Known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País, Tempranillo is a thick-skinned, hearty variety that buds and ripens early, so it matures well during the short growing season and extreme climatic conditions of Ribera del Duero. After centuries of adaptation to the climate, soils, and growing conditions of Ribera del Duero, this variety produces wines with more concentrated flavors than those made from Tempranillo in other regions. Ribera del Duero reds are deeply colored, full-bodied wines with firm tannins and medium to high acidity. Classic flavor notes include blackberry, cassis, plum, red berries, vanilla, spice, leather, and tobacco. These are complex, structured wines with lively acidity and great potential to develop over time.
Secondary Red Varieties
There are three red Bordeaux varieties that are authorized for use in the DO’s Tempranillo blends.
This late-flowering, late-ripening variety is a descendant of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It offers black fruit, herbaceous, and bell pepper notes, as well as firm tannins and a boost of acidity.
This grape tends to be extremely vigorous, though it’s susceptible to frost, coulure, and downy mildew. Descended from Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, Merlot contributes cherry, plum, and herbal notes with soft tannins and a moderate level of acidity.
Indigenous to Cahors, France, this early-budding, midripening variety descends from Prunelard and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. It lends black fruit flavors, medium tannins, and bright acidity.
Ribera del Duero is practically a monoculture of Tempranillo, but a very small percentage of the Garnacha Tinta and Albillo varieties can be found in the region. These varieties may occasionally be used in the DO’s rosado blends. Up to 5 percent of Garnacha Tinta or Albillo is also permitted in Ribera del Duero’s red wines.
Garnacha Tinta (Grenache)
This is an early-budding but late-ripening grape that is resistant to drought and wood disease. However, it’s prone to a number of complications, including coulure, millerandage, bunch rot, downy mildew, and oxidation. It flourishes in the limestone, sand, and alluvial soils of Ribera del Duero. It offers a moderate level of tannins and acidity along with dominant strawberry notes.
This white variety is indigenous to Ribera del Duero. It was discovered in 2010 that Albillo Mayor is a parent of Tempranillo. This grape buds and ripens early and produces low yields. Albillo wines are full-bodied with low to medium acidity and flavors of pineapple, apple, and pear with hints of anise and fennel. Historically, the variety has been blended with Tempranillo to add brightness. These days, it’s more likely to be used in the region’s rosados. Some non-DO white table wines are also made with Albillo.
What’s Happening in Ribera del Duero Today?
Ribera del Duero wines are attracting increasing international attention. The region sells its entire production every year and is second, behind Rioja, for total DO wine production in Spain. While there are some large players, Ribera del Duero is made up for the most part of small, family-owned operations. There are 282 wineries, but more than half of them produce fewer than 9,000 cases annually—and only 14 wineries sell over 75,000 cases.
People in the region believe that Ribera del Duero wines are really made in the vineyard. More than what takes place in the cellar, it’s the climate, soils, and growing conditions that give these wines their distinctive character. The emphasis is on viticultural practices that encourage the grapes—Tempranillo, in particular—to express the characteristics of the regional terroir. A reflection of this is that, on average, the region has recorded annual production of 4,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare, which translates into 28 hectoliters per hectare. By contrast, top Bordeaux appellation yields have recently been above 40 hectoliters per hectare. Low yields are considered important, as it is believed that they produce higher-quality wines.
Ribera del Duero producers often follow a more modern approach to wine classification. While the DO’s basic back labels are often used, many producers resist being restricted to designations that equate the quality of their wine with the length of time it has spent in oak and bottle. As a result, high-end Ribera del Duero wines will often just bear the basic Cosecha back label, similarly to how Super Tuscans are labeled within the Indicazione Geografica Tipica denomination in Italy.
Local producers have found other ways to define their portfolios, in what they believe are more relevant terms. For example, they may classify their wines according to the altitude of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. In this case, an entry-level wine would come from a vineyard on the valley floor, and the top cuvée from the higher elevation. Alternatively, the wines may be classified according to the age of the vines, or by how restricted the yields are.