July 15 2012 issue

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PAGES (74-81) July 15 2012

COVER STORY Ribera del Duero Jason Tesauro

Spain’s Ribera del Duero may be a textbook case in the wine world, but it’s a still an unfinished tale. The main characters—we’ll call them Tradition and Modernity—follow a familiar storyline: rustic family history versus slick corporate strategy. The juicy subplot is a tug-of-wine between creativity and the strict dicta of the Consejo Regulador. It all takes place against the backdrop of potent terroir traversed by the Duero River—the first golden miles of what becomes Portugal’s mighty Rio Douro before it flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Porto.

As explained by Alejandro Fernández, one of the prime movers behind Ribera’s rise, "The DO [Denominación de Origen] is new, but the region and the tradition are old." Ribera spans 71 miles across the provinces of Burgos, Segovia, Soria, and Valladolid in the north-central region of Castilla y León. The overwhelming majority of bodegas lie in clusters on the western side of the DO, where the topography is dominated by páramos (exposed highlands), with their steep slopes and flat-topped mountain peaks, near the towns of Aranda de Duero, Peñafiel, and Pesquera de Duero.

To describe what Ribera is, it might be best to begin with what it isn’t. Though barely a cork’s throw (less than 60 miles) to the southwest, it isn’t Rioja—an only slightly larger region that nonetheless boasts 10 times the mythos, three times more vineyard acreage, and nearly double the yields. Little surprise, then, that Rioja dwarfed its neighbor in terms of production in 2011: 300 million liters versus 55 million. Still, Ribera is home to such noted wineries as Bodegas Protos, Dominio de Pingus, Tinto Pesquera, and the storied Vega Sicilia. "Thirty years ago we were nothing," says Agustín Alonso González, technical director of the region’s Consejo. "But we have been the tip of the arrow in both viticulture and winemaking, and now we are the most renowned DO after Rioja."

DRAMATIC PLOTS

When you go to Bordeaux or Rioja, it’s easy to distinguish the major winegrowing areas: Left Bank, Right Bank; Alta, Media. In Ribera del Duero, it’s more important to identify specific vineyards. In other words, calling Ribera the Burgundy of Spain is not mere poetic license, but a nod to its diversity of soils and micro-plots, composed of sedimentary layers that vary from clay to sand, lime, and marl every 50 yards or so. "Hilltop layers have eroded and mixed together in the valley," González explains. For instance, in Valderramiro—one of the region’s highest vineyards at 2,900 feet above sea level—a long-legged enophile can straddle the crumbly red clay of one plot and the white calcareous soil of another.

Peter Sisseck, the visionary Danish winemaker behind Dominio de Pingus, has been pushing for further delineation of the terroir. "Politicians whitewash it and say that the whole DO is the same, that everything in Ribera is plantable," he says. "But I want to distinguish between the valley floor and the slopes." Since grapes ripen at different rates due to the extreme local variations—even within the same vineyard—blanket statements about the vines and wines hold no more water than do the vineyards on Ribera’s scorching summer days.

THE MANY FACES OF TEMPRANILLO

Known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinto del País ("the country’s red"), Tempranillo is the signature variety of Ribera, as it is in Rioja. Its name is derived from the Spanish word for "early," temprano, because it ripens several weeks before most of Spain’s red grapes. The DO has also authorized Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha Tinta, and Albillo (a white variety used to blend rosados ), but Tempranillo rules, producing concentrated reds of intense color and fruit. Stylistically, Ribera’s traditional varietal wines pack cowboy-boot oomph—though finesse-driven modernists like Pingus, relying on old vines and exacting viticultural practices, offer the ballet-slipper exceptions. According to Sisseck, "The important thing is that the grapes come in very small bunches, like Pinot Noir," indicating concentrated flavor potential.

At Restaurante La Raíz in Valladolid, sommelier Myriam Jimeno carefully slices jamón ibérico, the famed cured ham from purebred, acorn-fed black pigs. She serves it with local sheep’s-milk cheeses and morcilla de Burgos, a regional blood sausage, before a main course of lechazo asado (wood-roasted baby lamb). To delineate Tempranillo’s five classifications, she begins with joven ("young") wines; unoaked or lightly oaked, they spotlight simplicity, honesty, sunshine, and youth. "There is no lust in joven —just joy," says Abadía de Acón proprietor Jose Antonio Carrasco of the cherry-red pours with blue, indigo, violet, and purple rims.

