Castilla y León is best known in vinous terms for the world-class red wines of the Ribera del Duero DO. One of the biggest names in modern Spanish wine, Ribera’s 112km stretch of vineyards along the river Duero creates trademark Tempranillo (known here as Tinto Fino) – wines filled with darkly ripe fruit and power, leavened with high-altitude freshness and polished tannin.
For all its success over the past 40 years, Ribera del Duero is just one of Castilla y León’s many and diverse wine regions. This corner of northwestern Spain, covering the northern part of the Meseta Central, features some 15 DOPs: nine DOs, four VCs, a Vino de la Tierra covering the whole region, and two DOCa.
Between them, they offer a distinctive cast of white, rosé and red wines, all produced using a wide range of character-filled local grape varieties grown in many different terroirs, elevations and climates by some of Europe’s most adventurous and creative winemakers.
The power of Tempranillo
For those looking to take the next steps on a journey through Castilla y León from Ribera del Duero, a trip west to Cigales and Toro, two regions specialising in Tempranillo, is as good a way as any to start.
With almost 2,000ha under vine, Cigales is the smaller and, in the UK at least, the lesser known of the two. But it offers some of Castilla y León’s best stocks of old vines, with many 60 years old or more. These are planted in high-altitude sites at 700-800m above sea level, which brings freshness – providing cool nights to go with the heat and warmth of the day. The result is Tempranillo of great complexity and balance, often made by small, artisan producers, while the region also has the knack of making juicy rosés and crisp aromatic whites from Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc.
A little further to the southwest, around the city of Zamora on the northern banks of the river Duero, Toro is the home of seriously deep, powerful, brooding red wines – substantial Tempranillos (or, as the thick-skinned local clone is known, Tinta de Toro) that provide comfort, warmth, and ballast in dark northern winter nights. It’s a region of very warm, sunny days and cool nights with a long history of wine production, but it’s only since the 1990s, and the arrival of top oenologists and modern winemaking ideas (as well as serious investment from some of the world’s biggest winemaking names) that Toro has established itself as one of Spain’s most dynamic wine regions.
Verdejo’s aromatic explosion
Situated right next door, the Rueda DO is effectively Toro’s mirror image. This 20,000ha region, with vineyards spread across 74 municipalities, is one of Spain’s greatest white wine zones, with a reputation for zip, freshness and aromatically explosive dry wines that are largely based on the region’s great local grape variety, Verdejo. A variety that has been in Rueda since at least the 11th century, Verdejo is now well-adapted to the region’s harsh weather conditions (hot dry summers, long cold winters, late spring frosts) and its gravelly, calcium and magnesium-rich soils.
Winemakers, too, have mastered the art of capturing Verdejo’s unique flavours and textures: these are wines that fill the nose with tropical fruit and a hint of leafy herb, and the mouth with fleshy-fruited brightness, trademark racy acidity and a pleasing twist of bitterness. Like Sauvignon Blanc (a grape that also produces some interesting wines in Rueda), it’s a variety that is generally made using cold fermentations in stainless steel to let the primary fruitiness and freshness flood out. But Verdejo’s natural acidity and aromatic intensity also work well with careful fermentation and ageing in barrel, creating wines of complexity and longevity.
Into the Sierra
One of the most deliciously fascinating developments in Spanish wine in the past two decades has been the rediscovery of abandoned or neglected old vines in forgotten corners of the Sierra de Gredos mountain range that extends out from Madrid.
Much of the action has taken place within the boundaries of the province of Castilla y León, with many of the wines made using the Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León designation on their labels.
But Castilla y León is also home to a rising-star DO that has become synonymous with this new/old vinous revolution. Cebreros, which was granted DO status in 2019, has no more than a dozen wine producers plying their trade at altitudes of up to 1,200m, on rocky schist and granite terrain with mature vines (more than half of them are between 60 and 90 years old). Here Garnacha is the red king, making wines that are like nothing else, with their wild aroma and Pinot Noir-esque grace, while the Albillo Real whites are richly textured and complex.
