Peter Sisseck produces world-class wines and Christine Austin was greatly impressed at a tasting hosted by The Devonshire Arms

It was an obvious question.  ‘Why is the wine called Pingus?’  I asked Peter Sisseck, owner and winemaker of the top-class wine of that name.  ‘It was what my family called me’, he said with a smile.  ‘In Denmark there was a cartoon series called Peter and Ping. But I have an uncle called Peter, so when I was born and was also named Peter, my aunt called me Pingus after the cartoon character.  And many years later, when I acquired my vineyard, it seemed like a good name for my wine.’

Pingus is the kind of wine you only get to taste a few times in a lifetime.  So when The Devonshire Arms told me that they were putting on a dinner, with Peter Sisseck as host, and with several Pingus wines to be tasted, I immediately put my name down for it.  Dominio de Pingus wines cost north of £500 a bottle, so this was going to be a real treat and I was not disappointed.  Of course the food has to be of a calibre to match the wine in the glass and that too exceeded expectations.

Peter Sisseck settles in at The Devonshire Arms

Pingus is sometimes described as a cult wine – but it became that all on its own, somewhat to the surprise of Sisseck.  ‘The first vintage was 1995 and when it was ready to be tasted I took a bottle to my uncle – who also happens to make wine.’  That uncle – Peter Vinding-Diers – is a winemaker with experience in Bordeaux, Hungary, Spain and now Sicily.  At the time, Vinding-Diers was showing wines to the buyers from smart London wine merchant Corney and Barrow and almost as an afterthought after a big tasting of Bordeaux wine, he offered to pour a Spanish wine, blind.  The buyers at Corney and Barrow loved it, and just two weeks later another bottle of Pingus found its way to American wine critic Robert Parker – who rated very highly and the rest, as they say, is history.

So how did a man from Copenhagen get to be a winemaker in Spain?  ‘It is what I always wanted to do.  There are some vineyards in Denmark now, but at the time there was nothing. I first attended Copenhagen University and studied to be an agricultural engineer, but I really wanted to work with grapes, not the usual Danish agricultural crops.  I followed up with a few courses at Bordeaux University and then I went to California to work at Simi winery with Zelma Long.  The real opportunity came in 1990 when I went to Spain and just forgot to go home.’

What kept Sisseck in Spain was the region of Ribera del Duero and a plot of old vines.

Ribera del Duero lies to the north of Madrid, on a central plateau around 800 metres above sea level. The high altitude provides twin challenges for the vines. Late spring and early autumn frosts act like a pincer movement, shortening the potential ripening period.  This means that yields must be kept low to have any chance of full ripeness.  In addition cool nights lead to thick, flavourful skins that produce full-bodied, characterful wines to challenge the best wines in Spain.

The grapes here are known as Tinto Fino, which is the local name for Tempranillo, the most important grape in Spain.  The region came to prominence through the work of one man – Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves who in 1864 came back from Bordeaux with oak casks and French winemaking skills and proceeded to start the vineyard now known as Vega Sicilia.  For many years this wine, classified merely as table wine was the most expensive wine in Spain.

More than a century later, Peter Sisseck also arrived in the region with some winemaking skills acquired in other parts of the world, but without the land to create a vineyard. He started out by scouting for plots of old vines which had been almost abandoned by their owners.

 

Eventually in 1995 he found his own particular plot of vineyard, just 4.2 hectares of old vines but after his first harvest he hit a significant problem.  ‘I had no money, so I had to sell my wine ‘en primeur’, which means that customers bought the wine while it was still in cask, maturing at the winery’.  That is why the positive endorsement of Parker and others had such a positive effect.

With just 400 cases of wine from his 4.2ha of vines, prices naturally had to be high. Since then other wines have been developed but still the original small vineyard is the sole source of grapes for the top wine.  Starting out as organic, he now works biodynamically, and always with the focus on old vines. ‘I am also against irrigation which prevents the vines sinking their roots deep into the soil to find their own water.’

A second wine, ‘Flor de Pingus’ has been created from 32 ha of old vines that Peter now owns, and there is Psi, a wine made from grapes grown by local farmers, in a collaborative way. Two vintages of each wine were on show at The Devonshire Arms dinner.

Psi 2016 and 2013 (from magnum) were poured alongside a superb, succulent venison tartare.  Both showed the classic concentration, intense fruit and balance of the region, with the 2016 more vibrant and powerful red fruits. Find Psi at Corney and Barrow at around £25 a bottle, which is a great price for such a fine wine.

I would not have thought of putting a Ribera wine alongside fish, but Flor de Pingus, vintages 2014 and 2010 went perfectly with halibut in a nasturtium veloute.  My preference was for the 2010 vintage, now showing great elegance and style, while the 2014 is powerful with time on its side.  Find Flor de Pingus at Corney and Barrow around £80 depending on vintage.

Finally Dominio de Pingus was poured, the 2009 and 2000, both breathtaking and finely matched against Yorkshire duck.  Even Peter was delighted to taste the 2000 since he has run out of that vintage himself. ‘It takes time to come around, but has elegant power with tannins in perfect balance’.  Dominio de Pingus is priced at around £600 to £750 per bottle, depending on vintage (Corney and Barrow). 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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