Unlike Bordeaux, with its 60 minutely defined appellations, or Burgundy, with its monastic heritage of precisely sketched vineyard parcels, Ribera del Duero is something of a blank canvas. Its single DOP, which was only awarded in 1982, covers 5,000ha of vines that traverse 123km in the Provinces of Burgos, Valladolid, Soria and Segovia (though there are many more hectares in the region). Such poetic and evocative names translate into the sometimes-harsh reality of Castilla y León’s central plateau.
The aridity and extreme temperatures, however, are mitigated by the specific conditions of the Duero river basin. It was here, in 1864, that Spain’s most famous winery, Vega Sicilia, wrote the first chapter in the story of the wines of Ribera del Duero. That story continues to excite and captivate. There are now 315 wineries in the region, covering some 23,205ha and producing an average of 100 million bottles every year.
Despite the well-rehearsed extremes of climate in central Spain (‘three months of winter and nine months of hell’ covers it rather well), the microclimate of Ribera del Duero is actually marginal, mainly as a result of the altitude of the vines, most of which are cultivated from 800m-1,000m, and some even higher. The growing season is often protracted, and there is an ever-present danger of frost at both ends of the season; the corollary to this danger is the complexity engendered by the lengthy ripening and the legacy of marked diurnal temperature variations, namely a firm acidity and a purity of style in the resulting wines.
Grapes and styles
Despite Vega Sicilia’s well-known taste for the Bordelais grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the region is actually not far from being monovarietal, with Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino as it’s known locally) covering 95% of the vineyard area. In second place is the little-known white grape Albillo Mayor, which, although the white wines do not have their own DO, is permitted in the red blend. It makes up 2.5% of the vineyard and adds, in the manner of Viognier in Côte-Rôtie, perfume, floral notes, acidity and freshness to the wines.
Ribera del Duero is bathed in enigma. Before the Reconquista, Valladolid was the capital of Spain, but subsequently the region was overlooked. Its land-locked torpor was only dispelled much later, thanks to the industry of personalities such as Alejandro Fernández at Bodegas Pesquera and the influential wine critic Robert Parker, who found the rich, robust and glossy styles to his liking.
How these styles have been achieved in such a climate (it would be categorised as ‘marginal’ on the Winkler heat summation scale) redoubles the enigma. The temperature can easily reach 40°C in the middle of the day in July, and yet frost gnaws away at the edges of the growing season. Climate is therefore a key part of the answer, as indeed is the suitability of Tempranillo for such conditions. What of the soils themselves, what of that famously overlooked term terroir?
When I ask Peter Sisseck from the celebrated Pingus Estate, he shows me a map of breathtaking complexity. The more one digs into geology, the deeper and more bewildering the strata become. Help is at hand from Agustín Alonso, technical director for the entire DO, and José Carlos Alvarez, who has written widely on the subject. The somewhat distilled summary of their extensive analysis focuses on two axes of enquiry: first, the west to east axis (Valladolid to Soria); and second, the template of altitude – specifically how the geological profile is nuanced by distance from the river and the height and aspect of the vineyards. Axiomatic to this discussion is the fact that these two (literal) points of view are not mutually exclusive and that a synthesis of the salient factors in each particular case will provide an instructive geological template.
West to east
First, then, the west to east axis. To begin with, it’s worth pointing out that the Duero river basin was shaped by erosion in the Miocene period (from 23 million to five million years ago) and that the sediments from this tertiary period are mainly made up of sand and limestone. Alvarez has analysed the soil types and his overview concludes that there is more chalk and limestone in the soils to the west; more clay, with gravelly outcrops in the central vineyards around La Horra; and a combination of clay and limestone in the easterly sector, where secondary rivers mean that some vineyards have an east-west aspect. Interspersed between these three general soil types are alluvial and sandy elements, so all in all it’s a complex tableau.
Starting in the west, this very roughly translates into the so-called Golden Mile where Vega Sicilia is located, then a central sector where wineries such as Hacienda Monasterio, Pingus, Pago de Los Capellanes and Pesquera can be found, and – somewhat more of a generalisation – what may be seen as the up-and-coming areas further east, with wineries such as Cillar de Silos located at the highest altitude of all in the province of Burgos.
Again speaking generally, wines from the west have more aromatic potential; the fruit character is more defined in the centre; and in the east there is the capacity to exploit pre-phylloxera vines for monumental wines that are linear, powerful and robust.
Oscar Aragón at Cillar de Silos is certainly keen to underline the levels of acidity in his wines. ‘Our soils give a lower pH with fresher wines and magnificent ageing capacity,’ he says. Acidity levels are fundamental in a region where the average pH of the soils is well above 8, so distinctly alkaline in character. Indeed, Gonzalo Iturriaga, the technical director of oenology at Vega Sicilia, advises that some of the vineyards for Alión and Vega itself have a soil pH level of 9.5.
For Iturriaga, however, variety is the key. Each wine has grapes sourced from different plots: there is red clay in La Aguilera to the east, a high percentage of clay in the north-facing vineyards adjacent to the property and ‘a lot of carbonates’ in the vineyards surrounding the village of Pesquera, which is south-facing. As with the vinification itself, complexity is key. ‘Vega Sicilia… it’s just different,’ is his pithy summary.
