May 30th, 2018
The wines of Rueda and Ribera del Duero are finding new prominence on restaurant wine lists and retail shelves around the country. Buyers ramping up their by-the-glass and bottle offerings with fresh selections are increasingly turning to these Spanish wines for their accessibility, value, and authentic heritage. “For Ribera del Duero and Rueda wines, character overrides all,” says Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales at Binny’s Beverage Depot, a Chicago-based retailer with more than 30 locations. “More than ever, people want real wines. Wines with personality and a sense of place, made by real people.”
These sister regions are the second and third largest wine regions in Spain, by production (behind Rioja), but most wineries in the area are small, family-owned operations. Rueda and Ribera del Duero are located on a high-elevation plateau along the Duero River in the Castilla y León region in North-Central Spain, two hours north of Madrid. In both areas, high sunshine exposure, dramatic temperature shifts, dry conditions, and optimal soils help produce exceptional, easy-to-drink wines that are versatile with myriad flavors and cuisines.
In the decades since Rueda attained Denominación de Origen (DO) recognition in 1980, with Ribera del Duero following two years later, the regions have matured considerably. Producers now recognize the potential of their dirt, climate, and native varieties, according to Brahm Callahan, MS, corporate beverage director for Boston’s Himmel Hospitality. “When you go to Ribera and Rueda, you see the level of detail where they pick, the breaking apart of plots,” he says. Grapes from different plots are typically hand picked and fermented separately, so winemakers can control the process and understand the best way to make wine from each plot. “That is something that was not normal even 25 to 30 years ago, but now Spain is leading the charge for Europe,” Callahan notes. While organic viticulture is becoming increasingly popular throughout the wine world, many growers in these regions have always farmed organically.
These days, Rueda and Ribera del Duero wines are largely created in a clean, focused, modern style, making them highly versatile across the consumer spectrum. “These wines are unique in that they’re convenient sells for customers of New World wines and Old World wines,” Jeffirs says.
Rueda’s soil is a blend of stones, clay, limestone, and gravel—an optimal combination for white wine production. Wines in the region are almost exclusively produced from white varieties, with the majority of them made with 100% Verdejo grapes, although Verdejo-based blends with Viura and 100% Sauvignon Blancs are also found.
Rueda’s traditional style of Verdejo is fresh, crisp, and dry, with herbaceous, grassy and subtle tropical fruit notes. Some producers are experimenting with fermenting and aging Verdejo in oak, on the lees, or in cement eggs or amphora vessels, which is giving way to a new style of fuller bodied Rueda wines, more akin to oak-aged Chardonnay. “I love all of the barrel-fermented wines, where Verdejo gains an unctuous character; it’s super cool stuff,” says Charles Ford, who worked extensively with Rueda and Ribera as wine director and general manager of The Bristol, a new American gastropub in Chicago.
In Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo—a hearty, thick-skinned version of its cousin in Rioja, known locally as Tinto Fino—produces bold, yet elegant red wines. Like Burgundy, Piedmont, and several other great wine regions, Ribera del Duero is notable for the limestone soil that helps the wines develop complex, floral aromas, characteristic tannins, and high acidity.
Some Ribera del Duero wineries have maintained the traditional convention of naming wines according to time spent aging (from young to old: Joven or Roble, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva), while others simply prefer the DO Ribera del Duero label. The younger wines tend to be fresh, crisp, and easy-to-drink, while the older, oak-aged variations are medium- to full-bodied reds with notable complexity.
To train a staff unfamiliar with Rueda and Ribera wines, frequent, quick blind tasting sessions are an effective way to acquaint them with the wines and how they map to other regions, Ford says. This knowledge helps empower staff members to sell more wines, while treating guests to new wine experiences.
In general, Ruedas map well to light, aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blancs, white Bordeaux, and Loire Valley whites. At Binny’s, Jeffirs has found success with even farther-reaching substitutions. “Rueda is for those who desire the richness and elegance of the best cool-climate California Chardonnay, or the clean but fuller-bodied wines from Alsace,” he says.
Juan Valencia, the Spanish wine specialist from Spec’s Fine Wine & Spirits, a Texas wine retailer with over 130 locations, also suggests Rueda Verdejo as an alternative to Argentina’s Torrontes, which comes from similar elevation and sunlight exposure. In comparison to Torrontes, “The advantage for Rueda is the complexity in their soils, which triggers a decent amount of minerality,” Valencia says.
