Keeping up with Spanish wine these days is like scanning the pop charts. New faces are appearing all the time and though much of their material is predictably derivative, some is surprisingly catchy. Iberian wine regions could almost be a source of names for new acts. One can easily imagine Ribera del Duero topping the charts around the world for a couple of weeks. But can the wines from this slice of northern Spain, having reached such dizzy heights, stay there for a prolonged period of time?

Keeping up with Spanish wine these days is like scanning the pop charts. New faces are appearing all the time and though much of their material is predictably derivative, some is surprisingly catchy.
Iberian wine regions could almost be a source of names for new acts. One can easily imagine Ribera del Duero topping the charts around the world for a couple of weeks. But can the wines from this slice of northern Spain, having reached such dizzy heights, stay there for a prolonged period of time?

‘Of course. We produce quality wines and have built on the great debut Robert Parker gave us during the 1980s,’ says Juan Carlos Martinez Baños, winemaker at Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro.

Though it lies just across the Sierra de Cebollera mountains from Rioja, Ribera del Duero was
virtually unknown before Parker’s visit, which resulted in his now fabled 100/100 mark for Tinto Pesquera and thrust Ribera under the global spotlight. The history of the region, however, can be traced back to well before eithe Parker or the pop charts were around. In the 1600s, bodegas paid ‘taxes’ in wine to the church which built the most impressive cathedrals in the best wine regions.

While the wineries may follow more regulated fiscal procedures these days, it is only in the last 20 years that Ribera has established a wider following. Granted its DO in 1985, when only nine bodegas were operating, Ribera now boasts an impressive 172 wineries and a growing reputation. So much so that, just as old bands influence today’s pop scene, Ribera is starting to impact on other Spanish regions, if not in style, in image and self-belief. And in its self-assured, non-conformist profile, the area certainly has the required pedigree.

Kings of the castle

An hour-and-a-half’s drive north of Madrid, the approach to Ribera del Duero sees countless plains and rugged mountain vistas give way to rolling vineyards and hilltop villages. On reaching Peñafiel, with its famous wine museum perched high above the town in the white-turreted toy-shop castle, you’ve arrived at Ribera’s spiritual centre. From here, 360? views take in vineyards on both the plains and hillside slopes.

The soils of the region vary wildly but the smart onlooker will notice splashes of white outcrop across the landscape, a clue to the most favourable limestone vineyard soils. As for Ribera’s plateau climate, many sparsely clad visitors have discovered to their shivering cost that it is more Continental than Mediterranean. Summer temperatures may hit the dreaded 40s, but this often gives way to snow-covered winters. Furthermore, the extreme contrast extends into marked yet advantageous day/night temperature variations, which are distinctly beneficial to the grapes’ aromas and flavours.

This exceptional climate, linked to the heady 800 metre-plus altitude, gives Ribera’s wines a refreshing, mouthwatering acidity that provides the perfect balance to the ripe summer fruit. Above the village of Valbuena, the estate of Montebaco benefits from even greater altitude. ‘We’re at 900 metres, which gives great acidity and a longer ripening period. The resulting fruit-acid balance is exceptional,’ says winemaker César Muñoz.

And so to the fruit. The grape used here goes by the name of Tinta Fino. Never heard of it? How about Tinta del País? No? Okay, time to come clean. Both are, in fact, local names for that most ubiquitous of Spanish grapes, Tempranillo. But it’s more than a local name change, argues Viña Sastre’s winemaker Jesús Sastre Gómez. ‘The old vines of Tempranillo have become our Tinto Fino thanks to the influence of decades of growth in our extraordinary terroir. Our grapes are smaller than the usual Tempranillo, have thicker skins, and produce concentrated wines,’ he adds.

The initial breakthrough of Tinta Pesquera, so loved by Parker, saw Tempranillo laced with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, thus injecting further zest to an already fruity wine. However, many winemakers are now ignoring the Cabernet boost in favour of a traditional 100% Tempranillo formula. ‘Cabernet is difficult to ripen in our extreme climate so we stay with Tempranillo, regardless of Cabernet’s international success,’ explains Bodega Arroya’s general manager Iker Ugarte Arroyo. ‘Tempranillo is simply a better grape,’ adds Fernando Martin, winemaker at Frutos Villar.

