January is a time for dormant vines, hushed wineries, and touring wine makers. It signals a season of invitations to trade and press dinners, events, and tastings that can stress even the loosest calendar. I managed to squeeze in a Vega Sicilia tasting hosted by Spain’s Ribera del Duero viticultural region, or DO. Spain’s de facto first growth does not beat a regular path to my cellar or table at $300-$400 for a releasing bottle of Unico, and $150 for Valbuena. It could just be me, but with so many emergent and exciting DO’s like Toro, Priorat, Bierzo, and Valdeorras it is easier to ignore more traditional Riojas and Riberas that are scratching the outer limits of pricing and elegance, no matter what one makes of their quality. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the DO tasting to revisit Vega Sicilia and take a broader look at 20+ more affordable and recently released Riberas. Also, Deborah Hanson of Brookline’s now venerable wine and tapas hangout boasting Boston’s finest Spanish wine list, Taberna de Haro , would be in the kitchen.
I will get to a the Vega tasting notes, a general impression of the DO’s releases, and a couple of recommendations in a moment after one slice of life story about this event. WineZag is my ticket to a growing dance card of tasting opportunities like this one. I always take my first step into these rooms with kid-in-the-candy-store, pinch-me-please, knowledge-hungry wine enthusiasm, to only be followed by a second step as wine writer. Maybe because these events are feeding a passion and don’t feel like work to me, I am easily saddened by jaded, rude, or uninspired wine press, educators, and retailers when they organize for regional, distributor, or winemaker events. It is unfair to paint the whole trade and press pool this way, but the sentiment breaks out from the background in enough inappropriate ways that make me feel sad for the organizers.
The DO representative was doing a good job of laying out geological, climatic, and varietal characteristics when she mentioned how the”harvest police” leave handcuffs in their cars enforcing the DO’s maximum 3.1 ton per acre rule since most growers historically self enforce quality inspired yields that do not exceed 1.6 tons per acre. In this room of 30 or so writers, educators, distributors, sommeliers, and retailers happily swirling and slurping 2000 Unico and 2006 Valbuena while we expanded our understanding of the region, one attendee outwardly challenged the DO claim of self enforced yield limits. Antagonistically and incessantly, he suggested scheming greedy growers were pushing all the way to the legal limit and harvesting at 3.1 tons only to ride on the backs of more serious growers establishing DO consumer quality impressions through lower yields. Please, who really cares and just go ahead and pick your wines carefully if you believe this. This 60+ year old trade attendee just kept on asking the question, making accusatory claims and grew angrier with each authentic answer suggesting his concern was simply not a factor. He pushed hard with his out of fashion sport jacket, his dead father’s tie, some make-me-look-serious eyeglasses and all the pompous disposition that makes me want to wrap him in a flag and burn his ugly American rudeness to the ground. I think I feel better now and can carry on with more useful information.
There is an “everybody wants to be like Burgundy” terroir theme that is hard to get away from. Certainly, of course,Piedmont is like Burgundy with vineyards split in tiny parcels expressing completely different styles made in minuscule quantities by multiple winemakers. And no doubt, the Rhone is like Burgundy with growers working venerable vineyards like La Landonne expressing site terroir ala Burgundy’s Clos Vougeot . And California stakes Burgundian claims with the likes of Gary’s, Pisoni, and Rosella vineyards. Ribera del Duero takes its shot at it too, with multiple microclimates and varying soils and topography. Interestingly enough, Ribera translates as “river bank” and the region runs through the valley from east to west with the Duero river. The region is also marked with rolling hills and alternating altitudes, with each level of land, starting at the riverbank, classified by name. Campinas for river bank sites with clay and alluvial soils, laderas representing higher slopes and limestone soils that offer more minerality, and then the Cuestas above the Laderas which are harder to work and farm. The cooling altitudes provide relief from the 100+ degree days that make Tempranillo grown here unique compared to fruit from warmer regions around Spain, with vines that can rest at night and more comfortably fulfill required growing seasons. 95% of the vineyards rely on the miserly seventeen inches of annual rainfall without any installed irrigation, and bask in 2400 hours of sunlight each year. So deep roots and stressed vines define the style of Ribera del Duero wines. Every bottle has to contain 75% Tempranillo (also called Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais) and can be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, or Garnacha Tinta to receive the official DO bottle stamp.
The Vega Tasting
This was a simple tasting, but valuable. Only two wines; the recently released 2000 Unico and the yet to be released 2006 Valbuena. Both wines are magic…and expensive. They are worth the splurge, and you can easily understand the differences in winemaking technique between the two Vega wine styles in a two bottle side by side tasting like this one. The first fermentation for Valbuena occurs in steel,but oak for Unico. The Valbuena’s malolactic fermentation takes place in cement vats, the Unico in oak. The Valbuena rests in wood for three and a half years, the Unico a minimum of seven. Unico rests in bottle for at least three more years before release, the Valbuena a minimum of one and a half.
So, you get a prettier, mildly sweet black cherry nose from the Valbuena, with hints of charcoal, tobacco, candied fruits, and a touch of truffle. It has a darker brick color and delivers an elegant and silken mouth feel that makes the wine easy and seductive to drink. The Unico is a deeper black color, barely translucent at the rim’s edge. The wine offers more advanced aromatics, like older Bordeaux (the region was founded by a Bordelaise and still shares some oceanic and climatic influences), containing a ridiculously addictive sweet perfume, currant, tobacco leaf, tar, and Asian aromatic that reminds me of walking around Hong Kong Harbor. The wine is a brooder, albeit tamed by the progressions of wood and bottle age prior to release. It is a special occasion wine….very special occasion at $300+. I feel lucky to have tried it and you will too when you get the chance.
The broader tasting offered mostly simpler wines showing off their Ribera roots of power, earth, and occasional touches of class. There were two wines of of divergent styles worth recommending, one more traditional and the other a more modern rendition.
2005 Vega Real S.L. Crianza ($17 ***1/2)
From New Age Imports and available now, the wine offers a traditional Ribera impression with earth and cherry on the nose, power combined with elegance to create great balance. This wine is a superb value at $17.
2006 Aalto ($45 ****)
You want to not like this Eric Solomon import for its modern character. A modern winery, that is arguably the most important new project in Spain in years, uses gravity systems and updated techniques for their fruit from a couple of top vineyards they acquired along the way. And, the winery has everything to do with its cofounder Mariano Garcia, former winemaker at Vega Sicilia. The 2006 is a big mouthful of wine, rich black and blue fruits, liqueur like consistency, coffee on the nose, and a completely satisfying finish. This wine is not for traditionalists, but it combines enough elegance in its power (a seemingly poster child quality in Ribera wines) to astound most tasters. The mouth feel is addictive. I think it is a bargain at $45.
This closing thought shares what I think the DO hosts would end up supporting. Drink Ribera. Drink Spain. And, will the guy that wants to bust the region’s imaginary yield pushers please stay home next time?