Ribera del Duero: Six Profiles


“This is one of the most desolate places in Europe; it’s more isolated than Finland, even.” In dying light, Dominio de Atauta winemaker Almudena Alberca and I sped along wintry, washboard roads, rugged and empty, in the backcountry of Soria province, some 50 kilometers from the Duero’s mountain headwaters. Here, along the far eastern edge of the Ribera del Duero DO, we explored small parcels of en vaso vines: scraggly, stunted little things, huddled close to the earth for warmth and water. At 1050 meters above sea level, 120-year-old ungrafted vines hold on. Spacing in this small gobelet-trained vineyard, known as Punto Alto, easily extends to two meters or more between rows and vines, and the pruned bush vines rise no more than a foot off the ground, a necessary precaution in this land of severe cold, drought and frost. The vineyard itself could hardly be a half-hectare in size, and yields, at fewer than 20 hl/ha, are miserly. Almudena and I visit several other vineyards—San Juan, La Roza, La Mala—of similarly venerable age and modest size, scattered along broad terraces, before returning to the old hilltop town of Atauta and its winery of the same name. 

Dominio de Atauta premiered with the 2000 vintage, an accomplished age in the context of the region. When the Ribera del Duero DO debuted in 1982, nine wineries claimed the appellation of origin; by 2011 the number had grown to 267. The relative youth of wineries in Ribera is in deep contrast to vine age: over 30% of the 21,380 ha of vineyards are at least half a century old, and nearly 10% are 75 years of age or more. The old vines are universally trained en vaso, and typically planted at a sparse density around 2,000-2,500 vines per hectare. Espalier vineyards, Guyot-trained and trellised, began to appear in Ribera del Duero around a quarter-century ago, and are common today in the lower, more fertile soils nearest the Rio Duero itself, where vineyards destined for the production of rosado or joven wines may be more easily worked with machines. Today, the divide between en vaso and en espalier vineyards in the region is almost evenly split.    

As in Burgundy, ownership is complicated; many plots have been in families for generations, divided and subdivided amongst heirs. Today the average size of parcels is 0.40 ha.  Dominio de Atauta itself owns 15 ha, but controls a checkerboard of 40 ha in total, spread throughout 600 different parcels. The winery’s vineyards are a goldmine of ungrafted vines—a rarity in most of the Ribera del Duero but common here in the secluded, parallel Valle de Atauta.  Even the winery’s “basic” Ribera del Duero bottling is produced from vines that are, on average, at least 60 years of age, and 90% of the winery’s entire vineyard holdings is ungrafted. Vines are not replanted with cuttings or clones; rather, Atauta’s growers typically replant in the traditional fashion, by layering—burying a neighboring vine’s cane into the ground to form a new plant.

Soria, Ribera del Duero’s easternmost area, is the least populated province in Spain and the highest, coldest area in the DO. Vultures circle in the February dusk; the elder inhabitants, fifty-odd, of Atauta village slow with each passing day.  Almudena slows to greet two old farmers, pruning between the snows. Here in the Valle de Atauta we are over 100 kilometers from the fabled bodegas of “la Milla de Oro,” estates like the unparalleled Vega Sicilia, Hacienda Monasterio, and—beyond the DO’s western border—Mauro and Abadia Retuerta. But the next generation of fine wines in Ribera del Duero may lie in this inhospitable, high-altitude climate. Soria’s season is compressed and cooler in comparison to the climate in Burgos province (home to approximately 80% of the DO’s vineyards) and on Valladolid’s golden mile. In all of Ribera del Duero frost is a major hazard that can creep into early June and return to wreak havoc on the mid-October harvest; in Soria it is a source of existential nightmare, as ripeness often arrives 2 weeks later in Soria than in Valladolid. Nine months of winter, three months of hell? In Soria, like all of Ribera, August days can surpass 100° F, while nights can plunge down below 50°, freezing metabolic processes and preserving acidity. The entire DO qualifies as Region I on the Winkler Scale, but in Soria the narrowing of the growing season—coupled with a wealth of incredibly old, ungrafted vines—can create a balance of concentration, purity and freshness without the burliness of many wines produced further west. Dominio de Atauta’s range of single vineyard bottlings, each numbering in the dozens—rather than hundreds—of cases, shows off the lift of Soria fruit despite alcohol levels racing full-throttle past 14.5%, and offers some glimpse of the myriad, spartan soil structures of the valley: arenas (sand), arcilla (clay), franco (silt), and various permutations of each, against the shallow, white limestone bedrock. Herbal scrub notes drift between the fruit and oak.

