The Best of Rioja and Ribera del Duero

Spanish wine is on fire today, hotly pursued by well-heeled enthusiasts and restaurateurs in Spain and increasingly sought in Europe, the U.S. and the Far East. Wines that did not exist at the beginning of the '90s, such as L'Ermita and Pingus, have immediately been elevated to the status of international collectibles, raising the visibility of Spanish wine in general. And new regions-Navarra, Priorato and now Toro- continue to emerge with world-class wines.
The majority of Spain greatest reds still come from two regions in north-central Spain-Rioja and Ribera del Duero. I toured these two areas in mid-September and was bowled over by the changes that have occurred just since my last visit to these regions five years ago. My visit gave me the opportunity to taste extensively from the superb '94 and '95 vintages in Rioja and the outstanding '96 vintage in Ribera del Duero. I sampled a profusion of outstanding red wines, and I hope you'll use my extensive coverage in this issue to discover some of these wines for yourselves.

Dueling-and merging-styles. Five years ago, the stylistic differences between the wines of these two important regions were radical. By and large, Rioja has traditionally been a wine that was released only when deemed ready to drink by its maker. Reserva and gran reserva Riojas, which spend longer in barrel and bottle before going on the market, were especially mellow, aromatically complex wines that combined wood and fruit tones in a particularly harmonious way-perfect accompaniments to the roasted meats consumed in the region. The finest Riojas-blends based on tempranillo, with some jammy garnacha included for alcoholic strength, mazuelo for acidity, and graciano for aromatic delicacy-have always been easier on the head and stomach than most of the world's other serious reds, with more flavor and complexity than would seem possible from wines carrying a relatively low 12%-12.5% alcohol.

Ribera del Duero, in contrast, came to prominence in the 1980s by offering more deeply colored, aggressively fruity, alcoholic and tannic reds from its own more structured and sometimes higher-acid tinta del pa? or tinto fino (local names for tempranillo), sometimes with a bit of cabernet added. Most Ribera del Duero wines are aged for a shorter period of time in small oak barrels, a higher percentage of which are new, and released earlier. Think of Rioja as more Bordeaux-like, and Ribera del Duero more akin to California cabernet. (For an in-depth explanation of the geography of these regions, and regulations covering the required aging and release of wines, long-time Wine Cellar subscribers should refer to Issue 57.)

The two growing regions retain their distinct identities, but in just the past five years their very different styles are beginning to converge. Numerous exciting new Riojas, from mostly or all tempranillo grown in favored sites, are now aged for a shorter period in smaller, newer barrels (often French rather than American oak), and released on the market earlier. They are darker, more robust and more tannic than traditionally styled wines from the region, and possess fresher, more intense fruit flavors.

Over the same period, the best Ribera del Duero wines have become suaver and better balanced. Large quantities of young vines are coming into production in the region, and this has resulted in some loss of sheer intensity in a number of wines. But gentler handling of the fruit have at the same time resulted in Ribera del Duero wines of greater class without compromising their structure or freshness. The best Ribera del Duero wines, as well as those of Rioja, have more Old World savoir-faire and more seamless textures than all but the very best examples from California. The lesser examples, though-and there are plenty of these-are dilute, rustic, or excessively dry. Too many wines show signs of poor cooperage. And brettanomyces and musty TCA notes are far more widespread in both Ribera del Duero and Rioja than has been reported in the mainstream wine press.

Recent vintages. Among recent vintages, 1994 and 1995 were standouts in Rioja; many bodega owners I visited consider '94 to be the finest year since the early '80s-profound, minerally and complete-while others are especially fond of the expressive fruit of their '95s. The '96 vintage was less consistent, but there are many successes, and some of these may surprise with their longevity. Each of these three vintages set a new record for quantity in the region.

In Ribera del Duero, 1996 is clearly the finest recent vintage; these wines fully express their fruit and soil character, and show rare depth of flavor and structure. They are rich in all the key ingredients: acidity, alcohol, phenolics (i.e., coloring material, tannins, flavor compounds). For most Ribera del Duero producers, this is the wine currently available in the marketplace (1997 crianzas can legally be released on December 1 of this year). I am also quite partial to the '94s from this region, but a few producers I visited rate the small, concentrated '95 crop ahead of the previous year. Peter Sisseck, one of the region's well-traveled winemakers, compares the Ribera del Duero's 1996 vintage to 1990 Bordeaux, and the '95s to Bordeaux's '89s. Nineteen ninety-five, he says, featured a more roasted ripeness thanks to a south wind during much of the harvest, and warm ambient temperatures made it difficult to control fermentations.

