This is the Tasting I alluded to in my last article. Ribera Del Duero may be one of Spain’s top winemaking regions, but the wines do have a reputation for tannin, and a lack of approachability when young. Not too long ago, when I mentioned to a wine trade friend that I was coming to this Tasting, he plied me with a story about a trip he went on, organised by the Consejo a few years ago, which involved, he said, lining up at nine in the morning to taste wines so tannic that after five or six out of a hundred his palate was shot to bits.
Although these wines don’t fit into my normal drinking pattern, it’s more than educational to attend Tastings like this. Let’s not forget that there was going to be a focus on organic/biodynamic wines, and on less oaked wines. Could this region dispel the myth that with one eye on Bordeaux and the other on Napa, they have no eyes left for Spain?
For me, there were faults aplenty. Not oxidisation, brett, volatility and the like, but lack of fruit and consequent poor tannin management. It was a bit like a high jump competition, where the bar is set by a pretty consistent level of tannin and you are trying to find wines with enough fruit to jump the bar. I tasted a lot which just fell back, or maybe the pole vault is a better metaphor as the oak in my mouth was like the bar snapping on the contestant. One winemaker there told me he thought there was just too much fruit on the vine which was not ripe enough for the oak regime it faced in the cellars.
But, getting out of the way three paragraphs of apparent negativity, I can say that there were wines which cleared the bar, and even one producer who managed to achieve it with all of their four wines on show. After swilling and spitting through maybe a dozen wines without hope of finding one to my taste, one invariably came along, and so what joy it brought. I know most of these wines were young, but I do have experience tasting tannic youths, and good young Bordeaux tastes very different to some of these over ambitious wines. This all makes the successful wines stand out even more. It is interesting to see who the importers of these wines are, because their buyers must have palates far more in tune with mine than some others.
Why do my views matter more than those of the largely older trade professionals at this Glazier’s Hall Tasting? Because my question to the Consejo and the Ribera Del Duero producers is “who is going to buy these wines”? Of course the likes of Vega Sicilia will have collectors after them, but the run of the mill wines, which need a decade to become approachable? Younger drinkers are looking elsewhere, to lighter wines, natural wines, vins de soif and glou-glou. I would suggest that commercial success is more likely to come from emulating the sort of wines I’ve picked out here. They don’t lack tannin and structure, but they offer more than just that.
Ribera Del Duero is in northern central Spain, north of Madrid and roughly between the towns of Peñafiel in the west and San Esteban de Gormaz in the east, following the valley of the River Duero as it heads towards Portugal (where, of course, it becomes the Douro). Most vines are at between 750 and 850 metres altitude on complex soils (clay, gravel, sandy silt), and the main grape variety is Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino (or as one attendee rather disparagingly said, “Tinta del País by the peasants”). But there are other varieties allowed, with a fair bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others, in the blend.
The very top producers, wishing to emulate the great Vega Sicilia, sought to do so by very reduced yields from the region’s old bush vines, yielding intense wines of relatively high alcohol levels, which then go into small oak, often new, for an extended period. But the best growers are beginning to understand that long oak ageing may not produce wines for drinking in the medium term, and a refreshing return to older oak has been accompanied by another look at viticultural practices.
If so many wines seemed to disappoint, I may as well begin with the wine (actually two wines) which I would champion as my wine(s) of the day. In fact this pair were nothing short of brilliant, and I commend Raeburn Fine Wines (who import a number of good Ribera Del Dueros) for finding them.
The producer is Goyo Garcia Viadero, both wines come from the 2012 vintage, and both are from different sites. Finca Valdeolmos (13.5% abv) is 90% Tempranillo with 10% Albillo, and sees 42 months in oak. Finca Viñas de Arcilla differs only in that it is 100% Tempranillo and has a tad more alcohol (14%). Admittedly these are wines with bottle age, but the long period in oak has not killed the fruit (from very old vines), which still has a lovely strawberry edge to it. Smoothness, certainly concentration, is present, but there’s elegance too. The family owns some of the old caves in the region traditionally used for winemaking, and their naturally cool temperature is perfect for the stability of these wines.
