This story originally appeared on The Somm Journal.
It’s no secret that Spain’s wine scene has been on the rise for some time, and as U.S. consumers and trade markets expand their interest in a category once dominated by France and Italy, they’re more interested in the country’s different wine-producing regions and what distinguishes them. Two of the most intriguing such regions are Ribera del Duero and Rueda.
Set in north central Spain in Castilla y León, both are the beneficiaries of unique climates (warm days, cool nights, little rainfall, and high elevation) and terroir that allow for distinctive expressions of Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero and Verdejo in Rueda. Though the regions boast a winemaking tradition that dates back centuries, their producers’ wines appeal to modern drinkers for their ability to offer polished expressions of their respective grapes, yet surprise with bottles that reflect experimentation, whether with aging techniques and by creating unexpected sparkling wines. Eager to share them with an enthusiastic audience, the two D.O.s organized a recent trip to the area, bringing two Ribera del Duero and Rueda ambassadors and Master Sommeliers, Alexander LaPratt and Brahm Callahan, along. Here’s what they had to say.
Alexander LaPratt, MS
Principal/Co-Owner of Atrium DUMBO and Beasts & Bottles (Brooklyn Heights, NY)
Ribera del Duero has a diverse landscape of rolling hills, riverbanks, high vistas and small valleys concentrating on a unique clone of Tempranillo called Tinto Fino. This part of Spain is a large central plateau that undulates between 700 meters and 1,000 meters in altitude, making Ribera del Duero one of the highest wine-growing regions in continental Spain. The Duero River is the heart of the region and carves through the landscape, moderating temperature and creating unique sun exposures for the vineyards as it journeys westward to the Atlantic Ocean.
Grape growing and winemaking here date back more than 2,000 years, but the region really started to hit its stride in 1982, when Spain gave it D.O. status. Since then the number of wineries has increased significantly but is still fairly small—numbering around 300.
These producers’ wines communicate different stories based on their vision and terroir. Some are more powerful, intense and fruit-focused and see a healthy amount of new French oak, which rounds the wines out with flavors of cinnamon, vanilla and baking spice. Others are earthier and more rustic and use the classic American oak to smooth out the wine, which lends it aromas of coconut and vanilla. All of the wines are elegant, with great acidity and strong color contributed by the thicker skins of the Tinto Fino variety. This particular clone also seems to show more black fruit like blackberry, black cherry and black plum, whereas other expressions of Tempranillo lend themselves more to tart red fruit like cranberry and red cherries.
In the arena of a more rustic style lies the legendary Alejandro Fernandez, who played a major part in helping Ribera del Duero gain its D.O. status with his first winery Pesquera; he has since opened four different wineries in and around the region. When I visited, he opened up the first vintage he released, a pristine bottle of 1975 Pesquera, as well as a bottle of 1982, another famous vintage. These two wines were complex, nuanced and really just hitting their peak with the potential to continue aging. We tasted them side by side with some of his more recent releases. All of the wines were good—but it was a real eye-opener to see where these younger wines were headed as they aged.
I also had the opportunity to visit the famous Vega Sicilia estate. Any sommelier, if asked to name the top ten wine estates in the world, would have to seriously consider placing Vega Sicilia on that list. They’ve created a small community around their winery, where each integral position’s responsibilities have been passed from generation to generation. They have their own cooper on the property, who makes their aging barrels. Not only is this rare, but their cooper is a third generation barrel-maker for the estate. Vega Sicilia’s style is unique for adding a little Cabernet Sauvignon to the Tinto Fino. These wines age with unparalleled elegance; I’ve had the pleasure of tasting back to the ‘20s, and the wines are simply mind-blowing.
At the more modern Emilio Moro, the wines are more concentrated and tend to use more French oak. The fun-loving Jose Moro took us on a tour of his family-owned estate, up to his highest-elevation vineyard, which showcased the diversity of the area’s terroir. It was at about 900 meters high, with pure white chalk soil, and the temperature was noticeably cooler and windier than the valley where we had just been. From that old vine vineyard, we were able to see across the valley and how the soils changed while enjoying a festive cookout with lamb grilled over dried vine cuttings, perfectly paired with some of Moro’s estate wines.
Visiting Ribera del Duero and seeing the land, the river, the vineyards and all of the factors that make up what we call “terroir” is powerful. It gives you an idea of how these wines get their personality and the story that these wines tell. Couple this with the forthright and sincere personalities of the families and farmers who craft these wines with passion, and you’ll understand why Ribera del Duero is unequivocally a world-class wine region.
Brahm Callahan, MS
Beverage Director Himmel Hospitality Group (Boston, MA)
Ribera del Duero and Rueda are at the forefront of the quality wine production movement in Spain today. Ribera del Duero has an amazing rich history of producing great red wines—Vega Sicilia, for instance, just celebrated its 150th anniversary. While the wines of Ribera honor this rich heritage, producers still are learning about their unique terroir, which, with the extreme temperatures, dryness, and elevation ranging between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, mean there are few places better suited to quality red wine production.
The soils here are diverse, ranging from clay and limestone to sand and alluvial soils—all a result of the river that cut through the high plains thousands of years ago. All these factors result in a distinctive expression of Tempranillo, combined with polished winemaking that has made the wines from Ribera so sought after.
Just down the river, we visited the area of Rueda, and while they are on an opposite end of the spectrum for production (they focus on whites based on Verdejo), they share many of the same contributing factors that make their wines just as compelling. Truly an area that has re-invented itself, the white wine revolution in Spain really started here in the 1970s as they moved away from the overripe, oxidized wines for which they and most of Spain were known.
When I went, I found the wines extremely persuasive, with most producers focusing on the natural fruit and saline minerality that shines through in Verdejo. The region is blessed to have some amazing old-vine parcels, even some pre-phylloxera vines on their own rootstock more than 150 years old. High vine age, sandy soils, and the unique climate result in a naturally low crop level and high-quality grapes.
Many producers here are focusing on either organic or some form of sustainable agriculture, with a goal of respecting the land and looking toward the future. This was the case at Menade, where they want to focus on biodiversity within their vineyards and work as respectfully with the land as possible. It showed in the wines, which had a beautiful purity of fruit; clean, salty minerality; and just enough lees contact to lend some great weight. These wines really impressed me.
We also visited Finca Montepedroso, a relatively new producer in the region. They, too, were able to show us their wines with some bottle age. We tasted current releases and a selection going back to their first vintage in 2012, and I was surprised at how their Verdejo developed with time in the bottle. It became much more exotic, with lots of tropical fruit, and amazing depth and weight on the palate. These wines definitely left me thinking about the largely unexplored aging potential of Verdejo.
Overall I can’t say enough good things about the whites (and even a little sparkling) from Rueda—the wineries have a clear identity of what works with Verdejo, but are also constantly trying new things to see what happens.