Ribera del Duero is probably the second most well known red wine region in Spain behind Rioja. But that is about where the similarities end. The region has a long tradition of making more full bodied wines from Tempranillo, as well as a range of varieties from Bordeaux. Whites are uncommon (only 3% of the harvest, but still 2 million tons) , there are a more than few rosados made here too.
Ribera del Duero is located north west of Madird, on the western end of the Iberian high plains.
Tempranillo, or Tinta de Pais/Tinto Fino as its known locally, is the main grape with over 80% of all plantings. Many, in fact most, producers only grow Tempranillo and use different winemaking and aging techniques to make 4-5 different styles of Tempranillo based wines. There are a large number of clones that have adapted to the area over centuries, it is believed locally that imported clones from Rioja do not fair as well or produce wine of as high quality. There is quiet a bit of old vine material around, up to 80-100 years old in many areas. Again these old vines are seen to provide greater depth, complexity and flavour than younger material. Garnarcha is also grown in very small amounts.
There are a number of allowed French varietals grown as well, the common ones being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Melbec. There is only one allowed white variety in the DO, Albillo, but many are experimenting with Chardonnay and a range of other varieties. However these wines will be labelled vino de la terra or vino de mesa, not Ribera del Duero.
There is a long history of winemaking in the valley, for much of its history the area served it’s wines to the royalty, scholars and priests in Valladolid. Along with the excellent lamb and produce from the region, wine has long been an ingrained part of life here.
For a long time wine from Ribera was known to the rest of the world by only one name: Vega Sicilia. In fact, up until the late 70s many of the vines in the region made fairly ordinary co-op wines or very low production quality wines that were only available to those in the know or lived locally. Vega Sicilia was (and still is) the big name in these parts. Setup around 1864 by a bloke from Bordeaux called Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves who was trying to make similar wines to those he made back home. It’s a fairly common story in Spain around this time in history.
So he planted a number of varieties from Bordeaux as well as working with the local Tempranillo. He produced a number of wines and made them in the style of Bordeaux at the time, long term barrel aging etc. For a long time these wines where not actually for sale, they were given away at events and sent off to his mates all over Spain and France. These days Vega Sicilia is known worldwide and considered one of Spain’s Icon wines.
Moving forward a hundred years or so, the modern resurgence of the region for commercial wines took hold around the mid 80s. One of the big events was at Pesquera. Alejandro Fernandez came into the wine industry in the early 70s with a more modern view of growing and making wine. He found quick success locally and over ten years become something of a beacon for Spanish winemaking around the world. His wines were modern, not aged in oak for decades, showed great fruit and terrior while at the same time elegance and restraint. He also invested heavily in new inventions that made it easier to work in the winery, while retaining the sense of place that accents the best wines from Ribera.
This kicked of the modern chapter of wine in the valley and has continued to produce some of Spain’s biggest names, like Pingus, Alion, and Matallana, that are know all around the world as high quality wines from Spain.
Climate and Geography
The region is high up on the Spanish tablelands, with most vineyards between 750m and 800m in elevation. The river Duero wanders through the centre of the region, and has created a large, gently sloping valley over thousands of years. The main growing areas are about 500m back from the river on clay soils that are very high in chalk and gypsum, as well as loads of different minerals. In fact the similarities to champagne have prompted a number of Champagne houses to attempt to make sparkling wine here, as yet no results have shown much promise. The bedrock for the region is the same schist that can be found just across the border in the Douro valley where port wine is produced, and further over in the east in Priorat.
Due to the height of the region, the climate is something of extremes. In winter it can get down to -10C and in summer up to 40C. However the saving grace is the difference in the daytime and night time temperatures. A swing from 40C to 20C is usual in the height of summer. This allows the vines to go into a dormant state overnight, reducing the stress on the vine and directing the soil nutrient to the grapes rather than the vine itself. It is believed that this is what gives the wines of Ribera del Duero their unique concentration of flavor and that unmistakable minerally edge. There is also the issue of devastating frosts at each end of the season just to keep growers on their toes.
Wine making and styles
The region has long been known for its high powered red wines. They are typically higher in alcohol, extract, flavor and tannins than Rioja. That doesn’t mean they are full blown monsters, they show restraint and are generally refined and stylish.
Ribera del Duero traditionally has followed the crianza system and it seems to serve the region well. The joven wines are some of the best in Spain, fresh, concentrated and powerful wines that show just what can be done with Tempranillo without wood treatment.
Crianza and Reserva wines are the most produced wine in the region, Gran Reserva being much less common these days. There are notable exceptions of course, Vega Sicilia and Pesquera both make Gran Reservas. However, many producers make a top end wine that would be classed as an Alta expression wine. A good example is Cillar de Silos who make a joven, a crianza and their top wine Torresilo without real regard to the crianza system.
There are a few whites around made from Albillo, mostly forgettable as much better white wine is made down the road in Rueda. A number of houses are experimenting with other white grapes to try to produce something new and unique. Many bodegas make a Rosado from Tempranillo to add something different to their lineup. These range from very high quality to average.