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