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Ribera del Duero: Defying Expectations

By |  December 10 2015

Ribera del Duero continues to be among the most interesting and compelling wine regions in Spain, the most dynamic Old World wine country of the past 25 years. Numerous wine writers in the USA and Europe, however, have a simplistic, banal, knee-jerk view of Ribera del Duero wines. A few years ago, wine critic Steven Tanzer wrote, "Think of Rioja as more Bordeaux-like and Ribera del Duero as more akin to California Cabernet, even if these two categories are increasingly converging in style." Similarly, others have compared Ribera del Duero with Bordeaux, and Rioja with Burgundy. Both oversimplifications ignore important attributes of Ribera wines, many of which are blends of Tinto Fino (the local variant of Tempranillo) with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Garnacha, or are blends of Tinto Fino sourced from multiple vineyards. Overall, the wines have a plush, broad texture on the palate, so the Bordeaux comparison is clear. There are also sterling single-vineyard wines from old vines that have a texture and palate precision that recall Burgundy, if not the Rhône. Wanting to hear what Ribera del Duero’s top winemakers thought, I arranged a roundtable lunch. Two weeks prior, over tapas with Jancis Robinson MW, I mentioned my Ribera del Duero trip. Her expression became pained and quite concerned, and I said what she had expressed without saying: "You think the wines are overextracted, overoaked, high-alcohol fruit-bombs." She nodded, and I continued: "That was often the case ten or 15 years ago, but I don’t think it’s true now."

The Ribera del Duero roundtable lunch was held at restaurant Fuente de la Aceña in Quintanilla de Onésimo on October 29, 2010. The attendees were José Carlos Álvarez (Bodegas Emilio Moro), Eva María and Lucía Fernández (Alejandro Fernández Tinto Pesquera), Xavier Ausás (Bodegas Vega-Sicilia and Alion), Mariano García and Javier Zaccagnini (Bodegas Aalto), Peter Sisseck (Dominio de Pingus), Eduardo García (Bodegas Los Astrales), Jesús María Sastre (Bodegas Viña Sastre), Agustín Alonso (Consejo Regulador DO Ribera del Duero), and me.

The overall tone evolved from a formal lunch to an animated, fairly raucous discusión. It was necessary to quieten people down at times, but I found these Ribera del Duero winemakers more conservative than their Rioja counterparts and just as open and generous. This Spanish lunch lasted more than three and a half hours on a Friday afternoon. I felt privileged to be part of this unique extended family. As I’d hoped, the bottles the winemakers brought to drink over lunch were like glimpses of their private bookshelves or wallet snapshots.

José Carlos Álvarez (JCÁ) has an impish sense of humor that seems completely at odds with his fastidious nature. His doctoral thesis was on Ribera del Duero’s different soil types. After being director general of Ribera del Duero’s Consejo Regulador for two and a half years, he was technical director at Bodegas Emilio Moro for eight and a half years, where he made exceptional wines. Since 2011, he has been technical director at Convento de las Claras. He brought to the lunch Emilio Moro’s 2005 Malleolus de Sanchomartin and Bollinger 1999 La Grande Année.

Alejandro Fernández is a legendary figure in Ribera del Duero. Winemaker Eva María and Lucía Fernández (LF) brought Pesquera 2003 Janus Gran Reserva, and Condado de Haza 2001 Alenza Gran Reserva.

Xavier Ausàs (XA) became Grupo Vega-Sicilia’s technical director in 1998. Today, he oversees winemaking at Vega-Sicilia and Alion in Ribera del Duero and at the Grupo’s Toro, Hungary, and Rioja Alta wineries. Xavier’s lack of pretension is telling. He wryly jokes that his not-quite-full head of hair can easily be corrected with Photoshop. His methodical and perfectionist approach has helped Vega-Sicilia maintain its ne plus ultra status. He brought Comtes Lafon 2005 Montrachet and 1962 Vega-Sicilia Único.