Different yes, but its relatively high percentage of Bordelais grapes notwithstanding, not atypical. Ribera del Duero’s 315 wineries rely on 8,148 growers, each of whom owns an average of less than half a hectare. Diversity is writ into the fabric of the landscape here.
And so to the altitude, which, according to the DO’s technical director Alonso, is the defining feature of this region. He advises that while in Bordeaux and Rioja the key ripening period is around 40 days, in Ribera del Duero this is increased to 60 days. The result, he surmises, is more purity of fruit, more intensity and sweeter tannins. In the crucial period between mid-September and early October when many other regions will have already finished harvesting, Ribera del Duero enjoys perfect daytime temperatures of 25°C -27°C, and then a significant dip in the mercury overnight, when 4°C -5°C is the norm. This diurnal temperature difference accounts for the glossy, bright styles that can be made.
A marginal climate, albeit an unusual one, also underlines vintage variation; compare a cooler Atlantic vintage such as 2013 with a warmer year such as 2009. The function of altitude is fundamental to all this. Lower-lying soils are made up of more alluvial and sandy components. On the slopes, soils are less deep and often made up of varying degrees of gypsum, loam, clay and limestone. Finally, on the plateau the soils are deeper, not party to erosion and often subject to such extremes of temperature that vine- growing is impossible.
Roberto Frías, director of viticulture at La Rioja Alta’s Bodegas Aster (which is located in the central section just to the north of Roa), stresses the differences between Ribera del Duero and Rioja.
For him the key factor is the combination of altitude and the varied soil types that are encountered the higher you go. ‘This is fundamental for the thickness of the skins and for the quality of the tannins and the anthocyanins,’ he explains. And by implication, these factors are also fundamental to the character and quality of his finished wines.
As with most wine regions, Ribera del Duero’s terroir provides a rich tapestry and its map can be dissected minutely to explore the different soil types. Essentially, however, it is aspect and elevation with their concomitant meteorological influences that really dictate the style of these seductive wines.
Experimentation with oak and ambitious extraction are slowly giving way to a recognition that the fermenting grapes do not really need much by way of stylistic embellishment, such is their natural purity and power. The great bodegas of Ribera del Duero are cherished in Spain, as any smart restaurant’s wine list will quickly reveal, and their reputation continues to grow across the world. This, to me, comes as no great surprise.
Field’s selection: top bottles to try from Ribera del Duero
Vega Sicilia, Valbuena 5° 2014 95
Younger sibling to the legendary Unico, Valbuena is a legend in its own right. Tinto Fino with 5% Merlot, aged for five years in vessels of differing sizes, translating into encyclopaedic flavours and a tense, chiselled dénouement. Drink 2021-2032 Alc 14%
Vega Sicilia, Alión 2014 94
The modern face of Vega Sicilia brims with French barrique confidence, spice and class. The palate of this single-varietal Tinto Fino shows finely chiselled tannins and a weight of rich dark fruit. Drink 2020-2029 Alc 14%
Viña Pedrosa, Gran Reserva 2001 94
A long-standing favourite. Old-school Tinto Fino from a top vintage. Fully mature, savoury, smoky, rich, completely fantastic. Try it with wild boar if you get the chance. Drink 2019-2024 Alc 13.5%
Pago de Carraovejas, Reserva 2016 92
Cherry, spice and plum luxuriate over this Tinto Fino, buttressed by spicy oak and hints of vanilla. A generous mouthfeel, with a cool, composed finish and finely etched tannins. In short, a class act. Drink 2019-2027 Alc 14.5%
Bohórquez, Reserva 2009 91
Located between Peñafiel and Pesquera, this bijou property is a real find. This Tinto Fino has ripe damson and plum to the fore, with beautifully integrated tannins and a magisterial finish. Drink 2019-2024 Alc 14%
Hacienda Monasterio, Organic Cosecha 2016 91
Eighteen months in Allier oak add polish to this superb blend. 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and splashes of Malbec and Merlot add a Bordelais character; gravelly and strewn with ripe plum and cassis fruit. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 14.5%
Aster, Finca el Otero 2014 90
The crack team from La Rioja Alta shows that its consummate skill is transferable. This is a powerful, heady wine. Morello cherry and loganberries coax a savoury yet uplifting finish and a real sense of worth. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 14%
Pago de Los Capellanes, Crianza 2016 90
Unabashedly modern, impossibly plush, a hedonistic choice. With 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blend, this offers ripe cherry and plum, vanilla oak and a reassuringly decadent finish. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 15%
Cillar de Silos, Joven de Silos Tempranillo 2016 89
An unoaked gem from Ribera’s eastern sector. Aromatically the wine instantly seduces with violets and brambles to the fore. The seduction continues apace on the palate with consummate dark fruit elegance. Drink 2019-2021 Alc 14%
Familia Fernández Rivera, Condado de Haza 2016 89
100% Tinto Fino. Ripe robust, smoky and rich, with a firm shard of acidity and impressive mulberry and myrtle flavours. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 14.5%