One of Spain’s top red wine–producing regions, Ribera del Duero is located in the northwest of the country, about two hours north of Madrid, in the center of Castilla y León, Spain’s largest autonomía, or state. Ribera del Duero runs from the east of Aranda del Duero westward to Valladolid. Its name translates as riverbanks of the Duero. In fact, the region’s vineyards flank the Duero River to the north and south, stretching up to the limestone cliffs where the valley intersects with the Meseta Central, a plateau that rises between 700 and 1,000 meters above sea level.
Evidence of winemaking in this area dates back 2,600 years, and one of the region’s most significant producers, Bodegas Vega Sicilia, has been turning out its renowned red wines since the mid-19th century. However, when Ribera del Duero received its Denominación de Origen (DO) status in 1982, there were only nine wineries in the region. Since then, Ribera del Duero has evolved substantially. Over the past few decades, its finely crafted Tempranillo-based wines have risen to international prominence. Today, nearly 300 wineries have put down roots in Ribera del Duero.
More than 22,000 hectares of vines are planted in sandy soils that are sometimes mixed with chalk and limestone and are sometimes more alluvial, with varying exposures and elevations throughout the valley. Approximately 95 percent of the vineyards are planted with Tempranillo known in the region as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País. These names distinguish the regional Tempranillo and its expression of Ribera del Duero’s terroir from the wines of nearby Tempranillo-producing regions. Vineyards have been propagated using mass selection, which results in a richness of genetic material.
The name Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish word for early, which may be a nod to the grape’s propensity for early budding and ripening. It’s an ideal grape for the sunny but short growing season in this region. The variety has adapted to Ribera del Duero’s harsh climate, growing conditions, and soils over centuries. It yields wines that are powerful and concentrated but that retain a high degree of acidity.
Ribera del Duero runs 115 kilometers from east to west and is about 35 kilometers across. There are nearly 22,500 hectares under vine. Most of the region’s high-altitude vineyards are planted at elevations between 760 and 945 meters above sea level. The majority are north- or south-facing on hillsides.
The main wine-growing areas of Ribera del Duero include:
Nearly 95 percent of the DO is planted with Tempranillo. Approximately 35 percent of those vines are 25 years old or older, including about 323 hectares of vines that are more than 100 years old. Older vines have deep roots that help them survive the region’s harsh climatic conditions. They tend to produce even yields and smaller fruit, but they give wines with exceptional structure and balance.
Ribera del Duero has a Mediterranean climate influenced by the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, but the region also experiences a high degree of continentality, marked by winters that are long and cold, and summers that are hot and dry. Rainfall is low to moderate and tends to occur in winter and spring. The area experiences sudden temperature changes throughout the year and fluctuations in temperature of up to 50 degrees a day. This diurnal shift slows the ripening process and results in softer, suppler tannins. These variations enhance the quality of the region’s wine. Frost, though, is a major threat in Ribera del Duero. It can hit as late as June and as early as September, and it’s been known to affect the entire vineyard area. Site selection, therefore, is an especially important aspect of the region’s viticulture.
Ribera del Duero’s sedimentary soils are made up of alternating layers of sandy silt and clay, with limestone, marl, and chalky concretions. In the eastern part of the region, clay, limestone, and alluvial soils dominate. In the west, moraine, sandstone, and limestone are common. Erosion and lack of water also pose threats. Irrigation is permitted, and is used for young vines and during extreme drought conditions.
The discovery in 1972 of a large 4th-century mosaic in Baños de Valdearados depicting Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is one piece of evidence that suggests that people have been making wine in Ribera del Duero for many centuries. In the 12th century, vineyard practices were refined by Benedictine monks, among others, who brought a more sophisticated style of viticulture to the region from Burgundy.
In 1864, Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, a Bordeaux-trained Spanish winemaker, established Vega Sicilia east of Valladolid. He planted his vineyards with Tinto Fino, as well as the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec, and went on to create artful wine blends that had significant commercial success. Vega Sicilia remains one of Ribera del Duero’s most notable producers today.
Another winemaker, Alejandro Fernández, saw potential in the region during the 1970s. He made wines from grapes grown around the village of Pesquera del Duero. His wines, brought to the U.S. market in the 1980s, were internationally acclaimed.
Before the region became a DO, most growers sold grapes to co-ops that vinified them and sold the wine in bulk. It wasn’t until the success of producers like Vega Sicilia and Alejandro Fernández that growers were inspired to vinify and market their own wines. In time, a small group of growers applied for DO status, which was granted to Ribera del Duero in 1982. The region has been on an upswing since. Ribera del Duero wines took off in Spain’s domestic market in the 1990s, and they’re becoming increasingly popular worldwide. As of 2016, there were 282 wineries in Ribera del Duero and 8,334 growers.
After receiving the DO designation in 1982, Ribera del Duero was approved, in 2008, for Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) status, but it never pursued the acquisition of the classification, so it remains a single DO appellation. There are no regional sub-appellations in Ribera del Duero, though a variety of qualities and styles can be found there.
The appellation pertains exclusively to red and rosado (rosé) wines. DO regulations maintained by the Consejo Regulador (the official board that monitors and regulates Spain’s DOs) do not permit white wines in Ribera del Duero. To be recognized as DO, red wines must contain a minimum of 75 percent Tempranillo, though most are made with 100 percent. Blends may contain up to 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Malbec. No more than 5 percent Garnacha or Albillo, altogether, may be added. Rosado wines must be made with a minimum of 50 percent of the region’s authorized red varieties.
Designations indicating how long Ribera del Duero DO wines have been aged in oak and bottle have been modeled after those of other established wine regions. They may appear on the front or back label or on the neck of the bottle:
Indicates a rosé wine that doesn’t abide by the defined aging specifications but meets or exceeds classification requirements; rosados can only be aged to Crianza
Indicates a red wine that doesn’t abide by the defined aging specifications but meets or exceeds classification requirements
A minimum aging of 24 months, of which one year must be in barrel
A minimum aging of 36 months, of which at least one year must be in barrel and the rest in bottle
A minimum aging of five years, of which at least two years must be in barrel and the rest in bottle