Mariano García (MG) is one of the best winemakers in Spain. His 30 years as head winemaker at Vega-Sicilia produced many great vintages and gave him invaluable experience at that impeccable bodega. Since he left Vega- Sicilia in 1998, he has been free to experiment, as at Bodegas Aalto, begun in 1999 with Javier Zaccagnini. Extremely gregarious, friendly, and nearing 70, Mariano has the boundless energy and infectious passion of a young man. He and Javier brought Ossian 2009 Capitel, Aalto 2009 PS (barrel sample), Mauro 2006 VS, and 2000 Cos d’Estournel.

As with Pesquera in the 1980s, the worldwide acclaim for Pingus in the mid-1990s helped Ribera del Duero gain equal footing with the world’s great wine regions. Peter Sisseck (PS) has stirred the imagination of a generation of winemakers. Very approachable, he has a dry, sardonic sense of humor that fans of Monty Python would instantly recognize. An agricultural engineer, a meticulous winemaker who has few peers within Spain or without, and a serious student of wine history, Peter counts Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone as a good friend and mentor. Peter brought 2000 Pingus and 1998 Château Ausone.

Eduardo García is one of the most talented emerging young winemakers in Spain. By turns intuitive and intellectual, he has both feet firmly planted in his vineyards and shows maturity well beyond his 35 years. He brought Los Astrales 2006 Christina and Ridge 1995 Monte Bello.

Jesús María Sastre (JS) is a genuine wine lover with a deep affection for fellow wine lovers. He began as vineyard manager, and his great affinity for his vines informs his decisions in the winery. He lost his father Rafael and his brother Pedro in the space of four years, but he has continued his third-generation family winery and shown himself to be an adept winemaker. If La Horra is to Ribera del Duero what Gevrey-Chambertin is to the Côte de Nuits, then Viña Sastre is analogous to Domaine Armand Rousseau. Jesús owns the lion’s share of the best vines in the village, including the expansive Pago de Santa Cruz. He brought Domaine Weinbach 1998 Clos des Capucins Sélection de Grains Nobles and Viña Sastre 2006 Pesus.

CF: José Carlos, Ribera del Duero’s terroir is as complex and heterogenous as any of the world’s great wine regions, where terroir is the focus of winemakers. How has the use of Ribera’s terroir developed in recent years? What has been the impact of single vineyard wines?

JCÁ: Great wines will be made in Ribera when it has a history of 20 vintages being made from the same single property or vineyard or parcel, because then you’ll know that it is truly a terroir. That’s the greatness we’re beginning to work toward today. The soil is history.

PS: I think that if Ribera is truly going to be taken seriously as a region, the winemaker has to step aside. Even with the best soil possible, there are many who are doing things badly. Clearly, what winemakers do is very important, but the most important thing has to be the soil. There is a ranking. There are normal soils, medium-quality soils, and soils that are the top. Whether you like it or not, you can take this as something very challenging. Attention must be paid to this.

CF: Peter, Ribera has ideal conditions for wine growing: a pure continental climate that is dry, with low rainfall, wide amplitude between day/night temperatures during the vegetative season, and a blend of excellent soils. Throughout the region, the most important common element is limestone, found in many great wine regions around the world. Many vineyards are on hillside slopes, too. If you had all of this in France or Italy, you would hear the message loud and clear. Why don’t the trade and consumers hear this message from Ribera, or why don’t they hear it more effectively?

PS: We have a complex climate but still quite a favorable one. In France or Italy or any other wine region in the world, all the virtues we have here in Ribera del Duero would be communicated and publicized quite well. Here, people are talking about brands. Climate never gets discussed… We’re beginning, but we still don’t talk about it enough.

AA: That’s a failure to communicate. The bodegas talk about specific characteristics but much less about what’s special about the region as a whole. I understand that to talk about the region in concrete terms, rather than focusing on one’s own bodega is difficult, but in the end, when we fail to do this, it sours things for everyone.

PS: The producers here have very distinct soils: Vega-Sicilia has limestone, Hacienda Monasterio and others have the cascajo [gravel] de Pesquera… But these things are never discussed-only the brand and such. It doesn’t happen like this in France, where there’s no envy between producers… Latour speaks very highly about Margaux.

CF: Since the mid-1980s, when Robert Parker and others gave great acclaim to Pesquera, Ribera has enjoyed great success. What are the main causes? Have winemaking styles changed since the DO was formed? Is this good or bad?

