“Ever since that moment,” Peter Sisseck explains, “everything has been trying to get back to that innocence with how we made it.”
“That moment” that Peter is riffing on is the stuff of legend, when the first Dominio de Pingus wine was produced back in 1995. Call it a cosmic alignment of a very knowledgeable and skilled winemaker whom nature gifted a glorious bounty that year: Right place, right guy, right time.
“It’s a great place and it has enormous possibilities. It’s a great honor to participate in forming the new Spain that I think is very important. It should be a new Spain founded on some of the very good things from the past.” — Peter Sisseck on Ribera del Duero and Spanish wine
But would a Danish fellow who learned the wine craft in Bordeaux be able to figure out how to make wine in rough-and-tumble Ribera del Duero? Esteemed wine critic Robert Parker thought so, definitively declaring Pingus’ rookie offering “one of the greatest and most exciting wines I have ever tasted.”
Got that? Ever.
From the man who has tasted hundreds of thousands of wines, this was at the tippy-top. But more on that in a minute. First, it’s important to note just how Peter became one of the most notable winemakers in Ribera del Duero — and the world — to begin with. After a successful career in France making wines in Bordeaux, Peter arrived in Spain on a whim in 1990, but it wasn’t exactly his career plan. “It just kind of happened,” he tells us — noting that while his grandparents had houses in Spain, becoming a winemaker in Spain wasn’t exactly in his gameplan. “When it did happen it was by chance, and for a long time I didn’t believe it was where I was supposed to be. It turned out to be that and I’m very happy for that.”
So what happens when a Danish guy moves from France into a region of Spain with centuries and generations worth of history, tradition and industry-forged relationships? If you’re guessing he was met with side-eyes and sneers, think again.
Peter Sisseck: Dominio de Pingus
“They were absolutely welcoming,” Peter says of the local winemakers in his new hometown. “I’ve always been considered an oddity, but being so welcomed and how helpful people were was one of the breaking points for me staying. You’d expect something much more closed. In Bordeaux and France, they held their cards closer to their body. In Ribera, people were very helpful and open in sharing stuff. It’s extremely helpful to begin with.”
In Spain and Ribera del Duero in particular, Sisseck sees the best of both worlds: Centuries of tradition and proof that great wine can be made there along with a willingness to adapt, change and seek out new opportunities.
“It’s a great place and it has enormous possibilities. It’s a great honor to participate in forming the new Spain that I think is very important. It should be a new Spain founded on some of the very good things from the past.”
Flash back to “that moment.” After a good harvest, Peter is putting the wine into barrels for aging. One has a bit too much in it in order to properly plug it, so Peter has to remove a bit, and takes a sip. “I tasted something I had never tasted before,” he says. “I did believe then that I had made something very special. I took the wine to Bordeaux and everyone had the same reaction. At that moment I knew we had made something rather extraordinary.”
Creating perfection on your first attempt has been both a gift and a curse for Sisseck. That’s not to say his wines after 1995 have been bad — they’re often rated among the highest in Spain and have a cult following — they just haven’t been perfect. There’s so many environmental variables beyond just a winemaker’s touch that go into every vintage of wine, and Sisseck tells us that 2014’s vintage is the first that he think compares to that initial 1995 product.
“It’s taken us 20 years to get back to what started with,” he says humbly. “It gives you an idea of how complicated it really is. It’s not a recipe, it’s not something that’s given to you — you can’t sit down and create it in an office or have a machine do it.”
Twenty-plus years later, Sisseck is still at it with Pingus and also a new project called Psi, where he’s working with local Ribera del Duero farmers and winemakers to help them improve their farming techniques to produce superior grapes. The potential is there throughout the region, and Sisseck wants to help not just individuals, but Ribera del Duero as a whole.
“Ribera has a lot of purity, a lot of nobility, but at the same time it’s a very rough area. It’s less civilized than many other wine regions in the world, but it has an enormous amount of grace and character. The purity and honesty is what I love.”