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Posted: Monday, December 3 2007. 1:00 PM

Ribera del Duero: Wine Adventures in Castilla y León

Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes copyright 2008

Ribera del Duero is one of the most important and interesting wine producing regions of Spain, whose quality has won an increasing international acceptance during the last couple of decades. Gerry Dawes, the well known food & wine writer and our international guest panelist explores the valley.

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 Teófilo Reyes, 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 and Burgos.


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