Of Spain’s trio of celebrated red wine regions, La Rioja has a long international reputation for excellence. Priorat, which burst on the wine scene two decades ago, remains aglow with praise for its distinctive high-octane, mineral-laden wines. Ribera del Duero, like Priorat, is short on fine-wine history, but it doesn’t generate the same gush of print and online media attention. Smart American restaurant buyers, however, seek out and list Ribera wines.
Ribera winemakers produce concentrated, often firm wines, expressing plum, blueberry, black cherry and black raspberry as the dominant fruit aromas and flavors, with notes of vanilla and spices. Balsamic, tar, and leather notes are sometimes found in Reserva and Gran Reserva styles. In terms of aging, Tinto Joven/ Tinto Roble and most Tinto Crianza wines are ready to drink when they reach the market. In exceptional years, Crianzas will age for two to five years and Reservas five to ten years. Gran Reservas are only made in superior years and will age gracefully for many years. The closed and firm 2002 Vega Sicilia Unico was not released until 2012; the 1995 tastes like a young wine with many years of enjoyment ahead of it.
Long Wine History
Ribera del Duero’s rise to world-class status coincided with the astonishing flowering of modern Spanish wine industry, which burst forth in the last two decades of the twentieth century, but grape growing and winemaking in the region hearken back to Roman times. Cistercian and Benedictine monks revived a dormant wine culture in the Middle Ages, and wine exports from the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were held in high regard.
The founding of Vega Sicilia in 1864 marked the onset of Ribera’s modern wine era. Eloy Lecanda, the son of the estate’s Basque-born founder, brought 18,000 vine cuttings from Bordeaux to establish a winery on the property. Over time, Vega Sicilia realized that a variety of Tempranillo, called Tinto del País (Country Red) or Tinto Fino (Fine Red) by the locals, was superior to the imported Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. Tempranillo now comprises about 80 percent of Vega Sicilia’s estate vineyards. Paradoxically, the international renown of Vega Sicilia’s wines failed to induce others to try to emulate the winery’s extraordinary success. Not until 1982, 118 years after Vega Sicilia’s founding, was Ribera del Duero sanctioned as an official D.O. (Dominación de Origen), with less than a score of member wineries. Today the appellation boasts over 400 labels that are adorned with the D.O. Ribera del Duero seal. Many wineries follow the time- honored practice of purchasing high-quality, old-vines grapes from the appellation’s 8,000-plus growers.
The true star of Ribera del Duero is Tempranillo, Spain’s most planted red grape and an early ripener (tempranillo means early). Ribera’s Tinto del País is perfectly suited to the region’s harsh milieu, producing loose clusters of smaller berries with thicker skin than Tempranillo grown elsewhere. Growers and producers are well aware that this adaptation results in an ultimate expression of the grape, so it comes as no surprise that 95 percent of the vineyards are planted with Tempranillo. More than half have been established in the last 15 years, but an impressive 30 percent of the vines are 50 year“s old, and about two percent (more than 1,100 acres) date back to the nineteenth century.
"There’s the fruit quality, with sweet flavors in the aftertaste;
the grape is easier to ripen than the Bordeaux varieties; it is very compatible
when blended with other grapes; and the resulting wine is long-lived.” —Xavier Martínez
Xavier Martínez, winemaker at Anta Banderas, a 50-50 venture between the Ortega family and international star Antonio Banderas, lists the pluses of Ribera’s Tempranillo: “There’s the fruit quality, with sweet flavors in the aftertaste; the grape is easier to ripen than the Bordeaux varieties; it is very compatible when blended with other grapes; and the resulting wine is long-lived.”
What is not immediately apparent to a visitor new to the roughly 70 miles long, 20 miles wide appellation is the elevation of Old Castile’s expansive plain. Grapes are planted at an average altitude of 2,500 to 2,800 feet above sea level—the highest for red wine grapes in Europe. The climate and altitude push the envelope for growing Tempranillo. Cold winters, hot summers, and a short growing season with danger of damaging frosts during bud break, flowering, and at harvest require exacting viticulture and preventative measures. The average annual rainfall is a meager 16 inches, with very little dampening of the vines during the growing season. As Paco Rodero, director of the estimable Pago de Los Capellanes, notes, “The cold weather comes from Portugal, and the wind and rain comes from the north.”