These are, make no mistake, modern wines—there is no shortage of new French wood, nor is there any show of carelessness in the winery. Tannic structures are powerful, sustained and powdery. Ripeness is measured by full seed lignification, and Almudena waits until late October to harvest to ensure it—if possible. In 2010, an early October frost led to a difficult decision to harvest at the end of September, nearly a month before schedule. The weather remains a challenge: if western portions of the DO face inclement cold or unwelcome frost, then Soria will surely be battered with it. In this challenging climate, Atauta is in transition: the winery shot to stardom with the help of a young French winemaker, Bertrand Sourdais, who left to steer his family’s Chinon domaine in 2009. Today, Almudena has big shoes to fill; a “La Roza” 2004 tasted at the estate was compelling, with developed piquant, tapenade flavors and less sweet oak than the younger efforts—hopefully her vintages will age as gracefully, despite a seeming shift in style toward the heavier end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, Sourdais has returned to Soria with Antidoto, a wine that provides an elegant counterpoint to Atauta’s intensity. The 2010 Antidoto brims with lush, fragrant black and raspberry fruit, but it is surprising lithe and low in tannin in comparison to Atauta’s 2009 offerings. This is the acid I expect from Soria, although it may be an unfair comparison: the lively, bright fruit of 2010 zips right ahead of the liqueur and jam of 2009. Sourdais forgoes new barrels, preferring to focus entirely on fruit concentration from his own pre-phylloxera sources. Despite widening contrast, Atauta and Antidoto are harbingers, spearheading the discovery of a forgotten viticultural heritage and one of the largest concentrations of ungrafted vines—the Consejo Regulador loosely estimates 700 ha—in continental Europe. This is an area to watch.  

Pre-phylloxera en vaso vines in Soria; Atauta's range

Viña Sastre and Pingus

Outside la Horra, a small township in Burgos hailed for its strong, brawny reds, Jesús M. Sastre Gómez chain-smokes cigarillos, barreling over hilltops and through vineyards on a particularly frigid morning. I bounce along in the passenger seat, breath crystallizing inside billows of puffed smoke. My Spanish is basically non-existent, and his English is not much better, so our conversation is fairly limited to occasional shouts of “frío!” and robust pantomime.  The vineyards here are on the north side of the Duero’s banks and generally face south, with a forest of pines blocking the north winds. This is the hottest area in the appellation, and the wines can be ripe and rugged. Jesús stops the car to show off his most prized parcel, Pesus, a small plot of 80-year-old vines that gives birth to a wine of the same name. Viña Sastre “Pesus” is, alongside Pingus, one of the appellation’s most expensive bottlings, fetching prices at release that exceed even “Único”. At a later tasting, I remark that the wine—a 15% abv, 200% new oak joint—reminded me a bit of modern Right Bank wines, and his eyes lit up; this was the first wine of the trip that was not produced from 100% Tempranillo. In fact, it barely meets the DO minimum of 75%, with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon filling out the remainder. Ambitious, classy and powerful, yet its sleekness takes it out of step with the other wines in Viña Sastre’s range. As some people resemble their dogs, so too do winemakers resemble their wines: Jesús, who ended the visit by offering shots of Ron Zacapa XO Solera Rum—at 11:00 AM—produces a range of wines that fit hand in glove with his bold, vital, spirited persona; “Pesus” in comparison seems so refined, so ambitious, that some of the charm is lost. For me, his “Pago de Santa Cruz”, aged for 18 months in American oak, is perhaps the best window into Jesús’ outsized zeal for life.

