Get Ready For The "Other" Riojas: A Cheat Sheet for Lesser Known Spanish Wines
Ask any casual American drinker to name a Spanish wine, and he or she will likely get as far as the word "Rioja" before drawing a complete blank. But the truth is that the Rioja region’s younger brothers—Ribera del Duero and Rueda—are producing some of the best juice in the country.
Rueda was approved as a D.O. (Desigination of Origin) by Spain's Ministry of Agriculture in 1980, specializing in Verdejo, a white grape valued for its fresh, aromatic qualities. Ribera de Duero achieved the status only two years later, in 1982, and now produces even more wine than Rueda in the form of Tempranillo (yes, that same deeply-colored grape you've enjoyed in the fruit-forward, full-bodied wines of Rioja). Today, there are 67 wineries in Rueda, and 277 in Ribera del Duero. Of the 32,000 acres of planted vineyards in Rueda, 90 percent are Verdejo, while 95 percent of all grapes grown in Ribera are Tempranillo.
So why might you only be hearing about these two regions now, when viticulture in each dates back to the 11th or 12th century? No, it's not that Alfonso I the Battler of Navarre had a better PR team for Rioja than King Alfonso VI of Castile did for Ribera or Rueda (shout out to Spanish history buffs). The fact is that for centuries, Rueda had primarily produced Sherry-like, oxidized white (or brownish if we're being honest) wine, while Ribera focused on bulk reds for mass consumption and blending.
But winemaking in these two regions has radically evolved over the last 30 years, with Rueda now emphasizing fresh-tasting Verdejo, and Ribera del Duero bottling Tempranillo structured enough to age for years to come. These days, winemakers are even discovering the joys of the many different microclimates these regions have to offer, tinkering with various types of soil, altitude, or slope angle for sweeter or more acidic fruit, resulting in more nuanced, mature creations.
Here's a breakdown of some of the must-try wines from these two regions that will appeal to all different types of drinkers, depending on their tastes.
Verdejo from Rueda For white wine drinkers who are into...
For an introduction to Rueda's Verdejo in its purest form, enjoy either of these fresh, fruity wines within a year (or ideally 2-3 months) after bottling. Javier Sanz's version is especially lively and balanced, with a bold aroma and a bit of acidity. Meanwhile, count on Carrasvinas—one of the very first wineries in the DOC—for an ultra-straightforward take on the grape: refreshing and angular, with good acidity and notes of citrus peel and lemon. Their Verdejo will give you reason to water the plants with your inferior Sauvignon Blanc stash.
…bright and zippy:
The region's grapes are known for green apple, citrus, and kiwifruit flavors, and Vega de la Reina is no exception. Similarly, Avelino Vegas's Verdejo quite literally pops in your mouth with a brief, small burst of carbonation after enticing with exotic fruits and white flowers. It's less sexual than – but just as satisfying as – it sounds.
Verdejo may be fresh and citrusy like Sauvignon Blanc, but it has the ageability of Chardonnay. Côte de Beaune, the southern district of the Cote d'or in Burgundy, produces some of the best barrel-aged Chardonnay in the world, and Vina Mayor's take on barrel-aged Verdejo is quite similar to some of the products you'll find in the famed French village – only you'll get way more bang for your buck. Why drop $40 when you can pay half the price for similarly elegant, creamy stuff? Exactly.
For those with Champagne taste on a Spanish wine budget, Mocén uses the traditional "méthode champenoise" to make its sparkling wine. With that said, this is nothing like Champagne – and probably nothing like anything you've had before. Mocén's Vino Espumoso is dry, but manages to take on the characteristics of sweet-and-sour apple candy. That's not to say it's for kids, but rather, fruity stuff any imbibing adult should experience at least once.
Fans of Phish, Ben & Jerry's, and Bernie Sanders will love Menade, the only "ecological winery" in Rueda. Menade ferments all of its wine spontaneously (i.e. with atmospheric yeast), and their Nosso – marked by aromas of white fruit, laurel, and fennel—undergoes malolactic fermentation without any sulfur added, making the product "certified natural organic." It's an elegant, well-balanced wine for those who also happen to like planet Earth.
Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero for red wine drinkers who are into...
…simple and affordable:
Founded in 1927, the first winery in Ribera del Duero ages its 100 percent Tempranillo in American oak barrels and French oak barrels for 12 months. The result is a deliciously accessible, full-bodied wine, bursting with black fruit and new oak aromas of vanilla, baking spice, and wood. It's a little flinty, too, as Ribera grapes meet with more minerals and less rain than in Rioja, where grapes tend to be fruitier and more abundant. It's not incredibly complex, but for around $15 a bottle, who can complain?
Aalto's Mariano García is the former winemaker for Vega Sicilia (Ribera del Duero's most famous—and expensive—label). His classy Aalto PS (Pagos Seleccionados, or "selected plots") is equally intense as it is silky and luscious. Our other pick, Finca Villacreses' Nebro—characterized by subtle French oak notes and dark, ripe fruit—can be purchased for no less than $150. Store both of these and don't drink for a minimum of five years from vintage year. Patience, grasshopper.
Well-made Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero can stand up to fine red Burgundy. Even the Old World-style label of Goyo Garcia's 100% Tempranillo reflects this – and could be aged to bring out more soy, mushroom, or earth notes. "The tendency today is towards concentration and extraction; this is the style that was made back in the day," Garcia explains. Like Burgundy, his wine is aged in old barrels, which allows the more delicate fruit to speak for itself and not get overwhelmed by the wood.
…tiny, craft producers:
This tiny winemaker only releases 1000 bottles year. Total. Its flagship product ain't easy to find in the United States (okay, realistically you're not gonna find it in the United States), but be sure to seek it out if you find yourself in northern Spain. This spontaneously fermented, boutique wine is balanced and full-bodied, but still fresh and fruity, with some of the most structure and acid you'll find in any wine from Ribera del Duero.
…traditional, old-school producers:
With a 16th century stone press, the legendary Alejandro Fernandez revolutionized the Ribera del Duero wine industry in 1972 with Pesquera. "I don't dictate the harvest – the grapes do," the old-school winemaker waxes poetically. Hints of funky, meaty Brettanomyces (wild yeast) peak out amidst notes of cardamom, tomato, and cumin in his deeply complex Tinto Reserva, aged for 24 months in American oak and a year in the bottle. But don't agitate this rich wine while in Fernandez's presence, or he'll tell you to "stop swirling so aggressively, and treat your wine like a woman."
Pago de Los Capellanes offers the cleanest, sleekest, most pristine wines made in Ribera del Duero. The winery itself – an ultra-modern achievement of architecture designed by the winemaker's daughter – reflects their internationally neutral products. The 2012 Crianza lacks a reflection of terroir, but offers a super-focused and polished interpretation of Tempranillo in exchange.