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Ribera del Duero: a road to success.

Wine is not new to the Ribera del Duero region of Spain, but it has only been in the last decade that the name has been turning up on the global wine market. As wine producing regions go, it isn't very large, but its impact is likely to grow.

Many of the world's greatest vineyards are associated with rivers. There's the Rhone in France, the Rhine in Germany, the Russian River in California. The Duero river in Spain is unusual in that two major winegrowing districts in two countries claim it. When the Duero crosses the Portuguese border, it becomes the Douro which is, of course, the region where the great port wines are made.

Vineyards were first planted along the course of the Rio Duero in Roman times. All through the Middle Ages and right up until the last century, most vineyards in the Duero were small, often two acres or under. There were dozens of varieties planted and the wines were rarely bottled, either being sold locally straight from the casks or occasionally taken north into Rioja for blending.

This began to change in the mid-l9th century, when Bodegas Vega Sicilia was established with the intent of producing superior wines. Following on the success of Vega Sicilia, the Cooperativa Ribera Duero was founded in 1927 by a group of growers centered on Penafiel. It was only the second bodega in the region to bottle its wines under a branded name rather than selling them in barrel. The denominacion origen, granted in 1982, has served as a spur to expansion and the modern success of the Riber del Duero.

Raimundo Izquierdo, a consulting winemaker, is typical, in some ways, of the modern wine business in Ribera del Duero. Izquierdo, who spent several years in the United States, is young and entrepreneurial. His specialty is finding wines for export to the U.S. and elsewhere. He works not just with Ribera wines but all over Spain and has a good grip on the bargain wine market as well as the premium end.

Izquierdo helped develop the Monte Pinadillo brand for Beacon Wines, a California-based importer of Spanish wines. The brand is Beacon's first from the Ribera and was brought into the market in mid-2000.

We met Izquierdo at Bodegas San Roque de la Encina, a co-op winery established in 1959. There are about 250 members of the co-op with a very high proportion of older vineyards in the 40-50-year range, growing virtually all Tempranillo. The winery itself is in an unassuming building on the highway between Aranda del Duero and Penafiel.

"The equipment is very modern," he said, as we toured the bodega. "Fermentation is in stainless steel, temperature controlled, with aging in American oak," he said. The oak is on a five-year cycle.

"They sell young wine to many of the big name bodegas," he said. "Production is about 1.2 million liters annually, which makes it the fourth largest in Ribera."

All levels of Ribera, except a Gran reserva are made at San Roque, including a rosado. At present, Monte Pinadillo is the only wine from San Roque available in the U.S. The wine itself is a tasty example of the kind of exciting new wines being made today in the Ribera del Duero. It has good complexity with layers of flavor with a good structure and is cleanly made.

"A few weeks ago, we had a group of Russians here to buy bulk wine," Izquierdo said. "We have had problems before getting payment on shipments to Russia, so we told them to bring cash. This one big guy was carrying a suitcase, stuffed full of pesetas. It was amazing," he said.

We also tasted a young red wine that Izquierdo had found at a winery in Badajoz in Extramadura. It was rustic and simple but well made. He said it could be bought at the winery for 95 pesetas a bottle, or roughly 75 cents. "They sold two million bottles to China last year," he said. He added that on a shipment of 10 pallets or more, there was a 10 peseta government subsidy per bottle.

On the Banks of the River

The literal translation of Ribera del Duero is "bank of the Duero" but many of the better vineyards are on upland slopes and benchlands above the river itself, although some of the finest vineyards are on the river. The area of the D.O. is about 85 miles long and from 7 to 30 miles in width. It is hilly country, with vineyards scattered among fields of grains, farms and orchards.

Winters are continental with temperatures often falling below zero Centigrade. Spring frosts are a major problem for growers with under 140 frost free days most years. Ribera is not a summer festival. It can be blazing hot, with highs in the low 4OsC; however, there is usually some cooling at night, which helps to maintain a good acid-sugar balance in the grapes. Summers are usually dry and the Ribera is one of the few winegrowing areas in Spain where irrigation is authorized.

There are many different soils. In general river bank soils are alluvial sand and clay, with clay and limestone on the slopes above the river. Many of the best vineyards are planted on limestone.

Authorized grape varieties include Tempranillo, locally known as Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais, which occupies about 80% of the vineyard area. There must be a minimum of 75% Tempranillo for a wine to use the D.O. on the label. Other authorized grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Garnacha.