MG: Alejandro Fernández (Pesquera) maintains the tradition of Ribera del Duero, but he doesn’t plant Merlot. He doesn’t adopt everything just because it’s traditional…

PS: He improves it. You know, it’s funny, but when Alejandro first gained fame, his wines were seen as modern-now they are seen as classics. In Ribera, things are changing very quickly.

MG: Alejandro is a reference point. Vega-Sicilia has been here for a while. But beside that, not many people realize that Alejandro was the man who brought recognition to Ribera del Duero at a high level.

AA: Yes, he is the father of Ribera del Duero.

MG: Ribera wines were around before he was, but at an exclusive level and only for those who had the means to afford it. In 1981 or ’82, Alejandro started working closely with Almudena and Steve Metzler [of Classical Wines of Spain, Alejandro’s US importer]. They had come to Ribera in 1978 and, by 1980, were shipping up to 500 cases of Mauro [Mariano’s wine from Tudela de Duero], which was a lot in those days. I also remember Carlos Falcó and Marqués de Griñón arriving around then. European investors followed, and they came because they had seen the wines of Alejandro Fernández. (They already knew the wines of Vega-Sicilia, of course.)

CF: Jesús, your family winery makes wines in a traditional style (Pago de Santa Cruz and Pago de Santa Cruz Gran Reserva) and in a modern style (Regina Vides and Pesus). Your Tinto and crianza wines are popular with younger consumers in the USA; they’re great wines and are easy to understand. Do you think the terms "traditional" and "modern" have lost their meaning in Ribera del Duero?

JS: Classic wines are more serious wines. More Ribera winemakers now use more oak than they have traditionally-but what does that mean? Classic winemaking techniques and modern wines? You could also say that a classic wine is a vino de guarda [wine for keeping] but made using modern methods of production. Maybe it’s a mistake to make both styles of wines in my winery, but since 1999, beginning with Pesus, those "modern" wines have evolved very well… Modern wines allow different interpretations of traditional grape varieties. We’ve changed winemaking methods and barrels, using different types of oak. If I’d spent 40 years making wine exactly the same way, and my clients didn’t like the new wines, I wouldn’t change a thing, of course. But to create a new wine is good. I’m constantly experimenting in the vines and in the winery to find a better way, regardless of style.

CF: In Ribera, as in many wine regions around the world, the winemaking process has become very technical. Winemakers use pre-fermentation cold maceration, cold rooms to receive the grapes, fermentation tanks and presses controlled by computer, and malolactic fermentation in barrel. Shouldn’t winemaking be simple?

MG: There are complicated tools, but we’ve managed to keep the spirit without standing still. The main thing is that we’ve needed to make some changes. With a cold room, you can work better, because there’s no pressure for processing grapes constantly, and the grape temperature stays perfect. That doesn’t break with tradition and is really a big help. Other things, like sorting tables, do not change the wine but aid the process by helping you sort the bunches. That’s not to say you have to make all these changes, but they often make it possible to work with the grapes in a simple way. In the end, it’s a matter of communicating with consumers. Why? In the end, this is a business. It could be that sometimes grapes don’t have enough potential and a winemaker wants them to have qualities that they don’t have.

AA: It’s possible we’ve got a little lost trying to make wine for the market, and with technical wines moving away from what Ribera really is.

PS: Before, everything was easy, because we had only old vineyards, but the real problem now is all the big plantings of young vines on flat land. What do we do? In recent years, the average age of the vines has gone down dramatically. Just because you have young vines doesn’t mean you can’t do good work and make great wine. But you have to work more with young vines. First of all, you have to plant them where it makes sense. At Hacienda Monasterio, we’ve used a modified trellis system similar to that in Bordeaux, and the vines, now over 20 years old, are getting very interesting.

MG: We’re trying to make wines for the market, but wines with our personality. In many cases, we’ve tried to be different because that’s what the market wanted. The potential of Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero is enormous; this is the best terroir for this grape in the world, much better than Rioja [where Mariano has consulted]. The main reason why other grapes [Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot] have been allowed is the heritage we have with Vega-Sicilia, where the other varieties were planted from the beginning.

