Ribera del Duero: harnessing unique terroir

A move away from oak barrels to producing fresher, fruitier wines is characterising experimentation in one of Spain’s most important winemaking regions.

Ribera del Duero is one of Europe’s youngest DOs, yet it is evolving faster than most. Since its inception in 1982 it has undergone an identity change, first establishing itself with rich, full-bodied wines dominated by the oak barrels with which Spanish reds are synonymous. In my report on the region last year I talked about the conversion towards fresher, fruit-forward wines which today’s younger consumers crave, but with an ever-evolving climate they are not so simple to produce.

In Cava, around 400km to the east of Ribera del Duero, and in some cases 1,000m lower, there was a traumatic harvest in 2023. It was reported late last year that in some parts of the region the yield was up to 55% less than previous years and president of cava’s DO Javier Pagés put this down to “the extreme conditions that the vine growers and winemakers have had to deal with”.

Across the country Spain registered its warmest and second-driest spring on record, and the hottest month of August, according to weather office Aemet. Drought and high temperatures throughout the grape-growing cycle hurt vineyards in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain’s largest production region, according to Cooperativas. The region’s wine volume was forecast to fall 22% to 17.8 million hectolitres in 2023.

In Ribera del Duero, Enrique Pascual, president of the Regulatory Council of the region’s DO, was optimistic about the vintage despite volumes also down in 2023 on the previous year. “It has been a very difficult year in terms of weather and vintage,” says Pascual, “and even so, the wines of this vintage are wines with structure and exceptional freshness.” The harvest in Ribera del Duero was described by the DO as “one of the most complex harvests to date”. Frost struck the region in March and May while September featured heavy rains and low temperatures, posing a risk to fruit while also allowing grapes to fully develop after the parched summer.


Ribera del Duero is Spain’s second biggest red wine region by volume behind Rioja. However, with these positive harvests, combined with a growing interest in the domestic market, producers are beginning to see the potential value in its future.

Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company and producer of port brands Sandeman and Porto Ferreira, recently acquired Viña Mayor in Ribera del Duero’s Golden Mile sub-zone.

Fernando da Cunha Guedes, president of Sogrape, says: “Having a clear strategic focus on Iberia, we were and continue looking for opportunities that would be of interest and with added value for Sogrape’s operation.

“We have always believed in the importance of having a solid presence in the four Rs in Spain: Rioja, Rías Baixas, Rueda and Ribera del Duero. Having established a significant position in the first three, we intended to reinforce in the fourth one for the quality of its wines and the value and potential this region has for the Spanish market and some international markets.”

The interest in the region isn’t a recent evolution for some. In 2005 Familia Torres, one of The World’s Most Admired Wine brands, launched Celeste – its debut Ribera del Duero and its first wine outside Catalonia. Almost 20 years later the Spanish wine producer is launching another wine from the region called Pago Del Cielo, named after its winery which is located in Fompedraza at 895m above sea level, the highest elevation in the DO. This spot is said to be ideal for making intensely aromatic red wines and in 2014 Torres bought two separate pieces of land in Piñel de Arriba (up to 845m above sea level) and La Horra (up to 900m) in order to create exclusive wine from the region. The wine is 100% Tempranillo and just 3,700 bottles of the 2019 vintage have been produced for the US, Canada and UK markets.

Juan Ramón García, the enologist who runs the Pago del Cielo winery, joined the company in 2010 to take charge of the Ribera del Duero project. “We knew the quality of the grapes would be high and could produce fresh wines,” he says. “We started testing different plots at different altitudes in 2010, the same year I joined the company, so this really feels special to me.

“We’re making fresher wines in this region now, we don’t want oaky wines. In 2006 Mr Torres [Miguel Torres Maczassek, general manager of Familia Torres] told me we should be making wines without rich tannins – he’s always predicting the future like this. In 2005 the DO allowed the use of 300-litre barrels and the following year we changed all of our barrels to 300 litres to reduce the contact with the wood and therefore achieve the style we wanted.

“Here in Ribera del Duero we have a lot of young winemakers who reflect the styles which consumers desire.”

Climate change

García continues: “The increasingly unpredictable climate in Spain is making it more difficult to achieve acidity and that’s why we chose these specific parcels, but I think in the future we will need to choose different places to grow fresh, acidic wines. The harvest is coming forward and things are changing for sure – when I started we would harvest in October and now it’s almost a month sooner – but this is making everyone experiment with different parcels and I actually think it’s pushing people to make greater wines.

“I truly think Ribera Del Douro is the best region for making wine in Spain. A Ribera del Duero should have high colour and aroma intensity, lots of fruit and a fine, elegant palate.”

It’s unlikely that Ribera del Duero will ever reach the volume capacity of Rioja given its punitive hectarage in comparison. But there’s no doubt the region is making some of the most complex wines in Spain right now. Its transition from using oak barrels to characterise the wine, to simply rounding off the intense tannins of the Tempranillo has been an important evolution. Allowing the acidity and fresh fruit flavours to shine through will also highlight the extreme altitudes and unique terroirs of the region, which is an attractive trait for both the modern consumer and potential investors.