If various forms of Garnacha and Tempranillo are the mainstays in much of Castilla y León’s red winemaking, there is still plenty to enchant and intrigue those who like to explore new varietal frontiers. The Mencía used by winemakers in Bierzo is certainly the best known of the emerging stars. It makes finely structured wines that combine floral aromatics with vivid currant and berry fruit and an abiding freshness.
Many winemakers working in the Tierra de León DO and the Valles de Benavente VC (Vino de Calidad con indicación geográfica) in northern Zamora province, are convinced that the local Prieto Picudo grape has the potential to be the next Mencía. Certainly, as producers have learned to work with the variety in both the vineyard and winery in recent years, results have been extremely promising. There’s a vivid, dark-fruited quality to many of the best Prieto Picudo wines, with the combination of juiciness and the tartness of just-off-the-bush blackberries and blackcurrants that works as a young, unoaked style – or as the basis of wines for ageing. It also makes for some seriously vibrant rosés.
No less fascinating is the Rufete grape, which covers some 60% of the vineyards in the small Sierra de Salamanca region in a spectacular part of southwestern Castillay León, bordering Extremadura to the south and Portugal to the west. The climate is more Mediterranean here, with higher rainfall than the rest of Castilla y León, and the old-vine Rufete thrives on the rocky soils producing red wines with red fruit, floral notes and a tangy, rosehip acidity.
For whites, meanwhile, the rare Albarín, which is not the same as the similar-sounding Albariño (although they are thought to be related), has been making waves in northerly León, producing wines that are naturally aromatic in a tropical-floral style, coupled with citrussy acidity and freshness. These can work in both crisp, fresh wines and broader, more leesy styles.
New varieties – or, rather, old varieties from Castilla y León’s long winemaking history – are being rediscovered all the time, with many producing exciting results. Could the once near-extinct (and still rare) Puesta en Cruz white or Buñal red be the next varietal stars of the future? Such is the creative ferment in Castilla y León right now, that you couldn’t bet against it.
The appellations of Castilla y León
- DO Arlanza
- DO Arribes
- DO Bierzo
- VT Castilla y León
- VC Cebreros
- DO Cigales
- DO Ribera del Duero
- DOCa Rioja
- DO Rueda
- VC Sierra de Salamanca
- DO Tierra de León
- DO Tierra del Vino de Zamora
- DO Toro
- VC Valles de Benavente
- VC Valtiendas
Williams recommends his top Castilla y Leóns to try
Barco del Corneta, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2018 93
£16-18 Indigo Wine
With its flinty, reductive crackles and creamy, textured depths, this is Rueda Verdejo gone Graves in barrel-fermented fashion, with real precision, interest and zip. A terrifically gastronomic, sophisticated and complex dry white. Drink 2021-2030 Alcohol 14%
Bodegas Vidal Soblechero, Pagos de Villavendimia Salvaje, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2014 92
Simply delightful evolved white, with patisserie and nougat richness, but also with really beautiful balance. There’s just enough brightness in this warm-climate white, which is a more than little white Rhône-esque. Drink 2021-2023 Alc 13.5%
Javier Sanz Viticultor, Verdejo, Rueda 2020 91
This is a super classy and vivid expression of Verdejo with a little extra depth and some nice minerally cut. Lots of layers and flavour and brightness but with leesy depth and vivacious fruit richness. Drink 2021-2025 Alc 13%
Noelia de Paz Calvo, Trasto, León 2018 91
POA Enotria & Coe
A languid introduction to the fragrant Albarín, this has bright juicy white tropical fruit and candied marzipan; mouth-filling, a touch creamy, but with good balancing brightness and length. Drink 2021-2025 Alc 13.5%
Bodegas Félix Lorenzo Cachazo, Carrasviñas, Rueda 2020 89
Classic Rueda Verdejo flavours of pungently exotic fruit juiciness in a mouth-filling (but unoaked) style. Has just enough of that Verdejo bitter twist to keep the mouth keen and clean. Drink 2021-2023 Alc 13%
Bergesio Collezione, Rufián Gris, Valtiendas 2020 90
