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The Duero River Valley

The Duero River Valley encompasses the wine production area of Castilla y León vineyards around the River Duero. This is the old seat of Spanish nobility when the Moors still controlled the 9southern portion of the country, and it extends as far northwest as Bierzo, though that area has more in common with Green Spain than with the rest of Castilla y León.

The remarkable Duero River offers shelter to some of Spain’s greatest wine regions. It originates high in the Sierra de Urbión, at the top of the Sistema Ibérico, and 940 kilometers later empties into the Atlantic at Oporto, the city in Portugal that gives its name to a famous fortified wine. If Portugal’s remote Douro River is downriver, then those Duero River Spanish vineyards are very high in elevation indeed. That altitude brings advantages, such as long and cool growing conditions and cool–to–cold nighttime temperatures that preserve acidity, but also disadvantages—there will be vintages in which the wines don’t ripen properly.

Some of Spain’s old and beautiful architecture is rooted in the Duero River 10valley, and the region’s most famous estate, Vega Sicilia. Some of the buildings are historical and striking, but inside those doors, the winery is as ultramodern as any in the world.

But the ancient pervades: the aqueducts at Segovia offer evidence of a Roman presence, and vinous artifacts abound; El Cid fought for Spain’s unification here. Now wheat fields and sugar beet plantations alternate with the vines; the breadbasket and the Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Toro vineyards lie together in the triangle Valladolid/Zamora/Segovia. High elevation viticulture this may be, but the region is still nestled between two mountain ranges: in the south, stand the Sierra de Guadarrama and Sierra de Gredos; to the north are the protective barriers of the Sierras de la Demanda and Sierra de Cantábria.

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Arlanza

Mirroring the Duero River just 50 kilometers to the south, the Arlanza River offers slightly milder growing conditions, slightly deeper soils in the vineyard sites, and a slightly higher amount of limestone and calcareous soils than Ribera del Duero. In short, this is a very promising region for Tempranillo (Tinta del País), as well as Mencía, Garnacha, and Bordeaux varieties.

For further information, DO Arlanza Website. (Only available in Spanish)

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Arribes

Previously known as Arribes del Duero, the name (like Ribera del Duero) refers to the banks of the River Duero, only this is the part of the river that forms the border with Portugal. The vineyards contain high-altitude sites and a mix of soils from limestone to slate. This very young DO has only about 1,000 hectares of vines, and many of those vines are not the usual Duero suspects: Juan García, Rufete, Garnacha, and Mencía, besides the ubiquitous Tempranillo. There is talk of the consejo regulador allowing the grapes Bruñal, Bastardillo Chico, and Puesta en Cruz for DO wines.

For further information, DO Arribes Website. (Only available in Spanish)

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Bierzo

Here, some fashionable areas begin to produce wines of outstanding quality. High–quality winemaking, led by certain estates, has lent to the area the status of “hot property.” Because of the hand labor involved in working the difficult and steep slopes of some of these vineyards (some of which would be classified as “Double Diamond” if they were snow–covered), the wines from these elevated properties will never be cheap to produce or consume. But lower elevated, less favored sites are the source of increasing amounts of less expensive Mencía-based wines as well. The top vineyards are found as high as 700 meters, with a mix of chalk and clay in the elevated vineyards and alluvial soils in the lower vineyards.

The Mencía bush vines grown on these mountainsides are protected from the cold northern weather and neither lack for rain nor suffer from excessive humidity, yielding grapes that are ripe but retain their taut acidities. The flavors and aromas are similar to those of Cabernet Franc: red cherries and cranberries with a dusty, dried note. The bushes of rose hips that pop up along the roads and vine rows suggest a nearly identical aroma too. The usual difficulties of mountain viticulture are partially mitigated by reliable, moderate rainfall, and the occasional frosts tend to hit the lesser, lower vineyards than the great ones higher up. But elevation is a relative term here; the highest vineyards can reach 750 meters; most are much lower down the slope, and they almost all enjoy a relatively mild climate, neither cool and wet like Rías Baixas nor hot and dry, as further inland.

