Winemaking Styles and Identity in Ribera del Duero

Much like Sangiovese in Italy, Tempranillo is Spain’s most widely planted red grape variety and it grows all over. It is known by many names and clones throughout the country, each enjoying subtle adapted differences related to its home. Tempranillo’s true expression is best found in higher elevations with a continental climate.

That perfect combination is found in Ribera del Duero. Known locally as Tinto Fino, it survives scorching summer and frigid winters to produce bold red wines of incredible depth and structure.

More than just showing the purity of Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero is a great place for Americans to start with Spanish wine in general. Consider that Cabernet, especially from California, is the most consumed red wine in America. Ribera del Duero’s Tempranillo and California Cabernet often have a lot in common. From power, their deep concentrated flavors and aromas to their medium-plus to full-bodied textures, with round supple tannins, try tasting these blind and you’ll see what we mean!

Within the region, production and labeling is regulated into four main aging categories, the youngest being JOVEN or ROBLE which fall into a group known as COSECHA. These wines spend little to no time ageing at the winery, less than a year in barrel, if any time at all. The style tends to be medium-bodied, displaying freshness and the redder side of dark berries. These are perfect for casual fare, a warm day on the patio, pizza or treating yourself to a slightly chilled glass when the mood strikes. Suggested Wine: Bodegas Prado Rey, Roble

The next age statement of D.O. Ribera del Duero is designated as CRIANZA. These wines are aged for at least 12 months in barrel. Together, high-quality fruit and oak bring body, complexity and structure. Due to the quality and workmanship but approachable prices, Crianza wines tend to give quite a bang for the buck. Suggested Wine: Torres, Celeste Crianza

A wine with even more aging potential may be given more time to mature in the winery. At 3 years of ageing, with at least 12 months in oak and 2+ years in the bottle prior to release, the wine may be labeled as RESERVA. Or to earn the title of GRAN RESERVA the wine is matured for 5 years or more at the winery with 24 months in barrel at minimum, sometimes longer, and the rest of time in bottle. This is typically done only in an exceptional harvest. For both these categories, the selection of fruit is held to an even higher standard, ensuring more stability and intensity. Beyond ageing at the winery these wines can develop further in the bottle for decades after release. These wines show the depth of complexity Tempranillo can achieve under ideal conditions. On the nose and palate they show the harmony of perfectly integrated terroir, earth and oak; deep, dark and brooding. They are full-bodied, in a perfect marriage of balanced tannins to acidity, making them texturally irresistible. Suggested Wines: Protos, Reserva & Bodegas Ismael Arroyo Val Sotillo, Gran Reserva

While those are minimum ageing requirements, many wineries go longer. No matter which style a wine falls into, if it is going to be labeled as Ribera del Duero it must be made with at least 75% Tempranillo. Much of the production is 100% varietal but some Bordeaux varieties are permitted (as in most vintages of Valbuena & Unico from Vega Sicilia) or up to 5% of the white variety, Albillo (common at Dominio del Pidio).

Just as some wineries choose to produce wines whose aging doesn’t line up precisely with the aforementioned traditional label of Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, others choose to opt out all together. These wines, as the Joven and Roble do, also fall also into the group known as COSECHA. While designated age statements won’t appear on the label, the wines will usually meet or exceed the requirements for classification.

Rather than defining their style by age statement, this winemaking is often about best displaying the wine’s specific identity, or a house style, regardless of how or how long it takes to achieve this.  This identity can focus on organic or biodynamic production, old-vines, high altitude vineyards, estate fruit, single vineyard expressions or even alternative fermentation and restrained oak treatments, among others. In fact, though only a few miles apart, the vineyards on the Eastern edge of the D.O. (where colder temperatures can dominate) can vary greatly in style from those in the classic Western area of the appellation (traditionally known as the “Golden Mile”) mainly due to changes in altitude.  Think powerful tannins and dark fruit vs. soft, velvety and elegant red fruit.

Bodegas Emilio Moro is a prime example of many of these categories, first with attention on single vineyard selections. Even an untrained eye can see the difference between neighboring vineyards of Sanchomartin and Valderramiro at first sight. These two parcels are textbook examples of how Tempranillo expresses itself in chalky versus clay soils, respectively, as well as the nuances expressed by grapes grown at high altitudes.

Most recently the Moro family added a certified organic wine to their portfolio. With only two vintages released so far, the Emilio Moro La Felisa takes its name as a dedication to the family matriarch, honoring her and the wine in natural, pure beauty. Other producers with single vineyard and organic options to explore include Goyo Garcia, Dominio de Atauta and Hermanos Perez Pascuas.

Also aware of vineyard selection, both estate and contracted fruit, cult wine collectors are no stranger to the name Domino de Pingus. With such acclaim, it is easy to overlook that it is in fact, a practicing Biodynamic winery. Certified or not, Cosecha or traditional, their wines PSI, Flor de Pingus and especially Pingus, are some of the most prized wines in the world.

The idea of a Cosecha wine isn’t just about what happens in the vineyards. Inside the winery makes a difference too. Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva all require the use of oak but what about other fermentation vessels? Since the early 1990’s Vizcarra has focused on revitalizing old vineyards and in the last few years they have started playing with the fermentations. Large concrete vessels, open or closed top, have been used all over the world for centuries. In more recent times, favor has turned to the concrete egg after showing great results in texture and extraction. Juan Carlos Vizcarra is taking it a step further with his UFO-like, rectangular concrete rhombicuboctahedrons (26 sided polyhedron). Having more surface area than an oval during fermentation, the thought is that these achieve the benefits of concrete faster and possibly new heights. It’s a new practice so results are still evolving… Cillar de Silos is another producer to explore concrete fermentation with.

No matter which style or winemaker you go for, experiencing Ribera del Duero goes hand in hand with experiencing the history of the great wine regions of the world. Much of what we know in the region today comes from nearly 3,000 years of winemaking heritage. In fact, various wineries have preserved or are painstakingly restoring centuries-old underground cellars and heritage machinery. Though the D.O. was established in 1982 with just 9 founding members and 15,000 acres, in less than 40 years it has grown to about 300 wineries with over 50,000 acres of vineyard.

This is an exciting time for Ribera del Duero. As far as the region has come since its inception, there is still a lot ahead. New generations of consumers and industry professionals look forward to a future full of developing more village and single vineyard sites, the expansion of organic/biodynamic practices, continued fermentation experiments, and who knows, maybe even the addition of white wine based on its indigenous variety, Albillo Mayor.

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