What makes Ribera del Duero so special?

Wednesday, 30 August, 2017
Institute of Cape Wine Masters
Cape Wine Master Janno Briers-Louw was fortunate to attend a recent tasting that focussed entirely on the Tempranillo-based wines of Ribera del Duero DO (Denominación de Origen), presented by Cape Wine Master, Dr Andy Roediger.

Ribera del Duero’s reputation is primarily built on the success of a wine that was once Spain’s most expensive, “Vega Sicilia”. Although Vega Sicilia is undoubtedly one of the greatest Spanish wines, other bodegas have often been able to produce wine of similar or higher quality.

“What makes Ribera del Duero’s wines so special?” some might wonder. This region is located on the banks of the river Duero and its surrounding hills in north-central Spain at an altitude of 750-900m. The loose, easily worked soils of the Ribera del Duero valley offer a near perfect soil structure for vine growing. Alluvial soils with sand and clay are found near the river. The slopes to the west of the region are generally a mix of marl, gypsum and limestone, while the slopes to the east comprise clay, marl and limestone. Ribera del Duero has an extreme climate that can be described as both continental and Mediterranean with a moderately low annual rainfall of approximately 450mm. Summers are long and dry with temperatures reaching 40°C, but at this high elevation, night temperatures drop significantly during the ripening period – a phenomenon closely associated with wine quality around the world. In winter, frost is a common occurrence and temperatures can plummet as low as -18°C. Tempranillo (known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País) seems to have adapted to the climatic extremes of the Duero and produces exceptionally dark, rich and robust wines with black fruit and vanilla notes, mouth-watering acidity and remarkable ageing potential. These wines are often richer with higher natural acidity than those of their world-famous neighbour, Rioja. Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec are traditionally blended with Tempranillo, but this is by no means mandatory. Alejandro Fernández’s famous wine, Tinto Pesquera, is known to be a 100% Tempranillo example, while Vega Sicilia’s Alion takes a more modern stylistic approach by ageing the Tempranillo earmarked for this wine in new French oak barriques.

The first flight set the scene for the Ribera-themed tasting and consisted of Condado de Haza 2012, Mauro 2013 and Pesquera Crianza 2013, but things escalated rather quickly to a second flight which saw representation by Alion 2012, Pago de Los Capellanes 2010, Pesquera Reserva 2012 and Gran Tabula 2011. The tasting progressed to the final flight which included Vega Sicilia’s Unico 2008, Valbuena 5° 2010 and the non-vintage Unico Reserva Especial (2016-release)a line-up that most people will only ever hear or read of. These wines show incredible depth of character and complexity and can comfortably rival the best wines this planet has to offer.

Unico, Vega Sicilia’s flagship wine, is a Gran Reserva, produced only in good vintages. This blend of approximately 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon is usually only released after a decade of maturation. The vintage of 2008 was a very challenging vintage with severe frost, but the use of anti-frost burners protected Vega Sicilia’s vineyard against potential damage to produce a fresher and more mineral version of Unico, with aromas of tobacco, cherries and black fruit. Unico retails for just under R4000.

Valbuena 5° is aged for five years and the blend comprises mainly of Tempranillo with lesser percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate describes the 2010 vintage as a “world-class wine, possibly the best Valbuena ever”. Aromas of dark fruit with notes of florality and spice follow through onto the palate where fine tannins contribute to a lingering finish. Valbuena retails for around R1600.

The absolute highlight of the evening was tasting the Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial (2016-release) – a non-vintage blend of various Unico-vintages with the oldest blending component often surpassing three decades. The 2016-release is a blend of 1996, 1998 and 2002. This wine has a complex aroma, reminiscent of the regular Unico, with some herbaceous, spicy and earthy notes which follows through onto a medium-bodied palate with a lively acidity adding to the wine’s precision. Perfection in a glass… The Unico Reserva Especial comes with a hefty price tag of around R4500.

Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial 2014
Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial 2014

Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva Ribera Del Duero Spain
Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva Ribera Del Duero Spain

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