Wine 101: Spain: Ribera del Duero

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On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers heads to Spain to check out Ribera del Duero, Rioja’s neighbor to the west where Tempranillo takes on a whole new personality. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and, apparently, it takes 19 minutes to fall from the North Pole to the Earth’s core. Who did that math? Who found that out? Wile E. Coyote? I don’t know.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Yes.

We’re leaving France. I’m sorry, but it’s really great because we’re going to Spain. We got a bunch of Spanish episodes here. We’re starting with Ribera del Duero. Ever heard of it? Get ready. It’s awesome.

Wow, wine lovers. How much fun did we have in France? How much knowledge did we gain about France? All those awesome French wines and all those French wine regions — oh, it was great. What’s exciting is, I’m really excited to go to Spain, and I don’t know, I think we got like a — there’s a list of the next, I think, five or so episodes that are going to be about Spain. The reason I’m excited about Spain is that besides Rioja and maybe Sherry, and maybe the region we’re talking about today, they’re well-known, but what do we really know about them?

It seems like Spanish wine on the American market is dominated by Rioja and then there’s everything else. Then we have to learn about those wines to fall in love with them, because they’re here, and they’re not going anywhere. We’re going to get even more wines from Spain on the American market in the future, so let’s talk about this wine region right here, Ribera del Duero, because it is, I would like to say — how do I say this? In America, it is one of the most famous wine regions from Spain outside of Rioja. What’s really wild about that is it’s actually the neighbor of Rioja, but separated geologically from Rioja, and stylistically, but with the same aging requirements. Oh, my God, Keith. OK, let’s get into it.

Oh, wait, before I get into it, if you want a little refresher, go ahead to Season 1. I have a whole Spain episode that does an overview of the entire country. If you need a little bit of a refresher on Rioja, that’s in Season 2. OK, now we’re going to get into it. As I talk about in the Spanish episode in Season 1, in the middle of Spain, sort of, yes, in the middle of Spain there’s this huge plateau. It’s called the Meseta Central, or the Central Tableland. In English, we call it the Inner Plateau. This is a geographical unit that takes up a large part of the Iberian Peninsula that is Spain.

In the northern part of this plateau is the largest of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain, Castilla y León. Again, Spanish is a little bit easier for me to pronounce, but I still may not be getting it right, and I’m very sorry. In the northern part of the Central Plateau, it rises up to about over 3,000 feet above sea level. That’s high. Especially when you think it takes up at least one-fifth of the entire country. The thing about this huge plateau, I mean, huge. It’s so huge that it’s mostly surrounded by mountain ranges. That’s crazy.

These mountain ranges can help the wine situation in this region. Like in the north, you have a range of mountains called the Cantábrica, I think it’s called Cantábrica, and that is what — that range protects this region from what’s going on in the Bay of Biscay, which is a very stormy, wet environment. Then you have the Sistema Central, or the Central System, which is a line of mountain ranges coming through the south of this region, separating it geologically from other places like Rioja and Madrid and places like that. Up here, on this plateau, the summers are very short and extremely hot, and the winters are ferociously cold to the point where frost can sometimes linger late into the spring.

Right in the middle of this autonomous region, Castilla y León, is the capital city of Valladolid. East of that is a town called Aranda de Duero that is on the River Duero. We talk about that in the Spanish episode, but the Duero River, it’s a very important river throughout history. It is the Duero, and it goes through north-central Spain, and then when it gets into Portugal, goes through northern Portugal, and they call it the Douro River. This is where port is made. We have that coming up this season. This town, on the Duero River, is the center of the largest DO or wine appellation in this autonomous region.

There are nine of them here, but this is the largest one. It’s called Ribera del Duero. Ribera means “the bank,” so the bank of the River Duero. The region is literally straddle — well, it literally straddles the river north and south and spans about 16 miles east and west. This is Ribera del Duero. The thing is, this place, like a lot of places in the world, has been making wine since the get. There is archeological evidence of wine being made only because they found a mosaic of Bacchus. That makes sense.

