A Change of Heart or Coming of Age at Dominio de Pingus?

Winemaker Peter Sisseck reveals changes underway at his premium Spanish estate


 Fiddling with a great recipe always has inherent danger and conveys some level of audacity, yet this conviction to perfection also creates masterpieces.

Not feeling fully content with the past standard of excellence at his Ribera del Duero winery, Peter Sisseck is now chasing perfection through older barrels and experiments in natural winemaking, according to recent articles in Decanter.com and Thedrinksbusiness.com.

Sisseck told Drinks Business on July 17 that he was conducting trials with a number of natural winemaking techniques, but added that he also remained cautious of taking it to extremes. Sisseck explained that the natural winemaking trials are a separate project that would help him learn without immediately impacting Pingus. Sisseck studied biodynamics at the Rudolf Steiner School and has reached out to colleagues recently to gather more information.

"The idea of natural wine is interesting," Sisseck told Drinks Business. He continued, "The best ones have great purity and are good when they're young, but they are extremely fragile. Any terroir expression the wines may have can be erased by bret and oxidation."

Sisseck's comments about fragility apply specifically to winemaking without sulfur. Sisseck stresses the point that in a "vin de garde" like Pingus, eliminating sulfur completely would be risky.

"The big problem is that I want to make wines that can age and it's very hard to do so with no sulfur. Despite never using very much in Pingus, a little sulfur is essential," he said.

One thing that isn't essential to Pingus anymore is new oak barrels. Sisseck recently told Decanter that he has dramatically reduced the proportion of new oak at the estate and plans to continue the trend. This represents a stark contrast to the Pingus of the late 90s that was wrapped with the label "200% new oak."

Photo courtesy of thedrinksbusiness.com
 An interview with Decanter in 2009 did reveal he was starting to rethink the new oak philosophy, despite the fact he also claimed he owed his winemaking inspiration to Bordeaux garagiste winery Chateau Valandraud, where new oak is de rigueur.
Sisseck attributed the new oak treatment on earlier vintages of Pingus to a portion of vineyard that produced grapes with underripe tannins. Sisseck explained to Decanter that since those tannins absorb oxygen, the new oak helped prevent reduction.

Eventually as those vineyard plots came under better management, Sisseck recognized that the grapes were less prone to reduction and needed less new oak.

According to Decanter, Sisseck began reducing new barrel purchases in 2006. That vintage of Pingus only saw 50 percent new wood. By 2008, Sisseck moved quickly to 100 percent old (mostly second year) oak.

Sisseck gave up possible financial gains on the move to older oak when he chose the T5 barrel from Taransaud. These barrels, which have special 5-year-old staves, can cost twice as much as normal barrels on the market. Sisseck rationalizes the T5's higher price because of the top quality and longer average use.

This big change in elevage and the experiments with natural winemaking will clearly have some impact on the wines produced at Pingus. Was this a reactionary "anti-critic" maneuver against oaky wines of power and manipulation or just the natural maturation of both Sisseck and Pingus? If Sisseck's gut feeling is right, it really doesn't matter. Masterpieces need no explanation.


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