Head just two hours north of Madrid, along the Duero River, on the elevated plains of Spain’s Castilla y León province, sit Ribera del Duero and Rueda, sister wine regions with very distinct personalities. To the east, Ribera is known for potent red wines made from the Tempranillo grape, and to the west, Rueda produces lively whites from Verdejo. Get to know this riverside duo and your dinner table will be all the better for it.
Although they have been making wine for centuries, D.O. Rueda and D.O. Ribera del Duero each became a designated Denominación de Origen (D.O.) in 1980 and 1982, respectively. This means that wines with the appellation label on the bottle come from a unique geographic growing area with specific vineyard regulations, along with rigorous production and quality control requirements. Using this as a jumping off point, today’s Ribera and Rueda winemakers are creating both classic and innovative wines.
Tempranillo has thrived widely in Spain since the time of Phoenician settlements and produces intense, flavorful wines with great aging potential. D.O. Ribera del Duero is especially ideal for the grape. The region stretches over 70 miles of limestone cliffs with a mix of soils, exposures, and elevations. The key here is altitude; Ribera del Duero is one of the highest wine-producing regions of Europe, with an average vineyard altitude of 2,300 to 3,300 feet above sea level. Dramatic temperature shift between day and night — sometimes upwards of 50 degrees — produces optimal ripening for impressively balanced yet powerful wines. The higher the altitude, the more dramatic the swing, which puts some of the best vineyards at more than 2,500 feet above sea level. This altitude, coupled with the temperature swings, imprints itself on local Tempranillo in a variety of ways. It causes slower grape ripening and produces wines with generous acidity and great complexity. An extreme climate, along with diverse soils, also contribute to the unique identity and quality of Ribera del Duero Tempranillo.
When Ribera del Duero received its D.O. status in 1982, there were fewer than a dozen wineries in the region — today, there are over 300. Most vineyards are populated with the local Tempranillo known as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País, which distinguishes the grape and its expression from the wines of nearby regions. Thriving in Ribera del Duero’s dramatic climate and rocky soils, and yielding a bold taste with great depth and structure, the wine is grouped into four main aging categories. The youngest is designated as “Joven” or “Roble,” both in the group known as Cosecha (“harvest”), the most popular grouping. These wines, which are generally aged less than a year in barrel, are medium-bodied with a rich, fruity flavor. There are also three different levels of aging for Tempranillo wines labeled D.O. Ribera del Duero: Crianzas, aged for 24 months before release, are fruit-forward, easygoing bottlings and, like Robles, meant for everyday drinking. Reserva wines, aged at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, have added finesse and depth. Gran Reservas, aged five years before release, two-plus in oak, have a more tannic intensity and are great for long-term aging. However, most Ribera del Duero wines you’ll find in the U.S. have the Cosecha back label. This by no means denotes any less craftsmanship; in fact, many wines at this level are exceptional. It is a more horizontal category encompassing wines that do not fall within the aging specifications of other categories — but often meet or exceed them. Ribera del Duero Tempranillo is prized as a pure expression of the grape, and is almost always single varietal, elevating it from other well-known Tempranillo wines, which tend to be blends.
As for D.O. Rueda, over 80 percent of the vineyards in the region are planted with its indigenous white variety, Verdejo, and with good reason: plentiful sunshine, limited rainfall, and (similar to that in Ribera) day-to-night temperature difference, make for refreshing, aromatic, and superbly balanced white wines. Rueda’s two main soil types impart specificity and character. The wines have an inherit minerality and bold fruit from the La Seca area’s well-drained, stony soils. The sandy soils in the Segovia area house an abundance of old vines and produce wines with crisp acidity and structure. Finally, hot, dry summers make it so that the region is prime for organic farming.
First cultivated in the 11th century, the Verdejo grape is thought to have been brought from North Africa to Rueda by the Moors. The variety yields aromatic white wines, with an acidity that will appeal to both Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. There are various distinct styles of Verdejo, which can be fermented and aged in oak, for additional body, or another, preferred by many producers in D.O. Rueda, who put to use temperature-controlled stainless steel vats to preserve freshness and aromas. The region practices nighttime harvesting to encourage crispness and acidity. Lees aging is common, which imparts depth and texture to Verdejo; in fact, local winemakers have seen excellent results with native yeast fermentations. Rueda also produces traditional-method sparkling wines.
Today’s forward-thinking Rueda winemakers are even experimenting with concrete fermentation. You will find single-vineyard and estate styles, Verdejo with tons of aging potential (regardless of oak treatment), and wines from precious old pre-phylloxera vines. True oenophiles recognize that Verdejo wines culled from the ancient vines of Rueda showcase a profound richness, with mineral flavors and high, aromatic intensity. Beginning with the 2019 vintage, Rueda wines will have newly added categories. These include “Gran Vino,” a designation for the best wines made from old vines, “Gran Añada,” to denote vintage sparkling wines aged longer than 36 months, and “Vino de Pueblo,” to promote a sense of place — these wines will display the municipality the grapes come from, provided they are at least 85 percent of the blend. Finally, the D.O. is rescuing an ancient and artisanal style of wine known as “Rueda Palido,” this fortified wine is aged with flor for at least 36 months.
Whatever the demands of the table, there is a wine from Ribera and Rueda to match. Here’s a quick look at these regions and their signature varieties, with top-level pairings.