Despite its infancy as a wine region, Raymond Blake finds Ribera Del Duero has a charm in its wine production, but it may still need a little finessing.
About 20 years ago Ribera del Duero stole Rioja’s thunder and ran away with it. Here was ‘new’ Spain, robust and concentrated, and perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of the day that favoured heft and substance on the palate in place of any attempt at subtlety. Here was the brash newcomer for whom tradition meant little. If the world wanted big, the world would be given big. It was a global phenomenon, exemplified by others such as the ‘super’ Tuscans and ever more cumbersome Châteauneuf-du-Papes. It was not a world for wimps.
But fashion changes and the densely flavoured wines that caught the world’s attention back then have fallen a little out of favour. Rioja is now resurgent and, as Enda Kenny might say, has regained its mojo. How is Ribera coping with the increased competition?
A visit to the region a few months ago confirmed that some refinement is now in evidence but if clumsy flavours, with little to recommend them except crude power, rock your boat, then these can be found too. Loud and brash, and rather ‘yesterday’, they billow across the palate and have a dinosaur feel to them. Some bodegas still cleave to that template but others are re-imagining it; their wines are still inky dark, with plums and liquorice aplenty, but they remain composed right across the palate, redeemed by the twin pillars of acidity and tannin. This pair support the flavour, keeping it upright and correct, stopping it from collapsing under its own weight.
The best wines, such as those from Aalto (see box) have a ‘breed’ and quality about them that belies the relative infancy of Ribera del Duero as a wine region. Forty years ago, apart from Vega Sicilia which dates from the mid 19th century, it was barren of bodegas, yet today there are hundreds and Ribera enjoys a level of recognition that puts it on a par with regions whose histories date back centuries, not decades. The paradox is that, on the face of it, it should not be possible to make fine red wine here. Daytime temperatures in July and August can reach 40ºC but the secret is altitude, frequently in excess of 800 metres, which helps to mitigate summer’s furnace. By night, temperatures plummet by as much as 20 degrees, allowing the vine to rest and helping it to retain acidity.
Ribera del Duero’s place in the pantheon is secure, what is needed now is the confidence to further refine the wines, lean them a little more towards the elegant and complex and away from the hearty and hefty.
Bodegas Aalto’s first vintage was as recent as 2005 yet the pedigree here is stellar, given that the man in charge, Mariano Garcia, was the winemaker at Vega Sicilia for about 30 years. It was raining the day I visited but that didn’t dampen the sense of dynamism, manifested by a serious level of investment, as an impressive new winery took shape at the hands of a swarm of builders. The house style is full but elegant, with exotic, herbaceous scents, and flavours of darks fruits, spice and liquorice. A worthy rival to Vega.
(Aalto wines are imported in limited quantities by Vinostito: www.vinostito.com)
THREE TO TRY
Bodegas Felix Callejo, Crianza 2013
Callejo is a family-run enterprise, founded in 1989. Some nonsense prose on the back label about harmony between children and vineyards should be ignored in favour of enjoying the wine. There’s plenty of plump, satin-textured fruit but also a wilder note, a sauvage element that adds complexity and a little intrigue. You need repeated sips to chase the flavour, it does not reveal itself in one great wallop before fading quickly, and it is all the better for that.
Bodegas Fuentespina, Fuentespina Roble 7 2014
The ‘7’ in the name refers to the fact that this wine spent seven months ageing in new American oak barrels – a remarkably short period given the excesses that some producers in the region are prone to. The result is vivid in every respect, from the bright garnet colour, through the intense fruit on the nose, and the body and structure on the palate. It is made from 100 per cent Tempranillo grapes harvested from 50-year-old vines. A haunch of venison would be a great match.
Bodegas Hermanos Perez Pascuas, Cepa Gavilán Crianza
Perez Pascuas was founded by three brothers in 1980, which, in Ribera del Duero, is almost prehistoric. The vineyards stretch to 145 hectares and annual production runs at about half-a-million bottles. Though some Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the estate this wine is 100 per cent, hand-harvested Tempranillo, which then sees 12 months barrel ageing before release. The result is exuberant and punchy-flavoured, with a crisp cut of tannin to keep things fresh.