By Rose Murray Brown MW Published by The Scotsman 23 February 2019
I have been watching the emergence of Ribera del Duero for the past 30 years since it gained its DO in the 1980s. For many years I felt that this premier Spanish region was frustratingly inconsistent, its wines were often hard work to drink with hugely overpriced wines – but now it seems that it is finally coming into its own.
At our recent tasting directly comparing Rioja against Ribera del Duero – it was, surprisingly, the latter which was unanimously voted as the favourite. Fruit concentration, balance and elegance were cited as the main factors. With wines of similar price and age served ‘blind’ in pairs, it was interesting to see that tasters who vowed they preferred Rioja actually picked out the Ribera in the pair as their favourite.
The only thing Ribera del Duero and Rioja actually have in common is that they share a grape – Tempranillo. That is really where the similarity ends. Ribera del Duero’s high altitude broad valley which stretches 70 miles along the Duero river has a harsh continental climate (compared to Rioja’s temperate mediterranean climate) with hot summers and very cold winters, a short ripening period and greater frost risk. They also have extreme swings of temperatures day to night - from 35 degree days often falling to 12 degrees – which helps retain acidity. Yet these two regions, as the crow flies, are only 60 miles apart.
Stylistically, the two wines are very different. Ribera del Duero’s dry bright high altitude air and schist and limestone soils make very perfumed wines with big bold structure, high acid and firm tannins with a real intensity of colour, fruit and savoury character - compared to the lush soft sweet approachable styles of Rioja’s sheltered climate and clay limestone soils.
In the past Rioja traditionally used American oak, but nowadays more bodegas are using French oak – which is bringing modern Rioja closer to the Ribera del Duero style where French oak is very much dominant.
Despite being home to Spain’s most famous wine, Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero’s wines remained little known outside its own country until the 1990’s – compared to the popularity of Rioja. For many years, Ribera’s young vines and unripe fruit was swamped by too much new French oak making them ‘tough’ and ‘hard work’ – but now vines have matured and wineries are learning how to make much more elegant ‘drinkable’ wines.
Ribera del Duero is small (just 22,000 hectares, one third Rioja’s size) so vineyards and grapes are highly sought after – hence the wine prices. Today Ribera has 270 wineries (some own no vines at all) – a dramatic increase from just 9 wineries in 1982 – with most vines owned by growers (some 8000 growers in Ribera) who often have just a tiny one hectare of vines which they sell to the burgeoning wineries or local Penafiel co-operative.
Ribera might now be a dynamic and glamorous region with celebrities, Madrid industrialists (it is just two hours north of Madrid) and jet set businessmen investing in its vineyards, but apart from the flashy new wineries along the Duero’s Golden Mile west of Penafiel - it is still a poor farming area known until recently for its sugar beet and cereal crops, rather than vines.
In this exciting progressive region – the Ribera del Duero wineries to watch include Alion, Pingus, Cillar de Silos (their flagship wine Vina D'Amalio is pictured right), Hacienda Monasterio, Abadia Retuerta, Lopez Cristobal, Pago de Carraovejas, Villacreces, Pesquera, Aster, Pascual and Bohorquez.
If you are gulping at the wine prices, you should check discounter and supermarket shelves. There has been an influx of more affordable wines from the region – occasionally on offer at Lidl, Aldi and Sainsburys at @£8 – which give an entry-level snapshot of the region.
£20 & UNDER
FINCA VILLACRECES PRUNO 2016
£15.99 Rude Wines
Typical example of youthful Ribera del Duero with rich lush black cherry fruit, liquorice hints, rich mouthfilling flavours with firm tannins. Originally a Franciscan monastery, this beautiful estate sits on a meander of the Duero surrounded by pine trees. Revived in 2004 by entrepreneur Gonzalo Anton, who owns Rioja Izadi. Pruno is made from estate fruit grown on river shingle and gravel. 90% Tempranillo with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon blended in giving cassis and mint notes, with 12 months in French oak it works well with integrated oak notes: 13.5%
BOHORQUEZ RESERVA 2009 ***STAR BUY***
£20 The Wine Society
Described by one taster as the ‘Bloody Mary’ of wine – it is so spicy, peppery and plummy. Deliciously smooth, supremely elegant, it shows how good mature Ribera del Duero can be in a top vintage like 2009. Interestingly they age it for 14 months in both French and American oak, hence the clove and spice notes. It comes from a small young estate set up by entrepreneur Javier Bohorquez in 1999 near prestigious Pesquera at high altitude, 900m: 14%
BURO VENDIMIA SELECCIONADA 2015
£18.95 Swig www.swig.co.uk
Unusually in a Burgundian-shaped bottle (most Ribera del Duero are in Bordelais bottles). Rich layers of cherry fruit, spicy undertones, cedary notes from 10 months in oak (6 in French and 4 in American). Made by small little-known Bodegas Pascual from 50 year old vines grown in Fuenteloesped in Burgos province, in Ribera del Duero’s far east. It has a great richness and concentration - from superb 2015 vintage: 14%
TORRESILO 2015 ***STAR BUY***
£29 Majestic Wine
Outstanding favourite amongst tasters. Pure bright fruits, generous rich and elegant from the fabulous 2015 vintage. An old vine Tempranillo made by the outstanding Cillar de Silos bodegas which was founded just 25 years ago by Amalio Aragon who had been slowly buying up small plots of vines from neighbours since the 1960’s. His sons Oscar, Roberto and daughter Amelia are keeping standards high: 14.5%
BAGUS VINTAGE SELECTION 2011
£31 Raeburn Wines
Flagship blend of the charming Lopez Cristobal family from Roa in eastern Ribera; mainly Tempranillo with 5% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon mainly aged in 14 months in mainly French oak. 2011 was an early harvest, producing rich concentrated wines – but this still needs a further two or three years in bottle to soften: 13.5%
VINA D AMALIO 2015
£45-£54 Berry Bros & Rudd; Majestic Wine
Another excellent Cillar de Silos wine (pictured above) in homage to founder Amalio Aragon. The bodegas’ flagship wine comes from the Carramonzon vineyard of old Tempranillo vines which Amalio planted in 1964. Perfumed, dense damson fruits, dark chocolate and spicy notes – very powerful and intense. Matured 16 months in French oak – it would benefit from an extra three or four years in bottle: 14.5%
Love Spanish food & wine? Join Rose’s Sherry & Spanish Charcutiere tasting on Thursday 30 May in Edinburgh £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com