A Wine Journey: The Ribera del Duero

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


Contemporary statistics give some idea of the scale on which the wine flowed. French 20th-century historian Fernand Braudel quotes one source estimating that Valladolid's citizens knocked back an average of a hundred litres of wine a year in 1650 at the same time that Aranda del Duero's bodegas are said to have produced 6 million litres of wine annually. 

French historian Fernand Braudel quoted one source estimating that Valladolid’s mid-16th century citizens knocked back an average of a hundred litres a year....

Bodegas tunnelled deep into the earth helped to give temperature control and stability to the wines. At Aranda, you can visit the warren that lies under the town centre, and at numerous bodegas you will be taken down to visit the old vaulted cellars. For a time in the mid-20th century the winemakers abandoned them, but now their value has been realised and they have been reopened or extended by further channelling into the earth.

What, then, were the early wines like? In this part of the Duero most were white although in Toro, further west, towards Portugal, they were already purply-black reds. Then, as drinking fashions shifted to follow French preferences, the bodegas began to make claretes, or rosés tinted the color of cranberry juice by black grapes thrown into the press. Hence the name of the Ribera's emblematic native variety: Tinta del País or Tinto Fino.


A small thin-skinned grape, Tinta del País developed its native character by slow adaptation to new growing conditions. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of other varieties brought here in the last century: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

But it is Tinta del País, probably planted by medieval monks from the same rootstock as Tempranillo, which gives Ribera's reds today their place on the world wine map. It gives the young reds their heady fruitiness, ruby color and rich aromas, and the older wines their complex balance of tannins, acids and fruit which is now beginning to show such a talent for ageing.

Its potential was discovered thanks to one man, Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves, who replanted it experimentally to make fine wine on a small estate named Vega Sicilia in 1864. Its wines became, and still are, legendary, but it was another century before Tinta del País became the basis of today's Ribera del Duero denomination, founded in 1982.

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