Callahan recommends Rueda for by-the-glass programs. “At wholesale, from Rueda, you can find a lot of wines in the $8 to $16 a bottle range, which is a sweet spot for glass pours, and those wines will cover a range of styles,” he says. With so many different interpretations of the varietal, the choices for on- and off-premise wine buyers are plentiful. “You have Rueda wines fermented or aged in oak that are going to be more pleasant for a Chardonnay drinker, with more body, weight, and texture,” Callahan says. “Then you have the other side of the coin, with Rueda Verdejos that are focused on fruit, on acidity, and these are more satisfying to a Sauvignon Blanc drinker.”
With Ribera’s Tempranillo-based red wines, you see similar diversification in the range of quality levels and styles produced. Riberas map well to rich, full-bodied, structured wines like Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Super Tuscans. Spec’s Valencia has found particular success recommending Ribera wines to customers who want to try something new but usually gravitate toward California Cabernets and Argentine Malbecs.
In Chicago, Ford has found strong customer appreciation for current release Riberas by-the-glass. “People in Chicago will pay $15 to $16 a glass for a nice Tempranillo,” Ford says. “I’ve got a $14 bottle of Ribera del Duero that I sell for $15 a glass. To be able to provide that for guests, you can’t explain how happy that makes you.” These wines drink well above their weight in terms of price, he says, noting that many selections that wholesale around $20 drink in the $50 to $60 range. “If you blind-tasted somebody on that, they could never tell,” he says. “Ribera has that $20 to $40 range really down, and that’s just a testament to their winemaking.”
Wines from Rueda and Ribera have become key players at a wide range of restaurant concepts. In Boston, Callahan stocks Rueda and Ribera wines at steakhouse Grill 23, farm-to-table Harvest, and upscale American Post 390, calling out their versatility and food pairing abilities as selling points. “Quite frankly, the wines from both regions are very food friendly and approachable, and certainly work well outside of the realm of Spanish cuisine,” says Callahan.
Verdejo’s versatility also makes Rueda wines an easy fit for harder-to-pair vegetarian and international menus. Ford plans to serve Rueda wines by the glass at S.K.Y., a wine-focused, global cuisine concept—where he is the general manager and sommelier—that’s scheduled to open later this summer in Chicago. The menu will blend pan-Asian, contemporary American, and French influences. “Rueda Verdejo is an easy match with our menu,” Ford says. “It pairs really well with raw and roasted vegetables.”
At retail, Spec’s is capitalizing on Spain’s most sipped white wine with their recently launched Summer Like a Spaniard campaign, promoting Rueda Verdejo as the perfect wine of the season. “Ruedas are enticing and fun,” Valencia says. “I present the scenario of enjoying a chilled and crisp Verdejo on a hot afternoon by the patio or pool.”
With their stylistic breadth, Riberas also share similar versatility. At Spec’s, Valencia starts by asking customers a couple of questions: “Dry or fruity? Food or by itself?” For casual social gatherings where guests are grazing, he recommends a younger Ribera. For sit-down meals featuring heavier fare, he tends to choose an older, more structured style.
Ford echoes: “A simple red like a Joven or Roble with some jamon and queso, it doesn’t get any better than that. And if you’re having a backyard barbecue, making a quick steak or something similar, the wines from Ribera at $10 to $11 wholesale a bottle have incredible quality.”
At the higher end, for short ribs or steaks in a more formal setting, Ford points to older Riberas as an ideal option. “If someone is ordering a big, juicy steak and they want a bold red wine, you’d better believe it—the first bottle I’m going to is a Ribera, a Reserva, or Gran Reserva,” he says. Ford has found that, with bottle age, these reds evolve to show aspects similar to older Bordeaux.
Callahan carries a range of Riberas by the bottle, from more moderately priced (around $50) to celebration bottles at $200-plus. His staff is trained to offer interested guests a taste of the wine during conversations at the table. The oft-overlooked technique has yielded big dividends for the wine programs at his restaurants, Callahan notes.
Whether by-the-glass or by the bottle, Rueda and Ribera del Duero are proving that fresh expressions—and new sales opportunities—are still coming from the Old World. “With both Ribera and Rueda, they’re good indicators of where Spain is going,” Callahan says. As these versatile, value-oriented wines of place increasingly resonate with consumers, the key to sales success is simple: equip staff with the knowledge and descriptors to make the sale.