Drink Ribera

Not to be outdone by its more famous counterpart, La Rioja, the wine community at Ribera del Duero are putting forth a valiant effort into introducing and establishing their wines as some of the best Spain has to offer.  A grand tasting was held on February 23 at the Puck Building in NYC to showcase some of the more recent vintages, and give an opportunity for industry people to glimpse many producers without importers.

The D.O. was founded in 1982, primarily to promote the quality of wine and enforce standards.  Wine has been produced in Ribera for 2,000 years, and so this organization is a relatively new one.  Tinto Fino, better known as tempranillo, thrives in the Ribera climate, a region with high elevation and a short growing season, hence giving the grape its name (temprano meaning early).

With the risk of describing the primary characteristics of wines from the Ribera del Duero, the tempranillo grapes have flavor profiles along the lines of rich dark berry, black plums, cherry, and licorice.  The wines are often powerful and full-bodied, age well and are best paired with food.

On to the tasting, where several winemakers were present, and happy to talk about their wines.  Interesting to note, almost every table I visited spouted facts about how much and what type of oak was used.  From a technical standpoint I understand this is important information.  From a tasting viewpoint I was more interested in the integration of oak and the craftsmanship.

Of the over 75 wineries who were seeking importers, I have tried a handful of these wines in Spain, and simply did not have enough time to try them.  The 85 or so other wineries was sufficient work for the time allotted, leaving no effective time for conversing with colleagues or winemakers.

My focus was twofold.  First I was trying to get a feel for the 2004 and 2005 crianzas and reservas.  Second, I sought insight into the 2006-2008 vintages, and finally, I was looking for a good Joven for Pata Negra.

Generally speaking, the wines of the Ribera del Duero are serious wines.  That is to say they possess a lot of depth, structure, fruit, and tannin.  Very few are made in an easy quaffing style, and several of the wines require food to be enjoyed completely.  One of the winemakers at Finca Torremilanos completely disagreed with me, as evidenced by his displeasure with my sweeping characterization, and as it turned out his wines were among the “lightest” in style of the tasting.

I found that the 2004 and 2005 vintages were ripe and exceptional, but these wines were screaming for food, and can be laid down for an additional five to ten years to soften and be more accessible.  Some producers had 2006 crianzas on hand, and those were actually more ready to drink, a good point if purchasing for immediate consumption.

Standouts for the 04 & 05 vintages included Vina Pedrosa, Emilio Moro, Arzuaga, Arrocal, Pesquera (reservas), Pago de los Capellanes, Valduero, Figuero.  In many of these wineries, their 2006-2008 offerings were very good and more ready to drink.

Of the reservas and gran reservas tasted, most still needed more time in the bottle, but the Arzuaga, Pesquera, Valduero, Valsotillo, and Condado de Haza were drinking very well.

Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s great wineries, was present and pouring the 1991 vintage, a stellar bottling.

There were a few roses on hand, and 2009 promises to be exceptional in this department.  The roses were steely, dry, round and refreshing.  The use of tempranillo added depth and complexity to the style.

I overheard a few conversations about how Ribera del Duero is not well known and does not get as much respect as La Rioja.  The wines are not prominent on restaurant wine lists and so forth.  I think that some of the winemakers are missing the point with their style of winemaking.  Some of these wines are revered by Parker and Penin, for their powerful style and aging potential.  Some of the wines I tasted were at 14.5% percent or more (sure the label says “14”, but come on).  I’ve never eaten so much bread during a tasting.  There should have been open pig and lamb roasts in every corner of that room to accompany these bold flavors and tannins.

But it would be a mistake not to seek out these wines, especially in the hands of great producers, who have distinctive styles and a good barometer for a complete, well rounded wine as opposed to a (dare I say) New World heavy hitter.  The RBD wines should be on more wine lists.  Wine directors and sommeliers should decant, and more jovens and joven robles should be poured by the glass at wine bars.

One of the greatest wines I have ever drunk in my life, 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico, hails from the Ribera del Duero, a winemaking region which clearly has the potential to be in the same class as La Rioja, if the winemakers just keep their eye on the prize.