The sluggish waters of Spain’s Duero River belie the frenetic pace of vineyard development that has launched Ribera del Duero onto the world stage.

The Duero is a schizophrenic river, shared between countries that can’t even agree on how to spell its name (it’s Douro in Portugal). As recently as the 1960s it was a life-threatening torrent through Portugal’s Port country, though now the river runs calm, controlled by fortress-like hydroelectric projects. Further upriver, in Spain, the Duero meanders lazily across the high plains of Castilla y León, a peaceful contrast to the jagged teeth of the medieval fortifications that dot the ridgetops.

Here, under the towers of Peñafiel Castle in the heart of the Ribera del Duero wine region, the river’s split personalities take different forms. Ancient villages that might have boasted 1,500 residents in the 1960s have shrunk to one-third that size, even as the number of wineries (which are known as bodegas) in the region has grown. In 1982, when the Denominación de Origen was established, there were 24 (eight privately owned and 16 co-ops); Today, there are more than 120.

Families tend by hand small patches of untrained 50-year-old Tempranillo vines that may give 500 kilos of grapes in a good year alongside sprawling new vineyards, neatly trellised and machine-groomed to produce as much as 7,000 kilograms per hectare (and which cover hundreds of hectares). And boutique wineries, which may bottle only 2,000 cases of wine per year, coexist with industrial-strength migrants from other regions of Spain that churn out Ribera del Duero wines by the container-full.

No matter how big or small, old or new, the common thread running through these vineyards is the Tempranillo grape. In Ribera del Duero, it is known as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País and, although it is grudgingly acknowledged to be the same as the Tempranillo grown in other parts of Spain, growers consistently claim “it is different here.”

Although the Bordeaux transplants—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec—are permitted in Ribera del Duero, and the indigenous Albillo (a white table grape) and Garnacha persist in a few isolated vineyards, Tempranillo is the soul of Ribera, and many producers are now making wines that are 100 percent Tempranillo. José Moro, of Bodegas Emilio Moro, is one of Tempranillo’s most ardent supporters. “Albillo is said to fix the color, but doesn’t give anything else,” he says. “And Cabernet and Merlot don’t ripen properly here. They stay green.”

It seems no one told that to the folks at venerable Vega Sicilia back in 1864, when Spain’s most famous wine estate was first planted. Since then, the wine has consisted largely of Tempranillo, but with important contributions from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec—about 20 percent in total. The oldest vineyards on the estate are field blends of those four varieties. “We’re trying to be as traditional as possible,” says enologist Xavier Ausàs. “It has worked for 150 years, so we are trying to keep it that way.”

Part of the difference in perception may be ascribed to location. At Vega Sicilia, which lies on the southern bank of the river, many of the vineyards are on gentle north-facing slopes, protected from some of the sun’s intensity. Together with Ribera’s characteristically cool nights, ripening is extended over a longer period of time. In 2000, Vega’s last Cabernet Sauvignon wasn’t harvested until November 15.

Emilio Moro, on the Duero’s north bank in the village of Pesquera de Duero, has a more compressed ripening period by virtue of its south-facing vineyards, which gobble up the sun’s rays. Sugar concentrations in Moro’s vineyards may reach harvest levels by mid-September, which is not enough hang time to develop fully mature flavors in Cabernet and Merlot. Just down the street from Moro, Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera agrees: His wines are also 100 percent Tempranillo.

Label Terms

Ribera del Duero wines come with varying label designations, some of which have legal significance. Although the same terms are used in other parts of Spain, the aging requirements may vary from region to region. Some producers are rebelling against this system of labeling and bottling their wines under the simple cosecha label regardless of how long the wines are aged.

From the Spanish term for nursery, crianza wines are aged two years prior to release, with at least 12 months in oak barrels.

Gran Reserva
Aged five years prior to release; at least two years in oak.

Aged three years prior to release; at least one year in oak.

Literally, “oak.” Often used to denote a semi-crianza wine; i.e., one that has been aged in oak for fewer than the 12 months required for crianza status.

Tinto Jóven
Technically, this term may be applied to wines that receive fewer than 12 months in oak, but the term is generally applied to young wines bottled without oak aging. Some jóven wines are now carrying a “roble” designation as well.

Varietal composition is just one of the many variables that shape individual Ribera wines. The soils within the region vary considerably—from chalky, limestone-laced clays to mineral-laden gravels to deep sands. For better or worse, most wineries in the region draw upon vineyards planted on a mix of soil types and blend the wines together for a more consistent product, making it difficult to discern differences imparted by terroir in the finished wines.

