Ribera del Duero
by Stephen Metzler, President, Classical Wines from Spain, Ltd.
Editor's Note: Steve Metzler is one of the nation's foremost authorities on the traditional wines of Spain. He has written this piece exclusively for our membership.
We first arrived in Ribera del Duero in 1983, in time to witness the finishing of that region's first officially-controlled vintage, the great 1982. Having founded Classical Wines upon the assumption that Spain's high-altitude, non-Mediterranean wine districts offered classic quality potential second to none, Alejandro Fernández and his Tinto Pesquera became an early and powerful affirmation.
Following the international discovery of Pesquera, much has changed in Ribera del Duero. After decades of vineyard reduction in favor of irrigated crops such as sugar beets, the region's sudden rise to fashion attracted investment from within the industry and from prominent personalities, much in the Napa manner. While many are busy turning large fortunes into smaller ones (to paraphrase the famous one-liner), the basis for quality is real.
Ribera del Duero boasts soils quite similar to Burgundy, with a wide range of chalk, clay, marl and gravel, combined and in varying degrees of prominence, with clay and chalk predominating. Whereas Burgundy's soil complexity results from plate tectonics, in Ribera del Duero this results from the river's erosion through the sedimentary layers of the Castilian meseta.
Vineyards range from 2500 to over 3300 feet, altitude serving to delay ripening of the short-cycle Tempranillo variety (locally: Tinto Fino and Tinta del País). Extreme diurnal temperature variation at extreme altitude also serves to maintain a healthy level of acidity, minimizing the need for adjustment or inclusion of compensating varieties. Meanwhile, the intense luminosity of the meseta thickens and darkens the skins of the grapes, producing wines with concentrated phenolic structure.
The hallmark of Ribera del Duero is monovarietal Tempranillo. The best producers have learned to combine lots from heavier and lighter soils as well as earlier and later harvests as a means of obtaining complexity and balance. In Pesquera, Alejandro Fernández has designed his vineyards to cover the full range of terroirs. Montecastro, under the direction of Jean-Franéois Hébrard, has undertaken a similar approach upon search and acquisition of mature plots sourced beginning with his début 2002 vintage.