Spain has been a vine-growing country for so long—millennia, in fact—that it's easy to forget how young many of its most interesting wine regions are. Ribera del Duero is a striking example.
"Up until the 1980s, Ribera was nothing but homemade wines," Pablo Álvarez, owner of Bodegas Vega Sicilia, recalls over lunch in New York. "Only two wineries in the region produced reds for aging: Vega Sicilia and Protos, which was a cooperative at the time."
Vega Sicilia, owned by the Álvarez family since 1982, is an anomaly in the region. Founded in the mid-19th century, it became the best-known, highest-priced wine in Spain.
The estate stood alone, until Alejandro Fernandez roused the surrounding region from its long slumber. His success inventing and selling farm machinery enabled him to establish his own bodega, Pesquera, in 1972, and his willingness to experiment pushed him beyond the light, pale reds common at the time.
In 1982, Fernandez' leadership and Pesquera's success led to the creation of the official Ribera del Duero Denominación de Origen. Only 14 wineries existed there at the time.
Vega Sicilia didn't need the DO and wouldn't accept any regulations that infringed on its established practices. The DO recognized the strength of Vega Sicilia's position and bent to the bodega's needs to bring it into the organization.
"When the DO was founded," Alvarez says, "there were no vineyards between Penafiel [the heart of the historic vineyard region] and Vega Sicilia. They included this section within the DO boundaries only so the region would include us."
When it came to grape varieties, the DO mandated that red wines contain a minimum of 75 percent Tempranillo, the region's dominant variety. (The local clone is known as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País.) But it also authorized Garnacha, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon—because these grapes were already planted at Vega Sicilia.
Today, Ribera counts 270 wineries and more than 54,000 acres of vines, two-thirds of which have been planted since 1990. However, not all the growth was positive.
"The end of the 1990s up until the crash of 2008 was the worst time for Ribera. The region was dying of success," Alvarez notes wryly. He says wealthy entrepreneurs invested unwisely, too often using poor plant material. Wineries that came in from other regions didn't know the local soils and climate.
I experienced Ribera's growing pains in my tastings. Some wines were too big, overripe and overoaked; others were too lean, diluted and herbaceous. Too many wines were rushed to market under the "joven" (young) and "roble" (oak-aged) designations, lacking depth and harmony.
But many Ribera releases have been among Spain's most profound and delicious reds. In addition to Vega Sicilia (and the modern-style Alion, its newer sister property), I've been consistently impressed in recent vintages by wines from Aalto, Dominio de Atauta, Emilio Moro, Peter Sisseck's Pingus and Hacienda Monasterio, Pago de los Cappellanes and Los Astrales.
In a major advantage for the region, Ribera's wineries generally own the vineyards that produce their wines, and most are small: 150 of them make less than 9,000 cases, while only 14 make more than 75,000 cases. This keeps the focus on quality and reduces the risk of commercial abuse. Now producers can begin the process of learning what Ribera's terroirs will yield in terms of wine character.
"The important changes happen in the vineyard," Alvarez reflects, "and they take a long time to come to fruition."
Ribera del Duero is fortunate that Vega Sicilia stands as an example and an inspiration. When energy learns from experience, everyone benefits.
Watch these videos to learn more about Ribera del Duero: