Thu 02 Apr 2015

A Face To A Name: Visiting Ribera de Duero


For me it is always good putting a face to a name. It can change one’s perception and aid appreciation.

This is also true of wine regions.

I was fortunate enough to travel with our buyer for Spain, Pierre Mansour, to visit producers in Ribera del Duero, taking in Pérez Pascuas (where Gavilan is produced), Bodegas y Viñedos de Monteabellón (where Avaniel comes from) and the legendary Vega Scilia.

After a two-hour drive, we ascended slowly and emerged at what seemed the top of the world onto the plateau some 800m above sea level where Ribera del Duero sits. The area felt barren and harsh – admittedly it was winter, but it did not have hospitable feel of an area that could grow anything, let alone grapes for wine!

The main variety grown, as in Rioja, is tempranillo (known locally as tinto fino or tinto pais), which, remarkably, does flourish in these conditions and produces better fruit in poor soil. Some cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec is also grown and blended in some Riberas. The white grape grown is albillo, but it is its reds for which Ribera is famous.

Given that Ribera only gained its official DO status in 1982, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is a relatively new region, but winemaking goes back to Roman times here, and many bodegas have had generations of the same family at their helm.

Attaining DO status appears to have been the catalyst for an influx of investment since and now state-of-the-art winemaking equipment abounds. The region grew from some 20 producers to now over 200. One winemaker we met said, ‘Before the new winery it was like painting the sky with one blue, now I have a whole palette of blues.’

State-of-the-art winery facilities and attention to detal: at Vega Sicilia even the drains are branded!

State-of-the-art winery facilities and attention to detail: at Vega Sicilia even the drains are branded!

Temperature wise, days can be very hot here – up to 40C – but then dropping to cold evenings. Diurnal temperature differences of 30C are not uncommon. The Duero river of course has a role in tempering these conditions, as does growing at this altitude. However, frosts are also a real issue; some occur as late as September, as was the case in 2007. One winemaker commented, ‘2007 wasn’t a wine – it was a miracle!’

But it is these variations in temperature, combined with a typical vine age of over 30 years, that contributes to the character of these wines: they have incredible concentration and tannic structure from the heat of the day, but the coolness of the evenings allow the grapes to compose themselves and preserve acidity, meaning that the wines retain a beautiful seam of freshness.

We found the quality of the fruit to be good and healthy, and the wines we tried shone through and revealed great purity of fruit and fragrance. There was great structure too , and a gamut of flavours from sweet fruits of the forest to dark fruits, taking in herbal notes, a mineral mildness and a subtle savoury quality; all held together with firm to velvety tannins.

Oak contact also defines these wines. The careful toasting of the oak and choice of French or American oak enhanced the body and flavour of these wines imparting an array of spices introducing notes of mocha, tar and coconut, as well as the more common vanilla.

I now have a greater sense of wines from Ribera and their quality – wines that I feel offer an appealing generosity and a character entirely different from Rioja. The wines have their own distinctive style and identity. Take for instance the Avaniel (£7.50), a fresh-tasting, fruit-forward Ribera made without oak; or try the bold Gavilan (£10.95) to get a feel for the dense dark fruit, all backed up with a toasted oak background. To witness its aging potential, try the 2009 Viña Pedrosa Reserva (£26), which has concentration balanced with elegance and poise; it’s starting to drink well now but will also reward those who can be patient. All would suit hearty meals!

For someone in an advisory role, like myself, a foray into a region like this provides better understanding of a region and people, and ultimately the wine. I left with the overriding impression that Ribera del Duero is an area where tradition and technology have married together harmoniously.

Seeing really is believing.

Conrad Braganza
The Cellar Showroom

Categories : Spain


  1. Denis Chamberlain says:

    Very interesting article. I have been getting to know Ribera del Duero wines over the past couple of years and would love to follow in Conrad’s footsteps. Does the Society have any suggestions for a trip to the area?

  2. Alan Meredith says:

    I have visited Palencia on business many times over the past twelve years and have learned to appreciate the Ribera del Duero wines, I recommend visiting Palencia and the surrounding area of Castile and Leon down to Avila and you will not only enjoy some beautiful towns and cities but also the wonderful wines of the region. Winters are cold and Summers are hot, the people are welcoming and the food is excellent.

  3. David Newlove says:

    Lovely article Conrad and helps explain the difference between these two great wines. Thank you.

  4. George Clarke says:

    “The Douro river flows through Portugal enters Spain to become the Duero …”.
    Sorry to be a nit-picker, but the Duero rises in SPAIN, crosses into Portugal, and flows into the Atlantic at Porto.

  5. Alan Bairstow says:

    I am a recent convert to the wines of Ribera del Duero following a retirement gift of Biberius Tempranillo 2012 14%ABV.

    To say that I am enraptured by the Biberius would be an understatement. It far exceeds any Rioja I have tasted and suggest that you add it to the Wine Society’s list.

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