Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

As many of you will know, I have a deep love and passion for the wines of Spain. Taken as a whole I think Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries in the world. Of course the most famous region – other than Sherry – is Rioja. I like Rioja, I admire Rioja. It is a wonderful region, a lovely place and it produces many fabulous wines, I have written about it often. However, there is much more to Spain than just Rioja and it pains me greatly that so relatively few wines from other regions of Spain are widely available to UK consumers.

Although I will carry on writing about anything and everything that I find interesting in the world of wine, I thought that every now and again I would share some thoughts about Spain’s wine regions with you. Recently I have been tasting quite a few wines from Ribera del Duero, which have reminded me just how good a region it is, so I decided to start there.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

As you can see from my map, Ribera del Duero is in Castilla y León, or Old Spain. In many ways this region to the north west of Madrid is the original heart of Spain, the original home of those that ‘reconquered’ the peninsula from the Moors. Of course it is also home to the language that we usually call Spanish, but is more properly called Castellano or Castilian.

The Duero River – it becomes the Douro in Portugal – cuts through the region and gives the place its name, bank of the Duero.

For centuries this was border country and was defended by castles which are a common sight to this day and explains why it is called the land of castles – Castilla. There are records from about 800 of the Moors calling it Al-Qila, or ‘the castled’ high plains.

As far as wine is concerned, for millennia there must have been wine made here, as there was all over the peninsula, but it must have been fairly rudimentary and just for drinking rather than thinking about.

It was not until Don Eloy Lecanda y Chave returned to his native Castilla y León from Bordeaux, where he had been trained as winemaker. His family owned an estate near Valbuena de Duero, about as far west as you can go on my map and still be in Ribera del Duero, and he returned brimming with ideas of how to transform the wines. He brought French grape varieties, oak barrels and modern French know how and set about creating wines on the Médoc model. He called his wine Vega Sicilia and it remains one of the finest, most expensive and sought after of all Spanish wines. Rioja was being developed in a similar way at the same time and this article about the history of Rioja might help.

For decades Vega Sicilia was all on its own as the sole fine wine of the region and it was not until the twentieth century that others saw the potential for quality wine here. Firstly the Protos cooperative in Penafiel was created in 1927, but it was not really until the 1980s that the Ribera del Duero revolution took place, with new vineyards being planted and wineries built.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

What happened was that modern knowhow had allowed these new pioneers – chef amongst them Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera – to craft wines that were quite different from Vega Sicilia. More modern, with less oak ageing, more ripe fruit characters and more focus on the the local grape instead of the French varieties.

That grape is a clone of Tempranillo – the grape that made Rioja famous – but in Ribera del Duero it is traditionally called either Tinto del Pais (country red) or more fancifully Tinto Fino.

The wines – and the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) /Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) only allows reds and rosés – have to contain at least 75% Tinto Fino with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha or even the excellent local white Albillo grape.

The climate is one of extremes, with hot, short, summers and pretty hard winters. Basically the place is a high plain and the vineyards sit at around 750 to 800 metres above sea level. The cooling benefits of this altitude are very useful with summer temperatures often reaching over 40˚C. Then there are really big night time drops in temperature, often as much as 20˚C. This Diurnal Temperature Variation allows the vine to rest overnight and preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, which can make the finished wine more elegant and fine. It also slows down the ripening process, so you have a better chance of producing balanced ripe grapes, rather than overly ripe, alcoholic, raisin-like grapes.

Historically these cool conditions made ripening the grapes very hard indeed and would have produced pretty thin wines. So in the main it had to wait for modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge and techniques for the region to reliably produce wines that could take their place on the world market.

Vega Sicilia is a style and type of wine on its own and has very little in common with most of the red wines of the region – much like Château Musar being quite different from the rest of the wines of Lebanon.

What I like about the region’s wines is how unlike Rioja they are. They may technically be made from Tempranillo, but they never have that dry, savoury tinge that is the hallmark of Rioja to me. No, a good, Ribera del Duero should display concentrated, dark fruits. They should be vivid and rich, with sometimes an almost new world softness to them. However, running through them there should be a backbone of acidity – but not to Sangiovese or Nebbiolo levels – that makes them excellent with the rich, fatty meat dishes that are normal in these parts.

There are a great many wines from Ribera del Duero available. Some are great, many are good and a few even disappoint, but I think there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this exciting region’s wines.

