Home   About Tasca   Our Menu   Reviews   Directions   Resource Center   Email Us


TEXT:  Vicky Hayword
Taken From Spain Gourmetour September-December 1998 (pages 72-72)

A journey down the River Duero slices east to west through the wide-horizoned landscape of Spain’s central tableland. This is the heartland of Old Castile. Medieval cities and castles bathed by glaring sunlight dominate fields, which stretch as far as the eye can see. Famed for fine wine in medieval times but largely forgotten by this century, the region’s vineyards began to make a spectacular comeback twenty years ago. For all four denominated areas—Ribera de! Duero, Cigales, Rueda, and Toro— the basis of that revival lies in the distant past. Their wines range from aromatic reds to citric whites but share an explosive intensity of flavor from native grape varieties which have acquired that character through centuries of slow adaptation to local growing conditions. But the stakes remain high. A late frost or midsummer hailstorm can wipe out a vineyard’s entire harvest. Perhaps that is why the winemakers themselves are also such a vital part of the story, their strength of character underlying not only that of the wines but also the region’s renaissance as a whole.

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 built above the river, can you track its course.

Discreet as the Duero may be, it has literally shaped this terrain, eroding a wide, flat channel in the meseta, where the altitude drops to between 700 and 950 meters (2,300 and 3,100 ft), just enough to allow vineyards to be planted. Running along a 110 km (68.4 mile) stretch of the river banks, the Ribera de Duero’s 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 uneven patches of alluvial clay and sand over chalky bedrock, and vines increasingly eat into the stands of pine, wheat, and sugar beet fields which once looked set to oust them.

Archaeologists suggest that vine growing along the Duero dates back to pre-Roman. But winemaking today is clearly rooted in the medieval vineyards and grape varieties planted when the river became a defensive line between the re-conquered Christian north and the Muslim south late in the 11th century. Vineyards spread outwards from monasteries such as Santa María de Valbuena (1143) and Santa María de la Vid (1162)—literally St. Mary of the Vine—to supply the monks, frontline soldiers, and colonists repopulating the empty frontier lands.

With flourishing markets close at hand—the royal city of Valladolid, Santiago’s pilgrimage route to the north, and Medina del Campo’s trade fair—winemaking along the Duero became a major industry. As the preamble of a Valladolid statute put it, this was “the principal matter and business of this city and its lands” (1590). Contemporary statistics give some idea of the scale on which the wine flowed. The French 20th century historian Fernand Braudel quotes one source estimating that Valladolid’s citizens knocked back an average of 100 liters of wine a year in 1650, at the same time that Aranda del Duero’s bodegas are said to have produced 6 million liters of wine annually. Bodegas tunneled deep into the earth helped to give temperature control and stability to the wines. Some—such as the 7 km (4 miles) warren under Aranda’s town center—later fell into disuse while others have remained working wine cellars right through the centuries.

What, then, were these early wines like? In this part of the Duero most were white—in Toro they were already purply-black reds—but as drinking fashions shifted to follow the French preference for

red, the bodegas began to make claretes, or rosés tinted the color of cranberry juice by throwing black grapes into the press. Hence the name of the Ribera’s emblematic native variety: Tinta del País or Tinto Fino.

  Signs of Identity

  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 remarkable potential for aging. The grape’s potential was discovered thanks to one man, Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves, who planted it experimentally on a small estate in 1864. Its wines became, and still are, legendary under the name Vega Sicilia, but it was another century—after phylloxera and the vagaries of agricultural policy led to many vineyards being torn up— before Tinta del País became the basis of today’s Ribera del Duero denomination (1982). Since then, however, growers have been swept along by critical and commercial success. Today nearly a hundred bodegas are bottling wine from an average annual harvest of 20 million kilos of grapes—and they can barely keep pace with demand.

The bodegas include every kind of venture cooperatives, estate wineries, and traditional family bodegas— but all are small to midsize operations which leave plenty of room for personality. just outside Roa, the Perez Pascuas brothers, once growers, have become domain winemakers. Their policy of gentle pressing and extraction, blending the resenas and gran reservas (see Glossary on page 130) with Cabernet Sauvignon, and avoiding filtering, gives exceptional wines. The real key, they say, is the age of their vines. “Trying to make a Gran Reserva with fruit from young vines is like sending a toddler out to do a grownup job,” exclaims José Manuel, the bodega’s enologist whose grandfather planted the family’s first, vines—many still in production—seventy years ago.

At Sotillo, in the heart of the growing area, the Arroyo family operation is more traditional. Run by four brothers and sisters. the bodega buys most of their grapes locally and still stands next to the old village wine presses. The red wines are 100 percent unblended Tinta del País. Dark and concentrated, but never aggressive, they are laid down in the family cellar tunneled horizontally through a neighboring hill centuries ago. Heavy and sober, full of fruit, perfume, and matured tannins, these are superb wines.