We stood atop an 850-meter-high hilltop and surveyed the landscape. In central Ribera del Duero, the lower areas nearest the river typically have the highest concentration of rounded, alluvial stones, sand, and marl; while the middle elevation vineyards show more calcareous clay and iron-rich red clay. The highest elevation vineyards have the greatest concentration of white limestone soils, containing both chalk and gypsum, similar to the albariza of Jerez. But there is upheaval: on this hilltop the topsoil was thick with river stones, and the lower areas around us were red with clay. On another vineyard jaunt with enologist Alvaro Maestro of Emilio Moro, we stood in the heavy, wet red clay of the winery’s Valderramiro vineyard, source of a single vineyard bottling in the “Malleolus” line, but a neighboring vineyard soil just 10 meters away was a white blanket of chalk. Dramatic shifts in soil, subtle shifts of slope, and the miniature size of parcels recall Burgundy.

Water regulation is an important factor in soil profile, and the humidity of clay is a benefit in an area where the climate is dry. Irrigation, while legal, is rare—only 5% of DO vineyards irrigate. The high permeability of clay allows the retention of water throughout the long growing season. As most of the region’s annual 17.7 inches of rain falling during the winter, the soil needs to retain as much water as it can. High elevation vineyards with white topsoils, on the other hand, are able to preserve acidity by amplifying Ribera’s naturally severe diurnal shifts. White soils reflect heat during the day rather than retain it to warm the vines at night, so vines planted in lighter-colored soils can quickly drop to the ambient summer evening temperatures of 50-60° F. Thus, the classic recipe for Ribera del Duero reds involves a balance of concentration, dark fruit and color, and still lively acidity. Both tannin and acid tend to be higher than in wines produced in Rioja, some 150 kilometers to the northeast and hundreds of meters lower in elevation.

Viña Sastre is La Horra’s most prominent producer, but the hills beyond this small village are also home to a 4.7-hectare stand of 80- to 100-year-old vines owned by Dominio de Pingus (the winery itself is located along a non-descript side street in Quintanilla de Onésimo, west of Peñafiel). Peter Sisseck debuted his garagiste icon in 1995, and it quickly rocketed into the firmament of Spain’s most celebrated reds. When I arrived in Pingus’ cellar, a new assistant (Yulia) proudly proclaimed, “Everything in barrel here is already sold.” “Pingus”, along with other Spanish reds like Alvaro Palacios’ “L’Ermita”, is sold entirely through en primeur sales in Bordeaux. Only 29 barrels of Pingus 2011 rested in the cellar, with the remainder allocated for “Flor de Pingus”, a wine produced from different La Horra vineyard sources, and a newer third label, “PSI”. The latter wine is actually purchased at a premium from a cooperative as newly fermented wine, and the project is designed to salvage low-density, old growth vineyards throughout the appellation that growers might otherwise be tempted to grub up and replant for higher yields and a higher return.  “PSI” debuted with the 2007 vintage.

Dominio de Pingus is tiny. They release around 6,000 bottles of “Pingus” in a given vintage; in comparison Vega Sicilia released 40,000 bottles of their flagship “Único” 2002; and 70,000 bottles of the 2003. Dominio de Pingus feels highly personal and idiosyncratic in comparison; Peter Sisseck arrived in Ribera del Duero in the early 1990s to work with Hacienda Monasterio and wound up launching the region’s hottest red on the international stage. Vineyard work is biodynamic—Sisseck is a devotee of the late German farmer/researcher Maria Thun—and work in the winery proceeds in a very natural, yet obsessively hygienic, manner. Harvest typically takes place around 22-24° Brix, and “Pingus” fermentation occurs with ambient yeasts in oak vats without temperature control (“Flor de Pingus” fermentations occur in stainless steel). The winery maintains one markedly warmer barrel room strictly for malolactic fermentation, and a small cave underneath the complex for further barrel maturation. Darnajou and Taransaud are the coopers of choice, with the latter’s “T5” 228 liter Burgundy barrels especially prized. The wines, while prominently driven by oak in the past, are shedding some new wood: the 2011 “Pingus” is aging in approximately 50% new wood and the “Flor de Pingus” rests in 60/70% new wood; these numbers are changing with every vintage. Barrels are reused for 2-3 vintages and then replaced. We tasted several wines out of barrel, and the depth and concentration of “Pingus”, the product of century-old Tempranillo vines planted in red clay and harvested at less than 12 hl/ha, was compelling.  Where “Pesus” grabs with power, tannin, warmth, and oak, “Pingus” maintains elegance around its incredible concentration and sweetness of fruit. Both are monumental wines, harvested from old vines planted in similar clay soils and tended in accordance with biodynamic principles, yet they evolve into very different expressions of la Horra Ribera del Duero.

