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The DO holds innumerable treasures for the wine traveler: great history (2,000-year–old Bacchic mosaics), brilliant food (the lamb here is just crazy good) and, of course, fantastic wines. But the region’s fame for wine is more recent than one might imagine.

In 1864, Don Eloy Lecanda, founder of Vega Sicilia, began crafting a wine from Tempranillo and soon enhanced his wines with Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. Through most of the twentieth century, Vega Sicilia was the most expensive wine made in Spain, and the isolation of Spain only served to make the wine rarer and more alluring. Surprisingly, for years no other estate had emerged from the region; it was as though Vega Sicilia made great wine solely because it was wildly monied and the owners could afford to go to bizarre extremes to produce excellence. If you visit the estate today and see its stainless steel barrel stops and racking, you could be forgiven for believing it.

Alejandro Fernández began producing wine at his estate, Pesquera, in 1972. With all the hype associated with his neighbor, Vega Sicilia, it should have been relatively easy-going for this trailblazer, but by 1983 he spoke of being ready to throw in the towel. Wine critic Robert M. Parker, too often the target of the wine world’s complaints, is one of the heroes of this story. He raved about the 1983 vintage and with his review of the 1985 Pesquera, placed Fernández’s wines squarely in the brilliant tradition of Vega Sicilia.

Fernández and other producers in the area sought out DO status in 1982, and their successes offered proof that others here could make great wine. Now, with new producers hanging out their shingles seemingly every week, it may seem that the region is on easy street. But Ribera del Duero lies high atop these elevated plateaux, it’s often cold, and the season is short. Visit the area and it seems flat near the river, only slowly rising up to the edges of limestone cliffs as you reach the widest parts of the “banks” of the Duero. But elevation is a critical element among these vineyards; the lowest among them is over 2,300 feet above sea level, and some are 1,000 feet higher still. Seventy miles of nearly continuous vineyards offer some of the most intriguing red wines in the world, so it’s hard to recall that only a few decades ago there were long vineyard–free gaps along this landscape.

But this broad and pretty valley enjoys a gentle landscape; the vineyards to the north and south enjoy a soft slope towards the river, nestled in pine trees. The soils seem uniform to the eye but are not: alluvial deposits rise up through clays and sand and chalk in varying amounts, alluvial soils dominate near the river, not surprisingly, but marl and schist crop up at times, and limestone dominates more on the higher hillsides and in the east than
in the center of the appellation or by the river. The subsoils also vary, and these subtle differences in soils and gentle slopes reflect the delightful complexity that the region seems to express most eloquently in Ribera del Duero wines.

That complexity doesn’t spring necessarily from the grapes, for there are not many different grapes; more than 90% of the plantings are Tempranillo (also called Tinta del País or Tinto Fino), though some of the numbers are the fuzzy products of mixed plantings. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec all have been here for decades. Perhaps most important to the style of the wines is the drastic diurnal shift from warm daytime temperatures to cold nights (a 50°F difference in one day is not unusual), which leaves its mark upon the wines.. Frosts, a constant late–spring worry, are not uncommon, and mists arising from the river can compound the vintage challenges.

But Tinto Fino, the region’s version of Tempranillo, loves this climate. It likes to cool off, and it likes to sun itself in the warming glow of a bright day. Because of a relatively short growing cycle, the wines can end up with hard tannins; a less–than–ripe vintage can be pretty abrasive. On the other hand, the great vintages are, well, great.

As with Rioja, the Crianzas must spend a minimum of one year in small barrels. While the rest of Spain is content with any size of barrel (many areas use barrels that can be 1,000 liters), Ribera del Duero extends the focus upon oak and demands that the wine barrels be no larger than 225 liters. The aging requirements are the same as for Rioja.

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