The intensity of these wines, which range from light and fruity/herbal to powerful and almost brooding/spicy, is surely a product of elevation and the availability of old vines, and the slate and quartzite seams that pop out here and there are believed to be a critical factor as well.

For further information, visit DO Bierzo Website.

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Cigales

Along the river Pisuerga, a tributary of the Duero, are Tempranillo and Garnacha vineyards that have been cultivated for generations to grow grapes for rosado wines. But a growing number of producers are trying to do more than that, and there are enough hearty red wines to recommend that the wine world watch this space. Protected by the Pisuerga River and buffered by the Cervalos and Torozos ranges, the area creeps into the busy city of Valladolid. Like Ribera del Duero to the south, there are great contrasts in temperature from day to night and from summer to winter, and with sand, loam, clay, and limestone soils available, excellent wines are possible for those who have chosen to pursue that market. This was once a busy Roman wine region, and only a century ago the production was twice what it is today, so opportunity abounds. As with the other DOs in the area, Tempranillo is rechristened as Tinta del País, but either that grape or Garnacha can be utilized for rosé wines (either or both at a level of 85%). Red wines have a minimum requirement of Tinta del País (60%). Any white grapes grown in the area are used for the rosado wines.

For further information, visit DO Cigales Website.

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Ribera del Duero

The DO holds innumerable treasures for the wine traveler: great history (2,000-year–old Bacchic mosaics), brilliant food (the lamb here is just crazy good) and, of course, fantastic wines. But the region’s fame for wine is more recent than one might imagine.

In 1864, Don Eloy Lecanda, founder of Vega Sicilia, began crafting a wine from Tempranillo and soon enhanced his wines with Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. Through most of the twentieth century, Vega Sicilia was the most expensive wine made in Spain, and the isolation of Spain only served to make the wine rarer and more alluring. For years, no other estate had emerged from the region, leaving a clean sweep in the creative inspiration of the owners to produce wines of excellence.

Alejandro Fernández began producing wine at his estate, Pesquera, in 1972. With all the hype associated with his neighbor, Vega Sicilia, this trailblazer had to face some challenges after 10 years in business. Fortunately, the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., has contributed to this success story. He raved about the 1983 vintage and with his review of the 1985 Pesquera, placed Fernández’s wines squarely in the brilliant tradition of Vega Sicilia.

Fernández and other producers in the area sought out DO status in 1982, and their successes offered proof that others here could make great wine. But Ribera del Duero lies high atop these elevated plateaux, it’s often cold, and the season is short. Visit the area and it seems flat near the river, only slowly rising up to the edges of limestone cliffs as you reach the widest parts of the “banks” of the Duero. But elevation is a critical element among these vineyards; the lowest among them is over 750 meters above sea level, and some are 300 meters higher still. A hundred kilometers of nearly continuous vineyards offer some of the most intriguing red wines in the world, so it’s hard to recall that only a few decades ago there were long vineyard–free gaps along this landscape.

But this broad and pretty valley enjoys a gentle landscape; the vineyards to the north and south enjoy a soft slope towards the river, nestled in pine trees. The soils seem uniform to the eye but are not: alluvial deposits rise up through clays and sand and chalk in varying amounts, alluvial soils dominate near the river, not surprisingly, but marl and schist crop up at times, and limestone dominates more on the higher hillsides and in the east than in the center of the appellation or by the river. The subsoils also vary, and these subtle differences in soils and gentle slopes reflect the delightful complexity that the region seems to express most eloquently in Ribera del Duero wines.

That complexity doesn’t spring necessarily from the grapes, for there are not many different grapes; more than 90% of the plantings are Tempranillo (also called Tinta del País or Tinto Fino), though some of the numbers are the fuzzy products of mixed plantings. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec all have been here for decades. Perhaps most important to the style of the wines is the drastic diurnal shift from warm daytime temperatures to cold nights (a 10°C difference in one day is not unusual), which leaves its mark upon the wines.. Frosts, a constant late–spring worry, are not uncommon, and mists arising from the river can compound the vintage challenges.

