The Ribera del Duero is qualitatively the most significant of the nine DOs (Denominación di Origen) which make up the Castilla y Léon wine producing region of Spain’s north-western plateau, and falls under the rain-shadow cast by the Cordillera Catabrica mountain range. At 800m above sea level, extremely hot and dry during the summer, and often bitterly cold in winter, this relatively young DO (1982) is the source of some of Spain’s most sought-after fine red wines. The complex sub soils here, which range through limestone, marl and chalk under a clay and silt topsoil, together with the extreme diurnal (day-night) temperature variation bring great aromatic and phenolic complexity to the the wines. The region runs for 115k east of Valladolid and is around 35k at its widest. It is neatly bisected east to west by the Duero river, which downstream of Valladolid passes through the Toro and Rueda wine regions, thence across the Portugese border (and it becomes the Douro) where the grapes for the famous Port wines are grown upon its terraced banks.

Whilst the region’s history as a DO is relatively short, wine production has taken place here for at least 2000 years, with modern viticulture probably dating back to the 12th century, when it was brought here by the Benedictine monks of the great Abbey of Cluny in the Burgundy region of France, whose wide-ranging peregrinations are undoubtedly similarly responsible for the great wines of Burgenland in Austria, almost as far to the east of Burgundy as the Ribera del Duero is to the west.

The most important grape variety is the Tempranillo of Rioja, colloquially known as Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais, which makes up a legal minimum of 75% of the blends, the balance being made up of Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and a little Garnacha (Grenache). The wines are deep in colour, with a firm tannic structure and aromas which range through blackberry, mulberry and blackcurrant, and the best wines can age gracefully for many years. Although wines from the leading estates, of which the longest-standing and most famous are Vega Sicilia, Dominio de Pingus and Pesquera, command significant global demand and consequently high prices, the general standards are high, and it is possible to find relative bargains from estates that are still below the international radar. It is also worth looking out for Joven, or young vine bottlings, which can hit well above their price points.

Legal ageing requirements are as for those in the Rioja region to the north-east – 2 years ageing, of which 12 months must be in oak barrels for bottles labelled Crianza, 3 years with 12 months in oak for Reserva, and 5 years, of which two must be in oak for Gran Reserva wines. However, there is a general preference for close-grained French (and eastern-European) oak rather than the coarser-grained American barrels which are favoured in Rioja and which imparts the distinctive vanilla and coconut flavours for which the latter wines are best known – Ribera del Duero is generally deeper in colour with a tighter tannic structure and a more ‘modern’ flavour profile.

Photo courtesy Spain Info.