The Luxury of Ribera Del Duero

Winter is the time to enjoy Spain’s POWERFUL BUT POLISHED REDS, says wine editor MARY DOWEY

 

Two hours north of Madrid, Ribera del Duero has acquired a glitzy reputation, becoming Spain’s best-selling wine region after dearly loved Rioja. It runs in a skinny horizontal band along the river which in Portugal becomes the Duoro, the nerve centre of port – and I’ve always felt there’s an echo of port’s fire power in its intense, peppery reds.

On the first day of a visit there this spring, Irish layers of March clothing were peeled off as the temperature rose to 26 degrees. Two days later (thank heavens for the layers) it was two degrees and snowing. Blisteringly hot in summer, freezing in winter and a mixture of two in between, this region’s austere landscape is forged by extremes.

Its history is extreme too – a rags-to-riches story in which poverty and hardship give way to prosperity as savvy wine producers plant more vines high on a plateau rising to almost 1,000 metres. That altitude is crucially important, ensuring cool nights to slow down ripening and build freshness into massively concentrated reds which would otherwise taste jammy.

Although wine has been produced here for centuries, Ribera’s rise to fame and fortune has been recent. In the early 1980s there were fewer than a dozen bodegas. Today there are almost 300, many of them noticeably swish.

The key grape is Tinto Fino (also known as Tinto del Païs) – a local variant of Tempranillo whose thick skins give protection from the fierce summer sun. As grapes ripen easily here, it isn’t difficult to produce wines with bold, luscious flavours. The thick skins add tannic structure and firmness, usually aplified by ageing in oak barrels.

“It’s easy for us to make powerful wines but not so easy to make elegant wines,” says one winemaker. Elegance requires at least some fruit from elevated vineyards on different soils – chalk for finesse and pebbles for mellowness as well as clay for depth. Expect black cherry flavours with hints of liquorice, balsamic, spice, tobacco and roast meat spun together in a muscular body. Ribera del Duero reds shine with winter food.

Our most thrilling visit was to Pingus, the boutique winery launched in 1994 by Peter Sisseck, a Danish oenologist who had worked in Bordeaux and was en route to California when old, half-forgotten vineyards in Ribera del Duero stopped him in his tracks. His exquisitely pure, finely textured wines are imported into Ireland by Vinostito. While the flagship Dominio de Pingus, made in tiny quantities, may not suit all pockets (the 2014 retails at around €900 a bottle), second label Flor de Pingus 2014 costs about €100 while PSI 2014 (made under Sisseck supervision) seems almost a bargain at €42.

Also brilliantly inspiring was Bodegas Valduero, set up in 1984 by feisty Yolanda Garcia Viadero, Ribera’s first woman winemaker. ‘At 13, when I decided I wanted to be an agricultural engineer, the nuns at school said “No way – you’ll be a hairdresser.” That sharpened my resolve!’ Combining power with restraint, her wines make some others look clumsy.

Three Wines to Try

Valduero Crianza, Ribera del Duero 2014.

From female trailblazer Yolanda Garcia Viadero, this smooth, elegant, succulent wine is among my favourites from the region. Its super-fine tannins mark it out as an aristocratic beauty. From French Paradox, Dublin 4, €29.50.

Martín Berdugo Reserva, Ribera del Duero 2010.

While young Señor Berdugo’s Crianza is a safe bet at a lower price, this rich, peppery reserva is worth splashing out on. From Sheridans Cheesemongers; Mitchell & Son, IFSC, Dublin 1, at Avoca; about €30.

Emilio Moro Malleolus, Ribera del Duero 2014.

This powerful, stylish wine endorses Emilio Moro’s reputation as one of Ribera’s oldest, most quality-driven bodegas. From Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3; Terroirs, Dublin 4; Vintry, Dublin 6; Deveneys, Dublin 14; 1601, Kinsale; about €38.

@MaryDowey

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