The wines of Ribera del Duero – Part 1

The wines of Ribera del Duero – Part 1

15th May 2010

The centre of Spanish fine (red) wine.

At the Fine Wine 2010 conference two weeks ago our team was treated to a tasting of over 50 red wines from the Ribera del Duero region in Spain. The tasting confirmed our belief that these are some of the best, if not the best red wines being produced in Spain today.  Interestingly, before we went to the conference we had received many messages from members looking for an alternative to Rioja. The community liked some examples from the region but found many of the wines lacking in fruit and a bit flat. They wanted a stronger, more potent Tempranillo based wine.  Enter the wines of Ribera.

Ribera del Duero is the modern red wine miracle of Northern Spain. Relatively unknown in the early 1980’s, it now challenges Rioja as Spain’s foremost wine region.  Spreading east from the city of Valladolid in North West Spain to the wine capital, Aranda de Duero, the landscape is of mountainous plains, dry and barren. The Duero River flows through the region, the river that in Portugal becomes the Douro and the home of port.  This is an area of ancient winemaking tradition, fuelled by the nobility’s desire for fine wines to accompany their great banquets (Valladolid was the capital of 17th century Spain and formulated strict wine laws) 


The region enjoys (or rather puts up with) a fiercely continental climate with marked differences between day and night temperatures; in August it can be 35 degrees at noon and 12 degrees at night. Spring frosts all are too common. The harvest routinely takes place in late October. The light and air here have a high altitude dryness and brightness about them, as do the wines, which usually have a high acidity thanks to those cool nights. It’s difficult to really generalise as styles do vary from wine-maker to wine-maker, but in essence the best wines have freshness, a wonderful perfume and concentration that Rioja traditionally lacked.  These are big, tannic and powerful wines – quite different from the typical produce of its neighbour less than 60 miles to the northeast.


If we wanted a shining example from the region, we could do no better than the winery of Vega Sicilia. The estate was initially planted in the 1860’s, partly with Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec), at the same time as Rioja was being invaded by Bordeaux merchants and influences. Their first wine Unico, made only in good vintages, is aged in oak longer than virtually any other red wine and released after ten years. It is a wine of astounding, penetrating personality, with breadth, depth and every other dimension. Costly too!


Rather than use imported varieties (although some wineries uses small amounts), the region has now built its success with the native grape variety Tempranillo, known here as Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais. Ribera became hugely fashionable in the 1990’s and while there were just 24 wineries in the region in 1982, there are over 240 currently registered.  This wide, high plateau has seen quite a remarkable transformation of land previously given over to cereals and sugar beet to more than 20, 00 hectares of vines. The soils are extremely varied in Ribera, even within a single vineyard where grapes can ripen at different paces, much to the annoyance of the grower! Limestone outcrops, quite common in the northern part of the region, help to retain the limited rainfall it receives. This is definitely not a region for fine white wine production.


Thewineremedy is a big fan of Ribera wines, and shall be listing our five favourites in part 2 of the guide. There are admittedly problems facing the region, namely the over-oaking of some wines which can smoother the fruit. In addition, every year in the region more and more vines are planted, many of the new plantings depend not on Ribera’s own strain of Tempranillo but on cuttings imported from other regions.  Some of them are of doubtful quality, and it shows in the wines. Ultimately though, these are relatively small problems that can be overcome. If Spain needs an ambassador to the world for the quality of its red wines, then it knows where to look!

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