When the late 1980s arrived, and Alejandro Fernández’s Pesquera was described as the Petrus of Spain by Robert Parker of the The Wine Advocate, unable to buy the wine anywhere in the area, the more curious among us quickly travelled north for Alejandro’s inky-black Ribera del Duero. After all, who didn’t want to taste Petrus?
Like Japanese knotweed in a formal garden, Ribera del Duero began to change the wine landscape in Spain, and we stood and watched mesmerised. Willingly, we sank into the luscious embrace of reds that were super-concentrated and so elegantly jammy we could have happily spread the wine on our morning toast.
Seeing the overwhelming success of Alejandro’s Fernandez’s Pesquera, new Ribera producers joined the battlefield almost daily, eager to welcome fledgling wine merchants, like us, into their cellars and show us their wines in expensive, paper-thin glasses turning our teeth purple and making us feel inadequate as their faces dropped when we told them we didn’t personally know Robert Parker.
There was nothing for it, if we wanted to taste Pesquera we would have to travel to Ribera del Duero where we would knock on Alejandro Fernandez’s door and hopefully buy a few bottles of the wine suddenly elevated to stardom by Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, by suggesting the wine could be considered as the Chateau Petrus of Spain. A comparison which had every wine enthusiast in the world chomping at the bit, after all it was only millionaires who could afford Petrus and here was a chance to taste something equally good at an affordable price. Or so we thought!
Willingly, we sank into the luscious embrace of reds.
Despite Vega Sicilia, undoubtedly Spain’s most famous wine since the 60s, coming from the area, Ribera del Duero was never considered an ideal wine producing region. With an altitude of 800m above sea level and scorching summer weather followed by freezing temperatures in winter, few realised that it was exactly these conditions which were considered the essence of fine wine production elsewhere. It would seem that Alejandro Fernandez recognised this, and the rest is history as they say.
I recall arriving at Aranda de Duero, capital of the region, but I am sorry to say we were too intent on acquiring the now famous wine to bother much about sight-seeing. All I can recall of our visit to this small capital was an old helicopter on a roundabout opposite our hotel, a hotel less than salubrious with stained, brown carpets and cheap beds with over-used mattresses. But who cared, we were on a mission and after a quick breakfast the following morning, we were on our way to knock on Alejandro’s door!
If the internet has shown me anything it has demonstrated that no matter what I conjure up in my head, millions have already thought the same long before I did. Of course, when we arrived at Pesquera the doors were firmly locked with no sign of life whatever. Asking around it seems that hordes of wine lovers had already descended on the winery in the hope of buying some of the famous nectar. It had become a familiar sight seeing hordes of hopeful buyers rattling the locks of Pesquera’s doors like demented zombies in a horror movie. We spent the rest of the morning asking around bars and restaurants, after all we knew that they would have taken delivery of the wine long before Robert Parker’s famous assessment. If the bars and restaurants had any stock, they were not prepared to let us have any, presumably keeping the precious bottles for their regular customers and not itinerant wine buyers like us.
We had never tasted anything quite like it.
Crestfallen, we headed back to Gib stopping at a roadside café for a spot of quick lunch. Imagine our surprise seeing two bottles of 1989 Pesquera Reserva on the shelf behind the bar! We immediately asked to buy them expecting our offer to be firmly rejected as the lady in charge made it clear how much in demand Pesquera Reserva had become. To our surprise she agreed, insisting on bringing the wine out to the car for us, presumably worried we would shake the wine too much between her café and the car park!
So, was the hype about Pesquera justified? It was at the time. We had never tasted anything quite like it. Used to the leanness of traditional Rioja, the wine seemed to us as superbly exuberant much like eating blackberries on a roller coaster. Millions of others must have thought the same because Alejandro Fernandez became a wealthy man. Other bodegas soon followed, and Ribera del Duero was soon awash with producers. Many in Rioja, seeing the extraordinary success of their competitors, soon adjusted techniques so that modern Riojas became indistinguishable from Ribera wines. That this should be so is perhaps not surprising after all Tempranillo in Rioja and Tinta Fina in Ribera are one and the same grape.
Over the years, as our palate developed, we soon tired of the exuberance of Ribera wines, and we soon sought the familiar complexity of the long-lived wines of Rioja once more. Today, there are few traditional Rioja producers left but those that stuck to their guns, refusing to change their traditional image, are now considered world class wines. These include Tondonia and Cune to name just two. The modern style has not gone away but there is now a definite move particularly with white Riojas to go back to their roots, forgetting about international varieties like Chardonnay. Exciting times are ahead!
So, whatever happened to Pesquera? Some vintages have proved very disappointing though others have been extremely well thought off. Pesquera is no longer viewed with the awe it once was. There is intense competition from many new wineries in the area. Wines like Pingus, which sell for hundreds of pounds. (A wine I find difficult to drink due to its overwhelming, fruit driven jaminess but which has achieved cult status.)
Undoubtedly, Alejandro Fernandez not only placed Ribera del Duero firmly on the map but changed Rioja forever and for that matter its reverberation may have been felt as far away as Bordeaux, where modern styles are now commonplace, much to the chagrin of traditionalists. Perhaps though, it’s more to do with global warming than Pesquera – though I wouldn’t bet on it!
Alejandro Fernandez died in May 2021 at the age of 88. He died a sad man. According to ‘El Pais’ his winery and lands seemed to have been forcefully appropriated from him by three of his daughters. The story is clouded and nothing seems to be clear, perhaps more Falcon Crest than real life. It appears at the end of his life he lived with his fourth daughter in Santander receiving 1700 euros a month. It is said he pined for his beloved Pesquera and its vines.