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Black Gold Rush

Fortune seekers and wine pioneers stake their claims in spain's emerging Ribera del Duero region

Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: March 20, 2002

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  Tasting Report: Spain  
  R. López de Heredia Vertical Tasting  

Telmo Rodriguez rolls up a dirt driveway in a Mercedes SUV, coming to a stop before the open doors of a warehouse winery deep in Spain's Ribera del Duero region. Surrounded by mounds of rock-strewn soil, the winery looks as though it didn't exist until just a short time ago. Rodriguez surveys the scene, running his hand through his long, black hair. For a moment, he observes the bottling of the second vintage of a wine he's making, called Valderiz. Then he talks, over the whine and clank of machinery.

"Ribera is crazy, what's happening," he says. "It's like El Dorado. Everybody's speculating, trying to produce and sell very expensive wines, garage wines, wines made from a recipe. They're looking to make the Château Valandraud of Spain."

One of Spain's top enologists, Rodriguez has left La Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, his family's bodega in Rioja, to concentrate on new wine projects throughout the country. He has grapes growing and cuvées aging from Alicante to Navarra, Rueda to Málaga, but the project in Ribera del Duero interests him most. He's working with decades-old vines to produce an estate-grown Tempranillo under the Valderiz label, plus making a few hundred cases of Tempranillo from even older sites; the latter wine, called Matallana, hasn't been released yet.

These wines may sound similar to those he's criticizing, but Rodriguez insists there's a difference. "A lot of what is happening here in the Ribera is superficial," he says. "What I'm making aren't Spanish super Tuscans, or recipe wines made to imitate someone else. These are going to be unique wines. Something very special."

The opportunity to make special wine here is exceeded only by the opportunity to make money. "Between 10 and 15 new wineries in the zone in the past year, and something like 40 in just a few years," says César Muñoz with a shake of his head. Muñoz worked under Mariano García, former winemaker of the venerable Bodegas Vega Sicilia. Now he is the enologist for two promising start-ups -- Bodegas Leda Viñas Viejas and Bodegas Montebaco. It's a very different vantage point from which to view the local terrain. "We're just learning about the land, we're just learning about the grape varieties, we're just learning about the wines," he says.

Rodriguez and Muñoz are two of many winemakers and proprietors who have fallen hard for Ribera del Duero. About two hours' drive north of Madrid, the region extends for some 70 miles along the Duero River, with vineyards growing on both banks across four provinces. It's a sparsely settled landscape of naked hillsides interspersed with pines, small towns set along a central highway, and almost no tourist amenities. The winters can be harsh, but the summer's cool mornings and long, very warm days are ideal for growing grapes.

For the better part of the last century, the only Ribera wine of note (and Spain's most expensive) was Vega Sicilia, a carefully proportioned blend of five grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 10 years in cask before release. Then, with the 1975 vintage, a former engineer and occasional inventor named Alejandro Fernandez debuted Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez Tinto Pesquera. The sturdy Tempranillo-based wine had more structure and concentration than most Spanish reds of the time, and brought new attention to the region.

The Ribera del Duero appellation officially came into being in 1982, when there were still only nine wineries bottling in the area and much of the production went directly into jugs and pitchers. But by the early '90s, several dozen new wineries had opened for business, taking advantage of the decades-old vines of Tempranillo (called Tinto del País or Tinto Fino locally). Their product was almost always good, and often excellent.

Wineries such as Bodegas Monasterio, Bodegas Reyes and Bodegas Ismael Arroyo gained reputations for making wines in the robust yet not inelegant style that characterizes the region. Vega Sicilia branched out with Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, a new winery making more modern-style reds; Fernandez added Condado de Haza to his stable. The most dramatic departure from tradition, however, was Dominio de Pingus, a personal project of Monasterio winemaker Peter Sisseck. A rich, ripe red made in minuscule quantities, it might pass for a cult Cabernet from California if not for the definitive Tempranillo aromatics. Pingus has become one of the most coveted wines in Spain.