CF: Similar to Rioja and other regions, Ribera has a tradition of family winemaking that goes back many generations. Many families have vineyards. When phylloxera hit France in the 19th century, the Bordelais went to Rioja with modern winemaking methods and bought grapes. When phylloxera struck Rioja at the beginning of the 20th century, Txomin Garramiola of Cosme Palacio in Rioja brought modern winemaking to Vega-Sicilia, and he bought grapes. He directed winemaking and joined Vega-Sicilia around 1915. Why hasn’t Ribera commercialized its wines like Rioja?

MG: It’s very simple: Rioja has had an uninterrupted history as a wine region. Before Ribera del Duero, Rioja was an established wine region that had all the necessary elements set up to ship outside its region. Ribera del Duero was in a geographic area in the middle of Spain where there were only a few cooperatives. Aside from these, there was hardly anyone there, so there weren’t the logistics to facilitate outward expansion. Before Txomin, there was Eloy Lecanda [the nobleman who established Vega-Sicilia in 1864], who listened to a guy from Palencia who was very advanced for his time. This guy told Lecanda there was a fantastic grape variety called Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino. But this guy also asked Eloy, "What are the wines that are really meaningful?" Bordeaux. This guy was bright, he had studied the similarities between different areas, and he concluded that Bordeaux was the region most like Ribera… And what’s in Bordeaux? Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and Semillon.

PS: No historic areas ever developed in the center of anywhere. You have Champagne, you have Burgundy, because of their proximity to Paris-especially Burgundy, with the wool trade.

CF: Okay, Beaune in Burgundy is similar to Haro in Rioja. You have the railway to Bilbao, to boats, which go to the UK and other export markets…

PS: Exactly. But historically, Valladolid was the capital of Spain. The Catholic Church and the kings were based in Valladolid. The problem with the reconquista [the recovery of Spain and Portugal from the Moors in the Middle Ages] was that the capital of Spain became Madrid. Suddenly, all the wine from up here was no longer the wine of the court. To transport it from here over the mountains would have been very difficult and expensive. So, white wine from Medina del Campo was consumed and became popular. There was no transport out of our region, so for a long time the wines weren’t known beyond it-until the 20th century, when Emile Peynaud went to Rueda, found what he felt was incredible terroir, and advised people on white wines.

MG: This Danish guy knows our history! Bravo, Peter!

CF: María José López de Heredia once told me that Pinot Noir was one of the varieties first planted by her great grandfather in Rioja. I’ve also read that Pinot Noir was one of the grapes planted by Lecanda at Vega-Sicilia, along with the Bordeaux varieties, in 1864.

XA: A guy from Vega-Sicilia signed the visitor’s book at López de Heredia in 1904. It’s not known who he was- certainly not Eloy Lecanda. Today, we work with a nursery called Guillaume. For the past seven years, it has done a clonal selection from our selection massale. A Guillaume geneticist is working with us in Ontanon, the last great old parcel we have, and we’re doing a profile of all the old varieties. Among them are Pinot Noir and Carmenère.

MG: How strange…

XA: There are also varieties from the south of France, but our geneticist has no idea what they could be. It’s part of our patrimony. And we have eight variants of Tinto Fino that are genetically different from one another.

CF: Eduardo, you represent a younger generation of winemakers who have a solid knowledge of terroir and are willing to experiment to improve your wines. Your winery at Los Astrales is fairly basic. If you had a €50-million winery, would it help you make better wine? If you increased your production to 250,000 bottles, could you maintain quality?

EG: No, our focus has always been on quality. If we built a big winery and made five times more wine, we would be fooling ourselves. I believe the spirit of the winery is not that. If we had more money, we would use it to buy vineyards, not anything like a cold room or new fermentation vats. We’ve kept everything basic, because for us, less is more. We will never make more than 80,000 bottles [current production is around 45,000 bottles]. It’s very simple: We believe we need good vines, good grapes, good work, and common sense.