Technically they use the same labelling system as Rioja; Reservas are aged for at least 12 months in barrel, Gran Reservas are aged for at leat 12 months in oak barrels and a further 2 years in bottle, while wines that do not mention either of those terms are considered to be joven / young wines and would have either no oak ageing, or less that a year.

Here are a few of my favourites from the region, so are very affordable, while others are more expensive, but I think they all offer value for money.

fincaresalso2015 Finca Resalso
Bodegas Emilio Moro
This is the entry level wine from Bodegas Emilio Moro which is one of the very best producers in the region and I think the pedigree really shows. It is relatively light and fresh, but the fruit is nice and ripe, the tannins are smooth and there is a little vanilla and spice from 4 months in oak. 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 a bottle from:
Majestic – £8.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

legaris-roble-8695482014 Legaris Roble
Bodegas Legaris
I really like this estate, they make deliciously drinkable, velvety smooth wines that are always enjoyable. This is the baby of the range, but no less enjoyable for that. This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged in American oak barrels for 3 months and has big, soft ripe fruit, some spice and smooth tannins. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from:
Hennings Wine & Ocado.

b_alta_db_ecologico2015 Dominio Basconcillos Ecológico 6 Meses en Barrica
Dominio Basconcillos
I only discovered this producer recently, but was really impressed with this, their entry level wine. Aged for 6 months in new French oak, this vividly deep purple wine is big, chunky and richly fruity and has silky tannins. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from £12 a bottle from:
Vinceremos, Vintage RootsOrganic Wine Club & Abel & Cole.

valdubon-roble_hi2014 Valdubón Roblé
Bodegas Valdubón
The Valdubon Estate really do make some lovely, polished wines and this is a deliciously straightforward example with loads of fruit, smooth tannins, creamy ripeness and a light lick of rather nice mocha tinged oak – it is aged for 4 months and Roblé, meaning oak, is an unofficial category that is used to make it clear that it has some oak ageing. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 a bottle from:
Marks & Spencer & Ocado

pago_de_los_capellanes_roble2015 Pago de los Capellanes Roble
Pago de los Capellanes
One of my favourite producers, this artisan estate (Pago means estate) never fails to excite me. This Roble wine spends 5 months in French oak and is juicy and sumptuous, yet smooth. The tannins are nicely integrated as is the oak. The fruit is rich and concentrated, but a little glimmer of red fruit makes the wine fresh and elegant. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

crianza2014 Emilio Moro
Bodegas Emilio Moro
Yes, I could not resist another wine from this great producer – they have many more too, but you get the picture. This full bodied red spends a year in French and American oak and you have the coconut and the spices to show for it. It is plush and rich with deep black cherry fruit, chewy tannins and some mocha and dark chocolate too. 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for £16.99 a bottle from:
Majestic – £14.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

sainsburys-condado-de-haza-ribera-del-duero2014 Condado De Haza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
This second label from the great Pesquera estate is 100% Tinto Fino aged for 18 months in American oak and it is always something of a blockbuster, full-bodied with big, bold fruit and something of a Napa Valley style. There is some freshness though and and elegance too. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £15.00 a bottle from:
Sainsbury’s.

tinto-pesquera-crianza-20132012 Pesquera Crianza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
Further up the range from Pesquera, you really begin to see why wines from this estate put the region on the map in the 1980s and were frequently compared to the wines Pomerol by wine critics of the time. I still think it is more Pomerol meets Napa, but either way this is a plush, concentrated, hedonistic wine, full of deep ripe, almost creamy fruit, smooth tannins and seductive milk chocolate. 18 months in oak has given it some vanilla, cedar and mocha notes. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £21 a bottle from:
Roberson Wine & Tanners.

pago-de-los-capellanes2014 Pago de los Capellanes Crianza
Pago de los Capellanes

This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is even more opulent, concentrated and delicious than the Roble. It’s a little young, but nothing decanting a few hours in advance won’t solve – or you could age it for a few years. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £22 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

Another producer that I really admire. This is Tinto Fino aged for 12 months in French oak and blended with little dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The extra maturity shows in the nose as it offers rich fruit together with smoky and balsamic notes. The palate is still very lively and has lots of dark fruit together with something nutty and seductively savoury. 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from:
De Vinos.

