A Wine Journey: The Ribera del Duero

Spain Gourmetour  Madrid, 1999, 3,800 words; extract  

On a trip around Castile León's vineyards in 1998 I met two superlative winemakers, Alejandro Fernández in Ribera del Duero and Manuel Fariñas in Toro. Meeting and talking to them at length persuaded me that the impact of human character, even individuals, may help shape terroir.

Also see: Alternative Agriculture: Organic Wines

Curving like a silver and bottle-green snake, the River Duero winds quietly across the valley where the Ribera del Duero's vineyards are planted. Only when you drive up to the pastures below the low cliffs edging the valley, or gaze down from castles and villages above the river, can you track its course.

Discreet as the Duero may be, it has carved out a dramatic terrain, eroding a wide and flat channel in Castile's high tableland so that the altitude drops to between 700 and 950 metres (nearly 3,000 and 3,120 feet), occasionally just a bit higher - just enough to allow vineyards to be planted. Running along a hundred kilometre stretch of the river banks, the vineyards are heavily concentrated on the north bank just to the west of Aranda de Duero, a medieval crossroads town. Here, buckling and erosion have left patchy alluvial clay and sand over chalky bedrock, and vineyards eat into the stands of pine, wheat and sugar beet fields that once looked set to oust the vines.

Running along a hundred-kilometre stretch of the river, the vineyards are heavily concentrated on the north bank just to the west of Aranda del Duero.

GRAPES, MONKS & MARKETS

Archaeologists suggest that vinegrowing along the Duero dates back to pre-Roman times, but today's wine-making is clearly rooted in the medieval vineyards and grape varieties planted when the river became a defensive line between the reconquered Christian north and the Moslem south.

The vines spread outwards from monasteries such as Sta María de Valbuena (1143) and Sta María de la Vid (1162) - literally St Mary of the Vine - to supply the monks, front-line soldiers and colonists who were repopulating the empty frontier lands. Sta María de la Vid is worth a visit - it stands just outside Peñaranda de Duero and keeps the 13th-century Virgin after whom it is named.

With flourishing markets close at hand - the royal city of Valladolid, Santiago's pilgrimage route, and Medina del Campo's trade fair - wine-making along the Duero became a major industry. As the preamble of a 1590 Valladolid statute put it, this was 'the principal matter and business of this city and its lands'. 

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