Next come the roble ("oak") wines, showing hints of terroir. Tempranillo can be coy or lush, but its fruit can’t be hidden behind modest oak aging. Crianzas ("raised" in barrel) display black- and red-cherry colors with violet rims and fruity aromas backed by oaky characteristics. Reservas, full bodied and powerful, feature ruby-red tints along with elegant and intense notes of overripe fruit, leather, and balsamic vinegar. Finally, the Gran Reservas, which spend two full years in oak, show garnet and brick hues with cherry-red cores. Aromas of stewed fruits, spices, and fine wood are backed by firm structure, complexity, and persistence.

HEIRLOOM VARIETIES

After the Old World was ravaged by phylloxera, many of its winemakers favored clonal selection because it produced genetically identical, disease-free vines. But just as commercial farming ensured perfect orange carrots at the expense of purple and yellow varieties, clonal grape selection suppressed diversity. When the vignerons of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Château Lynch-Bages last replanted, they preserved their genetic heritage by means of selection massale (to use the French spelling): instead of replicating one mother plant, they took cuttings of superb budwood from many parent vines to propagate new ones. Likewise, "our grandfathers used to graft from the best plants in their own parcels," says González, through selección massale (the Spanish spelling). Generations later, the resulting variants and mutations in Ribera del Duero are "heritage" or "heirloom" clones that express Tempranillo’s nuances differently throughout the valley, thus providing complexity through diversity.

Bodegas Aalto highlights this variety in its PS (Pagos Selecciónados), a small-production wine made with grapes sourced from more than 200 plots, each smaller than 2.5 acres, in several villages. Director Javier Zaccagnini uses a team analogy: "To create an interesting assemblage of Tempranillos, you take the best players that year." The Aalto PS was the best wine I tasted from the 2008 vintage.

COSECHA: THE NEW SUPER-RIBERA

In Tuscany, a number of top producers over the past four decades have rejected traditional classifications by using Vino da Tavola and Indicazione Geographica Tipica designations for their nontraditional wines. In Ribera del Duero, wineries such as Anta Banderas, Bodegas Emilio Moro, and Bodegas Neo are looking beyond the old categories in a bid to develop their own equivalents of Sassicaia and Ornellaia.

Tempranillo is a fleshy grape that can support long aging in barrels, but what happens when a given vintage is best expressed after one year in wood rather than the two years mandated for Gran Reservas? The DO’s emerging cosecha ("vintage") and roble categories recognize wines that don’t meet the barrel-aging requirements for Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva (see box on next page), freeing producers to be more creative while saving on expensive barriques and warehousing costs, thus ensuring faster turnover and quicker profit.

Anta Banderas has abandoned classifications altogether: "We are modern," says general director Teodoro Ortega. " Crianza and these terms are not so meaningful outside the region." For instance, Banderas calls its a4—made from Tempranillo aged four months in oak—"a freestyle wine," and Bodegas Neo offers Sentido ("Sense"); Vivir, Vivir ("To Live, To Live"); and Disco—unfussy wines that "you don’t drink strictly for the taste, but for the conversation," according to project director Iván Izquierdo Fernández. "Others integrate oak, but we integrate love, life, music, fun."

OLD VINES, NEW APPROACH

At first, Ribera del Duero’s traditionalists called Pingus winemaker Peter Sisseck a garajista —a term often used derogatorily for the interlopers who fly in to make Cabernet-Tempranillo blends for the world market. To Sisseck, though, the modernists are less contemptible than the large producers who exploit the region’s name under the cover of traditionalism. "If they spent $100,000 less on barrels," he says, "perhaps they’d focus more on the wine." Sisseck considers himself a productor artesanal who rejects the Consejo’s restrictions. "Theirs is a bureaucratic approach to art," he says. "I make my own rules." His reliance on old vines, biodynamic methods, tiny crop loads, minimal intervention, and restrained oak have earned Pingus a grudging respect from the region’s old timers—and his Tempranillos have garnered top ratings for their combination of terroir, delicacy, and refined grip.

The Drink Ribera campaign, fully stocked with educational and marketing materials and followed by aficionados around the world on Facebook, is coming to a town near you (if it hasn’t already). But it’s important to experience Ribera del Duero’s take on Tempranillo for yourself. Who knows? In 100 years, the Burgundian garagistes may be coming here to pick up ideas.

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