Although Albillo, a white variety, is authorized, it is used only as a blending grape in D.O. wines since only reds and rosados (roses) are authorized. The French varieties have been established for some time, but may only be replanted where they have been previously grown. Vine density varies from 2,000 vines per hectare (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) to 4,000.

The overall vineyard area is just over 27,000 acres. This is relatively small. As a comparison, there are about 38,000 acres of vines in Napa County. This has led to a rapid increase in prices for Ribera del Duero wines as the reputation of the wines grows and demand for grapes increases.

The wines of Ribera del Duero, while clearly related to the great red wines of the Rioja, also made from Tempranillo, of course, are quite distinct. Many local growers and winemakers believe that what is called Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero is very different from the same-name grape in other parts of Spain, especially Rioja.

Ten years ago, Ribera wines were generally regarded as rustic or country wines, agreeable quaffs but, with a few exceptions nothing to make one sit up and take notice.

Not a chance of a long-term relationship, one would think. But even when the wines were often rough and ready, the best possessed a concentrated intensity of flavor that lingered in the mouth. In truth, the flavors of Ribera wines do match the hearty foods of the region and, in a sense, the harsh extremes of climate from winter to summer.

Over the past decade the exception has become the rule. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to explain the leap in quality of Ribera wines. Yes, it is better winemaking equipment, including temperature-controlled fermentation and gentler production methods; yes, it is paying more attention to the vineyard, working out the best sites for new plantings, experimentation with vine trellising systems and other fine-tuning farming practices. But it is also a change of attitude. Again and again, Ribera del Duero winemakers said they now knew they could make exceptional wines. Knowing that, they are willing to take the extra step to do it right. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy on the plus side. That approach, for example, led Vega Sicilia, already a success by almost any standard, to invest millions of dollars in new equipment and to purchase an entire winery simply to make a good wine even better. It's the opposite of the trite and tired "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy.

If all that reminds you of the approach taken by winemakers in California, you've got it in one. In Ribera, vintners are willing to try something new, to look beyond the borders of their D.O. at international wine styles and wine markets. Given that approach, it isn't surprising that the bold new Ribera wines bear more than a passing resemblance to Californian and other New World wines, while retaining an essential Spanish center--chiefly that velvety, silky texture that shows up in the crianzas and reservas.

The younger wines, including the rosados and jovens can be bold and joyful with brilliant fruit that at best fairly explodes on the palate. The crianzas, which must spend at least 12 months in wood and may be released the third year after the vintage, are beginning to take on that silky come-drink-me now quality that is so typical of Ribera wines. When we reach the level of the Reserva (one year in oak, three years in bottle before release) the wines take on an exceptional depth and grace. The Gran Reservas, which must have two years in wood and three years in bottle, are often breathtaking, dramatic wines of great power.

The Bodegas

Vega Sicilia has been through many changes since it was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves. He was given the estate on the Rio Duero by his father. Lecanda went to Bordeaux and brought back 18,000 grape cuttings, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot noir and made one of the first major plantings in the Duero. He also planted Tempranillo. There is still some Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot but about 80% of the vineyards are now Tempranillo.

The reputation of this bodega was established in the 1920s when it took on legendary status as the "royal wine of Spain." During the Franco era, the winery changed ownership twice and although the reputation remained high, in truth, it was not always as good as it should be.

In 1982, the winery was bought by the Alvarez family and the old bodega has been completely rebuilt with right up-to-the minute equipment rivaling anything that can be seen in California or Australia. There are rows of gleaming stainless steel and stacks of new barrels towering in temperature-controlled cellars.

When the Alvarez family bought the estate, the vineyards were in poor condition and the winemaking had fallen behind the times. All that has changed now and Vega Sicilia, just starting its third century, is on track to put a fresh shine on a somewhat tarnished image.

It is a truism that good wine begins in the vineyard At Vega Sicilia, the vineyards are picked over at least four times (very labor intensive) with the goal to pick the grapes at their absolute flavor-peak.

Both French and American oak are used. The wood is bought as raw planks, then aged and coopered at the winery. Extended aging in barrel is the essence of Vega Sicilia. The wines begin in new oak and, after a few months, move into older and then even older wood.

"There is no formula," said Mercedes Ausas, a member of the winemaking staff. "It depends on the vintage and on the vineyards."