En Vaso old vines owned by Viña Sastre; the changing patterns of soil in Ribera del Duero


In Ribera del Duero, red wines may be produced in generic (joven), crianza, reserva, or gran reserva styles, although the latter three terms are losing relevancy in a modern market that views them as old-fashioned, and not often charmingly so. The producers of Ribera del Duero have not forsaken barrel aging for their red wines; rather, many simply market them in different ways. Neither the Atauta nor Pingus wines are labeled with aging designations, and  Emilio Moro uses the “Malleolus” label for the estate’s top wines. At Monteabellón, a stylish project under the watchful eye of Isaac Fernández Montaña—nephew of legendary Vega Sicilia/Mauro winemaker Mariano García and consulting winemaker to nearly 100 properties in Spain—wines presented as “crianza” and “reserva” are actually labeled “14 meses en barrica” and “24 meses en barrica”. The wines are lighter in style, attractive flash and slick fruit, almost more akin to modern Vosne-Romanée than neighboring Tinto Fino. Meanwhile, joven wines—which will not actually read “joven” on the label—cannot be stereotyped; the “generic” category contains everything from pleasant, fruity everyday wines like Monteabellón’s “Avaniel” to serious works, such as the “Ángel” and “Maximo” bottlings from another Isaac Fernández project, Arrocal. Price is an obvious indicator of ambition and style in the joven category, and the upper tiers—crianza through gran reserva—are no longer sole indicators of increased quality, but rather professions of maturation and style.  

Valduero, founded in 1984, is one of Ribera’s oldest and most traditional estates. A family-owned estate of 200 ha, Valduero is located in the village of Gumiel de Mercado, in Burgos, where the elevation is slightly lower than in Soria—800 to 850 meters above sea level rather than 950 or more—and the climate is a little (not a lot) more forgiving. Add a degree (Celsius) to average temperatures. Here, Yolanda García Viadero—one of Spain’s first female winemakers—has long championed the classic styles of crianza through gran reserva. The winery’s newly-constructed, massive, parallel rooms for fermentation, barrel, and bottle aging resemble darkened airplane hangars dug beneath the hillside, forgoing architectural form for pure function. 40 meters below the ground lies a kilometer of caves, wherein reserva and gran reserva wines continue their slumber, and the winery houses a special series of 300 barrels, sold as whole lots to wealthy Spanish elites. 

In Ribera del Duero, red crianza wines must age for a minimum of one year in oak and one year in bottle. Reserva wines require at least one year in oak and two years in bottle, and gran reserva wines must age for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Valduero surpasses all of these: crianza wines age for 15 months in oak and 12 months in the bottle, reserva wines age for 30 months in the barrel and 18 months in the bottle, and gran reserva wines rest for four years in barrel and four years in bottle. In addition, the house produces the more concentrated “6 Años”, a wine aged for—obviously—six years, evenly split between barrel and bottle, and “12 Años”, which rests for 12 years, with six in barrel, prior to release. The current “12 Años” release is 1999.  In a region where many marquee wines show marked dark fruit, alcohol levels of 14.5-15%, intense new oak tannin, and huge concentration, the wines of Valduero are more muted and cerebral, often showing tones of balsamic, dill, lavender, licorice, sandalwood, and sour plum. In general, the soft texture of long oak aging infuses the wines but the flavors of new wood are less obvious and opulent, perceived only hazily, as though peering through a veil of dust. In the cellars, there are 4,000 barrels from six different origins: French, American, Canadian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Spanish.  Different toast levels, different coopers, and constant racking of wine from one to another enable the winery to produce aged wines with a complex, cedary wood tone, rather than simple toast and vanilla. Only 25% are renewed each year. This is a very good source for classically-styled wines, and well worth a visit. They cook a mean lechazo. Stay for lunch.   

