Many wine drinkers are familiar with Tempranillo as Spain’s most prolifically grown noble grape. Often people confuse Rioja and Tempranillo as being the same thing but Tempranillo is the grape variety and Rioja is one of Spain’s largest wine producing regions. A somewhat less familiar region (in the U.S. largely due to better marketing by other wine regions), the Ribera del Duero, has been producing wines for more than 2,000 years. Evidence of this has been found in a Roman mosaic depicting Bacchus. Cistercian and Benedictine monks began proliferating vines and cellaring wine as far back as the 12th century. Some of these cellars are still in use today. The region was officially declared a D.O. (Denominación de Origen) in 1982. A natural clone of Tempranillo, known in the region as Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais has adapted to the less than hospitable climate of short hot summers with cool nights, frequent frosts during the growing season, and little rain.
The Ribera del Duero region is located approximately 80 miles north of Madrid and sits on a plateau with a wide river valley running through it. The wine region is literally located along either side of the banks of the Duero River as it runs west to east (through Portugal where it s called the Douro before it empties into the Atlantic) through the four Spanish provinces of Castile and León, Burgos, Segovia, and Valladodid. The climate is Mediterranean with Continental influences and the vineyards are planted at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet. The growing season is short with a favorable diurnal temperature exchange of hot days and cool nights, and rainfall of only about 17 inches per year, which makes for great growing conditions. The soil variations range from alluvial deposits with some sand and clay at the lowest elevations to layered limestone, marl, and chalk up towards the steeper slopes. This arid mesa land is dotted with medieval castle/fortresses called alcázars where 15th and 16th century catholic Spain fought off the islamic Moors who had controlled much of the country from the time of the Reconquista in the 8th century through the Spanish Inquisition (complex history).
Vines here are known to grow untrellised on upright gnarled bushes, many into old age, 40, 50 years or more. The Tempranillo grape grows as a small berry in loose clusters and is characterized by its plum, cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and spice flavor descriptors. It is known for producing well-balanced wines that express fresh fruit, good acidity, rich color and well-controlled tannins. Oak aging contributes vanilla, toast, and leather to the final product. The wines of the Ribera del Duero region show elegance, depth, and complexity. Many give you pause to think and consider while tasting.
The classification system adhered to by the D.O., as in most regions, is strict. There are requirements for the use of oak and aging, as well as maximum yields per acre, grape varieties, vineyard management, alcohol levels, and more. Ribera del Duero wines are classified as follows:
Cosecha, or Joven – these wines are young and meant to be drunk soon after harvest. They are fresh and fruity in style. Joven Roble or Joven Barrica see three to six months in oak.
Crianza – requires two years of aging with at least one year in an oak barrel. They are allowed to be released after the first of October, two years after the harvest.
Reserva – wines are aged for three years, with a one year minimum in oak. They are released after the first of October, three years after the harvest.
Gran Reserva – these wines are only produced in years with an exceptional vintage. Aged for a minimum of five years these wines require at least two years in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging.
Rosado – Ribera del Duero’s rosé wines, meant to be enjoyed while young and fresh.
In April I had the pleasure of attending an event sponsored by Drink Ribera. Drink Spain. hosted by Jonathan Alsop at the Boston Wine School. There was a brief seminar followed by a walk around tasting complemented by regional tapas prepared by Deborah Hansen of Taberna de Haro. It was a celebration of Ribera being named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Fifteen winemakers were listed on the program but somehow many more managed to be displayed on additional tables. I never turn my nose up at these sponsored events. Some wine geeks see them as self-serving and blatant marketing, which they are, and intended to be. It is also my opportunity, short of traveling to the region itself, to taste through the different classifications and styles, and to learn something about food pairing that go well with the wines.
At the end of this post I will list some of the wines I enjoyed but an interesting part of the event was the food. There was Salchichón, a Spanish style salami, chorizo sausage, Manchego cheese, and Jamón ibérico (Spanish version of prosciutto) sliced by chef Deborah Hansen, all of which were predictable pairings. The interesting choice to me was the Morcilla, common to the region but not often served in the U.S. Morcilla, also known as black pudding, is, quite literally, blood sausage. An acquired taste for most, this is something I was more familiar with as what my mother called Hutka. My great grandmother was from Budapest and while growing up in New York we frequently travelled to Manahattan to a part of the lower east side where a little Hungarian community still sold the delicacies of home. I now know that what my mother called Hutka was actually véres hurka. In Spain morcilla is made from pork blood, with rice, fat, onions, and sometimes liver and head meat (did I mention that it is an acquired taste?). The Hungarian version I grew up with was prepared in a skillet and sauteed until the sausage burst and the black organ bits and rice got crispy. When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about this other than my mother couldn’t pass it off with the “tastes like chicken” line, but I liked it. The Morcilla served by Taberna de Haro was more elegantly presented than I remembered from childhood. This is waste not want not peasant food at its best.
While wine has been made in the Ribera del Duero region for more than 2,000 years it was being produced primarily for local consumption with less regard paid to quality. Often little attention was paid to wine production and a vintage could be placed in barrels and allowed to ferment on its own with little intervention at all from the winemaker. It was around the mid 20th century when the number of hectares planted had started to be reduced and quality over quantity took hold, leading up to the 1980’s when the winery Vega Sicilia, along with wineries like La Pesquera began to produce wines of higher quality, helping to secure the D.O status for the region. Bodegas Vega Sicilia had been producing wine since 1864. More than 100 years later they adopted a mindeset of holding off the release of their wines until they were ready, as determined by the winemaker. To this day some Vega Sicilia wines are held in bottle and not released for decades. This determination to be patient and control the release of the wine until the best possible quality could be achieved inspired other winemakers to the produce better wines as well. Now the region can boast of being able to hold its own against the more reknown Rioja D.O. and its designation as Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine. So the next time you are in the mood for a wine with a little more complexity, one to make you pause to consider what you are tasting try a Ribera del Duero.
You could not go wrong with wines from any of the following producers:
Bodega Emina – the 2009 Crianza is a purple red hue with well-defined tannins and complex structure.
Bodega Matarromera S. L.
Protos B. Ribera del Duero Peñafiel S. L.
Bodegas Trus S. L.
Alejandro Fernández-Tinto Pesquera, S. L. – named for the visionary Spanish winemaker who helped bring this region to a more prominent place in the wine world, helping to secure the D.O. status
Selección de Torres, S. L.