pago-de-los-capellanes2013 Pago de los Capellanes Reserva
Pago de los Capellanes

Good though their Roble and Crianza wines are, this Reserva is on a different level of richness and concentration, but elegance too. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels and that riches shows with cedar, spice and mocha, while the fruit is dense and plush. The tannins still offer a little bite, but nothing too astringent.  93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £38 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

vega-sicilia-valbuena-5-2009-es-bl-0199-09a2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5˚
Bodegas Vega Sicilia

This is often described as the ‘second wine’ of Vega Sicilia – the ‘grand vin’ is called Unico – but I think it is really just a different wine. For a start it is 100% Tinto Fino, whereas Unico is a blend, and secondly it is only aged in oak for 3 years – and then a further 2 in bottle before being released in its 5th year – hence 5˚. This is a brilliant wine from a fabulous vintage, it is complex, fine and perfumed too. There is a lot going on and the tannins are just beginning to be silky, serve it with lamb. 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £84 a bottle from:
The Wine Society.

As you can see, there are is a great variation in price, but all these wines are very good examples at their different levels. I am absolutely certain that any serious red wine drinker would enjoy these wines, indeed I could have included a few more, but I had to stop somewhere! So the next time you are choosing a red to go with that special dinner, give one of these a go.I am sure it will be just the thing.

Tempranillo Day – Celebrating the Tempting Tempranillo

Tempranillo & Mazuelo vines at Contino in Rioja Alavesa

I cannot claim to have a favourite grape, let alone one that I drink to the exclusion of all others. I find the less trodden wine paths to be so fascinating that I simply cannot resist lesser known grapes – Carmenère, Zweigelt, St Laurent, Grenache Gris, Nascetta, Romorantin and the like all speak to me and demand their attention. I am never professionally happier or more excited than when experiencing a new grape variety for the first time.

A fine Riesling would probably be my desert island wine of choice as I never seem to tire of that beguiling grape, but for the rest I enjoy a wide spectrum of grapes with very different characters. Regular readers will know though that my passion for all things Spanish often breaks through and trumps my affection for wines from other places, so I think that if push comes to shove Tempranillo might well be my favoured red wine grape – unless I happen to be in a particular Cabernet, Pinot or Syrah sort of mood.

Very different conditions for old vine Tempranillo / Tinto del País in Castilla y León

And why am I so fond of Tempranillo? Well I cannot give you a neat answer to that really, but it speaks to me. Unlike the classic French grapes, which are only grown in specific areas of the country, Tempranillo is used all over Spain and so produces a wide range of wine styles and yet they often seem to be attractive wines to me – the well made examples anyway. Even at quite low price points Tempranillo can be enjoyable to drink.

Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero

As someone who celebrates diversity in wine it pains me that the differences are being ironed out. Many marketeers seem to believe that wine should be simplified for the UK consumer, even if they have to stretch the truth to do so. Nowadays you are more likely to find Tempranillo on a Spanish wine label from whatever region it hails when to my mind they should have used the old local name: Cencibel in Valdepeñas, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinto del País in Cigales, Tinta de Toro in Toro and the poetic Ull De Llebre in Cataluña. What’s more many people believe these grapes have evolved apart and so are now only very closely related rather than being absolutely identical to Tempranillo – not least the great Carlos Falco, Marqués de Griñon.

Tempranillo and olives in Utiel-Requña

It is Tempranillo’s fame as the main grape of Rioja that brings it to most people’s attention, but given Rioja’s popularity it always amazes me how few people grow Tempranillo outside Spain. It has become a dominant grape in Portugal – where it is called Tinto Roriz and Aragonez depending on where you are. There is even some grown in the south of France and I have tasted some from Virginia and Texas and even had one from Peru the other day, but Tempranillo has not yet become a true international grape. The plantings outside Europe remain small and relatively inconsequential, except in Argentina, but even there it is treated as an everyday grape rather than being given the star treatment it deserves. Surely Tempranillo is capable of challenging for Malbec‘s Argentinean throne?

Tempranillo in the softer Tuscan landscape

Perhaps it is this very diversity that I like about Tempranillo? That sense of never knowing quite what you are going to get. As with Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans there is no one flavour to Tempranillo. Some people taste black fruit and some red, some regions produce dry savoury wines from it while other areas make richly fruity examples. Some wine makers craft bright, modern Tempranillos that celebrate fruit and liveliness, while many winemakers stick to the traditional silky, oaky style that made the grape famous in the first place.

