A winery deep in the heart of northwest Spain has been gradually gaining top marks for excellence, not only in its native land, but also internationally. Owned by Cayman-based attorney Grant Stein, Estancia Piedra is employing new and innovative means to cultivate its ancient vines to produce some truly outstanding wines.
Grant Stein’s passion for winemaking can be traced back to his student days in Edinburgh when he enjoyed making his own wines at home.
“I even tried growing vines out of grow bags but that wasn’t particularly successful,” he says.
Nevertheless, the passion remained and grew steadily following cycling trips around Europe in the 1990s. Although Italy was initially appealing as a site for his own vineyard, Stein, the retired global chairman of Walkers law firm, says Spain made more sense since he spent part of his youth in South America and learned to speak the language.
“I started making inquiries through a colleague in Spain and after several months we came upon the perfect location, in Toro, a wine region in Castilla y Leon, northwestern Spain.” he says. “I loved it from the first sighting.”
Stein says he had envisaged a vineyard perhaps set around a Tuscan-style villa. However, this particular vineyard had no property on site, but it did have lots of features that made it a desirable location.
“At the time, it was the largest contiguous vineyard in the Denomination of Origin of Toro. It was really pretty, set on the side of a hill in undulating countryside and had a river at the bottom. It had access to water via wells and the river and was in close proximity to roads,” he says.
Most importantly, the vineyard, which had been run by farmers up until this point, possessed original rootstock which had not succumbed to the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic that wiped out much of Europe’s vines. The originality of its rootstock was particularly pleasing to Stein as it was such a rare find.
The downside to buying the land could have been the various legal issues involving banks and title, but this was not a problem for Stein, a lawyer. He was able to negotiate through the issues and finally purchased the vineyard in July 1998.
“With no winery in place, we had no choice but to sell the crop to market that first year,” he says. “But we ensured that our winery was at least partially built the following year so we could begin our own production as soon as possible.”
And thus Estancia Piedra was born.
In 2003, the Steins built a home on the property, and a visitors center was added in 2009.
Traditional and new methods combine
At Estancia Piedra, the vines are grown in the “en vaso” style, in the shape of a goblet in freestanding trees at a low density, in keeping with tradition. Most of the vines are over 40 years old, but some are as old as 100 years, Stein says. Most of the grapes grown are Tinta de Toro, a clone of Tempranillio, as well as a small amount of Garnacha (Grenache).
“The benefits of using old vines are that the wine intensifies with age as the berries gradually get smaller, creating a higher ratio of skin to pulp, which increases the tannins and the flavors,” Stein explains.
Stein introduced a small team of experts to undertake the winemaking process, and the winery immediately flourished. All grapes are hand-picked and carefully stacked to avoid crushing, and Stein says his was the first winery in the region to introduce a sorting table to ensure that only the best grapes are put forward for wine production. Because of this rigorous selection process, an added bonus is that only a minimal amount of sulphites (a disinfectant that some people are allergic to) are used in the wine production.
The first harvest of 1999 went extremely well, so well that the top quality Paradinas wine was awarded five stars by Decanter magazine in 2003 and was voted in the top three percent of wines tasted by the magazine that year.
Estancia Piedra wines are created under different labels: the blue label, Azul, are young, un-oaked, fresh and fruity red wines. In 2012 Spain’s Gourmet magazine voted it “the best young red wine in Spain” and as a consequence, Stein says they have almost run out.
The red range, Crianza, enjoys six months in oak, and the winery only allows the wines to market when they are ready to be released, so the 2008 is now currently available. The Platino Seleccion label wines spend longer in the barrel, at 18 months, while the top of the range Paradinas spends 23 months aging in new French barrels.
The winery also makes a small amount of white wine from its vineyards in Rueda from 100 percent Verdejo grapes, a light and fruity wine with characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc.
Piedra wines have been awarded excellent points in the Proensa Golden Guide 2012, including 97 points for Piedra Paredinas and 94 points for LaGarona. They have also scored excellent points in the Restaurateurs Guide to the Best Wines in Spain 2011 – 92 points for LaGarona and 91 for Piedra Platino.
The business is clearly thriving, producing around a quarter of a million bottles a year, and Stein says he is now presented with the challenge of breaking into new markets, having thrived in Spain and also Mexico, as well, of course, as the Cayman Islands. The United States, China and the U.K. are all locations that he has picked for expansion.
In addition, the winery continues to strive to improve processes to create an even more superior product. Stein says that a team from the University of Zaragoza recently conducted tests to isolate the winery’s own strains of wild yeast. Once the yeasts were identified, they were able to ferment batches which the winery is now using to create its own ultimate and unique blend of yeast.
First trials of wine made with this yeast have so far proven to be very successful, and Stein says he is excited that the winery has added yet another unique selling point to its list.
For further information, visit http://www.estanciapiedra.com.