  Looking to the Future

A stone’s throw from Sotillo, Valduero is another family owned bodega run along more contemporary lines by Iñigo Manso and Yolanda García, who met while training as enologists. They are planting upland slopes, leaving the vines trailing close to the ground, and are building a new bodega powered by solar energy. While they, too, see the long-term future in a shift from young wines to crianzas, reservas, and gran reservas, they still make a rosé like those which held sway here till 25 years ago and are also experimenting with a white made with the largely overlooked native Albillo grape. “We don’t want to lose the old traditions,” explains Iñigo. “Each one has its value.”

Finally, visits to two linked bodegas, Pesquera and Condado de Haza, give you a chance to see the exceptional vision of the man behind two of Ribera’s most celebrated wines. Alejandro Fernández used his father’s wooden heam-press to make Pesquera till 1982, and it still stands next to today’s functional purpose-built bodega that he designed himself. Here an overhead crane system eliminates lost aisle space. Condado de Haza, 20 km (12.4 miles) to the east, is the much more recent realization of his dream to build a bodega in its own vineyard. No expense has been spared—but the deposits, as at Pesquera, are manually operated.

“Of course,” comments Fernández, with a wry grin. “Otherwise I would make wine like everybody else.” Is it a lot more difficult, I ask? He grins again and, by way of an answer, shakes his head and points to his nose and eyes.

What is most striking in the Ribera today is that for all the differences of approach

there is a remarkable shared confidence in the future. Everyone seems to be rebuilding, extending their vineyards, or tunneling out new cellars. Occasionally, the level of investment is truly spectacular, as at Torremilanos, close to Aranda, where the Peñalba family has spent more than a decade putting one of the area’s oldest bodegas (1903) on a secure new footing. That has involved consolidating a 200-hectare (495 acres) vineyard, converting the seigneurial estate house into a grandiose hotel and building a spacious streamlined bodega. It makes splendid, very fruity reds in both traditional and blended styles.

The long-term outlook is indeed rosy: the wines here can only improve over the next decade as new planting matures and winemakers increasingly lay down wines to see their full potential for aging. An added bonus that has scarcely been commented on yet—and is relevant for the whole region—is the minimal level of chemical treatments used throughout this region, a natural advantage given by the extreme dry climate, but one which the dynamic D.O. regulatory body here hopes to develop into growing conditions close to fully organic.

The Strength of Tradition:  Cigales and Toro

A short hop to the northwest, Cigales’ vineyards border the River Pisuerga as it runs south to Valladolid to join the Duero. Famed from the 16th century for their rosés, locally called claretes, this is the most traditional of the four denominations. Most wineries remain small-scale family affairs supplying the local market with robust rosés—either young, or crianza or reserva—which have plenty of kick, body, and the characteristic cranberry red color. The bodegas generally sit close to the anthill like clusters of old cellars on the wine towns’ dusty outskirts. Generally speaking they buy grapes from small-scale growers in village vineyards, or majuelos, whose families do the harvesting; the Cigales wine fiestas that follow are the most local and lively of those around the region.

Chilled stabilization, stainless steel hoppers, crushers and filtering vats have helped to produce subtle, complex wines in recent years, but basic vinification follows traditional formulas. The mixed grape varieties are either simply crushed— not pressed—and the free juice (mosto de yema) left to drip off by gravity; or the juice is mixed with musts from grapes left for a few days on the skins before fermentation starts.

The signs are, however, that change is on the way here as elsewhere. The local grape varieties allowed by the 1991 D.O. regulations— red Tinta del País and Garnacha plus smaller quantities of white Verdejo, Albillo, and Viura—may be supplemented by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are being planted by larger bodegas such as Frutos Villar. Red wines made from Tinta del País and Garnacha are also coming into their own, made both by bordelais methods or with carbonic maceration. Softer, with a less marked personality than those of the Ribera but still full and spicy, they have vanilla overtones.

But the strength of the winemaking tradition can be felt most strongly in Toro, where the wines take their name from the lovely honey-colored medieval town built above the River Duero. Today you still drive in through the old city gate and the old historic quarter keeps forty medieval churches and convents, most of which were built with wine wealth. Such was the reputation of its blackish red wines in medieval times that they were allowed to enter Spanish cities such as Seville and Palencia, which banned other wine imports. And their reputation lingered On: at the end of the 19th century, large quantities were sent by rail to France during the phylloxera crisis. But made above ground in this century, the loss of temperature control in the old underground bodegas produced wines so strong that, as one local joke put it, they were made for chewing rather than drinking.

Old Grapes, New Wines

Toro's revival was thanks largely to the vision of one winemaker, Manuel Fariña, who took over his father’s vineyards thirty years ago. Trained as an enologist, he realized the value of the native grapes, especially Tinta de Toro—another adapted variant of Tempranillo—and of growing conditions. The pebbly alluvial soils here hold the warmth of the sun on freezing winter nights and protect the vines’ roots on scorching summer days, helping to produce intensely flavored grapes.

“The problem,” says Fariña equably, “was that people blamed the grapes for mistakes in their own winemaking.” He revolutionized his wines through a few key moves: earlier harvesting of the grapes, precise temperature control of fermentation, reduced maceration on the skins and careful aging in oak. The resulting wines, named after Toro’s cathedral, the Colegiata, soft and velvety, powerful but not overpowering, have shown the area’s enormous potential, winning admiration first abroad and then at home.