Then the growth accelerated, fueled in part by a stunning 1994 vintage that allowed obscure producers to rival the quality of the top wines. At the same time, Spain's Priorat region, a forbidding moonscape southwest of Barcelona, started attracting attention with a range of small-production wines culled from decades-old vines with extremely low yields. Wines like Alvaro Palacios' L'Ermita, Daphne Glorian's Clos Erasmus and Costers del Siurana's Clos de l'Obac earned rave reviews. More important, perhaps, they sold at prices as high as $200 a bottle.

"In the Priorat, the first revolution happened," says Jesus Maria Soto, executive director of Tudela del Duero's new Bodegas Leda. "They made wines of more body, wines of more structure, and it worked. Spain had never seen wines like these before. So in the Ribera del Duero, people decided to try it."

The revelation apparently hit the country's top enologists and its high-volume corporate wine producers, such as Rioja's Bodegas y Bebidas and Catalonia's Freixenet, simultaneously. Soon prospectors were arriving almost daily in Ribera, looking for gold colored a deep red. Some initiated their own projects. Others purchased existing wineries -- lock, stock and new oak barrels. In three years, Marqués de Valparaíso, owned by Rioja giant Paternina, spurted from a production of 2,400 cases to more than 25,000. The capital investment, in a region that survived for centuries on subsistence farming, has been staggering. So has the increase in production. The total grape harvest doubled from about 22,000 tons in 1990 to more than 44,000 tons in 1996, and is expected to double again next year, according to the regional regulatory council.

"Everyone has flocked to the region, and I admit there's a danger to that," says García, who ended a 30-year stint as Vega Sicilia's winemaker in 1998 in a conflict of interest dispute over his family project, Bodegas Mauro. "If Bodegas y Bebidas comes in and tries to make 4 million bottles, the name Ribera del Duero is going to fall in meaning and quality. If everybody tries to earn back their investment in the first five years, they'll fail. There aren't enough good grapes right now to make even 100,000 bottles of each of these wines. Let alone much more."

Only a year or so ago, wineries like Abadia Retuerta, which boasts Bordeaux superstar Pascal Delbeck as its consulting winemaker (see "A Leap of Faith," Nov. 15, 2001), and even García's Mauro, were perceived as the brash, confident newcomers, making international-style wines outside the appellation's geographic boundaries. Today, when you find their wines on the shelf at the Hostal Sardón, a restaurant-cum-wine shop and the region's best retail outlet for local releases, they seem like old friends.

The labels around them, many affixed to the double-thick glass bottles that are now the rage from Rioja to Napa Valley, herald predominantly new releases with market-ready names such as Leda and Tarsus and Pradorey. And waiting in the wings is an even newer generation of wines such as Matallana and Aalto, García's latest project.

"I've tried some of them, sure," says Pesquera's Alejandro Fernandez, sitting in the tasting room of the handsome winery he has built, patiently, over several decades. "Some are pretty good, some aren't as good, but I'm really not concerned about them. Everyone is merely trying to make dark wines."

It's a path that Fernandez himself helped blaze; his early Pesqueras made the Riojas of the time seem pale and thin. But now the trend has used Ribera's natural climatic advantages to push ripeness, concentration and color even further with wines such as Pingus, all rich fruit and lush texture. And while the latest vintages of Mauro, for example, have the blue-black color of a Helen Turley Napa Cabernet, García's wines -- even his high-end Terreus Pago de Cueva Baja -- are accessible upon release.

Now García is occupied with Aalto, a dream-team project he shares with Spain's Osborne family, makers of Sherries, brandies, Ports, Bodegas Montecillo Riojas and even a line of hams, and Javier Zaccagnini, the former head of the governing body of the Ribera del Duero appellation. This won't be an over-extracted garage wine, either, García promises: the difference between Aalto and Mauro will be purely the result of grape selection and terroir.