At Emilio Moro, which buys grapes only from around the village of Pesquera, three different soil types are tapped, each of which brings something different to the blend. “From the clays, we get intensity and concentration; from the lime soils, finesse, elegance and pretty aromas; and from the gravels, ripeness,” says Moro.

North and east of Pesquera, at Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas, elevation is given much of the credit for the differences in the wines. “We are at the highest elevation in the denominación,” explains enologist José Manuel Pérez, son of one of the winery’s founders. “Here, at 800 meters, we get better balance of acid and alcohol—provided the vineyards have the correct south or west exposition.”

To amplify the individuality imparted by the estate’s vineyards, Pérez relies on indigenous yeasts for fermentation and steadfastly refuses to filter his wines.
“Our goal is always to respect the grape’s potential,” he says. “We’re trying to find our own identity, we’re not making a ‘commercial’ product.”

With an annual output of roughly 30,000 cases of its Viña Pedrosa, Pérez Pascuas is hardly “uncommercial,” but it is dwarfed by the vast operation that has sprung up virtually overnight at Real Sitio de Ventosilla. At Real Sitio, a former royal hunting lodge is being converted into a luxury guesthouse surrounded by 3,000 hectares, including a brand-new winery that’s already being expanded to handle the estimated 200,000 cases the property will produce by 2005 from its 520 hectares of vineyards. To let you know how fast and how far Real Sitio has come, its first vintage was 1996.

The primary brand at Real Sitio is Prado Rey, but there are small “experimental” bottlings under the Salgüero name, including a horrific oak-aged Rosado and supple, internationally styled reds from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Angel Margüello insists that his young vines can produce great wines: “There’s nothing written that the older the vine the better the grape,” he says through a translator. “It’s the yields that are important.”

A Mixed Case of Duero Wines

92 Teofilo Reyes 1999 Crianza (Ribera del Duero); $26
Despite this wine’s heavy overlay of oak (a blend of American and French), the vintage’s bright fruit shines through with stunning clarity and purity. Cinnamon and toast accent the anise-tinged cherries—some black, some red. Finishes with black tea and vanilla notes. Don’t miss this wine if you are oak tolerant. Editors’ Choice.

92 Vega Sicilia 1997 Valbuena (Ribera del Duero); $90
A wine of exceptional elegance that starts off with delicate floral aromas of violets or lilacs, then folds in black cherries, red raspberries and dried spices. Bright fruit flavors sing on the long finish. No Unico was made this vintage, so much of the juice that normally goes into Unico was used for this wine, while the wine that is normally Valbuena was sold off for distillation. Cellar Selection.

91 Pesquera 1995 Gran Reserva (Ribera del Duero); $99
Cedary from its long stay in American oak, it’s tightly wound and in need of six months to a year of cellaring. Despite its reticence, there’s great intensity of raspberry and cherry fruit that lingers on the finish. Lucia, Alejandro’s eldest daughter, says this wine should be consumed over the next three to five years; I suspect it will drink well for years beyond that. Cellar Selection.

91 Arzuaga Navarro 1998 Selección Especial (Ribera del Duero); $60
Toasty oak aromas lead off, quickly followed by scents of smoked meat and black cherries. This is rich and extracted without being over the top. Black tea, dried spice and vanilla notes add complexity to the flavors, and ripe tannins provide an elegant structure for aging another two or three years.

91 Emilio Moro 1998 Crianza (Ribera del Duero); $24
Extremely supple and creamy, with waves of black cherry and vanilla flavors that gently caress the palate. Earthy dark chocolate and ample cedar shadings complete the package. A great effort given the challenging vintage. A wine that should drink well now and for the next half-dozen years. Editors’ Choice.

91 Leda Viñas Viejas 1999 Tinto (Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León); $60
This is a young, grapey, thoroughly modern wine, with enormous fruit that simply powers through the admittedly high levels of oak (50 percent new barrels, 50 percent second use). Grilled meats, black cherries and blueberries are laced with chocolate and spice. It’s dry, but shows a bit of alcohol and some fruitcake flavors that make it seem almost Port-like. Is this Spain’s answer to the cult wine phenomenon?

91 Prado Rey 1999 Real Sitio (Ribera del Duero); $NA
Imagine the scent of blackberry pie laced with vanilla, cinnamon and clove. This 100 percent Tempranillo shows good depth and exceptionally lush, silky tannins married to juicy acidity and elegant cedar notes. It’s very smooth and polished—maybe too much so for some tasters.