Also, here we go. Benedictine monks came from Burgundy to this area to make wine, and I believe that’s how it survived for as long as it survived because Ribera del Duero doesn’t have the storied history of its neighbor to the east, Rioja. Ribera del Duero for us, on the American market, really came on the scene in the 1980s. Yes, crazy. The modern timeline of wine in Ribera del Duero is kind of simple, but kind of great, in that it starts with a wine called Vega Sicilia Bodegas, which wineries are called bodegas in Spain. I’m sure you may have heard of Vega Sicilia, it’s pretty famous.

They’ve been making wine in this area since the late 1800s, and they were the only, I don’t know, focused winemaker on the scene for a long time. This area was mostly known for cooperative fruit. Wine growers or vine growers would just sell their fruit to the cooperative and make bulk wine. In the late ’70s — in the early ’80s, a guy by the name of Alejandro Fernandez thought, “OK, there’s potential here. We can do something better. We can make wine that has structure and character due to the soils, due to the climate. We’re going to do this.” He made wine from vines that existed around a town called Pesquera del Duero.

I think he released it in 1982, but in the early ’80s, he released the wine, and around — this wine became internationally popular. Part of that is because in the ’80s, in the United States, at least for our market, we were already getting enamored with big, full-bodied red wines. This wine was made from Tempranillo. Here they call it Tinto Fino, and sometimes Tinta del Pais, but it set a standard for wines being made in this area, and it quickly grew to about, I think, 200 winemakers in the area.

The style of Ribera del Duero from the Tempranillo grape is not that of Rioja. It’s more structured. It can sometimes be even a little more astringent. Tempranillo is usually dark in color, but these are inky in color, and their tannins are — this is a structured wine, and sometimes the wine actually needs a little bit of help, to soften it up a little bit, and there’s a local white wine grape in the area called Albillo, and this variety is a low-acid white wine, kind of a full-bodied white wine. It reminds me a little bit of Picpoul de Pinet, but it adds some viscosity and lifts up the wine a little bit as it ages.

Actually, as of 2020, the Albillo variety can be made into a still wine and sold underneath Ribera del Duero labels. That’s pretty cool. There are other varieties in Ribera del Duero. The international varieties have actually been there since for like — well over 100 years. I think it’s 130 years. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Garnacha is there, Grenache, and that’s primarily used for the rosé. What we’re going to see in the American market is going to be just the red wine. We’re going to see white wines as well, but Ribera del Duero is everywhere on our market.

It’s not as prominent as Rioja, but it is there, and it’s very popular because it has that full-bodied-ness that we are used to on the American palate. Rioja gives us the sort of elegance of Tempranillo, whereas Ribera del Duero gives us the more powerful structured style of Tempranillo. Even though the aging requirements in Ribera del Duero are identical to Rioja, the results are often different because of that heft. Let me just go really quickly over the age requirements here. For crianza, that needs to be two years minimum, with 12 months in oak. For reserva, three-year minimum, with 12 months in oak. For a gran reserva, five-year minimum, with two years at least in oak.

Same as Rioja, which you can listen to in the Rioja episode, but the results are these — I like to say sometimes when wines are released, even after the release, they can still be what I call “sleeping giants.” They’re not ready yet. Even though Ribera del Duero can be released in that way, they still are big wines. That’s basically Ribera del Duero. Go out there and look for them. I always find it so interesting how we look at wine, especially from Europe, as old as it is. It’s sometimes in modern times, like really modern times, like the ’80s, when things kind of get started for certain wine regions — it’s amazing how quickly Ribera del Duero rose.

I mean, I think the structure and the style of it is what helped it out, but also the quality — I just find it fascinating that from like the Romans, to the 12th-century Benedictine monks, to modern-times bulk wine cooperatives, with a few winemakers making quality wine, but not really making enough noise because they don’t know how. Even though this area has major trade routes because of the river and other mountain passes, it just sat there, and all of a sudden in the 1980s, a winemaker came in and defined the standard of style in that area. It’s just fascinating stuff.

OK. That’s Ribera del Duero. Get ready because of all the nine wine regions, or DOs and Castilla y León, Ribera del Duero is the largest, and there’s another one that’s becoming very popular on our market. It’s a place called Bierzo. They don’t do Tempranillo there. They do a grape called Mencía. It’s all kinds of cool, and we’ll get into it next week.

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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

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