Ribero del Duero: Extreme efforts

With greatly varying temperatures and a wide variety of soil types, Ribero del Duero winemakers have to be forward thinking.

To the global wine trade, Ribera del Duero is an established region in northern Spain, but the denominación de origen was only established in 1982, making it one of Europe’s youngest wine territories. Of course, wine has been made there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but over the past four decades there have been significant changes in the style of wines produced. And while the DO follows the same ageing structure as its neighbour Rioja, the wines produced in Ribera del Duero are vastly different, with vines grown in some of the most extreme climates in the industry.

During a recent visit to the region, Legaris chief winemaker & technical director Jorge Bombín demonstrated the vast differences in soil types even under the Legaris portfolio. The contemporary winery was built in 1999 and Bombín joined the Raventos Codorniu brand in 2008, where he’s developed some of the region’s most respected and progressive wines.

Legaris has around 120ha in different pockets of the region and Bombín demonstrated the differences in soil types between them. For example, in Curiel de Duero, which surrounds the elegant winery, there are loose and gravelly soils which are particularly fertile near the river. Whereas just a 10-minute drive away the rocky and clay-rich soils of Peñafiel produce a completely different style of wine.

“One of the most valuable traits of Ribera del Duero is the diversity of not just the soil types, but the big fluctuations in altitudes of the wineries,” says Bombín.

Under the Legaris portfolio the vineyards range from an altitude of 720- 1,100m above sea level and they endure dry summers, long and severe winters, scarce rainfall of 400-500mm/year, and great temperature fluctuations from -20º to 42ºC. This lends itself to slow and late ripening of the grapes, which produce thick skins to deal with the tough climate.

Traditionally the style of wine coming from Ribera del Duero is rich in tannins, powerful and often carrying lots of wood impression. However Bombín has been a leader in the recent evolution to more fruit-forward and fresher styles of wine.

“We feel that the new wave of wine drinkers are more interested in wines which show off the character of the terroir and the local grapes, rather than the heavier ones which have been influenced by rich oak flavours.”

In order to nurture the fresher wines, Bombín has been doing lots of experimentation with different barrels and is using more second-fill French oak to slowly round the wine. In the past, wineries have dropped their juice in first-fill casks, which Bombín believes can overpower or mask the fresh notes of the wine.

To demonstrate, and celebrate, the difference in terroirs, Bombín launched a range of village wines in 2015 called Vinos de Pueblo. The wines all come from a single village located in different parts of the region, including Alcubilla de Avellaneda, Olmedillo de Roa and Moradillo de Roa. The Vinos de Pueblo range is an example of what’s possible for the Tempranillo grape variety in different terroirs.

Showcasing terroir

Another major player in Ribera del Duero is Aster, which sits under the Grupo La Rioja Alta portfolio. The brand started making wines in 1989 and, since launching its first vintage in 2001, has only had two wines under its name – a Crianza and its Finca El Otero. But in April this year Aster is launching El Espino, a blend of 100% Tempranillo taken from different plots on the 87ha estate, which aims to showcase its terroir.

Alejandro López, head winemaker at Aster, says: “We noticed that there are two main styles of wine in Ribera del Duero – traditional style and the more modern, contemporary style. Around 15 years ago this wasn’t the case, most of the wine from the region was more or less the same.

“Traditional meaning big tannins, deeper colour and bolder, whereas the more modern trend is towards fruitier, more elegant styles. By having this fresher style it allows us to showcase the terroir of our vineyards.”

El Espino is aged in second-fill French barrels to preserve the flavours of the fruit – a similar philosophy to that of Legaris’ Bombín – and will have 30,000 bottles per vintage. Lopez adds: “We don’t really love the effects of new oak on these wines because we want it to be terroir-led. We’re around 850m above sea level, with limestone and clay soils as well as a spattering of sand, which is unique and something we’ve wanted to express in our wines, which is very exciting for us.”

However, while this new release is a landmark for the brand, the effects of climate change are having a difficult impact on the vineyards.

“We aren’t able to release all our brands every year because of the extreme weather conditions and for us, hail is the biggest problem, particularly near the harvest time. We’ve also had low levels of rain for the past couple of years and we don’t work with irrigation, which means our vine roots are really deep in the ground. We only yield about four tonnes per hectare, which is really little. Fortunately for us, we can combine the structure and colour of the wine from the strong skins, caused by little rainfall, with the extreme altitude to balance the palette.”