CF: Lucía and Eva María, the family tradition of winemaking at Pesquera and Condado de Haza is as old as any in the DO. How important is family winemaking to Ribera? How do you feel about the influx of new wineries built by large companies? Vineyards are more expensive now, and there are more than 280 bodegas making wine, but has quality improved?

LF: What really matters is the cultivation of the vineyard; the grapes and the vineyard are much more important than the winemaking. The way you make wine is a large factor, but what’s truly important is the vineyard. The big bodegas and big brands are all necessary, because these complement what Ribera del Duero is. They have to be included, even though it’s a different concept from what we do.

CF: José Carlos, what do you think when a winery hires a "big name" consultant, like Michel Rolland or Stéphane Derenoncourt, who has no experience in Ribera?

JCÁ: It’s easy to bring a famous enologist here for a new project, but it’s very important to have the knowledge of our area. If French winemakers come, say, from Bordeaux or Burgundy, they’re used to higher acidity. Here, our acidity is lower, and our soils and our varieties are different. Our climate conditions are different as well, and this shows when consultants from other countries come and make their wines, which usually have a lot of defects. Michel Rolland is a great winemaker, but perhaps he should visit Alejandro Fernández and talk with him for many hours or days to learn. He must do one, two, or three harvests, vinified in different ways. Here we say, "Drink our spirit." It’s very important-our alma [soul], our spirit, our cycles in the vineyard, the characteristics of our area. It would be the same if I went to make wine in Burgundy: I would need to learn the grapes, the conditions, and the terroir. Then, I could do good work.

CF: Since the world outside Spain "discovered" Ribera in the 1980s, the region has made great progress, and it is clearly continuing to evolve and mature rapidly, in terms of wine growing and winemaking. So, the question I will leave hanging in the air for everybody is: How long will it take to eclipse the world’s other great wine regions?

Ribera del Duero highlights

Dominio de Atauta La Mala (The Bad) 2007 (single vineyard)

This vineyard was given its name by growers who resented its minuscule production. Wonderful blend of dark-berry and wildherb aromas, with funky, forest-floor, mineral, and wet-stone notes. Succulent flavors have tremendous focus and electric acidity, with a brambly and leafy-menthol edge. Ample, soft tannins. Will attract lovers of Cabernet Franc, Graciano, or Mencía. 17.5-18

Dominio de Atauta Valdegatiles 2004 (single vineyard)

Blackberries, herbs, minerals, and forest with a trace of oak. Tangy and ripe, not overripe, this is extremely juicy and well composed. Meaty and chewy fruit has beautiful acidity and balance. Tannins have titanium-like strength, yet are noble, if a bit tight and young. Excellent now but will be even better in 10-15 years. 18-18.5

Dominio de Atauta Llanos del Almendro 2004 (single vineyard)

Atauta’s top wine brims over with high-toned floral and herbal notes, as well as voluminous black and red fruits. Juicy flavors, with a finely honed, silky texture. Incredibly ripe, not sweet, this shows enormous structure, nimble balance, and super-fine tannins. This is a typical 2004 Ribera. A bit rough now but would benefit from 20+ years in bottle. 19

Los Astrales 2005

Rich black-fruit aromas, with espresso, dark chocolate, and mocha notes. Ripe, delineated black-cherry flavors are creamy, visceral, and long, with earthy minerality. Angular tannins are focused near the front of the mouth-an attribute of many ’05s. A great vintage of this wine from a great vintage in Ribera. 17.5-18

Los Astrales Christina 2006

Profuse aromas of red and black berries, forest floor, and wild herbs, with cardamom, bitter mocha, dark chocolate, and espresso notes. Alluring deep flavors and a silky texture give the palate a suave caress. The structure of the tannins and the acid cut are seamless. Persistent finish. With air, the wine gains a roasted-earth and black-pepper edge. 18-18.5

Aalto PS 2010 (PS = Pagos Seleccionados)

Packed with dense and heady aromas of boysenberry, blackberry, and mulberry, with crème de cassis and toasty oak notes. The texture of PS is always suave and viscous, sliding across the palate like satin. Huge structure; tannins are like titanium (much lighter yet stronger than steel) and fine-grained. This PS is one of the best vintages yet. 18.5-19