Ribera’s beneficial climatic attributes for growing Tempranillo, a low-acid variety, are its abundance of sunshine during the growing season and a large diurnal temperature shift (sometimes soaring to 100º F during the day and dropping to 50º to 60º F at night), which allows the vines to recover from their daytime metabolism and preserve the grapes’ nerve. The region’s soils also are a vital component of the high grape quality. In general, near the banks of the Duero, alluvial, sandy, and red clay soils predominate. Further from the river and at higher elevations, the soils have a higher concentration of limestone, marl, and scattered seams of chalk. Although the soils are poor, they are endowed with the minerals on which grapes thrive. Philippe Dardenne, Viña Mayor’s commendable technical director and winemaker, believes that Tempranillo grown in limestone “expresses more minerality and is more complex.”
“I love to pair Ribera del Duero wines with roasted lamb. the match brings out wonderful
spice tones and the fruit notes
of the wine.” —Robert Smith
Ribera’s winemakers and vineyardists manage the vagaries of nature quite well. The low-growing vines are meticulously farmed, freed of weeds that spur diseases and rob the unirrigated vines of vital water and nutrients during the growing and dormant seasons. In the last 40 years, only the 1973 vintage was a near disaster, and 16 of the years from 1990 to 2012 were rated very good to excellent. In the years when nature and man are in exquisite harmony (for example, 2009, 2004, 2001, 1999, 1996, and 1995), the wines are transcendent—complex, complete, memorable wines that age beautifully and that elevate the often-underrated Tempranillo to top-tier red grape status.
One grape, Many approaches
For a region that is practically a Tempranillo monoculture and where many of the wines are 100% Tempranillo, there is a surprising multiplicity of wine expressions. The region’s large expanse with varied soils, vineyard aspects, and mesoclimates are natural grounds for wine diversity, but there are also the skilled winemakers who take an array of approaches to coax the best from the grape.
Evidence of Spain’s dynamic wine industry is everywhere in Ribera. State-of-the-art wineries, from small family operations to substantial corporate entities, populate the landscape, fitting in among the appellation’s founding wineries and growers who have been swept up by the excitement to engage in wine commerce. New gravity-fed wineries built into hillsides or below ground level are contemporary versions of Ribera’s centuries- old caves, dug out of the limestone by the natives to make wine as well as hide it and themselves from foreign invaders.
Worldwide wine lovers are well acquainted with the iconic Vega Sicilia and Alion, its sister winery, and Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera and Candado de Haza, which have offered two time-honored approaches to showcasing Tempranillo’s power and elegance: the former blending in Bordeaux varieties and the latter showcasing Tempranillo alone. Peter Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus burst on the scene in 1995, and its small- production La Flor de Pingus, fashioned in a more current international style, quickly became a collectors’ wine.
The growing fame of Ribera’s wines and the prices they command, along with the push to expand Spain’s wine exports, attracted the nation’s major wine companies and other investors with deep pockets to the region. For example, two Catalonian behemoths, Codorníu and Miguel Torres, have invested in Ribera and now make well-received wines under their Legaris and Celeste labels, respectively. But for every large winery with proven international standing, there are many excellent family wineries of all sizes.
Grand or petite, many have cast their eyes beyond Castile and Spain’s borders to the vast global wine market. Pablo Alvarez, Vega Sicilia’s adept but modest managing director, states unequivocally, “Spain is not recognized yet as a top wine country. We have to get out in the world and sell our wines. Spain has to work year after year in the vineyards.”
Ribera del Duero’s producers are taking Alvarez’s challenge to heart. After an explosion in grape production in the 1990s, the number of bottles every vintage carrying the D.O. seal has leveled off in the past five years, reflecting an appellation-wide commitment to quality over quantity. Ribera’s Consejo Regulador works to raise quality standards and promotes the appellation’s output as exceptional fine wine in major world markets. Producers, winemakers, and growers recognize that their Tinta del País, when cultivated with passion and precision on the high plain of Old Castile, has what it takes to make a prodigious wine. And they are eager to share Ribera del Duero with the world.