But Tinto Fino, the region’s version of Tempranillo, loves this climate. It likes to cool off, and it likes to sun itself in the warming glow of a bright day. Because of a relatively short growing cycle, the wines can end up with hard tannins; a less–than–ripe vintage can be pretty abrasive. On the other hand, the great vintages are, well, great.

As with Rioja, the Crianzas must spend a minimum of one year in small barrels. While the rest of Spain is content with any size of barrel (many areas use barrels that can be 1,000 liters), Ribera del Duero extends the focus upon oak and demands that the wine barrels be no larger than 225 liters. The aging requirements are the same as for Rioja.

For further information visit the Ribera del Duero Regulatory Council Website.

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Rueda

While red wines are produced here, it’s generally only the white wines that matter. Indeed, there is one vine in particular, Verdejo, which produces wines of great crispness and occasionally of wonderful richness and texture. Other white grapes are grown here as well: Viura is used for blending; Sauvignon Blanc is utilized for aromatics; and Palomino is grown here because, not so long ago, Rueda wines were all rancio in style, and that oxidized style lent itself better to the Palomino grape. But in the 1970s Marqués de Riscal, assisted by the Bordeaux enologist Emile Peynaud, led a charge to create a fresh white wine and saw an affinity between the grapes Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viura.

Growers such as Ángel Rodríguez were instrumental in promoting the Verdejo grape as a stand–alone variety and in sustaining the vine during a long era of disinterest; by keeping the faith, they provided the plant material that has seen Verdejo explode in the DO, as well as outside of it. Verdejo is finally being heralded on its own, though it is often found with the supporting actors Sauvignon Blanc and Viura, mainly because there isn’t enough Verdejo to go around.

The DO has grown to nearly 8,000 hectares (20% of that is planted to red varieties) with the clay and sand soils providing reasonable water retention during the warm times, and a relatively mellow landscape allows healthy yields and even vintages. The label Rueda Superior requires at least 75% Verdejo, while the simple Rueda only demands 40% Verdejo and/or Sauvignon Blanc, with the remainder comprised of Viura or Palomino (usually Viura).

For further information, visit DO Rueda Website.

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Tierra de León

A DO in evolution, its vineyards spread across a swath of elevated alluvial banks, with clay and limestone. The grape mix reflects the neighborhood: Verdejo, Albariño, Godello, Prieto Picudo (a fascinating red grape), Mencía, Tempranillo, and Garnacha.

For further information, visit DO Tierra de León Website. (Only available in Spanish)

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Tierra del Vino de Zamora

As with DO Tierra de León, the grapes that have proven themselves elsewhere may be less powerful here, though they can provide pleasure and even delightful values. But the climate of Tierra del Vino de Zamora is more challenging than all the rest of the DOs profiled here: frankly, it is dry and hot when it’s not dry and frigid.

For further information, visit DO Tierra del Vino de Zamora Website.

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Toro

This once-ignored DO is exploding with vinous energy. Manuel Fariña brought it to prominence decades ago with excellent wines at fantastic prices, and more recently, seemingly everyone with an ego and a fat wallet has decided to try their hand as well. The massive character of Toro’s full, plush, and sometimes overpowering Tempranillo-based wine is the result of the warm conditions, ideal exposures, and very friable soils. The elevation, as with Spain’s other top spots, gives the wines structure, relative elegance, and ageability, though most of the blockbuster wines of the DO are still in their infancy. All that attention has sent prices spiraling upward, but a good deal of Toro wines remain very good values.

The elevations are slightly lower than Ribera del Duero to the east, the land is a bit flatter, and yields can be quite generous. But the happily vexing issue is how, even with higher yields, the wines can be so intense, and the same can be said for the older vines. Some of the century–old bush vines offer yields that would make a young vine blush, and they lose not a bit of quality in the process. It’s an amazing and intriguing region.

For further information, visit DO Toro Website.

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