Ribera del Duero's 'beautiful moment'

Ribera del Duero

The wines of this high-elevation region in north-west Spain have been changing, as Ferran noted in Ribera embraces geography. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. This photo of Ribera bush vines overlooked by Peñafiel castle is taken from the Ribera y Rueda website.

A confession: for many years I tended to steer clear of wines from Ribera del Duero, apart from those from the most venerable producer, Vega Sicilia.

Towards the end of the last century there was massive, some would say opportunistic, investment in this high-elevation region, situated on the banks of the river in north-west Spain that becomes the Douro when it flows over the Portuguese border. Forty years ago it was home to seven bodegas. Today there are 307.

The investment, Napa Valley style, tended to go into bricks and mortar rather than vines. The region became dotted with winery palaces run by managers desperate to get their hands on grapes from local growers and fighting for them to such an extent that the raw material they used was not always of the finest quality. Some newcomers planted vines to fill the supply gap, resulting in a high proportion of young vines, sometimes over-productive clones, many of them planted in less propitious sites.

The prevailing fashion then was for high-alcohol, chewy, oaky wines and this – plus producers’ desire to disguise less-than-wonderful fruit – resulted in far too many Ribera del Duero wines being aged in new, heavily toasted, often poorly seasoned oak. This is not my favourite style at all but many Spanish consumers loved these concentrated, flamboyant, tannic wines. Ribera came to challenge Rioja as Spain’s pre-eminent red-wine region, not least because Pingus, the cult wine made by talented Dane Peter Sisseck, became Spain’s most expensive wine.

But now I must add Ribera del Duero to my long and growing list of wine regions that have undergone a dramatic transformation, with much better winemaking overall as well as some interesting new, fresher styles. Vega Sicilia’s perceptive technical director, Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan, who makes wine in both Ribera del Duero and Rioja, was enthusiastic about the current situation when presenting wines from both regions in London recently. ‘In Ribera there is more freedom than in Rioja. Young producers there are doing really interesting things. This is a beautiful moment for Ribera.

There is every reason why Ribera del Duero could and should produce delicious wines. Like many other Spanish wine regions, Ribera has very hot summers (in 2022 the mercury there reached 46.8 °C/116 °F) but because it’s so high, nights are cool. Vineyards here are at 720–1,100 m/2,362–3,609 ft of elevation (Bordeaux’s vineyards, by comparison, are not much above sea level) and the harvest is one of the latest in Europe, sometimes stretching into November.

But summers can be short as well as scorching. Frost has been known as late as 6 June and as early as September. The result is that sugar levels can easily rise much faster than tannins ripen – and nowadays winemakers are looking for less aggressive tannins – so that before everything is ripe enough, acid levels may well have fallen too low for the resultant wine to be refreshing.

My fellow wine writer and Master of Wine Tim Atkin has been presenting his selection of favourite Riberas in London for six years now. At the most recent tasting last November, he admitted that, as a result of the low acid levels and because of how Tempranillo reacts with the local soils, it is very common for wine producers to add extra acidity in order to make their wines better balanced. This is usually in the form of tartaric acid (aka cream of tartar).

By far the dominant grape variety is Tempranillo, usually called Tinto Fino or Tinto del País here. Its wines, if well made, can last for decades and have an affinity with top-quality oak, both American and French. 

Old bush vines, with their deep roots, tend to produce well-balanced grapes that need no additions. Newer plantings, of better clones, are slowly maturing and now pretty much every producer understands the value of vine age. Today an impressive 23% of Ribera’s vines are more than 50 years old and 10% are more than 80. These old vines are particularly well represented in Soria province, the high easterly part of the region with its isolated small villages. Soils here are much sandier than the limestone and clay that are the main soil types elsewhere and the sand has protected these vineyards, some more than 1,000 m high, from the fatal predations of phylloxera. This means that producers can boast ancient vines that have never been grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

The tasting in London of Tim Atkins selection was thoroughly enjoyable. A total of 100 wines were promised (including, for the first time, as many as six whites) so I asked our Spanish specialist, elBulli’s wine man Ferran Centelles, to mark my card. I ended up tasting 63 wines and found them so much more varied and stimulating than they used to be. They were mainly quite high in alcohol (those scorching summers …) but many carried their alcohol, and oak, well.

What was exciting was the number of wines made in other styles, too. As in Rioja, an increasing number of producers are ignoring the old categories of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva denoting longer and longer in oak and are making (sometimes a range of) single-vineyard wines designed to express a particular terroir. Many are also experimenting with alternatives to the traditional small barrel: concrete, clay and large and/or old oak foudres. A few producers in the region are making rosés, sparkling wines and even Pinot Noir.

Some of the wines did taste almost Burgundian. This is an adjective that has until very recently been complimentary in wine circles but is increasingly associated with overpriced, and many of these Riberas indeed seem to qualify for this latter meaning. On the other hand, in the UK it is not difficult to find a Ribera del Duero well under £20 a bottle, even if few of them will have the intense, highly charged mountain character of those I highlight here.

If you wonder what a (red) Ribera del Duero tastes like, imagine a particularly concentrated cross between red bordeaux and Rioja. I can already hear squeals of pain or derision from a certain plateau in Castilla y León …

Recommended Riberas

Top Riberas apart from those made by Vega Sicilia and Peter Sisseck (including PSI) are relatively elusive in the UK but Berry Bros & Rudd, The Wine Society and the Great Wine Co have a decent selection, and the Spanish Decantalo.com delivers to the UK.

In the US delduerowines.com and despanafinewines.com are specialist retailers.

PSI 2019 Ribera del Duero 14%
£28.95 Corney & Barrow, £29.75 The Wine List (Glasgow)

Dominio del Aguila, Reserva 2017 Ribera del Duero 14%
£60.27 Petersham Cellar

Flor de Pingus 2014 Ribera del Duero 15%
£70.95 Corney & Barrow, £94.99 Selfridges

Vega Sicilia, Valbuena 5° 2018 Ribera del Duero 14.5%
£129.88 Lay & Wheeler and other fine-wine merchants

Vega Sicilia, Unico 2012 Ribera del Duero 14.5%
£350.58 Lay & Wheeler

Tasting notes and scores in Swearing by Ribera. Some international stockists can be found on Wine-Searcher.com.

See also Ferran's nine articles about Ribera del Duero.