Although most famous as the principal grape of red Rioja, Tempranillo – and its near relatives – is also responsible for an array of lovely wines from across Spain and in my opinion it deserves to be as celebrated as much more famous and widely used grape varieties. Which is why I made sure that I tasted some on 8th November which just happened to be International Tempranillo Day:

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

2011 Beronia Tempranillo Rosado
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo 

The colour is a vivid strawberry juice hue, but it looks like real fruit rather than a confection. The nose is fresh, floral and gently fruity while the palate is dry, rich-ish, crisp-ish, nicely balanced  and very nice to drink with almost anything. It won’t win any prizes for complexity, but will make lots of people happy. Spain makes very good rosé, but why isn’t Tempranillo used for more of them? Personally I think it is much more suitable than the more normal Garnacha – 86/100 points

Around £9.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2010 Beronia Tempranillo Elaboración Especial
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo (in Rioja it is traditionally blended with Garnacha and others to make the wines fruitier) aged 8 months in new American Oak barrels.

Deep opaque plummy-black colour.
The nose is fragrant and enticing with spice, vanilla and a touch of mocha.
Pretty full-bodied for Rioja (which despite its reputation is rarely more than medium-bodied) with rich sweet black plummy fruit, fragrant vanilla and dried fruit notes too. The palate is round, rich and succulent with rich cherry on the the end of the mid palate together with a touch of fruit cake and a light dusting of cocoa and coffee and a lovely sinewy texture of gentle tannins and oak. This is a terrific wine to drink and enjoy without thinking about too much. The soft, fruity and modern side of Tempranillo and Rioja it scores high for pleasure and sheer drinkability – 88/100 points

Around £12.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2008 Matarromera Crianza
Bodega Matarromera, Valbuena de Duero, D.O. Ribera del Duero
100% Tinto Fino / Tempranillo aged 12 months in mixture of French &  American Oak barrels.

Matarromera were only founded in 1988, but they are in the heartland of Ribera del Duero and are right up there in quality with some of the much more famous producers of this great wine region which needs to be better known in the UK.
Intense aromas of plum, cocoa together with smoky, cedary spices.
The palate was sumptuous, soft and succulent at first with rich plum fruit and other mixed dark fresh and stewed fruit with fig and black cherry. The oak is very tasty indeed, coconut, vanilla, cocoa and coffee with some spice too. the tannins give a lovely fine grain texture which is so wrapped up in ripe fruit that’s there is no astringency. This is a big, but still medium bodied and dry wine and although the fruit is ripe it is not sweet at all. A beautifully balanced and concentrated wine that is hugely enjoyable and quite delicious. Not yet as complex as it will become – it needs time to develop, but it is really delicious and extremely pleasurable already and has much to offer for a long time to come – 91/100 points

Around £25.00 a bottle in the UK from Harvey Nichols.

2010 Finca Constancia Tempranillo Parcela 23
Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, Otero, Toledo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla
Special single parcel bottling of 100% Tempranillo aged 6 months in mixture of new French &  American Oak barrels.

Better known for Sherry, in 2006 Gonzalez Byass created this stunning modern estate in a part of Spain that seems at first glance to be a backwater for wine. However it is in the Sierra de Gredos, renowned for old vine Garnacha and the area is also home to Carlos Falco’s great Dominio de Valdepusa which produces some of Spain’s greatest wines in this seemingly unlikely place.
This will also make many friends as it is a very user friendly, winter warmer kind of wine. The nose really shows that new oak, smoky, toasty and very vanilla and coconut like those marshmallow sweets rolled in coconut! There was rich, stewed blackberry and plum fruit too as well as a dash of spice. The palate was at the top end of medium bodied with ripe plums, sweeter strawberry fruit, rich cherry and a touch herbs as you get in Chianti and all along this sweet vanilla, smooth, leathery oak giving a touch of toffee too. This is one to drink relatively soon and it is a bargain, so gets high marks from me for value – 88/100 points

Around £10.99 a bottle in the UK from the Oxford Wine Company.

There is no doubt that the Ribera del Duero was the finest of these, so do try it if you can, but all the wines showed well and reminded me how fond I am of wines made from Tempranillo and its relatives and the good news is we can drink them whenever we like, not just on International Tempranillo Day.