The wines are in three tiers - Valbuena, Unico and Unico Special Reserva. The Valbuena is the youngest wine, usually released after about five years. Typically, it contains some 20% Merlot and Malbec with the rest Tinto Fino. When it is young, it is dominated by fruit but becomes richer with age. The Unico is held for several years longer in barrel and bottle--current release is the 1990 vintage--and is a rich, complex wine, capable of extended aging, elegant and harmonious. The Special Reserva is a blend of the finest red wine in the bodega. Since the blend sometimes includes wine from different years, there is no vintage specified.

It is difficult to sum up Vega Sicilia. One is tempted to write about the traditional Rioja wines that also receive long wood and bottle aging, yet there is something different about Vega Sicilia. It has all the velvety, elegant character of an aged Rioja, yet retains a brightness and lucidity that takes it to an entirely new level.

A few years ago, the Alvarez family bought Bodegas y Vinedos Alion, next door to Vega Sicilia. It is operated entirely separately from Vega Sicilia. "It gives us a chance to experiment and to try different things," Ausas said, "without risking the integrity of Vega Sicilia."

At Alion, which has its own 250 acre vineyard, the wine is fermented in stainless steel at about 90[degrees]F and remains in stainless for three months, before aging for 14 to 16 months in Nevers oak. The wine blend leans more heavily on Tempranillo than at Vega Sicilia.


The caves of Bodegas Protos wind deep back into the hillside under the dramatic castle that towers above the village of Penafiel. The temperature remains a constant 54[degrees] year around, perfect for the wines quietly aging in over 6,000 barrels stored throughout the 7,000 feet of tunnels.

Protos produces about 1.5 million bottles of joven, the young lightly-oaked wine, 400,000 bottles of Crianza, 100,000 bottles of reserva and up to 70,000 bottles of gran reserva in years when it is made. Barrels are a mix of American and French oak.

Protos evolved from the Cooperativa Ribera Duero, founded in 1927. Today, the members control over 1,200 acres of vines, growing almost entirely Tinto Fino. Winemaker Jose Carlos Guzman Serrano said during a tasting, "We don't need Cabernet in Ribera because here the Tempranillo has enough structure by itself."

Guzman, who has worked in Rioja and in Catalonia, has seen Tempranillo in other regions and he believes that the clone of Tempranillo grown in the Ribera is quite different than the grape in Rioja. Although undisputedly Tempranillo, it does have more color and guts than the same grape only a few miles north in Rioja.

"Also, many people don't really know what they have in the vineyard," he added.

Guzman is one of the new breed of Spanish winemakers who likes to play with a full palate. He is experimenting with different toast levels and different sources of oak, as well as using larger oak tanks. "However," he added, "I don't want a wine with a lot of pronounced oak of flavors."

Protos doesn't get the flashy press that goes to Vega Sicilia or Tinto Pesquera, yet the wines are almost always first class, often remarkably good and sometimes, as in the case of the Gran Reservas, stunning. With almost three-quarters of a century of experience, Protos wines have also proven good ability to age. Protos Reservas are a solid bet for two decades and the Gran Reserva (which is not made every year) will go even longer.

The export manager, Eugenio Bayon-Bayon said that Protos is exported to 20 countries, including the U.S., but he doesn't expect that number to grow. "The wine is on allocation in Spain, and we don't want to displease our Spanish customers," he said.

Vina Mayor

This is the Ribera del Duero wine you are most likely to see in the United States. The claim at Vina Mayor is that one of every five bottles of Ribera sold in the U.S. is from their bodega, and no one is disputing that point. Like many other Ribera wineries, Vina Mayor is young, although the founders, Hijos de Antonio Barclo, have been involved in the wine business in Malaga since 1876. The land where the winery now stands, on a knoll overlooking the highway between Aranda del Duero and Valladolid, was bought in 1986. The new bodega was finished in 1999, a happy sign since the 1999 vintage in Ribera del Duero was excellent.

Vina Mayor enologist Gregorio Ruiz Abellan, a young university-trained winemaker, treats the question of terroir very seriously. "Most of our grapes are brought in," he said, "but we have very tight contracts with growers. We exercise close control, especially in terms of yield, which is of major importance. Lower yields lead to more concentrated, intense wines. We aim for 4,800 kilos per hectare on our estate wines but the yield really depends on the soil of the individual site," he added.

There are 10 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in front of the winery, which Ruiz uses almost entirely in the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. Ruiz adds about 2% Cabernet to add power and flavor to the Tempranillo. The Cabernet builds up more intense fruit with almost a full month longer on the vine than the Tempranillo, which is commonly harvested the first week in October.

