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.
While the rules of the Ribera del Duero DO regulates much of what is, and what is not allowed in the vineyards and the cellars, the inescapable conclusion one riches from actually tasting the wines is that the climate of the Ribera truly creates these wines. They are powerful and rich, obviously benefitting from the ripeness of a warm climate but that heat also profoundly affects the growth of the vines and fruit.
With little rainfall and almost incessantly warm temperatures through the heart of the summer the vines seem almost trained to limit yields, and perhaps more importantly berry size. These wines benefit from a high skin to juice ration that endows the finished wines with depth and power, buffered by wonderfully ripe and velvety tannins.
On the other hand the fact that evenings are cool, and the growing season is fairly short, means that the ripe grapes generally come into the cellar with great acidity. Marrying that acidity to the velvety tannins and rich, ripe plummy fruit yields the magic that is Ribera del Duero.
As I hinted at earlier, Ribera del Duero is not only about these great, benchmark wines. Many Bodegas also produce great Roses and lighter, easier drinking styles of wine. The ageing process for Ribera wines is strictly regulated by the DO so you can begin to get a good understanding of a wine simply by reading the label.
While many of the terms used to identify Ribera wines are commonly used in Spain, it’s worth taking a look at the nomenclature and the rules associated with each level of production in order to get a better understanding of what might be in the bottle.
Rosado – The Rosé wines of the Ribera are much like the best Rosé wines found around the globe, fresh, deeply fruity, and refreshing. Spaniards, no doubt due to the hot climate, consume more Rosé per capita than any other nation. They are picky drinkers so don’t be surprised to see that Rosés for the Ribera are hard to find. Educated consumers all across Spain are seeing to that.
Joven – A wine labeled simply as Joven should have seen no oak ageing at all. Though there are other Jovens, Joven Roble and Joven Barrica see between 3 and 6 months of barrel ageing. The true Jovens are wonderfully bright, fruit driven wines, ideal for serving with a slight chill during the warmer summer months – great for a BarBQ.
Crianza – The heart of most Bodega’s line-up. A Crianza is a wine that has been aged for two years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak. These are moderately rich wines, ready to drink on release, with more depth than a Joven wine and a slightly softer style that benefits from the softening effects of barrel aging. These are very food friendly wines, an all purpose style of red wine.
Reserva – Much like a Crianza, Reserva’s need to spend a minimum of 12 months in oak, though they must be aged at the winery for a minimum of three years in total: barrel and bottle time combined. While a step above Crianza, these wines share many of the same characteristics that Crainzas tend to show, though in a slightly more evolved, fuller style.
Gran Reserva – The pinnacle of quality in the Ribera, Gran Reservas spend a minimum of two years in barrel, and a total of 5 years in the cellars of the Bodega before release. These are the pride and joy of each producer and you can be assured that each Gran Reserva began life as the finest fruit a producer could find. After starting with a rich, balanced, and intense wine, the additional ageing allows each wine to reveal its peak of potential before release. These are famously long, complex, and velvety wines that stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s finest wines. They deserve to be paired with fine, yet simple meat dishes that allow the wine to take center stage.
Recently tasted wines from the Ribera del Duero
ValSotillo2005 ValSotillo Crianza
Tar, creosote and smoke tend to dominate the nose though there is a nice bed of dried fruit lurking underneath it all. On the palate this is bright and balanced with nicely judged tannins supporting the dark, brambly fruit. The style is a bit easy and the finish shows a slight rustic edge but this is a well made wine. 87pts
2004 ValSotillo Reserva
Spicy aromatic meld notes of tobacco, leather, wild berries and hints of woody spice and sweetness. The mouthfeel is a bit on the tannic side, though nicely balanced if a bit rustic. The wood spice is a bit too obvious at this point but the spicy wild berry fruit does peek out on the moderately long finish. 89pts
2004 VS Reserva
While this shows plenty of toasty oak on the nose it is accompanied by rich, tobacco inflected black berry jam fruit. On the palate this is weighty but bright with polished tannins and excellent integration that allows the sweet, dark fruit to fill the mouth. The wood spice emerges more powerfully on the backend and on the finish but this is a well made, if modern, style of Ribera 91pts
2001 VS Reserva
This has a huge leather, herb, spice, and funky, slightly rubbery nose. On the palate it is full of spicy red fruits that are bright but drop off a bit on the mid-palate before returning with a vengeance on the backend and onto the very long finish, which combines bright fruit and savory, aged tones. At peak and great today. 92pts
Protos2008 Protos Roble
Very chocolaty on the nose with spicy, jammy red fruits and hints of licorice. Very bright on entry with a chunky, slightly extracted feel. This is a bit rustic but packed with wild cherry fruit. 87pts
2006 Protos Crianza
This has a woodsy nose with notes of freshly sawn wood, and damp earth adding contrast to the light wild raspberry aromas. On the palate this is light, bright and fresh with appealing purity to the red berry fruit that is edged with baking spices and gentle falls across the palate. The finish shows a slight astringency to the red fruits but is long and balanced. 89pts
2004 Protos Reserva
This offers up nice complexity with notes of roasted herbs, tobacco, smoke, and wood all accenting the dried fruit tones. On the palate this is rich and velvety, if a bit soft, with lots of toasty oak tones embedded in rich notes of dark fruits with herbal top notes. The finish is long and powerful, if dominated by spicy wood tones with the fruit powering through to a fresh finale. 91pts
2006 Protos Seleccion
