August 18, 2009

Having represented Pingus in America for more than a decade, I’ve long been aware of this iconic wine’s stature not only in Spain, but around the world.

But just how important Pingus, and its maker Peter Sisseck, have become was driven home to me in June when I looked at the list of 654 Spanish wines newly reviewed on There was Pingus again on top, owning for the fourth vintage in a row a perfect or nearly perfect score: 99, 99, 100, 96-100.

But the scores don’t really explain the extent of Pingus’ cult, which stretches around the globe and was born over a sixteen month period in 1996 and 1997.

The seed was planted in August 1996, when Robert Parker called Pingus’ first vintage (1995) one of the greatest and most exciting young red wines I have ever tasted." But the cult fully flowered in November 1997, when a ship carrying the entire U.S. allocation of the 1995 broke up in high seas off the Azores. Much of the wine had been presold, forcing merchants into the market to make good on their sales. This drove prices up by several hundred percent.

Other new wines have had their moment of fame, but for Pingus, the allure only became stronger. It helped that Peter has never made more than 500 cases in a single vintage. But far more important, the wine’s quality continued to get better, reflecting Peter’s maturing ideas and skills as a winemaker. He has emerged as one of the intellectuals of winemaking in Europe, a student of Rudolf Steiner, and a firm believer in both organic and biodynamic viticulture.

For Peter, Pingus’ success has been a gift. He had the very good fortune to acquire some of the finest, oldest vineyards in Ribera del Duero when it was still possible to do so, and he used these vineyards to create one of the world's iconic wines. The acclaim has made him a global celebrity as well as an idol for other winemakers in Spain.

In 2006, Peter decided to pay back the region that had been so good to him. His idea was to create a new, relatively inexpensive wine that he would make in cooperation with local growers, teaching them the fundamentals of organic and biodynamic viticulture. For the project’s name, he chose the Greek letter Ψ (Psi), and enlisted former Alonso del Yerro winemaker Pablo Rubio as his general manager.

The problem that Peter is trying to correct is that Ribera’s success has largely bypassed the region’s small growers. Great new estates have been created, and fortunes made, but most growers are trapped in a cycle of relying on chemicals to keep their vines productive. They are paid not for quality, but by the ton. Such practices have not only limited how much great wine can be made in Ribera, it has also taken a toll on the land. Today, Ribera del Duero is a region where Claude Bourgignon’s description of vineyard soils having less microbial life than the Sahara Desert rings true.

The idea of haves and have nots is nothing new for Ribera del Duero. Until Pesquera’s Alejandro Fernandez made his breakthrough in the 1970s, Ribera had only one world-class wine producer, Vega Sicilia. Fernandez’s success sent the message that greatness was within the growers’ grasp, but it didn't necessarily show them how to achieve it.

With Ψ : Psi, Peter hopes to give growers the tools with which to have better vineyards and make better wine. But the idea of the wine is just as interesting: to find the soul of Ribera del Duero by using techniquesincluding long, gentle macerations and virtually no new woodthat will maximize transparency. The first vintage, 2007, will be offered in next week’s RWC newsletter and is as subtle, delicate, and compelling as anything seen in modern Spain.

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