This is a tiny producer, based near the town of Roa in the central western part of the region. The wines are very much “natural”, though I doubt that this fact would come to mind when tasting them, nor the fact that they have no added sulphur. I’m not sure that the many tasters who were raving about these wines all registered that fact. Pierre Overnoy of Pupillin is supposed to have particularly inspired Goyo.
They were positioned before Peter Sisseck’s Pingus 2012, and I know many who headed directly toward Wine 123 were dissapointed by its no show. They needn’t have been if they nudged left, to Wines 121 and 122.
I actually began tasting at the table representing Tim Atkins MW’s Top 45 Wines. These are intended to be Tim’s interpretation of the best from the region. Tim’s experience in tasting tannins is considerably greater than mine, and he should be commended for his efforts. Seven of his 45 grabbed me more than the others, as I said, sticking their head above the tannin parapet, clearing that bar of oak.
Bodegas Pagos de Morgar Morgar Vendimia Seleccionada 2013 was my favourite of the wines which saw less time in wood (12 months in a mix of French and American oak), but this 100% Tempranillo is made from vines over 60 years old. Surprisingly, it was one of the few wines seeking distribution which I rated. No current importer.
Pago De Los Capellanes Reserva 2014 (Tasting Sample) is from very old vines at Pedrosa de Duero on clay and limestone. The oak here is unusually 300 litre French oak barrels. Plenty of brightness and good rounded fruit. The oak here is a bit heavy at the moment, but having liked it, another taster confirmed my opinion, and we both would love to see how this sample appears when bottled, and after a bit of age. I felt it has a lot of potential. Importer – Enotria.
Bodegas Félix Callejo produced an unclassified wine called just Felix Callejo 2014. This saw 15 months in oak after malo in new French oak. It showed a nice nose and no lack of fruit. Its only fault, one widespread in Ribera Del Duero, was the big heavy bottle. Okay, you want to tell the world this is serious wine, and it is indeed good, but a ten ton bottle is indicative of old thinking. Imported by Anthony Byrne Fine Wines.
Bodegas Pingon Carramimbre Altamimbre 2014 managed 20 months in oak without drowning the fruit. This Reserva is made from the oldest vines and they seem able to manage the new oak regime, all down to that vibrant fruit. Distributed by Amathus Drinks.
Dominio de Es Viñas Viejas de Soria 2014 is mostly Tinto Fino with just 5% Albillo, its organic fruit fermented slowly with 50% stems left in, then seeing 20 months in two barrels from DRC. The vines here are pre-phylloxera, planted on clay and sand. There was genuine elegance in this wine, and I liked it, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the tannins drown that elegance a bit, at the moment. I’d cellar it and wait. Imported by H2Vin.
Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa Reserva 2012 had a lovely nose, and the wine was not as impenetrably dark as some. Bright, lively and fresh, the tannins are silky, and not too obtrusive. Nothing harsh here. Distributed by Bancroft Wines.
Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5-year 2012 gives its 100% Tempranillo thirty-six months in wood (a blend of new and old, French and American), then two years in bottle. This is ostensibly made from “young vines” (but on average 35 years old). It’s suave and sophisticated, of course, and worth its reputation. If these guys can manage their tannins, why can’t some others? You probably don’t need me to tell you this is good…if you can afford it. Speak to FMV.
The remainder of the Tasting, the “open pour” section, was organised in order of oak usage, with a few rosados at the beginning. A word should be said in favour of the pinks. All those I mention here were very nice, wines I’d be happy to drink. In fact I did wonder why there were so few. The first two were 100% Tempranillo from 2016 – from Cillar de Silos (importer FMV) and Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro (OW Loeb) see no oak. Dominio Del Águila Picaro del Águila Clarete 2015 is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 12 months in oak (and an extra year in bottle over the other two). It shows more complexity for a rosado. Indigo Wines bring this in.
I mentioned a producer whose four wines entered were all worthy of a mention. The producer in question is Bodegas Fuentenarro. Cuatro Meses 2015 has a mere four months in oak and retails for between £10 to £15. Slightly lean in the Ribera Del Duero context, but this wine still has fruit, and that’s its purpose. A great restaurant wine. Fuentenarro Crianza 2014 is less gluggable, with 12 months in oak, but there’s more fruit here and a touch more concentration. Fuentenarro Reserva 2011 shows that even with two years in oak the fruit (from old vines) can shine through. We are beginning to see class in a wine that retails for less than £25. Finally, Fuentenarro Gran Reserva 2010 begins to show some maturity on the nose, with the development you expect from a Gran Reserva with a price tag of £35. Congratulations Les Caves de Pyrene for sourcing this producer.