Today, just over a decade after Toro’s denomination status was confirmed in 1987, the growing area—largely planted with Tinta de Toro and Garnacha Tinto— spreads over 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) and, with winemakers such as Vega Sicilia and Alejandro Fernández moving into the area, golden years seem to lie ahead. Manuel Fariña now shares the running of the business with his son and nurtures hopes that more local growers will set up their own bodegas. Meanwhile, in the Fariña laboratories just outside town, he continues with his own experiments. Most recently he has come up with a wonderful white dessert wine—not D.O. but well worth searching out in local restaurants—and a fruity younger red. And he is also working on a caskaged sweet red. That will be one to watch.

Rueda:  The Turn of the Wheel

Following the Duero upstream from Toro on the road back to Madrid, one comes to the historic old town of Tordesillas (see page 87) and Rueda’s vineyards. The countryside here is classic Old Castile, the land of Queen Isabel and her daughter Joanna the Mad, who was kept prisoner here by her family for forty years to prevent her laying claim to the crown. Red brick churches and silos loom up above fiat villages huddled between fields of wheat and sugar beet stretching to the horizon. Only as one draws close to the river, north of La Seca, do the vineyards emerge, planted in the wide band of alluvial soils deposited by the river.

The story runs that when French enologist Professor Emile Peynaud was helping the premier Rioja bodega Marqués de Riscal search for a native grape from which to make white wines, he paused here just long enough to pick and taste just one grape off a roadside vine. It was a native Verdejo, a variety which has grown here since Muslim times and was used to make celebrated caskaged whites here through the medieval centuries. However, after phylloxera swept through at the end of the last century it was largely replaced by the hardier Palomino, used to make sherrylike Pálido wines, and the unique Dorados left out in large courtyards in the sun in curvy glass bottles until they turn a deep gold.

Peynaud knew’ as soon as he tasted his Verdejo grape that this was the right place for Marqués de Riscal to make white wines, and their first light, citric, tangy vintage appeared in 1973. After that, things moved quickly. The area became a Denomination of Origin in 1980 and today 27 bodegas—large and small, traditional and new—make white wines from a 6,000 hectare (14,800 acres) growing area planted with Verdejo; Viura, another native grape used for blending; imported Sauvignon Blanc, which has taken on a new character here in the extreme climate; and finally the old Palomino, now well on the wane, although one hopes enough will survive to make Dorado, a favorite cooking wine with chefs.

Perhaps the most striking feature of any visit here is the heavy investment in technology, not only in the bodegas—primarily for coldfermentation and filtering— but also in the vineyards. Mechanized fieldcare now includes harvesting, usually done in the cool of the night in the space of a few days.

Then one notices how the wines themselves have evolved. Marqués de Riscal showed the way with cold maceration techniques giving fuller, flowery wines, which are now made by many bodegas; a few have also begun to make oaky, caskfermented Verdejo varietal whites. At Bodegas de Crianza de Castilla La Vieja, Antonio Sanz has gone further, also making sparkling cava and oak-fermented Chardonnay as well as traditional whites and reds, to which many others are now turning their attention. They may be developed separately under the Medina del Campo regional quality denomination. Happily, they have also decided to keep making the oldfashioned Dorados that sit soaking up the sun outside.

But not all winemakers here are persuaded by the newer wines. Vinos Sanz, on the edge of town, is a small family bodega now in its sixth generation that made the shift back to Verdejo in the 1970s but since then has chosen to stick with the young, light, lemony wines built around the its characteristically long aftertaste. Production is small, with enologist Juan Carlos Ayala Sanz putting the emphasis on a personal style: careful harvesting, preferably by hand, into oldfashioned boxes; separate fermentation by variety of freedripped and pressed musts; and no maceration or vacuum filtering.

“I’m not against technological innovation,” he explains, “but I’m only interested in what’s right for our particular wines and grapes—we’re still looking for the very intense dry flavor, light nose and long aftertaste that’s most characteristic of Verdejo.”

Finally, at Bodegas Antaño, there is a chance not only to visit a state-of-the-art bodega run by computerized controls, but also to make an excursion into a vast network of underground bodegas spreading over several square kilometers. Owner José Ruíz, originally a restaurateur, is doggedly restoring them to their former glory. After years of work, the excavations are still turning up new levels and cavernous extensions of unknown age. Ruíz remains modest about his ambitions.

“I am not a wine expert,” he explains, “but I do love this area. Also I am convinced that in the long term this area, carefully developed, will be one of the most important for wine in the country.”

One may say his underground explorations are a luxury. But one may also wonder if, as the wheel of history turns, it may not turn out to be another case of personal vision, sketching out the scale to which the wine industry will grow once again.


Vicky Hayward is a writer, journalist, and book editor whose articles about culture, the arts, society, and food are published internationaly. She lives in Madrid.

Return to Resource Page.

Home   About Tasca   Our Menu   Reviews   Directions   Resource Center   Email Us

© 2000, Tasca Restaurant. All rights reserved.