This is even more wood driven on the nose with plenty of spicy accents over rich black cherry fruit. In the mouth this is seamlessly integrated with subtle spice tones up front that give way to big, bright cherry fruit on the mid-palate. Tannins really take hold on the finish, cutting it a bit short. While this is rich and powerful it is also a bit simple, if attractive. 90pts
Martin Berdugo2007 Martin Berdugo Roble
While the baking spice of oak is noticeable here it is topped with very expressive floral notes and wonderfully fresh red berry fruit. On the plate this is fresh and easy with a touch of herb framing the lightly astringent red berry fruit. The backend gains a nice mineral tone that shows off the spicy/sweet red fruit and leads to a moderately long finish that is touched by earth and hints of chalk. 89pts
2008 Martin Berdugo Crianza
A touch reductive on the nose but with air this turns ever so slightly jammy with alluring tar, iron, and game notes accenting the youthful fruit. This is super juicy and fresh in the mouth with light spice tones and subtle soil notes adding a bit of contour to the fresh, uncomplicated, yet pure fruit on the plate. There are some soft tannins giving this some structure, but this is delightfully easy to drink. 88pts
2006 Martin Berdugo Crianza
Complex with nutty oak tones, spicy fruit, and hints of tobacco, raspberry jam, and some floral notes. On the palate this is polished but not blocky and retaining a certain transparency. The tannins are obvious but balanced allowing the integrated wood spice and herb tones on the mid-palate to express themselves. The fruit is rich but balanced giving this modern styled wine a complex yet restrained feel. 90pts
Emilio Moro2006 Emilio Moro Crianza
Cedary on the nose with woody notes, a chalky astringency, and red berry fruit. On the palate this shows solid richness but is dry and astringent. The fruit is really front loaded while the mid-palate goes flat, though this finishes strongly with rich vanilla accented red fruits. A bit choppy and the astringency is worrying but this may come together nicely with time in the bottle 88pts
2005 Emilio Moro Malleolus
Smoky on the nose with plenty of fine French oak in evidence but still layered and complex. This has almost a Pinot character on the nose. On the palate this is soft and silky with a seductive milk chocolate note up front that is followed by rich, focused fruit on the mid-palate and then layers of wood spice that turn a touch bitter on the long finish. This needs time for the wood to fully integrate but the balance and length of this wine bode well for the future. 92pts
2005 Emilio Moro Malleolus Sancho Martin
Smoky and jammy on the nose and full of black fruit, violet pastille, licorice, and oak spice. On the palate this is packing some seriously concentrated black and blue fruits that are covering the heavy wood load. The tannins are sweet, if substantial, and while they shorten the finish the lovely earth and herb nuances of the mid-palate do extend through the finish. Really a rich, powerful wine that will come into its own with another 3-5 years in the bottle. 94pts
2005 Emilio Moro Malleolus de Valderramiro
Super tight on the nose though with aggressive coaxing there do emerge small notes of tar, smoke, and vanilla laced blackberry fruits. Rich and polished in the mouth, this is totally dominated by oak, with oaky sweetness and toasty spice filling the mouth. The fruit does play a supporting role on the mid-palate but appears to be over-ripe. The black fruits are more obvious on the finish, which is cut short by spiky, intrusive acids. A whole lot of wine that feels quite tarted up. 88pts
Condado de Haza2001 Condado de Haza Alenza Gran Reserva
Spicy and dark on the nose with cocoa and vanilla cream nuances to the dark and earth fruit. On the palate this features very well integrated structural component that give this a sot, elegant and caressing mouthfeel and support the fine leather, earth and slightly spicy dark berry fruits that end with a nice wash of refreshing acidity. A nice traditional feeling wine. 90pts
Pesquera2006 Tinto Pesquera
Real earthy on the nose with woodsy notes of tree bark, dried herbs, and spices all adding complexity to the dark fruit. On the palate this offers up some vanilla notes right up front then turns a bit herbal with super fine tannins and succulent acidity all supporting sweet, fresh berry fruit. The finish is long and bright with lovely raspberry tones on the finale. 91pts
2005 Pesquera Reserva
This has a lovely set of aromatics, all balanced but including notes of dry earth, herbs, wild cherry and strawberry and sunburned fruits. On entry this is huge with excellent balance giving it a silky feel. The woody spice tones are well integrated into the slightly bitter wild cherry fruit and edged with a sweet vanilla tone. The wine’s balance carries through to the long, elegant finish. A wine that begins to show real finesse while delivering a powerful drinking experience. 93pts
2002 Millenium Reserva
This has lots of brown tones with layers of earth, tobacco, and tea tones over a sweet core of vanilla topped raspberry fruit. On the palate the balance is lovely with crisp tannins up front yielding to a slightly creamy mid-palate full of spiced preserved, strawberry fruits. The finish is elegant, long and pure with a fine balance between the fruit and earthy elements. A lovely, elegant effort. 90pts
2003 Janus Gran Reserva
This is noticeably but not offensively bretty with just an underlay of barnyard over which one finds rich tones of leather, clay, and earth, but not a lot of fruit. On the palate this is bright and rich with a chunky, slightly clumsy feel with dark black berry fruit that turns a bit hard on the backend. Wood tannin becomes more obvious on the finish which is quite wood spicy, short and dry. This is tough today and I’m not sure it has the stuffing to age that well. 88pts
Ribera del Duero: Classics Old and NewVega Sicilia Unico
This started out reticently but really developed over the several hours it was opened, gaining a bit more mid-palate richness and depth of sweet, ripe fruit on the back end that lead to a long, layered finish. A real sense of finesse and elegance, much more so than with the last bottle. Certainly drinking well, but with a very long life ahead. 2008-2025.
Martin Berdugo Joven
This is super juicy and fresh in the mouth, with light spice tones and subtle soil notes adding a bit of contour to the fresh, uncomplicated, yet pure fruit on the plate. There are some soft tannins giving this some structure, but this is delightfully easy to drink.