David 27 April 2016
In the last 20 years an unlikely contender has emerged to challenge Rioja as the leading red wine region of Spain. Ribera del Duero stands in stark contrast to the picturesque and alluring beauty we tend to associate with so many of the world’s great wine regions. Instead it offers a bleak landscape with a handful of isolated and charmless towns.
The region lies about 200km north-west of Madrid on a plateau known as the great Castilian Meseta, a geographical feature that dominates Spain at between 700-850m above sea level. Starting about 30km east of the town of Valladolid, the region runs eastwards up the mighty Douro River (Duero in Spanish) for over 100km, covering about 47,000 acres. On the Douro’s banks, further downstream, lie several other important wine regions in both Spain (Toro & Rueda) and Portugal (Douro).
Ribera del Duero is prone to extreme climatic conditions, with hot summers, cold winters and low rainfall. It seems an unlikely place to grow grapes, but it produces some of Spain’s most wonderful reds due to its suitable soils and high altitude. In this continental climate, night time temperatures can be up to 20 degrees cooler than its hot summer days. The baking sun drives up grape ripeness and sugar content, but cool nights maintain high acidity, striking a superb balance.
Tinto Fino, a local clone of Spain's most popular red variety Tempranillo, is the most widely planted grape in Ribera del Duero. It's well suited to the strong sunlight and wide diurnal variation, being thicker skinned than the Tempranillo clones found in Rioja. The resulting wines are naturally darker and more tannic than Rioja's Tempranillos.
Jancis Robinson MW says: “The flavour of Tempranillo is essentially savoury rather than sweet. The characteristic smell has hints of leather but the phrase I use most often to describe it is fresh tobacco leaves… There is something sappy, fresh and vegetal about it… the sort of smells you would expect to find in a stereotypical gentleman's dressing room - which is, I suppose, where the leather comes in.” Other descriptors include cherry, plum, tomato, vanilla and clove.
40 years ago there was only one winery in Ribera del Duero (some would argue the whole country) known to wine lovers outside of Spain - the legendary Vega Sicilia. But in the early 80s it was the the dynamic Alejandro Fernandez who brought the potential of the region’s wines to the world. He was also was instrumental in the region being awarded DO status (Designation of Origin appellation) in 1982 when there were only 14 bodegas (wineries) in operation.
Since then Ribera del Duero has expanded significantly to become one of Spain's leading wine regions. Today it has over 300 estates, including several of Spain’s top producers, and prestigious Wine Enthusiast Magazine named it 'Wine Region of the Year' in 2012.
Here are two of the region's top estates.
You can't help but be impressed by this extraordinary partnership between Mariano Garcia and Javier Zaccagnini. Established in 1999, Aalto is already regarded not only as one of the best estates in Ribera, but all of Spain.
These two are quite a duo. Wine Spectator Magazine describes Garcia as “one of Spain’s most influential winemakers.” Not surprising given he was winemaker at Vega Sicilia for 30 years, an estate regarded as Spain’s most prestigious. Zaccagnini on the other hand brings the business nouse. In the 90s he was president of the governing body of the Ribera del Duero (the Consejo Regulador) for 6 years, he speak 4 languages and has an MBA.
They set up Aalto with the aim of making wines from Ribera del Duero capable of taking their place amongst the top wines of the world. Incredibly, it seems this lofty goal has already been achieved, their wines now enjoying worldwide acclaim.
Just last year Sarah Jane Evans MW, writing for Decanter Magazine acknowledged that “in less than 16 years Javier Zaccagnini and Mariano Garcia have achieved their aim - to make a wine in Ribera del Duero equal to the world’s best.”
Aalto was selected as one of the Best 100 wineries in the World by esteemed French critics Michel Betanne and Thierry Dessauve.
In Wine Spectator Magazine’s highly anticipated Top 100 Wines of 2015, the Aalto 2012 was awarded 6th place from a selection of “close to 20,000 wines.” This was a massive achievement and a sign that Aalto had arrived on the world stage.
There are several factors behind Aalto’s success, not least of which is Garcia’s phenomenal talent and inside knowledge gained from a lifetime spent in the region. While Aalto started small they now cultivate 110ha (they own about 40ha, and lease the rest) of old Tinto Fino vines. What’s interesting is that the holding is comprised of over 200 separate plots, none bigger than 1ha, spread over 9 different villages (including famed La Horra) and planted in a variety of soils, with vine ages ranging from 40-100 years. This complex tapestry gives Aalto the ability to source and select the best fruit from across Ribera’s diverse terroirs.
Grapes are picked by hand before laborious inspection and sorting. In 2005 a new bodega (winery) was built and unsurprisingly it’s a sight to behold. Constructed partially underground, the sleek, ultra-modern building is kitted out with the latest technology, at the same time keeping some processes old school, like using gravity rather than pumps to move wine. There are refrigerated sorting rooms, customised conical fermentation tanks, the highest quality oak and two vast halls for barrel ageing. Within all this, Garcia is still able to vinify individual parcels of fruit from different plots. He puts together the final blend when he considers the time just right and bottles the wines without filtering.
The estate produces just two wines, one known simply as Aalto, the other as Aalto PS (Pagos Seleccionados) which is made only in the best years. Both are 100% Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) and made in a modern fruit-driven style, capturing an elusive combination of power, structure, fine texture and finesse.
Here are 3 vintages of the outstanding Aalto wine. These wines see 20-24 months ageing in oak (approximately 20% American oak, 80% French) of which 50% is new and 50% is 1-3 years old.
