Just over twenty years ago, when I first began visiting
La Ribera del Duero–the Duero river valley, which
in Portugal becomes the Douro, the fabled Port river,
I thought it was the dedicated wine aficionado's back-country
dream. It was a region dotted with a few castle towns,
stark clean limestone-streaked hills, un-irrigated gnarly
old vine vineyards mostly planted with Tempranillo (then
called tinto fino or tinto de país by the locals),
tawny wheat fields in the higher elevations, and often
nondescript villages, some of which had amazing restaurants
specializing in lamb and wine.
Located just an hour and a half north / northwest of
Madrid (like Napa Valley from San Francisco), and an
hour south / southwest of the overlooked, but wonderful
provincial capital of Burgos, the Ribera del Duero is
the most prestigious wine region within easy reach of
the Spain's capital city.
Perfect weather for grapes
Winters can be cold and windy in La Ribera, springs
wet and always with the danger of a very late frost
and the autumn delightful during the harvest season.
But, though I enjoyed visiting the Ribera any time,
I especially liked summer, when warm days turn into
delightfully cool nights at these altitudes of 750-900
meters above sea level. This is one of the most important
reasons that the Tempranillo grape grows so successfully
here. During the day, the heat of the summer sun ripens
the grapes and the cool nights allow the vines a respite.
Fogs that develop in the Duero Valley provide heat relief
and moisture to the vines. In the hands of the best
winemakers, these grapes produce wines that are perfectly
ripe, but not overripe, and have good acidity for balance.
Grapes of Ribera del Duero
Tinto fino- tinto del país- tempranillo is the
main grape in all Ribera del Duero wines. The vast majority
of bodegas produce 100% mono-varietal wines (usually
labeled tempranillo), other authorized grape varieties
are cabernet sauvignon, garnacha tinta (Grenache in
France) and merlot, along with the rarely encountered
malbec and the white grape, albillo, which is used by
a few bodegas in small percentages for a natural acid
kick. For instance, Vega Sicilia, Spain's
most revered winery, uses 80% tempranillo blended with
varying amounts of cabernet sauvignon and merlot; Pago
de los Capellanes usually a maximum of 10%
cabernet sauvignon and merlot; Pérez
Pascuas 10% cabernet sauvignon; and Finca
Villacreces a blend of 75% tempranillo, 15%
merlot and 10% cabernet sauvignon.
Those were the days
During my summer visits, I could taste wines and have
long, informal conversations in rustic bodegas with
viticulturist winemakers still in their field clothes.
Sometimes I was invited to eat in their merenderos,
often just a small room or terrace with a picnic table
just outside the entrance to centuries-old, cool, subterranean,
hand-hewn limestone or sandstone wine caves, where growers
formerly aged family wines in big old casks that had
to be coopered down there because the entrance stairways
to the caverns below were so narrow and steep. We would
eat baby lamb chops cooked al sarmiento–over
grape vine cuttings from their own vineyards, drink
rich, deep ruby-colored wines from needle-nosed wine
drinking vessels called porrones and talk about
wine and life as the sun set over the Duero Valley.
On one early trip, I was invited to eat wild boar that
had been killed by one of the Pérez Pascuas
brothers when his car hit it one foggy morning earlier
that week. Even road kill tasted good with their superb
Viña Pedrosa wines.
In those days, La Ribera del Duero had just one wine
that was well-known beyond the borders of Spain: The
mysterious, exotic, legendary Vega Sicilia.
Also noteworthy was the 400-member co-operative that
produced Protos, whose winemaker was
Duero's padre enologist, by then into his 30th-something
vintage (he would make more than 50 vintages at Protos,
at Pesquera and at his own eponymous
winery in Peñafiel). Reyes winemaker skills made
Protos an underground favorite of wine lovers from Madrid
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