In the past, the wines of hot and sunny Ribera del Duero in north-central Spain have been critiqued as overly-oaked, over-the-top, and over-extracted. Today, winemakers are showing restraint with a focus on harmony and elegance. A new generation of winemakers saw ripeness and alcohol levels had reached overpowering status, at the expense of finer balance. They decided to look to subtle, nuanced styles with refreshing acidity instead.
While winemaking in Ribera dates back to the Roman era of more than 2,000 years ago, the region was officially recognized with Denominación de Origen (DO) status relatively recently, in 1982. Spain’s most treasured producer, Vega Sicilia, had been making wine here since 1864, when its founder, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, planted Bordeaux varieties here. Vega Sicilia is acclaimed as one of the greatest producers in the world. Their flagship wine, Único, fetches upwards of $500 per bottle and has aging potential for several decades.
Today, there are more than 270 wineries in Ribera del Duero. Old meets new as modern winemaking innovations mingle with ancient regional traditions. Ribera del Duero is located at the highest altitude for grape growing. While it’s just two hours north of Madrid, its rugged terrain makes it seem worlds away. The grape variety here is Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino as it’s called locally.
It is a region of extremes: relentlessly hot summers, vast day-to-night temperature swings, and high elevation vineyards. These challenging climatic conditions help the Tempranillo grape to struggle and mature slowly, contributing to good acidity. Additionally, with over 2,400 hours of sunlight a year, the grapes always fully ripen. Another perk is the low rainfall here, which translates to little mildew or rot in the vineyards. Lack of rain also means grape flavors are not weakened at harvest.
The hot temperatures also lead to fruit with intense ripeness and power. It is up to the winemakers to pursue balance, delicateness, and restraint. There is a lot of stylistic diversity among Ribera wines today. The best examples show wonderful spice alongside the fruit with notes of pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and anise. These wines focus on linear structure but still have body. They are big and powerful but still show balance.
Five Examples Under $50:
Layered, seductive, and bold, these are wines to savor in the cold winter months.
2016 Neo Disco $14.99
*Best Value! * Named Disco, since there is a disco ball in the barrel room, this bold and structured wine is made by winemaker Isaac Fernández Montaña. It is aged for six months in a combination of French and American oak. The fruit comes from 40-year-old vines and shows a lovely violet-ruby color with flavors and aromas of plum, cocoa bean, and cinnamon. It is a mineral wine with youthful acidity and smooth tannins. Fernández Montaña focuses on a relatively lower alcohol content of 13%, taking balance to heart.
2015 Callejo $29.99
All of the fruit for this wine is sourced from the Callejo family vineyards on clay and limestone soils. Fermentation with native yeast, at low temperatures preserves the fresh fruit aromas. This crianza is aged in a combination of new and old French oak barrels for 12 months. It is wonderfully aromatic with dark fruit character. Aromas and flavors of rosemary, violet, and oregano burst form the glass. The oak is well integrated with a subtle smoky finish. Winemaker, José Felix Callejo, took over for his father and focuses on wines that express the terroir of his family’s estate vineyards.
2011 Alma de Vino Old Vine Tempranillo $39.99
This stunner is owned by an American, April Cullum, a wine expert with 30 years’ experience studying and promoting Spanish wines. This modern expression of Tempranillo comes from 100+ year old vines from select parcels owned by winemaker, César Muñoz. The combination of the viticultural philosophy combined with unique climate, soil, and altitude of the vineyards means the vines are never treated with any chemicals. After fermentation in French Oak, the juice spends 24 months aging in mostly used French oak barrels, preserving the fruit with a balanced style. Bright ruby color, violet, wild strawberries and cardamom spices on the nose. Wonderful balance of fruit, acidity, structure, and minerality with a long finish.
2011 Conde Neo $39.99
While this is a bold and powerful wine, it still strikes harmony. Vibrant flavors of ripe black fruits and oak. The tannins are well-integrated making this a silky and sultry wine.
2015 Dominio de Pingus Ψ PSI $42.99
Aged in small oak casks and cement tanks, with virtually no new wood, this wine is feminine and delicate, showcasing a polished Spanish style. Having already established his flagship wine, Pingus, internationally with a cult following, Danish winemaker, Peter Sisseck, created Pingus Ψ PSI with a goal of expressing the truest terroir of Ribera del Duero at an approachable price point. He did so by helping to educate and monetarily incentivize growers to farm biodynamic and organically.
Visit Elyse at Schneider’s (300 Mass Ave NE) to discover wines you’ll love.