Pingus was the first wine to transcend traditional Spanish winemaking. Peter had created a great, mammoth, supple testament of a wine— in short, a new archetype. With only a few vintages released, Pingus has already joined that elite club of producers— Raveneau, Chave, Giacosa—whose wines combine a true sense of their origins with fiercely singular personalities.
Peter’s tiny production of fewer than 500 cases comes from three parcels of ancient, head-pruned Tempranillo vines. His true genius may be demonstrated in the vineyard. The gnarled old vines have been carefully husbanded back to health—the trunks straightened, lowered, and pruned back to 1-2 buds per stump. Yields range from a high of 20 to an incredibly low 9 hectoliters per hectare.
After fermentation in steel or large wooden vat, the wines are raised in 100% new French oak. Peter uses as little sulphur as possible. Like a top chef, Peter carefully seasons the young wines, controlling their exposure to oxygen and utilizing lees contact to give the final wines their exotic textures. Yet this simple discussion of techniques cannot begin to explain the final product, a wine Robert Parker says, “has established new benchmarks for quality in Ribera del Duero.”
Having established Pingus as a new benchmark for greatness in Spanish wine, Peter Sisseck has embarked on a new quest: to produce a wine that captures the soul of Ribera del Duero. And he intends to do so by harnessing the passion of its growers who have for far too long lacked the tools, capital and vision to make wine that is truly “theirs.”
It is a Utopian idea, born of Peter’s passionate belief in organic and biodynamic farming as well as his gratitude to the region for giving a young Danish winemaker the opportunity to make arguably Spain’s most coveted wine.
PSI. And so he conceived PSI, named for the 23rd letter in the Greek alphabet. PSI emerged from a thought that had nagged at Peter Sisseck since he first arrived in Ribera del Duero in 1990.
He always felt that the region’s old vineyards had enormous potential, but that the quality of local farming was poor. Growers are usually paid by the ton, not for quality, and so they have little incentive to cut yields. Due to the excessive use of chemicals, this is one of those regions where Claude Bourguignon’s description of vineyard soils having less microbial life than the Sahara Desert rings true.
Work would be needed to restore the soil and improve viticultural practices, but Peter realized that buying the oldest vineyards was unlikely, given the growers’ attachment to their land. But what if he could involve the growers in a cooperative project, to produce better, more natural grapes?
By changing the economic incentives, and actively engaging the growers’ passion for their land, he might be able to obtain the kind of healthy, balanced fruit that he desired, while also helping to augment the health of vineyards (and wallets of their owners) throughout the region.
The Long View. Of course, a region with Ribera’s long history does not change overnight. Since 2006, Peter has worked with former Alonso y Yerro winemaker Pablo Rubio to identify the vineyards and growers with the most potential.
Their aim is to move these growers, step-by-step, towards farming healthier vineyards and getting better fruit. The duo are making available to each grower not only their expertise in organic and biodynamic farming, but preparations which are being made locally. They supply technical advice but try to avoid “instructing” proud growers. And, as the quality improves, they are rewarding growers with higher prices for their fruit.
A Search for Soul. While the goal for Pingus is to test the upper limits for Tinto Fino, the goal for PSI is subtler but perhaps just as profound: to find the soul of Ribera del Duero. There will be experimentation with winemaking as the project develops, but the primary concept is to eschew many of the modern techniques used in the region today.
The partners will employ long, gentle macerations to get the most harmonious extraction possible from their grapes. They are using a relaxed élévage in a mix of large and small oak casks and cement tanks, with virtually no new wood. The early wines are subtle, delicate, and as compelling as anything seen in modern Spain.
Between the time commitment with growers, and the relatively modest prices, it’s clear that PSI is a true labor of love. It’s an astonishing long-term obligation, but Peter feels this is a way to give back to a region that has given him so much.
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