Red wines from Spanish region full of surprises

 
 
Published11/6/2007 2:41 PM

Small region, big tastes: Spanish reds from Ribera del Duero are full of surprises

Many years ago, our tasting buddies Fred Tasker and Fred Barger were obsessed with an expensive Spanish wine called Vega Sicilia.

 

This was unusual at the time because Spanish wine, to us, mostly meant Torres's inexpensive Sangre de Toro, with the plastic bull attached to the neck. Vega Sicilia came from an obscure area of Spain that wasn't even an official wine zone.

Whenever our group held a BYOB tasting of expensive red wines, everyone else would bring the latest California Cabernet or a fine Bordeaux. The Freds would bring Vega Sicilia -- and it would always be the most talked-about wine of the evening. We enjoyed it but generally found it more fascinating than delicious, with great fruit but so many years of oak aging that it seemed less lively than most of the wines we truly loved.

Now, we can only hope that the Freds, who later also became wine writers, were as prescient in their stock investments. Spain is one of the wine world's hotspots, for reds, whites and even sparklers and roses. The reds of Ribera del Duero, a 70-mile-long region along the Duero river in north central Spain, received formal status in 1982 and, thanks to pioneers such as Alejandro Fernandez and his Pesquera, are considered among Spain's greatest wines. Vega Sicilia is still famous, and even more expensive.

Still, despite the renown of Ribera del Duero wines among wine lovers, they haven't been widely available, until recently. It is a relatively small region, with about 50,000 acres of vineyards, but there are now about 225 producers making about five million cases a year, and the wines are far more available in wine shops than ever. We searched all over the U.S. to make sure of this and, when we were convinced, we ordered a large sample to see what was out there. With the arrival of fall, now is definitely the time for this soulful red.

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Like Rioja, Ribera del Duero is made predominantly from the Tempranillo grape (which is called Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais locally) and, like Rioja, Ribera is classified by how long it is aged before release. Crianza wines age at least a year in oak; reservas age at least three years, including one in oak; and gran reservas age five years, including at least two in oak. We set our price target at $75, but most of the wines in our sample cost far less.

We bought our wines from retail shelves in seven states. Our question, as always, was simple: If you pick up a Ribera del Duero for dinner tonight at your local store, what are you likely to find?

The answer: The odds are outstanding that you will pick up an excellent wine that also is a great deal.

These aren't shy wines. They tend to be dark and smell like wet, rich earth. Their tastes are big, with dark fruit, like blackberries and blueberries.

There's often a hint of chocolate and often quite a bit of sage, with a splash of lemon and abundant oak. Sometimes, there's a little bit of leather, cedar or tobacco on the nose.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This big wine holds two surprises. The first is how very dry the good ones are. Considering that they just about burst with ripe fruit, you might expect them to seem sweet, but they're beautifully dry, especially on the finish.

The second surprise is that, for such big, earthy wines, the best ones also have a great deal of Bordeaux-like structure -- nice edges and complex layers of tastes. All of this adds up to a very interesting, soulful and tasty mouthful of wine that requires fairly lusty food.

Of course, not all of them were winners. Any of these tastes can be too much if the balance is off. Some tasted too herbal while others tasted too oaky, even with some off-putting vanilla flavor. A few seemed quite alcoholic (while they were generally 14 percent or 14.5 percent alcohol, the alcohol wasn't overly apparent in most). Some simply seemed clumsy -- Dottie described one as "lemony ink," and we can't say we've ever used that description before.

But the good ones were very good indeed, and the average quality level was high. Not only that, but because these aren't well-known, the prices tended to be excellent. One wine, called Torres de Anguix, was a beauty: fascinating, earthy and filled with dark fruit. We couldn't believe we paid $9.99 for it -- truly one of the best bargains of the year. (The importer, Hand Picked Selections of Warrenton, Va., says 12,000 cases were made and more than 3,000 were imported and distributed in 26 states. The suggested price is $11 to $13.)

The best of the tasting went to Emilio Moro 2004 ($29.99). Legaris Crianza 2003 ($18), Pago de los Capellanes Crianza 2004, ($26.99), Bodegas Aalto 2004 ($57) and Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2003 ($24.99) were among the standouts.

Here's more good news: Time after time, we found that these wines improved through the evening, as they warmed and as they got some air. They were intricate, with so many hints of flavors, from bittersweet chocolate to sage and sometimes a little mint, that they changed and grew throughout the night, holding our interest for a long time. Not only does this mean that a single bottle will be enjoyable throughout dinner and beyond, but this is a good indication of their aging potential.

Our advice: Make a fairly substantial meal this weekend -- veal and peppers, perhaps, or paella, or roast lamb -- and pick up a Ribera del Duero. If it's young and you don't have all night to linger, you might want to decant it. Then drink and eat lustily. With this wine, it's hard not to.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher write Tastings for the Wall Street Journal. Write them at wine@wsj.com and read more about wine in their book, "Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion: Red, White, and Bubbly to Celebrate the Joy of Living." Melanie Grayce West contributed to this column.

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