In a nice overall selection from Indigo Wines I stumbled upon Quinta Milú Reserva 2016. Now don’t ask me how a Reserva (12 months in oak then 36 months in bottle if I am correct) can be a 2016? I tried to double-check all the vintages and did find at least one error in the catalogue. Anyway, this was a nice wine, but it needs a bit more time, I think.
Bodegas Tionio Austum ECO 2015 was one such wine where the catalogue gave the vintage incorrectly (as 2014). 100% Tempranillo, six months in oak, and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which I only just noticed, but may account for my note that this had more fruit than most of the wines tasted, and was vibrant and alive. So no cliché there, then. Oops, and this is imported by Red Squirrel who I can’t seem to stop praising at the moment. How embarrassing.
Dominio Basconcillos Ecologico 6 Meses 2016 is another nice, fruity, wine and the fruit here is smooth. This “cosecha” sees just six months in oak, and is 100% Tempranillo. I was a little shocked to see that it has 15% alcohol, but the fruit and freshness balances the alcohol nicely, at least on one sip. But it pays to check before you down the bottle. Vintage Roots is the distributor.
The above wine benefits from not having too much tannin (6 months in wood) to manage, and the alcohol gives it some extra gloss. Bodegas El Lagar De Isilla Crianza 2012 probably has a different reason for its smoothness and lack of harsh tannins. It may have spent 14 months in oak, but this is a 2012, so there’s bottle age too. It hasn’t dried out and still tastes of fruit. The 94% Tempranillo is rounded out with 3% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Good length too. Distributed by Stone, Vine & Sun.
Dominio Del Águila made the last of the rosados I mentioned above. Their Pícaro del Águila 2015 blends Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 20 months in oak, and it certainly has structure and tannins. But there’s also plenty underneath that, and I thought it had much more potential to age (and, it has to be said, it has one of the day’s more adventurous and attractive labels). Distributed (again) by Indigo Wines. The same estate (and importer) showed a Reserva 2013, which saw “35” months in oak, made from organic old vines. It was a little bit more grown up, tannic but with a sweet fruited nose, and also with potential to age.
At the end of the day, despite all my caveats and criticisms at the beginning, there were plenty of very nice wines. Spain at the moment is so exciting, indeed it has a claim to be the most exciting wine producer in Europe right now. But Ribera Del Duero is one of the country’s “classic” wine regions, and perhaps it isn’t top of the list when we think of excitement and innovation.
All that said, we are beginning to see some real innovation over in Rioja, on many levels and from both a younger generation of wine growers and also from some of the more traditional names. The era of the winery is giving way now to the era of the vineyard, both in how the vines are managed, and how the winemaker wishes to express his or her terroir. In order to get ahead of the game, the producers of Ribera Del Duero could look to their neighbour and do the same.
In speaking to those with far greater knowledge of this region than me, I get the impression that this is what needs to happen. Those who are already thinking in this direction are perhaps the ones whose wines register with a modern palate. If some wines seem stuck in a “nineties” frame of reference, others seem to look forwards. Or backwards, perhaps. Just go out and taste those fantastic wines from Goyo Garcia Viadero!
This Ribera Del Duero Tasting took place at Glazier’s Hall in London on Tuesday 10 October 2017, and was organised by Westbury Communications.
Must admit I’d avoid any wine under the heading RdD, my experience is bitter, charmless wines as you describe. Perhaps another look is required but no rush
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Well Alan, there obviously were many wines which were objectively very hard and tannic, so much so that you wonder why people would consider them (consumers, retailers and writers). Yet you know me well enough to know that I am fair and honest. The best wines were good. Just see if you can try those two 2012s from Goyo Garcia Viadero. They have not appeared out of the blue, and the producer is highly regarded in Spain. They are as good as anything I’ve tried they s year, and sulphur free as well.