Mauro is made in a restored 17th century Castilian manor in downtown Tudela de Duero, a river town set just west of the appellation's border. Freed from appellation constraints, García is experimenting with non-traditional grapes such as Syrah. Aalto will be a Ribera del Duero wine, and it will play by the appellation's rules. But Zaccagnini admits to paying a local record of $3,000 per ton of grapes for Aalto's 1999 release.

"Five years from now, because of wines like this one but also because of the bigger producers who are here now, we'll be far better known," says Zaccagnini of Ribera. "We may have a few years of going down in quality before we start going up again because of this gold-rush mentality, but the quality will get there."

Not all the winemakers here have García's experience. At Tarsus, which rises like an apparition from a small road behind the hilltop town of Roa, Pablo Rubio is still struggling to get to know his terrain and the 15-year-old vines that sit on sandy soil. At 28, he's a veteran of wine projects in Rueda and Toro, not to mention Argentina and Lebanon, but this particular site is new to him. He sets out a tasting of the two Tarsus releases, a first and a second label, from both the 1998 and 1999 vintages. He quickly acknowledges that the superiority of the latter vintage isn't just the result of beneficial weather. "We don't know yet how each parcel will react in a given year, or to different weather conditions," he says. "Each year, we know a little bit more."

Tarsus is part of a series of boutique properties owned and run by Ivarus, a corporate offspring of Bodegas y Bebidas. Ivarus has a 36-page newsletter, the requisite consulting winemaker from Bordeaux (Hervé Romat of Château Haut-Bailly) and a slick annual report. Tarsus has already hosted a fashion show at its winery, which was built as a private facility in the 1980s by a wealthy family with ties to the Spanish throne. There are tasteful British prints on the wall, and a two-story wall of windows looks out over the picture-perfect barrel room.

"You have to start small," insists Pesquera's Fernandez, but starting small doesn't get you your investment back. Marketing and exporting wines to Europe and the United States, and building a brand with whatever is at hand, does. Toward that end, a bus filled with wine distributors pulls into Tarsus' expansive parking lot and unloads its cargo into the sunshine. They may not yet be enamored of the wines, which still seem young and simple, but they'll love the tour.

Around a dusty bend or two at Valderiz, Telmo Rodriguez has no visitor amenities, unless you count the borrowed Mercedes SUV, which is big enough to conduct a tasting in. What he does have is a strong sense of what he's trying to accomplish. Rodriguez's partner, Tomas Esteban, owns a vineyard he planted 25 years ago. Esteban has been selling the grapes in bulk since then, and Rodriguez's plan is to continue selling them, all but the best 20 percent or so. Those will become Valderiz, and the high quality of the fruit will make excessively interventionist winemaking unnecessary.

"Since Pesquera, all the wines have pretty much taken the same road," Rodriguez says. "This is different. Our idea is to produce a wine that isn't over-extracted, but accurately expresses the soil with the best grapes. A fine, elegant wine that can age for 10 to 15 years, that's all. I don't like wines that make your teeth hurt."

Rodriguez is a friend and strong defender of Peter Sisseck, whose Dominio de Pingus is made in a garage just off the Aranda-Valladolid highway. Over roast lamb at El Nazareno restaurant in downtown Roa, he vigorously justifies Sisseck's wine as a valid expression of the Ribera del Duero soil. Never mind that Sisseck is a Dane now living in England who learned winemaking in Bordeaux; what matters is only what's inside the bottle.

Rodriguez pours another glass of one of his own wines, a fruity Tempranillo from the emerging region of Toro, and explains that though Valderiz will be nothing like Pingus, they both have roots deep in the Duero Valley, not in multicolored marketing brochures. "In the end, all I want them to say about us is, 'They went one step further,'" he says. Then he jumps in the Mercedes and drives away.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator.

This article appears in the the Jan. 31, 2001 - Feb. 28, 2002, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 88. (
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