Spanish wines have recently taken the market by storm, but with so many great wines and regions sometimes it’s a challenge to find wines that truly express the terroir and soul of Spain. Without a doubt, the grandest grape for Spanish wines is Tempranillo, and the Ribera del Duero offers the highest expression of this noble grape. No pun intended, though the vineyards of the Ribera are among the highest in all of Spain.
I was first turned on to the wines of the Ribera del Duero quite a long time ago, when pretty much the only one on offer was the famous Vega Sicilia Unico. Back in the day, Unico was an expensive wine, but still within the grasp of a student like myself, particularly when said student was looking for a 1965 birthday wine. 1965 is, shall we say, a very difficult year around the globe, but the Unico was remarkable. That one bottle was filled not only with the storied winegrowing traditions of the Ribera del Duero, but also with the uniquely compelling expression that Tempranillo offers in these rugged vineyards.
Fortunately today we are blessed with many producers from Ribera del Duero, each offering their own wine, each “Excelente” in its own way, allowing each winemaker to express a vision without robbing the wine of all that is Ribera del Duero. It's time to take a look at the wines of the Ribera del Duero and see for yourself how compelling and complete these wines can be. With the 2009 vintage rated Excelente by the Consejo Regulador of the Denomination of Origin Ribera del Duero -- a rating given for only the fourth time in the 27 years since the formation of the appellation Ribera del Duero -- there has never been a better time to explore the Ribera del Duero.
What to expect: Ribera del DueroWith an intense summer season that sees high temperatures and limited rainfall, the early ripening Tempranillo yields amazingly rich wines in the Ribera that benefit from the grapes' fine acid and abundant yet soft tannins. The classic wines of the Ribera reveal deep, powerful fruit flavors draped over that structure, and just a hint of rusticity that gives these elegant wines a hint of a rogue-ish nature. They are ideally suited to being served with rich grilled and braised meats, and lamb in particular.
While only recognized with a DO (Denominacion de Origen) in 1982, Spain’s Ribera del Duero has been home to vineyards for millennia, as evidenced by the recent discovery of an ancient mural of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and festivals.
It’s no surprise that the wine industry continued to flourish in this region where the Mediterranean and Continental climates of Europe collide across the rolling hills of the Ribera. Over 700 years ago the winemakers in the region understood that their wines needed to be protected from the intense heat of the summer, and many of these ancient cellars are still in use today, working perfectly to allow for the slow and measured maturation of some of the finest wines in the Ribera.
That intense heat, along with limited rainfall and fantastic terroir of the vineyards in the Ribera, which range from alluvial soils closer to the Duero river to limestone and chalk rich plots that climb the hills of the valley, turn out to be an ideal setting for Spain’s greatest grape to flourish. In fact the average height of Ribera’s vines range between 2500 and 2800 feet, means that while summer days are hot, the evenings see cooling temperatures that allow for the super ripe Tempranillo that Ribera is famous for to retain exceptional balancing acidity. From Rosado to Gran Reserva – there is a Ribera for every occasion.