The Successful Collector, Julian Hitner – Ribera del Duero

One exciting winegrowing region

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Without question, Ribera del Duero is a land of extremes. How else to describe a region where summer day-/night-time temperatures vary by double digits and soil compositions are too numerable to relate. Such is the crux of Ribera, nowadays lauded as one of the most prosperous and popular names on the Spanish winegrowing scene.

An hour’s drive north of Madrid, the last twenty years have witnessed an unfathomable transformation in this 115-km stretch of the Duero River, which eventually flows into Portugal (passing the port vineyards) and empties into the Atlantic. From just a handful of bodegas in 1990 to over 200 today, vineyards continue to be planted at a breathtaking pace. While this has not been without controversy on account of too many vines being planted in overly productive sites, the result has been a growing appreciation of just how glorious Tinto Fino can be.

Ribera del DueroOtherwise known as Tinta del País (another local name for this particular strain of Tempranillo), much of Ribera’s success may be attributed to the ways in which the region’s finest growers have brought out the best qualities of this marvellous grape. Of these, lush strawberry-driven flavours (often rather fragrant), full-bodiedness, and structural acuity are particular hallmarks. Though other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are also permitted, the best examples usually consist of 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines ranging from 35 to over 100 years. Styles tend to range from the more floral and sensual to the more blatantly oak-driven and saturated.

As always, personal preference plays a role. Some may prefer a less powerful, more fruit-forward ‘Crianza’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and one in bottle). A wine labelled as ‘Joven’ will have had no wood ageing at all, while one marked as ‘Roble’ will have been aged in wood for well under a year. Others may opt for a more poignant, tighter structured ‘Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of one year in wood and two in bottle); while some may enjoy a full-bodied, especially complex ‘Gran Reserva’ (aged for a minimum of two years in wood and three in bottle). Finally, there are those who may prefer the increasingly celebrated single-vineyard bottlings for which many of the finest winegrowing establishments are famous. These are usually aged along more Bordelaise-style lines in French and/or American oak barrels for roughly 18 to 24 months or more.

Such wines owe as much to Tinto Fino as to the conditions in which this star grape has been able to thrive. As mentioned in the beginning, soil compositions are fretfully varied, though clay-based sands over alternating layers and limestone and marl (sometimes chalk) are generally the norm. Tinto Fino seems to do remarkably well when planted in such conditions.

Ribera del Duero

A typical vineyard in Ribera del Duero

Climate would seem to play an even more significant role. Located on the great northern plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, elevations are unusually high in this part of the country, between 750 to over 850 metres. In the summer months, this means extremely hot days (up to 36 degrees) and very cool nights (as low as 8 degrees). The result is a slow, prolonged ripening cycle, accentuating the potential flavour of the grapes without any loss of acidity. Few other places in the winegrowing world enjoy such variations in temperature. Rainfall is also notably low, usually taking place in the winter months.

All of this has lead to an incredible leap in both the overall quality and popularity of the region’s wines, not to mention a colossal proliferation of bodegas throughout the D.O. Many of these are family-owned and are supplied by estate-grown or purchased grapes. The difference between the two is a source of great pride for most winegrowers, as the former are usually considered preferable over the latter (though some growers may opt to lease vineyards via a long-term agreement).

Also not to be discounted is wine tourism, which is likely to play an increasingly prominent role in the coming years. Not surprisingly, many bodegas both old and new have invested heavily over the past decade in renovating and expanding their buildings. Though many owners are quick to point out that their primary aim is to improve quality, there is little mistaking the effect an architecturally attractive building can have on the eye. At the end of the day, the name of the game is to impress.

The excitement at the moment is certainly palpable. In just a short period of time, Ribera del Duero has gone from comparative anonymity to one of the most successful winegrowing regions in Spain, showing few signs of slowing down. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, though wine lovers everywhere stand the most grateful beneficiaries.

Top estates in Ribera del Duero:

Vega Sicilia: The most famous estate in the region, the wines of Vega Sicilia are synonymous with individuality and luxury. Under the skillful, philosophical hand of director Xavier Ausas, the estate has gone from strength to strength since its inception in the mid-19th century, having inaugurated an entirely new winemaking facility just a few years ago. Each parcel in the vineyards is now vinified separately, Ausas likening this arrangement to a painter utilizing every colour and infinite number of shades on the palate. Three wines are produced from mostly old-vine Tinto Fino: Valbuena, Único, and Único Especial (a blend of various vintages). Most estates would do well to produce wine half as fine as those crafted at Vega Sicilia.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5 Cosecha 2009Aalto PS 2011Vega Sicilia 2009 Valbuena 5 Cosecha ($185.00) is generally regarded as the ‘second wine’ of the bodega, boasting incredible concentration and charm. Though the flagship Único is unaffordable for most persons, the ’09 Valbuena 5 Cosecha is highly recommendable any day of the week. Decanting is highly advisable. Available through Halpern Enterprises.

