There are two major wine regions in Spain situated along the country’s primary rivers. Last week we traveled along the Ebro River through Rioja and Navarra. This week we’re heading a bit south and west, due north of Madrid, to the area that traverses the Duero River.
This, the fifth of Spain’s six major wine regions, is known, appropriately enough, as the Duero River Valley Region. And the primary wine area within this region is called Ribera del Duero (how convenient).
In some respects, this area is similar to Rioja: same grape varietal family (Tempranillo), same storied past and the same international acclaim for their wines. The similarity ends abruptly on the northern shores of the Duero River. Here the climate is more severe than in Rioja (hotter summers, colder winters) and the geography is different (plateaus and hillsides versus wetlands in Rioja).
The age of the vines and the aging of the wines (I like the quasi-alliterative ring to that) are the true discerning traits of the two regions. In Ribera del Duero, many vines are more than 50 years old and in some cases over 100 years old. These these produce grapes of unique concentration, color and character. With these old-vine grapes, the winemakers generally age their wines much longer than their counterparts in Rioja and other Spanish wine regions. This results in wine of unique strength, finish and character. And, lest one needs to further differentiate the two regions, the Tempranillo grape, the dominant grape in Ribera del Duero, is called Tinto Fino here versus the straightforward name Tempranillo in Rioja.
What are the characteristics of these wines? A typical description: aromas of dark, perfume-like cassis fruit on the nose with hints of mocha powder. Mouth-coating blackberry, licorice and violet layered nicely with hints of coffee, spice and mineral. Fine tannins through the long length, elegant and delicious.
And yes, other grapes are grown and vinified in the region. I had the opportunity to sample several of these at a recent Wines From Spain tasting and symposium I attended in Manhattan. There I discovered two grapes grown sparingly in Ribera del Duero, Albillo (white) and Bobal (red). Wines of both were enchanting: the Albillo, expressing a minerality typically found in Northwest Spain and the Bobal, redolent of unctuous purple color, strong acidity and fruit, with an underlying essence of dark chocolate.
Let’s focus on the aging of wines practiced in Ribera del Duero. It is important to understand the classification of wines that you’ll find on each bottle of wine. There are four aging classifications to look for. The entry level is Tintos Joven, young and consumed in-country. Next come Crianza, wines that have been aged at least two years in oak. Third is Reserva, produced from superior grapes and aged at least three years in oak.
The top rating is Gran Reserva, which is granted to a small handful of wines that are only produced in certain years and aged for a minimum of five years. In particular, one winery, Vega Sicilia, stands out from the rest. One of its Gran Reserva wines, Unico, is produced from vines that are over 100 years old and is aged for a minimum of eight to 10 years in oak; in certain vintages as many as 23 years. In several years the winemaker may even blend wines from different vintages to achieve its uniqueness. As you might expect, this wine commands one of the highest prices for a Spanish wine. The current release, 2009, retails for up to $300 per bottle.
If your budget (or your conscience) can’t equate the cost of a bottle of wine to the cost of a case of some other wines, take heart. There are a number of excellent bottlings available at more reasonable prices. Try Condado de Haza ($17); Pesquera Crianza ($27); Finca Torremilanos (Montecastrillo label) ($10); and Bodegas Montecastro ($14).
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.