On a temperate evening in late May, the veranda of the casona (manor) at Viñedos Alonso del Yerro, near the town of Roa, offers a soothing view of Tempranillo vines, blooming wildflowers and a slowly setting Iberian sun. At a moment like this, it’s tempting to think that Ribera del Duero is one of the kindest spots in Spain to grow grapes and make wine.
But, it’s not. Far from it, in fact.
To drive that point home, María del Yerro, matriarch of the family that owns Alonso del Yerro, shows me a photo of these vineyards blanketed in snow. “And in another month, it will be too hot to sit out here, so let’s enjoy it while we can,” she says, pouring me a glass of her family’s 2011 wine. Like many of this region’s best bottlings, it offers an amalgamation of tarry black-fruit aromas, strapping tannins and blazing acidity, with copious amounts of high-quality French oak.
“This region is a 10. If someone is making a wine here that rates a 5, that person is delinquent.” —Xavier Ausàs
It’s this formula that inspired former Vega Sicilia winemaker Xavier Ausàs to claim Ribera del Duero as “the best” region in the world for red wines. “This region is a 10,” said Ausàs several years ago during my previous visit to Ribera del Duero (RDD), which lies in the heart of the autonomous community of Castilla y León. “If someone is making a wine here that rates a 5, that person is delinquent.”
In the spring of 2015, I was back along the banks of the meandering Duero River to compare observations with those from my trip five years before. I realized that this region, which began as a denominación de origen (DO) in 1982 with just eight wineries, continues to improve.
Dominio de Atauta 2011 Valdegatiles; $125, 94 points. Lush prune and raisin aromas stop short of being mushy and make way for fresher notes of black currant and toast. Saturated, dense and chewy on the palate, this tastes ripe and toasty, with hefty blackberry and chocolate flavors. Additional toastiness and peppery spice flavors work the finish on this generous Tempranillo from an excellent vintage. Drink from 2017–2030. Aviva Vino. Editors’ Choice.
Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus; $49, 94 points. This pure, bullish, smoky Tinto Fino is full of charred blackberry, cassis and licorice aromas. The palate is massive but superbly balanced. Flavors of mocha, black coffee, bitter chocolate, toast, blackberry and cassis finish with power and precision. Drink 2017–2025. Skurnik Wines, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Tinto Fino For Everyone
After unprecedented growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ribera del Duero is now home to more than 200 wineries. The lifeblood of the region is Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País. Like most Spanish regions, Ribera has centuries of winemaking history, holding a mother lode of old, sturdy bush vines that stretch from the east of Aranda del Duero westward to the edges of Valladolid. The majority of these vines are hearty specimens with decades of experience braving the region’s brutal winters and short but unpredictable growing seasons.
While frost, wind, hail, searing heat and harvest-time rains form vital components of RDD’s terroir, so does its elevation. Most vineyards sit between 2,200 feet to 2,800 feet above sea level, which assures cool, fresh nights even when the days are hot. Soils vary from limestone to sandy clay, alluvial stones and gravel.
The resulting wines, especially the ones that stand out, are usually inky-colored, tannin-rich heavyweights. They possess bracing acidity that requires a combination of bottle age, extended breathing upon opening and the accompaniment of lusty fare to show their best. For example, the signature dish to pair in the region is lechazo: well-salted baby lamb that’s roasted in a conventional or wood-fired clay oven.
The wines that stand out are usually inky-colored, tannin-rich heavyweights.
Where the finest wines in Ribera come from is open to debate. One undisputed top terroir lies in the western portion of the region, close to the Duero River. Called the “Golden Mile,” this area is anchored by legendary Vega Sicilia, and it’s best known for its mix of Tempranillo-enhancing soils that range from white chalk to iron-rich clay and crystallized limestone.
In addition to Vega, other residents of the Golden Mile include Emilio Moro, Dominio de Pingus, Aalto, Arzuaga, Matarromera, Protos, Abadía Retuerta and Mauro, although the latter two wineries are located just outside the boundaries of RDD, and thus cannot use the regional name on their wines.
Another excellent RDD subzone is situated in the province of Burgos, around the towns of Roa, Anguix and La Horra. This area is known for highly concentrated, structured wines, perhaps more so than the Golden Mile. Alonso del Yerro started here in 2002; it’s also where acclaimed Viña Sastre began a decade earlier, and where Bodegas Los Astrales got going in 2000.
Dominio de Atauta, a master of Tinto Fino, is located further to the east in Soria Province. Atauta’s vineyards rest at more than 3,000 feet, making it one of RDD’s highest properties. While Atauta’s winery sits on the spot where wine was made as far back as the 15th century, its modern-day offerings are consistently rich, pure expressions of Tinto Fino with elegance, precision and the ability to age.
In a nutshell, that is Ribera del Duero’s calling card.
Arrocal 2011 Ángel; $55, 94 points. Cool, earthy blackberry, cassis and boot-leather aromas are strapping and integrated. This feels layered and structured, with chewy depth, firm tannins and power. Baked, toasty, chocolaty flavors bring ripe-fruit notes of fig, prune and blackberry, while the finish is long and savory, with a strong accent of wood spice. Drink through 2025. Grapes of Spain. Editors’ Choice.
García Figuero 2012 Viñas Viejas; $69, 93 points. Concentrated tight-grained oaky aromas rest on top of deep, smoky blackberry and cassis scents. This is solid as an ox and quite ripe across the palate. Flavors of blackberry, pepper, fine oak and herbs are integrated, while a toasty, chocolaty, lightly herbal finish tastes and feels right. Drink through 2022. Quintessential Wines. Editors’ Choice.
Valderiz 2011 Valdehermoso Crianza; $25, 92 points. Pure cherry, blackberry and plum aromas are dense, toasty, minerally and smoky. Intense plum and blackberry flavors soften a bit on a loamy, lightly baked finish. Overall, this is a ripe, thoroughly drinkable RDD with tons of fruit and well-applied oak. Drink through 2020. Regal Wine Imports Inc.
Resalte 2011 Crianza; $35, 92 points. Savory oak, tobacco, vanilla and blackberry aromas create a nice opening. This feels tight and structured, with firm tannins. Flavors of savory oak, turned earth, blackberry and cassis end with smoky echoes of barrel spice and resin. Drink through 2022. RM Distributors, Inc.
Matarromera 2011 Reserva; $60, 91 points. Ripe, fleshy black-fruit aromas suggest prune and raisin, while the palate is jammy and full, albeit one notch below precise and exact. Baked, oaky, charred flavors of meaty plum and blackberry finish with toasty overtones and modest heat. Drink through 2019. Matarromera USA, Inc.
The Rules of Ribera del Duero
Along with Rioja, Ribera del Duero is the only Spanish wine region that utilizes crianza, reserva and gran reserva guidelines for the aging and labeling of its wines. Many Ribera wineries choose not to use these qualifiers, instead labeling their wines as simply “Ribera del Duero.” But for those wineries that stick to the formal rules for aging, there’s almost always a correlation between how a wine is labeled and its characteristics.
- Must be at least 75% Tempranillo; most are 100% Tempranillo.
- Wines labeled roble or joven can spend no more than 12 months in oak. These are fruit-forward wines, often with high acidity.
- Crianzas must spend at least one year in oak, and they must be released within two years of the vintage. Ranging from basic to complex, the wines often have a moderate oak character and good structure.
- Reservas must spend three years in oak and bottle prior to release, with at least one year in oak. Complex and dark-colored, these wines convey a noticeable oak character.
- Gran Reservas must spend five years in oak and bottle prior to release, with at least two years in oak. These hefty, ageworthy wines are made only in the best vintages.