90 Viña Pedrosa 1995 Gran Reserva (Ribera del Duero); $79
Still very youthful-tasting and structured, this wine—which incorporates 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend—also boasts admirable quantities of blackberry and black cherry fruit. Hints of smoke and grilled meat add a dose of complexity. Drink now with hearty foods or age up to 10 years. Cellar Selection.

90 Mauro 1999 Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León; $37
Tasted just days after bottling, this wine was nevertheless showing well. Rich chocolate and earth aromas complement the red berry and black cherry fruit. Mauro is not huge or overly weighty, but displays notable intensity and persistence of flavor. The finish lingers delicately, folding in hints of vanilla, licorice and cinnamon. Editors’ Choice.

88 Val Sotillo 1998 Crianza (Ribera del Duero); $28
Powerfully built, this wine needs another two years to round into form. Right now, it still shows a youthful stink that quickly blows off to reveal a blend of red and black cherries allied to sturdy iron and earth elements. Firm tannins on the finish accentuate the need for cellaring.

88 Finca Villacreces 1998 Crianza (Ribera del Duero); $27
A bit dumb on the nose, but this wine shows good structure and intensity in the mouth—a promise of better things to come. Earth, cassis and milk chocolate flavors join a leafy note on the palate. Shows the characteristic firmness of the vintage; try in 2003.

87 Abadia Retuerta 2000 Primicia (Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León); $10
A young, fruity wine that’s meant to be consumed in its first year or two, it’s a blend of 60 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot. Winemaking tricks like partial carbonic maceration and varying fermentation temperatures for separate parts of the blend accentuate bright berry and cherry fruit. No oak means the fruit speaks loud and clear. Best Buy.

Predictably, in the tiny village of Sotillo, at Bodegas Ismael Arroyo (better known by the brand name Val Sotillo), it’s a different story. “Young vines give a green taste,” says Ismael’s son Miguel Angel Arroyo. “We get more concentration from old vines.” With yields that can vary from 7,000 kilos per hectare from young vines to 3,000 kilos from old vines, it doesn’t take a wine writer to know that vine age, yields and wine quality are closely related.

Arroyo is a traditional producer that relies on growers for 75 percent of the grapes that come into the winery, but buys only from vineyards in Sotillo. “The best soil is the poorer one—a mix of lime, sand and clay,” observes Arroyo. “According to the old-timers, Sotillo was where the best wines were.”

So where do the best Ribera wines come from now? Although Sotillo still heads the list, it shares space there with a number of other sites, as the quality of the bottled wine currently depends on the producer more than on the subregion in which their vineyards are located. Other villages renowned for the quality of their wines include La Horra, Roa and Pesquera. But these names rarely appear on labels, and if they do, they only signify the address of the bodega, not necessarily the origin of the grapes.

Concentrate on the top producers, most of which are featured in the sidebar, and you’re unlikely to go wrong. But don’t be afraid to experiment. Things are changing so fast in Ribera that new discoveries emerge every vintage. Dominio de Pingus, the ultimate in cult Ribera del Duero wines, is virtually unobtainable—and the 1998 will set you back more than $200 if you can find it. Yet Danish winemaker Peter Sisseck’s first vintage was 1995.

Other new stars are on already on the horizon: Aalto (first vintage 1999), Tarsus (1998) and Valderiz (1998), just to name a few. Not only are these new ventures committed to making excellent wines, their success will spur existing producers to improve the quality of their offerings. Ribera del Duero’s future has never been brighter.

Recent Vintages

2000 An abundant and consistent vintage. Some of the wines may lack richness and intensity because of high yields.

1999 The top cuvées, sampled out of barrel or just after bottling, look especially promising; even lesser wines exclusive to the domestic Spanish market are juicy, fresh and packed with fruit.

1998 Most crianzas from this year are firmly structured but lack some of the flesh of top years. Classified “Muy Bueno” by the Consejo Regulador.

1997 The Consejo Regulador rates this year “Bueno.” That’s like buying a “Large” popcorn at the movies; you’ll be left wanting more halfway through. Avoid all but the very top producers.

1994-1996 A trio of excellent vintages, with some reservas and gran reservas
still available. (The 1996 Gran Reservas should appear this winter.) Most crianzas should be consumed over the next few years.

To read this article in its entirety, pick the November 2001 issue of Wine Enthusiast

Published on November 1, 2001

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