Castles in the sky

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  • Friday 1 March 2002

Wine has been produced in Ribera del Duero for centuries. JEREMY WATSON looks at improvements in the region's wines over the last decade

Legend has it that the Elephant & Castle district in London got its name from a cockney derivation of 'Infanta de Castilla', the title of Isabella, the Spanish Catholic queen who stayed there during a visit to London in the 15th century. There can be few places more different from each other than the traffic-choked sea of utility-style office blocks and the wide open spaces on the northern plateau of central Spain. During Isabella's time the red wines of the Duero river valley in the heart of Castile were highly thought of, though it was not until 1982 that the Denomination of Origin (DO) Ribera del Duero was created. During the intervening period wine production declined, not least after the devastation of the vineyards by phylloxera 100 years ago. As late as the 1960s farmers were grubbing up vines for more profit-making cereals and sugar beet. Granted, Vega Sicilia, Spain's most prestigious bodega, was founded way back in 1859 (see pages 34–39 for more on the estate), but this is somewhat of an anomaly. Wine producers in this little-known region were few and far between, and their ambition limited, until an unexpected accolade from Robert Parker alerted attention to the region's potential, when he hailed the Pesquera 1986 of Alejandro Fernández as the 'Pétrus of Spain'.

That was less than 20 years ago, but Parker's comments established a price and investment platform that created a false dawn for many investors. On his few words dreams of magnificent riches were built, as producers thought they could charge higher prices than were realistic or the wines could justify. For a while a fashion for these intensely rich red wines caught on in the restaurants of Madrid, mainly among the new sophisticates who were beginning to acquire a better understanding of fine wines after four decades of the country's hibernation under Franco.

Not surprisingly most investors have been disappointed following the over-optimistic financial projections, but the upshot is a new realism, leading to wiser planning. A good example is the project of Mariano García, formerly of Vega Sicilia and widely acknowledged as Spain's top winemaker, and Javier Zaccagnini, former director of the DO's regulating council. Their intention is to make a wine that will compare with the greatest in the world, drawing on Tinto Fino (aka Tempranillo) vines and the fabulous terroir. The bodega is Aalto and the first wines, from the 1999 vintage, will be launched in March 2002. Ribera del Duero contributes an important quality dimension to Spanish red wines alongside Rioja though, in value terms, the economy of scale works against the Duero, where yields and production levels are both low.

SERIOUS INVESTMENT

This is a headache for the mainly new wineries, which have to find the capital investment to finance the long ageing of the wines necessary before their release. Though the vines are the same as those in Rioja, the soil and climatic conditions are different and give rise to wines that need more time in barrel and bottle than in Rioja. Yet there is no lack of optimism. Several other new investments are under way, including those of Bodegas y Bebidas with Tarsus, Freixenet with Valbona, and two as yet unnamed projects of Codorníu and La Rioja Alta. But perhaps most impressive of all is the acquisition by the Cremades family of Real Sitio de Ventosilla, an old hunting estate that used to belong to Queen Isabella. This comprises 3,000ha (hectares) dedicated to livestock and cereals plus 500ha for vines. The original hunting lodge has been restored and will open shortly as a posada (traditional Spanish hotel). The elegant new bodega boasts a production three times greater than any other in the area, with outstanding non-DO varietal wines sold under the Salgüero label.

TRUE TINTO FINO

The winemaker, Angel Luis Margüello, decided to plant vines propagated from Tinto Fino in the region rather than, as others do, importing the mother Tempranillo from the north. The climate is harsh with long, cold winters and intensely hot, short summers. The Tempranillo, which ripens early and must make up at least three quarters of the DO's red wine blends, adapts to the conditions by developing a darker, thicker skin than it needs in its natural habitats along the River Ebro. The resulting richer-coloured, tannic, full-bodied characters are reinforced by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Some of Ribera's best Tinto Fino vineyards are found around Roa in the heart of the DO. Tarsus has been established at Anguix as part of the Group's Iverus project to create a few fine wine estates in selected DOs. Using fruit from 85ha of private vineyards belonging to the Marqués de Laula, it has built a château-style winery and is making outstanding wines under two Tarsus labels. Near Pedrosa is the bodega of Hermanos Pérez Pascuas, a family whose winemaking tradition dates back 150 years. Having experimented with various foreign red varieties, it has selected just Cabernet Sauvignon to go with its Tinto Fino. Meanwhile, between Roa and La Horra Alejandro Fernández has planted 200ha of Tempranillo for his Condado de Haza brand, which includes the outstanding Allenza. Telmo Rodriguéz, known for his work at the family's bodega of Remelluri in Rioja, has identified three small vineyards near Roa with contrasting Tinto Fino fruit, which he vinifies separately until the final blend is made at a local family's bodega. The wine is Valderiz.

The number of bodegas in Ribera has trebled since 1989 to 157, and there is a worrying diversity of quality, which can almost certainly be put down to both lack of money and experience. Great fruit can be and is produced in Ribera del Duero, but the region's future good reputation depends on everybody doing so.

Jeremy Watson is author of The New & Classical Wines of Spain, published in April 2002 by Montagud Editores.

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