Aalto 2001

Earthy black-fruit aromas, with clay, brick-dust, and herb traces. The juicy, crushed black-cherry flavors have fine balance, with fine acidity and a silky mouthfeel. Beautiful fruit lends a plush texture. Has many good years ahead. 17.5

Vega-Sicilia Reserva Especial Gran Reserva (R11 ’98, ’94, ’91)

A blend of three vintages, similar to historical Rioja practice. Aromas are tremendous, a complex blend of red/black fruits, spices, herbs, cigar box, leather, and meat. Flawless and gorgeously seamless on the palate, this recalls my impressions of DRC and ’05 Rousseau Burgundies. A stellar wine. 19-19.5

Vega-Sicilia Único Gran Reserva 2000

For Único, this shows a cool-climate character; more red- than black-fruit aromas, very primary. Wonderful melange of leather, cigar box, violets, brick dust, and jamón and other meats. Elegant red-fruit flavors are shaped by acidity and suave tannins. Still very young; should develop nicely. 18.5-19

Viña Sastre Pago de Santa Cruz Gran Reserva 2001

Aromas a bit reduced, with dusky black fruits, herbs, musty underbrush, and small eucalyptus and camphor notes. Very svelte and cashmere-smooth on the palate, this wine has structure and depth and is very young. Will evolve to outshine even the exceptional ’99 Gran Reserva. 19

Viña Sastre Pago de Santa Cruz Gran Reserva 1996

Paradoxically, this has more black-fruit character and structure than the ’99 Gran Reserva, yet is more complex and plush, and the tannins are finer-grained. A perfect example of Ribera’s best vintage since 1982. 19

Emilio Moro Malleolus de Valderramiro 2008 (single vineyard)

Dense red- and black-fruit aromas, with generous toasty oak, espresso, and dark-chocolate notes. Mostly the red-fruit flavors are very silky, with a cool-climate character from this cold vintage. A powerhouse wine, with a suave texture that is impossible to resist now but is built for the long haul. Needs at least 10 years to showcase its pristine material. 18.5

Emilio Moro Malleolus Valderramiro de Sanchomartin 2008 (single vineyard)

A melange of red- and black-fruit aromas, along with wild herb, baking spice, garrigue, meaty jamón, and dark-chocolate notes. From a cool vintage, this shows more red fruit and acidity than usual, but with the typical roasted earth minerality. Youthful tannins are tightly coiled. It’s amazing that such a robust wine can dance across the palate like Nureyev or Astaire. Will be great in 10-15 years. 18.5

Pingus 2009

Explosive, primary, and packed aromas of ripe and sweet black fruits evolve into beautifully balanced and long flavors on the palate. Flavors are expressive and monolithic, given the wine’s extreme youth. Remarkable tannins. One of the great vintages of Pingus. 19

Amelia 2009

Very expressive, young red- and black-fruit aromas, with toasted oak notes. Shows great stuffing, with dense, terrifically packed black-fruit flavors. Voluptuous and wonderfully viscous. Bold, structured tannins are fine, like titanium (stronger than steel and a fraction its weight). Wow! 18.5

Tinto Pesquera Millenium Reserva 2002

Only the second vintage since Millenium’s debut in ’96. Aged in 100 percent French oak. With black-fruit, bramble, herbal, and spicy aromas, this has the meaty notes typical of Ribera. On the palate, cool-climate flavors have gorgeous acidity, with firm minerality and sublime tannins. The finest 2002 wine from Spain. Stunning. 19-19.5

Tinto Pesquera Janus Gran Reserva 1986

More mature than the ’95, displays baked and stewed red cherries, with soft scents of wild herbs, baking spices, and brick dust. Impeccably balanced red-fruit flavors, with earthy mineral notes undiminished even after time in the glass. Near perfect. 19.5

Condado de Haza Alenza Gran Reserva 2001

Brawny black fruit and ripe wild-cherry aromas signal Alenza’s riper, richer style, made with Roa grapes from Burgos rather than Pesquera grapes from Valladolid. Creamy, well-proportioned flavors and fine tannins balance this wine’s huge structure, which will allow it to age well. 18.5

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