Fermentation is temperature-controlled and cool, with up to 28 days on the skins, depending on the year. Commercial yeasts are rarely used. However, Ruiz was quick to point out that "there are no recipes for winemaking."

The barrel regime (there are 3,000 barrels, 80% American oak) is standard for the area. About 65% of wines are Crianza, 25% Reserva and only about 10% Gran Reserva. Ruiz would like to crank up the Reserva production. "But it all depends on getting the right grapes," he said.

Total production is about two million bottles, of which 40% is exported to 37 different markets with the largest customer being the U.S.

Vina Mayor also has a large facility in the suburbs of Valladolid, which is outside the Ribera del Duero D.O., for the production of young wines and table wines. The plant is fully automated with grapes going in one end and bottled wine out the other with minimal labor. The facility has an 8 million liter storage capacity and an annual crush of 5 million liters. Wines are barrel aged in 6,000 mostly American oak barrels.

Tinto Pesquera

Tinto Pesquera brought Ribera del Duero wines to the world. Vega Sicilia was regarded as a phenomenon, an on-off operation that often made great wines, but after Tinto Pesquera came onto the market in the 1970s, Ribera became more accessible and found a place on the world wine map. The bodega was founded in 1972 by Alejandro Fernandez, a native of the region who believed that great wine could be made in the Ribera from Tinto Fino. He has certainly made his point and continues to make it with powerful, extraordinary wines, often as good as any red wine in the world.

Other wineries in the Ribera dabble around a bit with Cabernet Sauvignon, but Fernandez is vinomonogamous: he only grows Tinto Fino, about 225 hectares with more planting underway. The Pesquera vineyards are above the Rio Duero, more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

The winery, a modest looking building in the village of Pesquera a few miles from the river, houses an immaculate, modern, temperature-controlled cellar. Fermentation is in stainless steel. The wines are aged in a combination of French and (mostly) American oak. Fernandez buys about 10% new oak each year. Aging follows the basic Rioja-Ribera pattern: 18 months for Crianzas, 24 months for Reservas and 30 to 36 months for the Gran Reservas. In the very best years, there is special Gran Reserva called Janus, a superb wine, hard to find.

Fernandez not content with his great success at Tinto Pesquera, is now competing with him elf at Condado de Haza, a rather grand estate in a remote area of Ribera del Duero at between 2,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level.

The land was bought by Fernandez in 1986, and some 425 acres were planted to Tinto Fino. Planting have since expanded to about 500 acres and all Condado de Haza wines are made from estate grapes. Vineyards are planted on a south-facing slope leading down the banks of the Rio Duero.

Only native yeast is used and whole bunch fermentation is practiced, a process which gives a rounded and textured mouthfeel, somewhat softer than the traditional de-stemming process. The Condado de Haza Tinto is aged about 15 months in American oak, with an eight-year barrel cycle.

The star of the show is the remarkable Alenza, a powerful, concentrated wine made from hand-selected grapes fermented with the stalks and stems. Alenza ages for about 27 months in a combination of French and American oak. It is a densely tannic wine, reminiscent of the huge, long-lasting wines Fernandez made at Pesquera in the 1970s.

Other important Ribera bodegas include: Arzuaga, Balbas, Duron, Emilio Moro, Felix Callejo, Hacienda Monasteerio, Ibernoble, Ismael Arroyo and Valdubon.

Castles and Wines

The Rio Duero is about an hour and a half drive north of Madrid, in the heart of Old Castile, that most quintessentially Spanish of all the regions of Spain. Here, the residents will tell you, the purest Castillian is spoken. The standard guidebooks describe Castilla y Leon, as it is now known, as "austere and bleak." Well, perhaps. But anyone who loves the vast open spaces of the American West or the high desert plateau of Northern Mexico might rather call it "grand and mysterious". Romantic also springs to mind. Especially with the first glimpse of a hilltop castle, seemingly carved into the landscape itself, towering above the sparsely settled fields.

Most of the castles were built during the centuries of war when Christian and Moorish armies fought through these valleys and mountain passes. It was during the same time that the system of tunnels, some originally dug in Roman times for use as wine storage, were expanded and used as shelter from the warfare above and as secure storage areas for food and wine. The battles between Christians and Moors are now children's street games, most of the castles are in ruins, but there is still plenty of wine in those labyrinth underground tunnels, which spread like a maze under the larger cities and towns.
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Title Annotation:wines of Spain
Author:Walker, Larry
Publication:Wines & Vines
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:Vineyard Designated.
Next Article:Ribera and food.

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