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A Ribera del Duero tasting


Master Sommelier Yoon Ha, from San Francisco’s acclaimed Benu restaurant, did a great job presiding over yesterday’s Ribera del Duero tasting and seminar, held at the Ferry Building on a gloomy, gray day. We had six different wines, all current releases and all 100% Tempranillo, that illustrated what Yoon called “the diversity” that characterizes this 30-year old Denominacíon de Origen.

Yoon, who lived several years in Ribera, is high on the wines, as are many of his colleague somms in the City. I can see why. They’re wines of great elegance and finesse, ranging through the unoaked or only lightly oaked Jovens, to the Crianzas (aged two years, with a minimum of one year in barrel), Reservas (aged three years, with a minimum of one year in oak) and Gran Reservas (aged five years at minimum, with a minimum of two years in barrel). It was amusing to read, in the tech notes, that “During harvest each winery is assigned a surveyor by the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Ribera del Duero” to regulate the origin of the grapes, the varieties and percentages allowed, winemaking procedures, and so on. I had to smile at the thought of the California Department of Food and Agriculture sending “Reguladors” to each winery to police their practices. I asked Yoon if he thought that such bureaucratic intrusion was good for the wines, or if it inhibited innovation. He replied, in effect, that it was probably good, for it ensures a certain continuity of style and helps keep unqualified dabblers from harming Ribera’s reputation.

Here are my tasting notes:

1. D.O.5. Hispanobodegas S.L.U. Viña Gormaz 2010. All stainless steel. Bone dry with supple tannins and racy acidity. So fresh, elegant and clean, with sour red cherry candy fruit. So versatile with such a range of food, and only $10. An amazing value. I was with young Joey Franzia, of Bronco, and he loved this wine.

2. Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2007. A touch of oak brings toast and eucalyptus. Reminded me of a Johnson Turnbull Cabernet from the 1990s. Great weight, body, very rich and deeply flavored. Black currants. Bone dry, complex, thick, supple tannins. Another super-versatile wine at the table. $14.

3. Protos B. Ribera Duero de Peñafiel Tinto Fino 2009. A little muted at first. Dry, elusive, complex. Herbs, dried cherries, earth. From 25-year old vines. Intense, austere, elegant, tannic, good acidity. $15 a bottle.

4. Alejandro Fernandez-Tinto Pesquera Crianza 2009. Very concentrated and intense. Dark color–great power and substance. Bone dry, clean, touch of raisins. Alcohol 14.0%. Spent 18 months in American oak. Concentrated, great weight. $28.

5. Explotaciones Valduero Reserva 2005. Picking up aged character, dried fruit, mushrooms. Bone dry, thick. Thirty months total in oak. Elegant, complex. Develops in the glass. Impressive. $32.

6. Viñedos Y Bodegas Garcia Figuero Tinto Figuero Reserva 2004. Sweeter than the others–from oak? 70% American wood, 30% French. Big wine, dry, powerful, from 50-year old vines. Dried fruits, balsam, grilled meat. Very serious wine. Great weight, power. Bone dry on the finish. Tannins rich, smooth, supple. Easily the standout of the flight. I asked Yoon what food from Benu he would pair this with and he said the rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun, from the restaurant’s tasting menu. Then he added, “And it’s great with Mexican food, especially with mole.”  This wine retails for $38.

I loved these Ribera wines. Compared to California (say, Sangiovese or Tempanillo or even Merlot), they’re drier, sleeker, earthier, more austere and elegant. I wrote of all six wines “subtle power” but was struck also by their food-friendly versatility and pricing. The low prices can be explained by two factors, I think: most of the vineyard land has been in the family for generations, so there’s no bank debt on it; and Spain’s horrible economy prohibits producers from charging too much, since much of the production is consumed in country. There is evidently a great desire on the part of Ribera producers to export to the U.S.

California has little or nothing to compare with these wines, from the Temps I’ve had. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008 (Napa Valley, $53, 94 points), a delicious wine indeed, but with its strong oak, softness and powerfully sweet fruit, it was all California. Somewhere between a Crianza and a Reserva, I should think, was the Maisonry 2008 Tempranillo, from the Stagecoach Vineyard (Napa Valley, $42, 88 points). I liked its dry, medium-bodied weight, but then, it contained some Cabernet Franc; California Tempranillo on its own can be one-dimensional. Other Temp producers that have caught my eye–and you have to give them credit for marching against the market–are Twisted Oak, Longoria, Six Sigma, Curran and Bella Luna.

  1. Steve, I would add Bodegas Paso Robles, Bokisch, Irwin, Quinta Cruz and Yorba to the list of California Tempranillo producers worth looking into. Articles like yours will continue to create awareness/curiosity among consumers for not just Tempranillo, but the entire genre of Iberian varieties grown here as well as Southern Oregon and Arizona!

  2. Carlos Toledo says:


    If you loved the wines you should go and check the food in Ribera del Duero. Great (one more) region of Spain. Overlooked wines by many importers and consumers from all over.

    I import some…their cost is close to bargains, specially now in this recession (they are under severe strains in Europe, according to some “rumours”).

  3. Heck, sounds like all they need to do is to let their grapes hang two or three weeks longer, buy more new French oak and they could kick those wines up a notch to become world class like us.

  4. If the idea is to emulate Ribera del Duero’s “powerful yet subtle” and sometimes austere style, California winegrowers should look for well-drained vineyard land in Southern Oregon (e.g., the cooler parts of the Rogue Valley and the warmer parts of the Umpqua Valley) and Southwestern Idaho (Snake River Valley, near Boise) where they would find (similar latitudes and) nearly the same dry, sunny, short (160-180 days), but warm-to-hot growing seasons that are found in the Burgos, Soria and Valladolid provinces of the Old Castile, in Spain.
    Nice post, Steve.

  5. Steve,
    Just getting to this week’s postings. So a question that I have asked, or at least commented on, before: have you ever had the Matchbook wines? Tempranillo and Syrah are the main red varieties worked with, blended or separate, etc. It’s the Lane and John Giugere formerlly of Toasted Head fame, but now quiet a bit smaller. Good wines from them across the board.

    Thanks for all your work each day,
    Michael P.

  6. Michael, I have given Matchbook generally good scores for the price. They no longer fall into my territory for tasting, though.


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