Something nearly all winemakers in the region agree on is the need to use land higher up as the climate grows more extreme each year. Master of Wine Tim Atkin was concerned about this high-altitude land as it may be difficult to ripen the grapes, but nevertheless producers are doing it, and succeeding.

Portia, which sits under the Familia Martinez Zabala portfolio alongside Rioja’s Faustino, is one brand actively looking for higher locations.

Francisco Honrubia, director general of Familia Martinez Zabala, says: “Even in Rioja we’re beginning to have vineyards in areas we didn’t have before because the altitude didn’t allow it, and Ribera del Duero is the same. In fact, the effects are even greater because this region is below Rioja.”

Almost 85% of the grapes used in Ribera del Duero are Tempranillo, and Honrubia says that winemakers in the region don’t have the flexibility that they do in Rioja, which further emphasises the importance of finding other areas where the vines will thrive, which currently seems to be at higher altitude.

One solution would be for the DO to allow the region to use different varieties, but Honrubia believes they need to be careful. “Ribera del Duero is well known for particular characteristics and it’s unknown how consumers would react should they branch out. In the meantime, we’re working with new Tempranillo clones which we’ve adapted to try to work better in the changing climate. What’s likely to happen is that the wines become stronger and deeper in the higher temperatures, so we need to try to find solutions which match what consumers are looking for.”

Organic production

Because of the stress which is put on the Tempranillo variety, some producers have turned to organic production in order to better protect the grapes for future harvests. Legaris already has plots which are certified organic and is in the process of fully converting.

Diego Pinilla, chief winemaking and operations at Raventos Codorníu, says: “This isn’t just a Legaris initiative, but a philosophy we’re taking across the whole portfolio of brands. Codorníu, for example, is expected to be fully converted either this year or next and, while consumers are beginning to demand organic wines more, it’s also about looking after the soils, which are under more pressure than ever before.”

Cruz de Alba, owned by Zamora Company, began working with organic farming in 2006 before taking on biodynamic practices in 2008. The brand is still relatively small with 40ha, and it doesn’t buy or sell any of its grapes, but the idea is to become a big, recognisable brand which is producing terroir-driven wines.

Sergio Ávila, winemaker at Cruz de Alba, says: “Many people believe that biodynamic wines are low quantity and not good quality, but we’re different. We have a lot of personality in our wines with good structure, freshness and acidity, which is very difficult to find in the organic wines of the region.

“Climate change is making it difficult for us and we need to irrigate the land. But the irrigation needs to be precise, with little quantities over a longer period of time. A hammer can be used to build something or destroy something, and I view irrigation in the same way – it’s not for growing more grapes but creating healthy, consistent and quality fruit.”

Álvia also says the amount of pruning has had to be increased in order to stimulate the growth of leaves and therefore to better protect the grapes during the intense heat in the summer. Cruz de Alba has also bought land above 1,000m, which will be another challenge for Álvia to keep producing quality, biodynamic wines in such a harsh climate.

Right now the reputation of Ribera del Duero wine in Spain is great. The domestic sales and image of the region are thriving, but while there are reliable export markets the new target is to cast the net wider.

Bodegas Protos is one of the biggest players from Ribera del Duero and in 2022 was named the highest new entry in Drinks International’s World’s Most Admired Wine Brands list, making it a truly recognisable brand worldwide.

Carlos Villar, chief executive of Bodegas Protos, says: “We were working for 55 years before the appellation was formed and therefore have a strong brand presence in Spain.

“Without doubt the growth opportunity for Protos is overseas. Many consumers liken us to Rioja because of the similar language and geography of the region, but it’s important for us not to be competitors with Rioja.

“The bigger picture is to grow Spanish wine as a whole and the best way of doing this is together, because actually the two regions complement each other.”

Honrubia of Familia Martinez Zabala adds: “We have quite a big capacity and I think we’re reaching close to the limit. We’re probably in the top 10 wineries in Ribera del Duero. It’s definitely the DO that is growing the most in the domestic market and our biggest challenge now is to have the same performance globally.

“Markets like Mexico, which aren’t so big for Rioja, is one of the most important to Ribera Del Duero. The wine in Mexico is highly valued and appreciated in a similar way to Bordeaux wines are viewed in China.

“However, what we need is patience and education in many markets such as South American where Ribera del Duero could be popular because the average price is higher than Rioja, and consumers need to understand why.”