Spain: The wines of Ribera del Duero

Eva pouring the Ribera del Duero wines of Valdubon.Photo by David Lansing.

The Ribera del Duero wine region is an odd bird. In 1864, an intrepid Spaniard with a very long name—Don Eloy Lecanda y Cháves—decided to start a winery in this very isolated section of Spain. The area he chose was well over 2,300 feet above sea level, way up in the mountains where it was very cold and the grape-growing season was very short. Not exactly someplace you or I would pick to start a winery. But his bodega, Vega Sicilia, did surprisingly well. In fact, through most of the twentieth century, Vega Sicilia was the most expensive wine made in all of Spain. Go figure.

But here’s the really odd thing: Nobody else opened a bodega in Ribera del Duero. Until 1972 when another guy, named Alejandro Fernández, decided to give it a go. Things did not go well for Fernández. By 1983, he was ready to throw in the towel. Except that just happened to be the year wine critic Robert Parker came to Spain and raved about Fernández’s wine and the Ribera del Duero in general. A legendary wine region was made.

Now there are any number of wineries in the region, many of which have opened up in the last ten years. Their signature grape is Tinto Fino, the region’s version of Tempranillo, which loves the cool nights and warm days.

Eva and I stopped in at one of the newer wineries, Valdubon, and did a tasting with the winemaker, Javier Aladro. The character of wines from this region are all determined by the weather, Javier told me. “Sometimes our summers are too hot. Sometimes we have a very hard winter and too much rain. When we have a less-than-ripe vintage, the wines can be pretty abrasive. On the other hand, the great vintages are, well, great.”

Ten years ago, Javier said, there were maybe a hundred wineries in Ribera. “Now there are over 250. I don’t know how they all stay in business.”

We sampled some of Javier’s wines while eating a simple lunch of bread, cheese, sausages, and olives. “We must not forget,” said Javier, offering me a plate of food, “that wine is a drink to accompany a dish. In Spain, we never drink wine without eating—even when we are just sampling.”

I like that idea. And I liked Javier’s Valdubon wines.

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