Grapevine Archive for Ribera del Duero
The humble oak barrel has been with us for centuries, peacefully protecting and preserving various liquids.
During my recent visit to Ribera del Duero, I witnessed first hand how ageing in oak barrels can complement the taste of a wine and, by chance, visited a bodega where they had a cooperage on site, allowing an anorak like myself to witness the birth of a 500-litre barrel.
After sourcing the oak, the cut wood is left to its own devices and exposed to the elements for two years to season the wood. During this time the undesirable bitter tannins leech out and dissipate. The wood is then covered for a further year to stabilise, ready to be made into a barrel.
As we approached the cooperage I could feel heat emanating out and the aroma drifting from this area had the unmistakable (and rather soothing) sweet smell of smoke.
The planks are then cut to shape to make the 28 staves that make up a barrel. They need to be accurate so they fit together perfectly: no adhesive is used and the barrel needs to be water tight!
Once rings are attached to one end of the barrel, it is then either heated with steam . This softens the wood ahead of bending into shape, or (as is more common in winemaking) toasted to release flavour.
Old oak chips in burners provide the means for this, the level of toasting dependant on what the winemaker wants for their wine.
Having then been sprayed with the water to soften the wood, the barrel is slowly coaxed into shape and the final ring is persuaded on.
Time to roll out the barrel… and fill it!
The Cellar Showroom
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.’
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.
The Cellar Showroom
How many of my fellow members suffer an auto-correct function with a mind of its own, I wonder?
Not content with Americanizing (sic) my colorful (sic) prose, mine has developed a sinister form of mission creep. For instance, when I typed a Castillian gem called Torremilanos into my laptop, I found myself insidiously relocated to a very similarly spelled Costa Brava location, synonymous in the Seventies with egg and chips, warm, flat bitter ale and other delights favoured by those of my compatriots for whom the sole purpose of a holiday abroad was a change of weather. Times have changed since a sense of adventure was displayed by drinking the water or eating something with garlic in it, but just in case, I am pitching my virtual tent this month at a safe distance from the costas.
You certainly couldn’t get much further inland than Ribera del Duero. Iberia’s third-longest river, the Duero, rises in the Picos de Urbión and snakes through Castile y Leon to become the mighty Douro as it crosses the Portuguese border. The name, which will immediately resonate with customers of Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru), is thought to be Celtic in derivation. On its way from Picos to Port, it takes in lovely spots like Segovia and Burgos and Spain’s ancient capital, Valladolid (which still retains the attitude, if not the official status, of Centre of the Hispanic Universe) before driving its way determinedly between Spain and Portugal, through strikingly beautiful canyons with deserved national park status.
The banks of the Duero are also home to some of Spain’s most collectible reds outside Rioja, notably a remarkable wine enterprise called Peñalba, a family business that has vertical integration down to a fine art, demonstrated by the combination of 198 hectares under vine, a portfolio of wonderfully diverse wines (from 140 different soil types!) and a gorgeous stone-built and beautifully appointed boutique hotel and a serious restaurant. This is Torremilanos (watch that spell-check!) just about an hour’s drive north of Madrid, and a handy weekend bolt-hole for city folk with a taste for good wine and food, as well as for this very fortunate employee of The Wine Society, on a fact-finder off the beaten track.
The aim of the three Peñalba-Lopéz brothers, Ricardo, Juan-Pablo and Vicente, is to challenge the traditional tough user-unfriendliness of DO Ribera del Duero with wines that are more approachable without losing the legendary pedigree of the region, which is, after all, also home to the abuelito of all Riberas, Bodegas Vega Sicilia. One senses that the mantra here, though, is that wine should thrill the senses without overtaxing patience.
It’s a sentiment amply expressed by the estate’s flagship white, Peñalba Blanco, which, this being red-only denominación, is merely (!) Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon. Just 6,000-odd bottles are produced, a blend of 40% white tempranillo, 40% sauvignon blanc and 10% each viognier and chardonnay, all fermented in barrel and kept there for about nine months, until assemblage and bottling. This is like a white Burgundy in style, stylish and richly oaked and perfect with a plate of sizzling scallops.
The essence of Ribera, though, is its tempranillo, from juicy and appealing young-vine Vinlara to Colección, a 100% tempranillo from vines averaging 60 years of age, enriched by a 30-month stint in oak. Again, this is a limited edition, with only about 6,500 bottles made, and an excellent cellaring prospect. It’s not all tempranillo, though. Dashes of merlot and cabernet sauvignon may be found in a number of the many premium cuvees produced by the estate. What they all have in common is real Ribera classicism here, overlaid with irresistible charm.
Moving to the restaurant, this place is famous for its cheese croquetas and they were indeed, fluffy, perfectly seasoned, moreish and improbably light despite what must surely constitute an horrific deposit in the calorie bank. Little lamb chuletitas reminded us that Ribera is prime sheep country too. The star turn for me, though, was a platter of grilled vegetables, including green asparagus, rather than the more usual white variety, soft, sweet, slightly charred onions and strips of green pepper, which always seems to me to get a bad press. Less sweet, as well as visually exciting than their red or yellow counterparts they can certainly be tricky and metallic and that sensation often crops up in less-than-flattering wine tasting notes. Roasting or grilling does much to temper their undoubted bitterness, but the best antidote, tried at Ricardo’s insistence, was to roll the strip of pepper around a chunk of morcilla. These blood puddings abound throughout Spain but here, they are made with rice, cumin, cinnamon and cloves. The sweetness of the morcilla combined with the acidity of the green pepper was nothing short of a revelation and a perfect match with the young tempranillo.
It was at this point that I noticed that one of my companions on this trip was ignoring the lamb and greenery and tucking into a plate of huevos y patatas fritas, with a side order of morcilla. Eggs, chips and black pudding? Where is that auto-correct when you need it!
Janet Wynne Evans
Peñalba Lopéz Blanco 2011 (£12.95) can be found in The Society’s August Fine Wine List.
Our Wine Without Fuss subscribers will already be familiar with Vinlara 2012 while a small and precious allocation of Colección 2009 is presently slumbering in our archives for future offering. Watch this space!