Fermentation tanks at Valduero; Monteabellón's Finca la Blanca vineyard


As we drove toward Aalto in western Ribera’s Valladolid province, the ground lay thick with winter fog. Aalto is one of the top modern wineries in the region—and in all of Spain—and its current reputation did not come without superstar backing or serious funding. And with big bucks come new barrels—2000 of them—which are completely replenished every two or three years. The winery presented a good opportunity to contrast the impact of American and French oak in winemaking.

In 1998 Mariano García was abruptly fired by the winery he propelled to international fame over three decades of vintages; he transitioned to new projects (Mauro, etc.) and remains one of Spain’s most respected, authoritative winemakers. In 1999, he joined Javier Zaccagnini, former head of Ribera del Duero’s Consejo Regulador, to develop Aalto with the backing of the Osborne group. The project did not get off the ground without a hitch—García and Zaccagnini recalled their entire 1999 export shipment to the United States, fearing that the wine would not meet expectations. However, today the two wines (Aalto and Aalto “PS”) are extremely well made, polished examples of Ribera del Duero, achieving density and plush dark fruit in a “high expression” style. Of course the wines are made in the vineyard—other people’s vineyards, as the Aalto estate espalier vines are too young—but the winery here is certainly a frequent contributor as well. Aalto—particularly the “PS”, aged in 100% new French oak—demands attention from the international wine world, and gets it; 70% of the wine is exported. Unfiltered, powerfully tannic, toasty, tooth-staining, and easily in excess of 15% alcohol, these are not wines for the faint of heart.  

How do American and French oak barrels shape a wine differently? Of course, barrel age, different toast levels and tonnelier styles have a great impact on oak’s presence in wine, but sommeliers often fixate on the question of oak origin as a signature determinant of its quality. While both French and American oak barrels are common in cellars, many producers have moved toward French oak, and view it as a more sophisticated vessel. Some producers, like Viña Sastre, may age crianza and reserva styles in American oak, but release their top bottlings after élevage in French wood. Price plays into this equation—American barrels are significantly cheaper—but style is certainly a prime consideration. With the exception of the Vega Sicilia and Pesquera wines, few of Ribera del Duero’s most celebrated wines see any new American oak. 

American and French staves are taken from separate species of oak trees; one is sawn and the other is split; one is denser than the other. American oak-aged wines are usually described as smelling of coconut and vanilla extract, whereas French oak-aged wines are often less obviously sweet, showcasing spicier aromatics of nutmeg and clove. French oak is often said to contribute more tannin to wine. American oak contains more lactones—the source of coconut aromas—and French oak contains more extractable ellagitannins, which may play a role in wine structure as well as improve color stability. According to Zaccagnini, tannin contribution from American and French oak barrels at Aalto is essentially the same. He does believe, however, that French oak has a shorter lifespan: it tends to deliver every bit of flavor it has to offer in the first three years of its life, and American oak continues to impart aroma and phenols to the wine for seven to eight years before it becomes completely neutral. French oak is more porous—so there may be a slightly greater oxygen exchange—but the amount of oxygen entering the wine through pores in wood is so miniscule as to be irrelevant anyway. Beyond the bunghole itself, the stave joints are far likelier to permit oxygen ingress than the pores themselves. In terms of flavor, anyone who has tasted Penfolds’ “Grange” or the most sweetly oaked old-school Rioja can see a difference, but its not always so clear-cut. Provenance of wood, grain tightness, drying method, and other factors can complicate the picture. Barrel samples from “blended stave” French barriques had a saccharine vanilla character that seemed more in line with American wood than the François Frères barrels down the line.  

Aalto “PS”—“Pagos Seleccionados”, the destination wine, as it were, made only in good vintages and twice the price of the standard bottling—is matured in 100% new French oak. The standard “Aalto” is split between French and American barrels. Online, tech sheets suggest that it is an even 50/50 split. At the winery, I received different answers to this question from every single person I asked. Sommeliers love to take numbers and percentages and time spent in this or that as immutable fact and logical rationale for the style of the wine, but really: is the winemaker sometimes just guessing? 2000 total barrels might make it pretty hard to do the math. 

