Rival for Rioja
The wines of Ribera del Duero are becoming as sought after as the best riojas in their native Spain, but we’ve been slower to embrace them in Ireland, writes JOHN WILSON
ONCE, RIOJA WAS king. Simply put, Rioja produced the best Spanish wine, and Gran Reserva was the finest the region could produce. There was one exception: the single most expensive wine made in Spain was a humble vino de mesa or table wine. Vega Sicilia, produced in tiny quantities, had a legendary reputation among connoisseurs. But it stood on its own, with no other decent winery within a hundred kilometres.
That changed in the late 1980s when Alejandro Fernández began producing wine in the same region. A successful agricultural engineer with a string of inventions to his name, he was determined to make “the wine my father made”. Whereas Vega Sicilia included Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec in its make up, Fernández used only the local Tempranillo (or a clone known locally as Tinto del País or Tinto Fino). He was given an enormous boost when wine guru Robert Parker referred to his wine as the “Pétrus of Spain”. Other hitherto very basic local producers upped their game, and soon Ribera del Duero was the name on everybody’s lips.
Today the wines of Ribera del Duero compete with Rioja (and a few other newer regions) at the top of every Spanish wine list. In some countries, such as the US, they are more eagerly sought-after than Rioja. Here in Ireland, we buy them, but still tend to prefer Rioja. The loss may be ours.
Spain had its own version of the Celtic tiger in the 1990s and 2000s. During these years successful property developers wishing to show they had arrived bought themselves a winery, or even better built one. As Ribera del Duero was the most fashionable wine, this became a popular place to build a statement designer winery. Other investors from outside the region joined in. From 10 wineries when the Ribera del Duero Denominacion de Origen was founded in 1982, by 2004 there were a staggering 145. Quality was bound to suffer.
The third big name to succeed in Ribera was a Dane, Peter Sisseck. He had studied winemaking in Bordeaux and arrived to help set up Hacienda del Monasterio, which achieved immediate success. He then started making his own wine from grapes sourced from some of the oldest vineyards in Ribera. Sisseck’s opinion of the other new arrivals was fairly blunt: “They hire winemakers who went to the same college, who buy the same grapes from the same growers, and make the same uninspiring wines.”
The region has been through its ups and downs, but quality now is generally high, and given the right circumstances Ribera del Duero produces some of Spain’s finest wines. Although made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, as in Rioja, the wines could not be more different. At 800 metres, the vineyards are very cold at night, yet baking hot during the day. Although this is the northern centre of Spain, the growing season is very short, with a real danger of frost during budbreak and even at harvest time. These extremes play a crucial role in making the wines of Ribera del Duero unique – deep in colour, full of bright damson fruits, often with fantastic concentration. The chalky soils play a role too.