Ribera del Duero´s long history of wine-production dates back to the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages who introduced the Tinta del País or Tempranillo grape. The region was long known for fresh, crisp rosés or”claros” sold in bulk but in the 19th century it became a source of long-lived reds with the establishment of the incomparable estate of Vega Sicilia. Today, Ribera del Duero´s Tinta del País vines grow at exceptionally high altitudes, on soils which are a mix of chalk, slate, alluvium, quartz, limestone and in a continental climate with bitter cold winters and just about 16 blazing weeks of summer. The soils suit the grapes perfectly but the climate calls for early picking and attentive expert handling in the cellar. Nonetheless Ribera del Duero produces some of the best and the most long-lived red wines in Spain and the former shadow of Rioja is now consider by many as the epitome of Spanish reds.
Ribera del Duero
The setting of Miguel Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, La Mancha, is the largest denomination of origin in the world with 180,000 hectares under vine spread across an immense plateau at an average height of 700 meters above sea level. La Mancha suffers due to its extreme continental climate which forces vintners to space the vines 2.5 meters apart to compensate for the limited moisture during the growing season. White Arien grapes which yield low acid, high alcohol whites and red Cencibel producing easy to drink reds continue to dominate the region. Despite La Mancha’s reputation for inexpensive rustic wines, the best bodegas have shown that by using modern wine-making techniques, La Mancha can also produce very fine bottles.
The vineyards of Utiel-Requena extend across the plains south of the Magro River in the province of Valencia. At 600 to 900 meters above sea level, the region’s 40,000 hectares of vines endure an extreme continental climate with severe temperature variations between summer and winter and between day and night. Temperatures have been known to fluctuate up to 30 degrees Celsius in a day. These conditions can prove to be an advantage for ripening vines but are considered a disadvantage for the barreled wines because they speed up the maturation process. Consequently, Utiel-Requena reds more than 2 years old are hard to come by. Traditional wines of this region were known as “vino de doble pasta,” bulk blending wines in which a second press of skins was used to achieve deep color and high alcohol. Since Utiel-Requena achieved its DO status in 1957, the region has begun to produce bottled wines marked by the region’s intense growing and aging conditions and increasingly incorporating new premium grape varieties.
Despite La Rioja’s 2 millenia of wine-making history, – they are mentioned in some of the earliest extant Castilian texts – it was not until the mid 19th century that the region’s exceptional potential was unleashed when innovative bodegas (among them several, like Riscal and Murrieta, still important today) began producing wines for aging. When phylloxera devastated Bordeaux in the 1870s, Rioja’s vines received another impetus as French vintners crossed the Pyrenees in search of land to cultivate. Although the French eventually returned home when Rioja in turn became inflicted with phylloxera their influence remains. In 1926, Rioja became the first wine region in Spain to be awarded a denominación . Three subzones are recognized: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja. The first two are located at higher altitudes facing the Ebro river and have temperate climated and soils. Both produce balanced and fragant wines out of the leading Tempranillo grape. Rioja Baja is lower, hotter and drier: it produces mostly softer garnacha wines for everyday drinking. While retaining its patrimony of historic bodegas with highly individual winemaking styles, Rioja has recently seen the emergence of a wave of new, more extracted prestige cuvées and a consequent reinassance of worldwide interest in its wines.