Spain’s Ribera del Duero — Rioja’s Rival
Ribera del Duero. There is something quietly compelling about that little suite of words alone that gets my imagination going and my tastebuds bolstered. After I creepily whisper the words aloud, I’m left with the taste of lingering black cherries, sweet vanilla, and toasted spices. This dynamic Spanish wine region has been racking up devotees for the last 30 years, and is now rivaling nearby Rioja’s crown for its production of sleek, dark, richly-concentrated wines, that are plush on the palate and relatively easy on the wallet.
Ribera del where-o?
Sometimes the most impressive characters rise from the most dismal of places. This region in central Spain is a perfect example; a desolate, rocky and rigid terrain, with bleak, flat-topped heights for miles. Bereft of inspiration, the brooding Tempranillo grape must look inward and grows a bubbling personality for itself; its bursting potential develops a complex character ready to pour into often-outstanding wines. Ribera del Duero’s wines are big without being showy; they are restrained by Old World sensibilities. Yeah, we don’t get carried away around here. Y’hear that Australia? Grumble grumble.
In the 80s, Roger Parker waxed lyrical about the finesse and character of the wines of Ribera del Duero, and in the same decade the region became a Denominación de Origen (DO), and rapidly was not simply on the map but shooting to eminence as an absolute must-drink. The region is going from strength to strength, and today boasts many bodegas of exceptional quality, and winemakers with notable talent and precision.
The Spanish have been drinking Tempranillo for over 2000 years — they know what they’re doing. It has an ancient taste; brimming with history (if you enjoy a sippable history lesson, do get involved.) Spain’s most prized grape is enthusiastically planted except in the hot South, and in RIbera del Duero it is known locally as Tinta del Pais or Tinto Fino, making up up to 100% of the blend. Tempranillo has an affinity for oak ageing — producing darkly-fruited, long-lived wines with a spice and vanilla character and a silky smooth finish.
The Oak Issue
In Spain Tempranillo is traditionally aged in oak — from Crianza to Reserva to Gran Reserva with escalating lengths of a stay in oak barrels. The oak used is usually American or French, or a mixture of both. American oak tends to impart more flavour on the wine — the flavours of vanilla, coconut, and sweet spices that we pick up in most Rioja wines. French oak barrels offer a more subtle flavour; less vanilla and more spice, and give the wine a silky texture. Too much new American oak can be a dodgy addition; obscuring the pure fruit flavours which can be gently lifted and enhanced by a stay in French oak barrels. In general, the Ribera region sees less new American oak than its popular neighbour Rioja. The fruit is not hidden, and the wines seem more harmonious and complex to me. At the end of the day it comes down to a careful interplay between oak and fruit, and in Ribera del Duero winemakers strive to strike that perfect balance of gracefully integrated oak and lush black fruit character.
What else raises Ribera’s rank
Along with stellar winemaking techniques, a few terroir-related factors come into play to make Ribera del Duero an impressive wine. The high altitude, which means temperature swings of hot days and cool nights, preserves the pure, fruit flavours and acidity of the grapes, and adds a little freshness which gives the wines a lively touch. Compared to La Rioja, the temperatures are more extreme, which can result in a more concentrated wine, with a fuller body and a more intense flavour and colour. Ribera wines have more of a dark fruit profile while Riojas have aromas of red fruits like strawberry or raspberry. The vines here are old — on average 60 years — and soils are limestone-rich; two factors which can translate to strapping wines with deep colour and bold flavour and structure.
Ribera del Duero offers very wide scope for food pairing. In fact, it could be the most food-friendly red wine. Popular traditional pairings like Jamon Iberico and roasted vegetables will work, but also tomato dishes, pizza, lamb, all roasted meats, and even fish like salmon. It is a very versatile wine and pairs with many foods, as well as being good for a glass on its own. Don’t be scared to go wild with the pairing — it will most likely work.
THREE TO TRY
Altos de Ontañon Ribera del Duero Crianza 2012
€19.99 available at the Wine Buff nationwide and www.thewinebuff.com
Deep red cherry color and lashings of dark fruit on the palate. Round, balanced, and silky, with good tannic structure and lively acidity.
Excellent length of flavour — the wine lingers on the palate with black cherries, roasted plums and spice.
Torres Celeste Crianza 2013
€21.95 available at O’Brien’s nationwide
This Ribera offering from trustworthy Torres is smooth and silky, offering cherry pie, plums, and vanilla on the nose.
Dark fruit shines on the palate with a smoky touch and an oaky, earthy backdrop. Chocolate, cinnamon, and blackberries on the finish.
Pesquera Ribera del Duero 2013
€32.95 available at www.thecorkscrew.ie
This classic name in Ribera del Duero offers an opulent and voluptuous style for those who enjoy the weight of a thicker-bodied wine. This well-structured wine gives rich dark fruit on the nose with flavours of black cherry, vanilla and oak spice. The palate is full-flavoured, fleshy and round, with the addition of dark chocolate and espresso flavours. The finish is long, flavoured, and balanced.
Naomi Ní Chatháin is a WSET-certified wine specialist from Co. Clare. She studied French and Philosophy in NUI Galway before pursuing a master’s degree in Wine Tourism (or ‘oenotourisme et projet culturel’) in Nimes.
Naomi loves French culture, and has lived in different parts of France over the years.
Her other passions include the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Bob Dylan, and road trips across America. Naomi is also a professional baker, and founder of NaomiBakes.com.
She is a firm believer in eating delicious, healthy cakes every day, and has a small subscription-based healthy cake kit delivery business.