Aalto: Co-owned by former Vega Sicilia winemaker Mariano Garcia and former director of the Consejo Regulador Javier Zaccagnini, Aalto has only been in existence for only fifteen years and is already widely considered one of the top bodegas in Ribera del Duero. The partnership between these two brilliant gentlemen has been a roaring success, their unsurpassed wealth of expertise bringing to bear two wines of sensational quality: Aalto and the flagship label Aalto PS. Both are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, sourced from extremely old vines from some of the finest plots in the region. Quality is unimpeachable.

Aalto PS 2011 ($135.00) is one of my most insistent recommendations. The flagship label of the bodega, this magnificent creature (crafted from 100% Tinto Fino) delivers unparalleled concentration, structure, and flavour. I’ve even ordered a case for my own cellar. Decanting is obligatory. Available through Trialto Wine Group.

Dominio de Pingus: The boutique winery of Danish owner/winemaker Peter Sisseck, Dominio de Pingus has enjoyed cult status for some time now. The wines are crafted from 100% Tinto Fino and are worth every laurel they almost always receive: Pingus and ‘second wine’ Flor de Pingus. The philosophy at this super-small establishment is Burgundian in inclination and holistic in orientation. Grapes are sourced from extremely old vines planted in some of the best soil conditions in the region. In the mid-1990s, Sisseck made the unusual decision of selling all of his wine en primeur (i.e. before they are bottled), freeing his team up so that they may concentrate exclusively on quality. The results speak for themselves.

Dominio De Pingus Flor De Pingus 2012Dominio de Pingus 2012 Flor de Pingus ($125.00) is the ‘second wine’ of this cult operation. Though not yet bottled at time of examination, it augurs a phenomenal future. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, every Spanish wine lover ought to do their utmost to get their hands on this magnificent wine. Decanting is advisable. Available through Profile Wine Group.

Viña Sastre: An impeccable source for some of the most powerful examples in the region, Viña Sastre enjoys a considerable reputation these days. With access to extremely old vines (mostly Tinto Fino), the aim of co-owner/winemaker Juan Manuel is to craft wines of extraordinary concentration and depth. New oak (both French and American) is employed in abundance; and while the style might not be for everyone, the quality of the range is remarkably high. Five wines are produced: Roble, Crianza, Pago de Santa Cruz, Regina Vides, and Pesus. The oak regimens on the last three are especially marked, demanding long-term cellaring.

Bodega Rodero: Owner/winemaker Carmelo Rodero is something of a maverick when it comes to winemaking, employing a radical system of rotating vats and bins lifted by pulleys so as to avoid the use of pumps during fermentation. The results are very impressive: powerful, chewy wines crafted from old-vine Tinto Fino and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. A resplendent new winery and welcome centre (including a banquet room for large functions) was completed several years ago. These are wines worth getting excited about.

Pago de Carraovejas: Owned by the Ruiz family, Pago de Carraovejas is a highly estimable operation, particularly when considering its size. Quality is generally excellent, though the better balanced examples are those where the use of new oak is less apparent. Four red wines are produced from mostly Tinto Fino: Crianza, Reserva, Cuesta de las Liebres, and El Anejón. The three whites (each 100% Verdejo) are also of high quality: Quintaluna (based out of Rueda), Ossian, and Ossian Capitel (sourced from 160-year-old vines). Because whites may not be labelled as Ribera del Duero, Ossian and Ossian Capitel are marketed as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Léon. Other large-sized establishments could learn a great deal from this producer.

Wines currently available in Vintages:

Cepa 21 Hito 2010Resalte De Peñafiel Peña Roble Reserva 2004Bodegas Vizcarra JC Vizcarra 2010Bodegas Vizcarra 2010 JC Vizcarra ($28.95) delivers a decisively beautiful amalgam of aromatic and textural characteristics, making for an outstandingly delicious offering. Having now tasted several wines from this impeccable bodega, my advice to Spanish lovers would be to stock up whenever (and wherever) possible. Decanting is advisable.

Resalte de Peñafiel 2004 Peña Roble Reserva ($31.95) is performing superbly at ten years of age, though it will keep for some time yet. Sourced from vines over twenty-five years of age, it’s wines like these that serve only to highlight the successes of Ribera del Duero as a whole. A gentle decanting for sediment is worthwhile.

Cepa 21 2010 Hito ($17.95) is an ideal recommendation for everyday drinking, though it will mellow further for those with a proper cellar. Crafted from 100% Tinto Fino, its most prominent feature is its appropriate accessibility of fruit—an often overlooked attribute for wines of this type. Decanting is likely unnecessary.

Cheers,

Julian Hitner

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