N/A UK bergesiocollezione.com
A rosé with a difference, this is creamy with nice texture and weight. It has sustaining substance, and plenty of savoury depths from the oak besides the gentle strawberry, but there is freshness too. Properly food-friendly. Drink 2021-2023 Alc 13.5%
Huellas del Tiétar, Comisura Tinto, Cebreros 2019 93
N/A UK huellasdeltietar.com
Pale in colour, and with that highland old-vine grace, but with intense pure cherry liqueur flavour. Just so pure and fluent, the alcohol absorbed, very fine tannins – a marvel of modern artisanal Spanish winemaking. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 15.5%
Quinta Sardonia, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2017 93
Simultaneously monumental in scale and yet somehow poised and polished, this is a supremely stylish biodynamic red from a close colleague of Pingus’ Peter Sisseck. Beautifully knitted, finely tailored tannins, detailed dark berry and blackcurrant fruit, a long finish and plenty of ageing potential. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 15%
Traslanzas Bodegas y Viñedos, Traslanzas, Cigales 2018 93
£25.60 Les Caves de Pyrène
Highly appealing texture and almost like a rich white wine in flavour, with orchard fruit as well as liquorice and blackberry tea. Really intriguing and drinkable; intense but as supple as the gymnast on the label. Satisfying tannins. A star! Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14.5%
Bodegas Entrebancales, Jimbro Bruñal, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2015 92
N/A UK bodegasentrebancales.com
A fascinating and worthy project based on recovered old varieties (in this case Bruñal) yields a fascinating wine: bursting with vivid, finger-staining fruit, it’s inky, dark and deep but really succulent. Drink 2021-2028 Alc 15%
Viñas del Cámbrico, Rufete Pocito, Sierra de Salamanca 2018 92
A 100% Rufete from a single vineyard on granite soils, this a thoroughly charming and expressive red with a striking combination of cherry and plum-skin tang, plus a kind of indefinable – let’s say rocky mineral – undercurrent. Fascinating, wild, novel. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14%
La Legua, Parcela Los Almendros, Cigales 2017 91
N/A UK lalegua.com
A very intriguing nose of cooked fruit and cola bean, with a palate of wild cherry and raspberry. Chewy but bright with plenty of lift and a long finish. Lots to sustain the interest. Impressive. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14%
Valduero Soc Coop, Finca Azaya, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2017 91
A smooth swish of sweet vanilla oak settles into a deep pool of juicy blackberry fruit, with fine tannins and a creamy richness. Lots of appeal here for traditional Rioja lovers. Drink 2021-2032 Alc 14%
Bodega Rejadorada, Antona Garcia, Toro 2017 90
£17.99 House of Townend
Very fragrant, attractive nose of dark berry fruit. Some pleasingly grainy-gritty Toro tannins and lovely, almost claret-like bramble berry fruit. Richness and depth but not overworked. Drink 2021-2035 Alc 14.5%
Bodegas Otero, Reserva, Valles de Benavente 2014 90
£14.99 House of Townend
There’s a combination of sour cherry-ish cut and acidity and riper plum and dark berry juiciness in this Prieto Picudo. Reminiscent of Italian and Portuguese reds; certainly, there’s plenty of life in a mature red with absorbed oak, gently grippy tannins and a pulse of brightness. Drink 2021-2026 Alc 14%
De Andres Sisters, Garganta del Aguila, Cebreros 2020 90
£12.49 Alliance Wine
Drawn from some 90 small plots of very old Garnacha vines, sisters Ruth and Ana Andres’ limpid, lucid Garnacha is lithe of tannin and filled with juicy fresh red fruits. Drink 2021-2025 Alc 14%
ViñaGuareña, Munia Roble, Toro 2020 90
£10.95 Lea & Sandeman
Bright and attractive take on the Toro Tempranillo template with red as well as black fruit. Proper ripeness, well managed oak and grainy tannins in proportion. Sweet finish. Drink 2021-2028 Alc 14.5%
Bodegas Vetus, Toro 2018 89
£18 Liberty Wines
Composed, polished and stylishly oaked, this is very good value for a deep-fruited Tempranillo red that provides a very accessible entry point to modern Toro. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14.5%