For those who disagree, the DO states that Tempranillo must provide at least 75% of any blend. It’s a proportion that is easily met by wineries. ‘We use 95% Tempranillo,’ says Angela García Alvarez, export manager of Real Sitio de Ventosilla. ‘The addition of 3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Merlot [as in its Prado Rey Reserva (1999)] gives us more dimension.’

Ribera’s vines – some of which are more than 90 years old – have traditionally been bush-trained (goblet). Wire-trained guyot vines are more common today and yet, bucking international trends, a regression is underway, according to Gomez: ‘I see the quality of the past and think goblet gives a better leaf distribution for improved photosynthesis and wind and sun protection. And where hand picking is the norm, many feel goblet also gives easier picking,’ he adds.

Training methods are no longer the be all and end all, however. Canopy and vineyard management are the newest tools in the quest for top-quality grapes. ‘We green harvest, employ drip irrigation, restrict yields to 35hl/ha and ensure our grapes are in the winery within two hours of picking,’ says Ricardo Peñalba, marketing manager at Finca Torremilanos.

The shiny, expensive, stainless steel wineries are impressive but it’s the barrel stores of Ribera that catch the eye, thanks to barriques piled four or five high in brand new, air-conditioned buildings. Here again, tradition plays its part. Around the world, when it comes to French oak, winemakers go out of their way to explain their reasons for choosing Alliers, Tronçais or Limousin. Conversely, ‘American oak is American oak’ is the typical analysis of sceptical international wineries. Yet a more in-depth approach is taken in Ribera, where American oak has always been king. Montebaco opts for air-dried Missouri while Bodegas Pedrosa raids the forests of Pennsylvania.

That said, it’s a sign of the forward-looking attitude of Ribera’s new kids on the block that French oak is playing an increasingly important role. ‘Our first vintage was 1998 and from the start we chose 65% French and 35% American oak for more fruity wines with less aggressive tannins,’ explains Javier García Diez, winemaker at Convento San Francisco. ‘We use 100% French oak. We don’t want our grapes to taste of cinnamon and vanilla, we want fruit,’ adds Peñalba.

As for how long wines stay in barrel, the DO governs Ribera’s typically Spanish styles of crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Crianza is a two-year-old wine (before release) that has spent at least one year in oak barrels, while reserva is a three-year-old wine that’s also spent at least a year in oak. Gran reserva is a five-year-old wine before release and is required to spend two years in barrel.

Ribera’s growing maturity as a wine-producing region, however, means that whereas such periods of barrel maturation were previously set in stone, today things are far more sophisticated, with the vintage and the fruit dictating the exact length of time reservas spend in oak. Gómez sees a move away from the crianza, reserva and gran reserva labelling system. ‘Many buyers don’t understand it [so] we may opt for the international vintage system,’ he says.

Bearing fruit

While many of the young wines are unoaked, they boast a moreish, vibrant bramble fruit. So vibrant, in fact, that a new category has recently come out of the shadows. Roble is an oaked wine that is approximately ‘half crianza’. It is typified by Frutos Villar’s Conde de Siruela 2000 Roble, which spends four months in barrique, adding a subtle, toasty sheen to the chunky, young fruit.

Striking such a balance is paramount to Ribera del Duero’s future standing. The fondness of its original benefactor, Robert Parker, for upfront, fruity wines is well documented, leading many ‘new’ regions of Spain to follow the might of Parker’s pen. But if Ribera joins the scramble, it risks losing its hard-won reputation, built on balance and elegance.

One top winemaker shared the concern as he poured two glasses of wine ‘blind’. Both had the same fruity, ‘pleased to meet you’ profile. The trouble was, one was
a highly respected Ribera del Duero red while the other came from La Mancha. ‘If we’re not careful we’ll be tasting like every other Spanish wine and, as our grapes can cost twice as much as other regions, we won’t be able to compete,’ he said.

So could it be that the man who put Ribera on the map in those innocent days of the 1980s will be the very same man whose preferences contribute to its downfall? Probably not. The winemakers here are a savvy bunch, and you sense they know they have a unique, world-class wine on their hands. Such a tightly knit, traditional community is unlikely to let this gem slip through its fingers.

John Downes MW is a freelance wine writer and broadcaster.

Written by John Downes MW