Nineteen ninety-seven is a distinctly lighter year in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero; many wines lack complete ripeness and/or structure, and harvest rains resulted in some dilution, despite the generally small size of the crop. I tasted numerous Ribera del Duero wines that finish somewhat dry for lack of middle-palate flesh. Frost in early May was severe in parts of the region, and crop levels were very low, even where there was substantial second-generation fruit. Early September rains complicated matters by triggering rot in some spots. From the few '98s I saw from barrel, this looks to be a less dense set of wines than '94 in Rioja or '96 in Ribera del Duero. Although it was a variable vintage, with a lot of lighter wines, it is already clear that numerous outstanding wines are in the works, especially in Ribera del Duero. But in the latter region in general, alcohol levels were relatively modest and acidities higher than average, giving many of these wines an early leanness. Cool late-summer weather slowed ripening, and many of the region's growers picked late, after a period of rain.

Threats to quality. Although there are more outstanding bottles from Rioja and Ribera del Duero than ever before, both regions also produce plenty of mediocre wine, and strong worldwide demand for their products poses challenges as well as opportunities. As I toured the Rioja region, it quickly became clear that many already-large bodegas have recently expanded or are planning major expansions in their production. "But if bodegas are expanding rapidly, and there's hardly any more land being authorized for vines, where is the additional fruit going to come from?" asks Maria Martinez Sierra, the director of Bodegas Montecillo. Surely much of the "new" production will be lesser material from local co-ops (fruit, must and wine in bulk), if not from outside the region, which would be illegal. Sharp increases in production by large bodegas will do little for the region's reputation; there are already far too many overoaked, underwined bottles of Rioja in the market.

On the other hand, there are surely additional opportunities for big producers to offer limited lots of high-quality wine vinified and aged on a smaller scale (i.e., using smaller, gentler presses, smaller fermentation tanks, better cooperage), including the new "super-Riojas" aged for less time in a higher percentage of new barrels, increasingly of French oak. And the creation of single-estate wines showcasing the unique character of favored sites will no doubt continue. My tasting notes include many such wines, which are indeed impressive. Many of these wines are still a bit newfangled for Rioja conservatives, but the excitement they have generated both in the Spanish wine press and abroad leaves little doubt that they will be critical to the worldwide reputation of Rioja in the 21st century.

The most serious threat to quality in Ribera del Duero is the fact that so many estates depend largely or even completely on purchased fruit. From one vintage to the next, there may be little continuity of fruit sources and therefore of the wines they go into. Wildly fluctuating grape prices introduce another variable. More than one bodega proprietor told me in September that very high grape prices motivate growers to make more crianza and reserva wines, as simple tinto joven bottlings become too expensive to compete with cheap young reds from other parts of Spain. Producers who decide overnight to play the crianza and reserva game must often buy barrels on short notice wherever they can find them, and sometimes pay insufficient attention to the quality of the wood; others have little experience making barrel-aged wines in the first place. Prices for grapes in Ribera del Duero skyrocketed in '97 and '98 due to short crops, then plunged during the early days of the 1999 harvest, which was expected to shatter records for quantity.

I visited about three dozen properties in the two regions in mid-September, and followed up by tasting many more current releases in Spain and New York. At most of my bodega visits in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, I attempted to taste two vintages of each bottling I sampled-the one currently in the market, and the next vintage to be released-beginning in most cases with the bodega's crianza wine, or basic oak-aged cuvee, followed by reservas and gran reservas-special bottlings that spend longer in barrel and bottle before being released. In theory at least, these latter wines are made in the better years from stronger raw materials. (I have also included a few notes on current whites and roses, but red wines were the focus of my visits.) In many instances I have provided prices only for wines currently in the U.S. market; note that some wines for which prices are provided have not yet been shipped to America. In some cases, I have also offered notes on an earlier vintage or two that may still be available in the U.S. retail market. Following my profiles of the bodegas I visited in September are notes on additional currently available wines, some tasted in Spain and others tasted in New York in recent weeks.