Spain’s Rioja and Ribera del Duero Regions
Mar 17, 2015 10:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
A vineyard in the wine producing region of Rioja in Spain.
Tempranillo is to Spain as Sangiovese is to Tuscany, or Pinot Noir is to Burgundy. It is the heart and soul of Spanish wine, its noble native son, responsible for everything from everyday table wines to some of the world’s most sought after wines. Tempranillo is planted in almost every major wine region in Spain and most claim it as their primary varietal. The two most important places of origin are Rioja, where the grape makes some of Spain’s longest lived wines and Ribera del Duero where the grape is known as Tinto Fino or Tinto de Pais and makes one of the wine world’s most legendary wines—Vega Sicilia.
We’ll start in Rioja, Spain’s first “D.O.” (designated wine region). This created a governing body that ensured quality standards would be upheld and therefore protect the name “Rioja,” which is prominently featured on the label. The identity of the grape is tied in with the brand, like Sangiovese to Chianti, so it will rarely appear on the bottle.
Rioja was launched into the big leagues in the mid-1800s when France was devastated by the phylloxera louse, destroying up to 90 percent of vineyards in some areas. The ever thirsty French went looking for wines similar to those they were used to at home and discovered a taste for Tempranillo. Suddenly, French winemakers were traveling to Rioja, purchasing vineyards and/or shipping large quantities of wine back to their homeland. The party was short lived, however, as phylloxera soon took its toll on Rioja in the early-1900s. By this time the French had begun replanting their vines onto American rootstock, which was resistant to the pest, and most went back home, leaving Spain behind. After that, a series of wars and economic troubles caused vineyards to be uprooted and replanted with staple crops, stifling the growth of the region for decades. In the 1970s however, Spain and Tempranillo reemerged onto the scene with its unique style and character. This was achieved by long periods of aging in oak casks (in some cases more than 40 years!), which, over time, allowed the wine to age oxidative, giving it a more savory, earthy flavor. While Tempranillo on average spends more time in oak than any other grape, modern producers are shifting the focus to the expression of fruit, hoping to balance that with those rustic flavors that make this wine what it is.
Tempranillo succeeds in north central Spain thanks to a combination of elevation, well-draining soils, mountains to the north protecting it from rain, the cooling influence of the Atlantic to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. The region is split into three sub zones. In Rioja Alavesa, there is a more significant influence of the Atlantic climate and the soils are chalky-clay. In Rioja Alta, the climate is still mainly influenced by the Atlantic, while the soils are chalky-clay, ferrous-clay, or alluvial. Rioja Baja has a drier, warmer climate, the Mediterranean influence, and the soils are alluvial and ferrous-clay. The top wines are usually a combination of grapes sourced from Rioja Alta and Alavesa.
Tempranillo takes on another form in the wines of Ribera del Duero. Darker, denser, and more animalistic, these grapes are grown on a high plateau just southwest of Rioja in Castilla y Leon. The continental climate is one of extremes, where frost is still a threat to the vines in May and again in September. The grapes have a small window in which to mature and ripen, and are constantly stressed by the great swings in temperature and low annual rainfall. The vines must be spaced 10–15 feet apart so they don’t fight each other for what little water is available. It is this stress though, that helps create a more masculine and far more structured Tempranillo. In fact, some of the most legendary wines in Spain are born here, like Pingus and Vega Sicilia’s “Unico.”
It was Vega Sicilia that spotted the potential of Ribera del Duero back in 1864. The Unico began as a wine the Bodega would give as gifts to close friends and word spread of its extraordinary quality. Still, there was no rush to buy property in this arid landscape. By 1982, when the D.O. was officially established, there were only about a dozen wineries operating. It was around this time that critics began to take notice, and the ascent to stardom. Today, there are nearly 300 estates crowded along the Duero river turning out high quality Tempranillo at all price points.
During the last five years I’ve seen Tempranillo start to replace Malbec as the weekday wine of choice. Both can deliver great quality for the money, but Tempranillo makes a more versatile table wine that can drink well on its own and match a wider variety of meals. Expect this trend to continue as more people invest in the potential of not only Spain’s wines, but those worldwide. Australia and the United States have begun planting Tempranillo with some success in the last decade, albeit not on the same level as its homeland. For now, though, whether you are seeking value or longevity, the wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero are a great place to look.
Matthew Anderson is a manager at BIN 604 Wine Sellers in Baltimore, Maryland.