Wine Touring in the Ribera del Duero
Long considered one of the most legendary winemaking regions in Spain, the Ribera del Duero, which lies only a short 2-hour drive northwest of Madrid on Spain’s northern plateau, is home to some of the most elegant red wines in the world. its extremes of weather, from scorchingly hot summers with moderate to low rainfall to harsh, cold winters, combined with the unique soil conditions and higher elevation, create the ideal growing conditions for the Tempranillo (early ripening) grape, known locally as Tinto Fino, or Tinta del País, but it is the great passion for producing great wines that make the Ribera del Duero so notable.
Ribera’s earliest underground cellars, with their distinctive stone chimneys, called zarceras, were built-in the 13th-century in towns across the region and still serve to protect the wines from the extreme climate changes. The hand dug limestone caves provide the perfect conditions for aging these fine wines. One of the best examples of these cellars is the 400 meter long wine storage cellar of Bodegas Ismael Arrouyo-Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera. And although the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) of Ribera del Duero has only been in existence since July 1982, starting with just 8 wineries, winemaking in the region dates back more than 2000 years to the time of the Romans who had a settlement, Clunia, in what is now the small village of Baños de Valdearados in the province of Burgos.
The Ribera del Duero appellation, or D.O., straddles four provinces in Castilla y León: Valladolid, Burgos, Soria and Segovia. The fabled Milla de Oro, or the Golden Mile, lies along both sides of the Duero River in the Valladolid province and is often referred to as the heart of the region. Here you’ll find the renowned vineyards of Vega Sicilia, Pingus, Hacienda Monasterio, Aalto Bodegas y Viñedos, Arzuaga Navarro, Abadía Retuerta and Bodegas Mauro, the latter two sitting just west of the appellation’s official limits.
As fabled as these wineries are, the region is filled with outstanding boutique wineries, including Bodegas López Cristóbal in Roa, Hermanos Pérez Pascuas in Pedrosa, Bodegas Ismael Arroyo-Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera, Bodegas Comenge in Curiel de Duero, and the quite small, but award-winning wineries of Bodegas Veganzones and Bodegas Briego in the tiny village (138 inhabitants) of Fompedraza, a few minutes drive south of Peñafiel.
The Ribera del Duero counts at least 255 commercial wineries with 35,000 hectares in production (about one third the area of their rival, the Rioja to the north) scattered along its 115 km length. Major winemaking is centered in and around the towns of Peñafiel (Valladolid), Roa and Aranda de Duero (Burgos) and San Esteban de Gormaz (Soria), all of which sit along the banks of the Duero River.
The “Magic Mile”, which lies just west of Peñafiel, is where most of the vineyards are located in lower elevations. Here the wineries employ special towers to move the heavier, colder air that settles in over the river valley, in order to protect the grapes from the dangers of an early fall frost, common to the area. On average, the vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet (760 to 850 meters) above sea level, with some vineyards set as high as 3,100 feet (945 meters), resulting in considerable differences of up to 30 degrees F, between nighttime and daytime temperatures. The predominant grape, the Tinto Fino or Tempranillo, actually benefits from this dramatic change of temperature. It likes to cool off or “sleep”, to lie dormant at night and warm up during the day. These conditions yield smaller berries with loose clusters and tougher skin, which results in more skin-to-juice contact, promoting full-bodied, powerful wines, but retaining the grape’s renowned elegance, which is a signature of Ribera del Duero wines.
The maximum yields are limited by the D.O. to 7,000 kilos per hectare, but the average yields for the past 30 years have rarely exceeded 3,600 kilos per hectare as the wineries have reduced the quantity in pursuit of quality. The rich red wines produced in the Ribera del Duero, including Joven robles, the youngest wines, benefit from decanting.
We made our first stop during one of our earlier harvest trips at the beautiful estate of Abadia Retuerta, the beautifully restored 16th-century Abbey near Sardón de Duero (Valladolid), where we enjoyed a deluxe guided tour via 4×4 of the immaculate vineyards, the cutting edge production facility and a lengthy tasting in the winery’s new and very stylish Vinoteca. A visit to this stunning winery followed by a gourmet lunch is a “must ” for all travelers to the region.
We were equally impressed by the gorgeous estate of the Hermanos Pérez Pascuas, located in Pedrosa de Duero on the Burgos side. We were greeted by Adolfo, one of the three brothers, and treated to a private tour with tasting of the full gamut of Viña Pedrosa wines in their soaring Estate Space, surrounded by pine forests and with the loveliest panoramic views in all of the Ribera del Duero Burgalesa.
Nearby is another outstanding winery, the modern Bodegas Pago de los Capellanes, belonging to the Rodero Villa family, where we had a private tasting session overlooking the vineyard. The estate is situated around a group of eight centuries-old walnut trees that form a rectangle, much like a cloister. The land once belonged to the Church in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the winery is named for the chaplains (capellanes) from the parish of Pedrosa,
In the Burgos province, we were warmly received at two small family-run, boutique wineries. The first was Ismael Arroyo-Valsotillo, where we explored their warren of fascinating 16th-century subterranean caves, 1,200 square meters of ancient tunnels, hand dug into the rock. At the other, the father and son winery, López Cristóbal, the son and oenologist, Galo López, poured us their superb, small production Bagús label, made from old vines and not available in the U.S. Rich, complex and intense!
Other highly welcoming family run wineries that visitors should not miss are the cellars of Hermanos Sastre in La Horra, Alejandro Fernández’s stunning estate, Condado de Haza, outside of Roa and equally beautiful Bodegas Valduero in Gumiel de Mercado.
Contemporary architecture lovers will also want to visit two exciting bodegas: the striking Richard Rodgers’ designed cellars of Bodegas Protos, tucked below the Peñafiel castle, and the Sir Norman Foster designed Faustino Group’s Bodegas Portia in Gumiel de Izán.
Note that neither the reknowned Vega Sicilia nor Peter Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus, sold under the producer label Bodegas y Viñedos Alnardo, are open to visitors.
Wines of the Ribera del Duero
The red wines produced in the Ribera del Duero are designated as Joven, Joven Roble, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
- Joven: “Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are terms that refer to wines aged in oak barrels from three to six months. These wine tend to be fruity and vibrant and are meant to be consumed when young.
- Crianza: Aged for 2 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels, these wines are released after the first of October, two years following the harvest. They have well balanced tannins with a full-bodied and velvety feel.
- Reserva: Aged 3 years, a minimum of twelve months in oak; these wine can only be placed on the market after the first of October of the third year following the harvest. Reserva wines are bottled after 12 months and laid down to sleep until ready to be released. They are typically elegant and intense.
- Gran Reserva: These are wines of outstanding quality, made in select vintage years only. Aged a minimum of 5 years, a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging, and cannot be released until five years after the October harvest. The wines are complex and structured, with great balance and vitality.
The area does also produce a small quantity of rosé, rosado, and Bodegas Valduero produces an outstanding white, García Viadero, made from the albillo grape.