1. Aalto 2008
“ A glass-coating opaque purple colour, it is already displaying a complex aromatic array of sandalwood, smoke, espresso, lavender, Asian spices, and assorted blue and black fruits. Smooth-textured, succulent, and structured, it will evolve for 2-3 years and offer a drinking window extending from 2013 to 2028+. In the scheme of things, it offers great value in top-flight Ribera del Duero." 95 Points, The Wine Advocate #195, Jay S Miller.
This highly desired vintage is unfortunately only available in very limited quantities.
I can offer it for $139 a bottle (limited) SOLD OUT.
2. Aalto 2010
”The 2010 Aalto was assembled and ready for bottling when I visited the winery. It is already showing great precision and focus on the nose with vanilla-tinged dark cherry and cassis fruit, followed by an undertow of candied orange peel. The palate is already displaying wonderful balance, with supple, very fine tannins and a luscious, sweet candied finish that offers blood orange and tangerine-infused dark fruit. There is a crisp theme of acidity to keep everything balanced. This is very promising. Drink 2016-2030.”92-94 points, Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate #205, Feb 2013.
3. Aalto 2012
This vintage really gave the wine some profile in the US. It was awarded 6th place in the highly coveted Wine Spectator Magazine’s Top 100 Wine list in 2015.
“This red shows focus and density, with rich flavors of plum, blackberry, cocoa, licorice and mineral. The structure is muscular but graceful, featuring ripe fruit complemented by savory notes that keep this balanced and fresh. Best from 2016 through 2032.” 94 points, Wine Spectator #6, Top 10 Wines of 2015 - selected from a total of 20,000 wines.
I can offer it for $139 a bottle. Click here to order.
You won’t regret buying one of these.
“Spain’s undisputed equivalent of a first growth.” Oxford Companion to Wine.
Regarded as Spain’s most prestigious estate, Vega Sicilia was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves. It came to prominence in the early 1900s after winning several international wine competitions and since then has changed hands several times, most recently in 1982 when the Alvarez family, owner of one the biggest business groups in Spain, took over. Pablo Alvarez has now been at the helm for over 30 years.
“Bodegas Vega Sicilia remains a benchmark for the world’s great red wines.” The Wine Advocate 2010.
The estate is located east of Valladolid and covers about 1000ha, 250ha of which are under vine, mostly Tinto Fino (Tempranillo). But in a nod to the original founder who brought with him several Bordeaux varieties from France, there are also small plantings of Cab Sauv, Merlot and Malbec.
The success of Vega Sicilia lies in its tradition, innovation and extraordinary attention to detail. Yields in the vineyard are extremely low and painstaking grape selection is done by hand. Don’t let the age of the estate make you think the winery is old fashioned - far from it. It has some of the most innovative technology in winemaking, including one of the only two stainless steel ‘elevator tanks’ (the other one is at Chateau Cos d’Estournel). These enable the transfer of wine from one tank to another by harnessing gravity, rather than using a pump.
One of the defining features of Vega Sicilia is the complicated and prolonged ageing process involving barrels of various size and age. Current release wines are usually at least 10 years old and sometimes up to 25! While ready to drink on release, they are famous for their ability to continue ageing without drying out, reputedly cellaring for up to 50 years - if stored well of course.
With acquisitions of other estates (Alión and Pintia), you will now see several wines carrying the Vega Sicila name, however the 2 that get the attention are:
4. Vega Sicilia Único 1996
The 1996 Unico is a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec and is, by all accounts, just opening up.
“The 1996 Unico is from what the Vega Sicilia team calls "an icon vintage". Medium purple in colour, it emits a lovely perfume of smoke, mineral, Asian spices, balsamic, and assorted black fruits. Elegant, savoury, and intense on the palate, it has enough underlying structure to evolve for another decade and drink well through 2036.” 97 points, Wine Advocate #189, June 2010, Jay S Miller.
“Pablo Alvarez quipped that in 1996 the growing season was so benevolent that the winemaker was not even necessary! The 1996 Unico has a very pure, pastille-like bouquet with raspberry, wild strawberry, crushed stone and a touch of Chinese tea. It has impressive delineation and linearity. The palate is medium-bodied with filigree tannins. The fruit profile is shimmering in the glass with black cherries, cassis and blueberry notes. It is very feminine and powerful towards the poised, tensile finish that is long and seductive. One of the finest recent vintages, suffused with sensuality and opulence, the 1996 Unico is destined to be a great wine, one that might unfairly be over-shadowed by the 1994. 99,480 bottles produced. Drink 2020-2040+.” 96 points, Wine Advocate #202, Aug 2012, Neal Martin.
Interestingly, Jay Miller was replaced by Neal Martin at The Wine Advocate in late 2011. Miller resigned following a ‘pay for winery visit’ controversy in the Murcia region of eastern Spain earlier that year. Pancho Campo, Spain’s first MW, also had a hand in the scandal and subsequently resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine. While there’s no suggestion the Miller note above was tainted in any way, it does explain why the wine was subsequently reviewed by Neal Martin.
The scarcity of this wine and it being half the price of First Growth Bordeaux puts it into perspective. As Jay Miller concluded “ it is one of the great bargains in world-class wine.” Wine Advocate #189, June 2010.
For very special celebrations - experience one of the great wines of the world.
I can offer it for $540 a bottle. SOLD OUT.