Mariano García and Javier Zaccagnini; fermentation vats and tanks for Pingus and Flor de Pingus 

Vega Sicilia

With a release price for “Único” hovering around $450 per bottle, Vega Sicilia no longer produces Ribera del Duero’s most expensive wine, but it remains the appellation’s most iconic and renowned winery, seemingly in a class of its own. And, for this taster, the two mainstay wines—“Valbuena 5°” and “Único”—are still unimpeachable benchmarks of elegance and tradition in a region where many of the nuevo producers are veering toward burliness, power, and an inexhaustive sheen of new oak. Vega Sicilia is the elephant in the room: in the care of managing director Pablo Álvarez, the winery is regarded by many as Spain's finest. There is little to write or say about its history, style and ambition that has not already been written or said. Vega Sicilia was one of the original handful of wineries present at the birth of the Ribera del Duero DO in 1982; the winery was founded in 1864, and its two iconic wines date to the early 20th century—a grand old age for the region.

Appointments at Vega Sicilia in Valbuena de Duero are difficult to obtain, the gate is unmarked, and security suggests an unfriendly foreign embassy. The grounds are immense: over 200 ha of estate vineyards surround a recently renovated winery, a cooperage, offices, and massive barrel and bottle storage facilities. All fruit for the Vega Sicilia wines is grown on the estate. Vines used for “Valbuena 5°” are, on average, 25-35 years of age, whereas those used for “Único” are around 60-65 years old.  The winery prefers to replant when vines surpass this, but new vines will not supply usable fruit until their tenth crop. En vaso Tempranillo makes up 80% of the vineyard, with a few other French varieties alongside it. Only Cabernet Sauvignon is grown en espalier.     

In the past, “Único” was not released if quality did not support it. In vintages like 1988, 1992, 1993, 1997, and 2001, the winery did not release the wine. Prior to 2010, the winery fermented “Único” in 40,000-liter vats; if there was a smaller crop of quality that warranted the “Único” label there was no smaller alternative vessel for fermentation available. Vega Sicilia had to make at least 40,000 liters, or nothing. Beginning in 2010, Vega Sicilia installed a series of nineteen 8,000-liter wooden vats, renewed at a rate of 25% each year, allowing the winemaker to produce a lot of only 8,000 liters should vintage difficulties demand it. Given this new system of “microvinification”, it is unlikely that Vega Sicilia will fail to release “Único” in the future. “Valbuena 5°”, a younger wine released in every vintage, is fermented in stainless steel rather than oak.

Ambient yeast fermentation for “Único” begins after a short period of cold-soaking, complete destemming and a rigorous sorting. Must moves by gravity—aided by elevator—and fermentation reaches 32° C. Pumpovers rather than punchdowns are used to manage extraction, and the wine is pressed and moved into other tanks to undergo malolactic fermentation. At the conclusion of ML, “Único” is transferred to American and French barriques (50/50) for a period of 1-2 years, depending on the vintage. The French oak is 100% new, from favored coopers like Radoux and Saury. American oak barrels, on the other hand, are made in-house and are preferred after a year of use, remaining in the winery for 3-4 years. Despite a relatively luxurious treatment, “Único” is not dominated by tones of new oak; rather, the maturation process has only just begun. After its short time in barrique, “Único” is transferred to large, old oak vats for an additional 5 years or so, then transferred to bottle for another 3-4 years. There is no exact recipe, but “Único” does not leave the building with less than a decade under its belt. In the past, some vintages remained at the winery for 20 years or more before release. The current vintage is 2003. The result? A wine of soft, silky texture, resolved tannin, and muted tones of oak, with a seamless balance that will allow it to develop in the bottle for years, nothing coming unglued.   

“Valbuena 5°”, in comparison, spends only 3 years in oak, its time equally divided between vessels large and small. It ages in bottle for an additional two years prior to release. The wine’s character is similar, featuring forest aromas, raspberry, cedar, cumin, and sweet dill against a frame of balanced alcohol and restrained tannin. While tasting at the winery, I sampled efforts from the group’s other wineries—Alion in Ribera del Duero, Pintia in Toro, and Oremus in Tokaj—but not Vega Sicilia’s priciest wine, the non-vintage “Reserva Especial”. Made from a blend of two to three different vintages of “Único”, the wine is modeled on a historical style popular in the region over a century ago. 15,000 bottles are released every year.  

Wood aging, large and small, at Vega Sicilia