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It's reigning in Spain.

Byline: By Helen Savage

Serious money is pouring into the Ribera del Duero. I visited the region in north-central Spain for the first time last month and was amazed by the new vineyards and state of the art wineries.

Five years ago there were about 100, now there are 240. Downstream to the west, the regions of Rueda, Cigales and Toro are all also riding high.

In a world of too much wine, the last thing that's needed is more cheap and cheerful plonk. It's very important to aim for high quality that no-one else can duplicate ( and at the best possible price.

Quality wines are certainly made in the Ribera de Duero, but the best are eye-wateringly expensive. Vega Sicilia is the oldest winery still in production there (it was established in 1864) and their top wine, Unico, will set you back (depending on vintage) between pounds 145 and pounds 155 at Richard Granger.

Even the second wine, Valbueno, costs between pounds 34 and pounds 62.75.

We visited Bodegas Tamaral, whose vineyards are a stone's throw from those of Vega Sicilia. Although the vines are reassuringly old (one secret of high-quality fruit) the winery itself only opened in 1997.

The wines are good, but sell at nowhere near the prices asked for Vega Sicilia. Since 2001 Francesco Xavier Gallego and Bordeaux-trained Patricia Diez have turned out some exceptional bottles. Their 2004 Roble is superb, but older vintages only cost pounds 6.99 from Spanish Spirit, rising to pounds 12.49 for a 1998 Reserva. (Spanish Spirit has a warehouse on the Low Prudhoe Industrial Estate in Northumberland,

Most of the wine made along the Duero is red from local variations of Tempranillo grape. In Ribera it's know as Tinto Fino, in Toro, Tinta de Toro ( and it tastes very different from the plum and strawberry flavours I associate with Rioja ( Tempranillo's heartland. The wines are massively deep, softer than Rioja, and often reminded me of coffee, licorice and black olives. Some are almost too much of a good thing, and made even more unwieldy by heavy-handed maturation in oak barrels, but the best, for example those made by the flamboyant artist and violinist Juan Antonio Fernandez Mart'n, are delicious. I don't know if playing Bach, Handel and Mozart to his wine while it matures in barrels makes much difference to it, but his range is exemplary. Liberalia Cero 2004 is pounds 9.99 at Spanish Spirit.

Another top Toro producer is the splendid family-run Bodegas Ramon Ramos.

Rueda is unusual in that it's white wine country (though there is now a little red too) and features the worthy local Verdejo. Its fresh, slightly spicy wines are well worth trying (see my corking recipe wine).

Just outside the Toro zone of production, some very good wines indeed are also being made by an enthusiastically run co-op, Vi-a Escuderos, whose fragrant Gaviun dry white and juicy rosado are great buys from Spanish Spirit (both pounds 7.29).

Traditional wineries in Cigales were dug deep into the soft rock then covered by the up-cast earth and provided with quaint chimneys to allow the fermentation gases to escape, which they didn't always, as the deaths of too many men (and canaries) bore witness.

These hobbit houses have been replaced by spanking new wineries. I was especially impressed by Frutos Villar (who made my wine of the week) and Bodega Valdelosfrailes.

I hope Spanish Spirit will soon list some of their wonderful rosado, the speciality of Cigales ( it's a treat in store.

Wine of the WEEK

Calderona Roble 2004, Richard Granger, pounds 6.29.

A gorgeously soft, but chunky red from 80-year-old vines grown in Cigales in northern Spain. It's aged just a few months in oak barrels ( not long enough to detract from the flavour of ripe brambles, plums, coffee and chocolate and even a hint of Marmite. It's great with rich meaty dishes, or spicy chorizo.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 7, 2006
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