I eagerly accepted when the Consejo Regulador de Ribera del Duero invited me to be the 1st outsider (read: non-Spaniard) to participate in their annual vintage assessment. I’d been to Ribera a few times ‘round, and have attended numerous D.O. tastings, but was eager to revisit the region, increase my familarity with it, and blind-taste a variety of raw wines strictly to evaluate their quality.
An added attraction was that this exercise forced me to consider what exactly the qualification means, and what it is intended to do. One wag chortled “what, you’re going to judge whether it’s a 3, a 4 or a 5?!” — True, since 1982, when the D.O. was established, the panel accorded a “regular” assessment to only two vintages (1984 and 1993); all others were “Buena,” “Muy Buena” and “Excelente. On the other hand, one can argue that improvements in viticulture and modern vinification methods have facilitated grade inflation and bracket creep, along with preventing a grade of “deficiente.” Further, a warm, arid clime like Ribera is unlikely to have a washout (“deficiente”) vintage that might blight a more marginal, or tenuous area. But there is vintage variation: 2007 was a very difficult vintage, with a cool, wet summer capped by a late September frost, producing wines of inconsistent quality; 2008 was also cooler than normal but not so wet, thus the wines are more elegant and consistent; and as for 2009 and 2010, I’ll discuss them further below.
Ribera del Duero is a young appellation, founded at a time when bigger wines, especially in the New World were on the ascent. Cynics argue that that Ribera del Duero wines run the spectrum from A to B; critics snipe that they lack elegance, that their fleshiness results from manipulation rather than terroir expression. These views however, either misunderstand what Ribera wines are about, or result from the taster imposing their own biases on the wines. Certainly, the big, fleshy Riberas appear to predominate at large, cacophonous survey tastings of the region, often drowning out quieter expressions and alternative styles, but that’s common to these sort of large tastings. That the region has more diversity than many give it credit for became clearer to me in the quiet of the assessment, as well as my time visiting various bodegas.
The evaluation was held a week before the official opening of the Consejo’s new headquarters, and construction workers were still scurrying around to have every last detail in place before King Juan Carlos I arrived for the dedication. Even if a new paint smell lingered in the hallways, our tasting conditions were perfect. We were in a silent, sleek, pristine, dedicated room with proper tasting equipment: desks outfitted with under-desk lighting and spittoons.
The panelists, apart from myself, primarily included local winemakers and enologists (including those from Vega Sicilia, Felix Callejo, Viña Arnáiz, and Viña Vilano), plus a few Spanish journalists and a sommelier.
Ten 2010 samples sat before us. All we knew generally was that they the Consejo’s technical team selected samples to represent wines from all areas of the (rather large) appellation; that they all were intended for further ageing; and that they reflected a variety of producers, i.e. that they could have come from small estates, large estates, or cooperatives. A variation in quality was deliberate. We received detailed information from the Consejo regarding the growing season and harvest parameters, as well as how it compared to other vintages and the norm for the region. Thus, we knew the season started with a moderate fall followed by with a typical winter, with temperatures slightly cooler than the norm. Spring, especially during May, was much cooler than normal in the region, off by about 0.5˚ C, causing frost problems in the first half of the month, after budburst, delaying the ripening cycle. (With Ribera located at such high altitudes, frosts are commonly a problem early and late in the growing season). The cool weather continued into June. July and August were warmer than historical norms. Rainfall was double that of 2009, but still within historical norms; the most important element was first, a storm on June 27th primarily in the area around Roa, with damaging hail and flooding in isolated parcels; and later an intense rainy spell during the harvest, between October 9-11, which fortunately were followed by windy days that quickly dried both the vines and the soil. The harvest, which began on September 20th, concluded on November 3d, and was relatively relaxed, producing very healthy very healthy fruit, though in very small quantities: the crop was down over 18% in volume compared to the year prior. Perhaps similar to 2010 Bordeaux, these conditions allowed a slow but complete polyphenolic development, along with retaining acidities and freshness (as opposed to overripeness) of fruit.
As for the individual samples, we were given a sheet telling us whether it was drawn from vat or barrique, along with the technical parameters of the wine (pH, TA, abv, etc.) and how they compared with historical norms (taken from 1996-2010).
So, on to the wines! How to judge? It might be easy just to look at the top wines, especially the ones that felt “aspirational.” But in this instance we were given wines from various levels of producer and reflecting different styles. I felt the die had been cast in advance when we were reminded that last year, the panel anointed 2009 an “excelente.” 2009 was a warm vintage, bestowing rich, voluptuous wines conceivably aligned with the bold style of wine with which Ribera is now associated. As I mentioned above, the weather, however, differed in 2010: it was cooler, with a longer growing season. Sitting there with the wines facing me, I thought, ok, just dive in, think nothing, rather, say nothing– just receive what the wines have to say. Let them talk to me, and try to understand that based on objective parameters of quality: complexity, balance of the structural elements, length on the palate and on the finish, fruit concentration, and tannin quality. As such, tasting through the wines, it was clear that 2010 offered a different style of wine. Again, how to judge? Subjectively, when I’m evaluating quality, finesse, longevity, and elegance of structure garner greater weight than power, weight, fleshiness and swagger. I wasn’t there in 2009 to draw a fair comparison, but in the vintage comparisons I’d done before the blind evaluation, I saw consistently how the 2010s had more restraint, elegance, fine-grained tannins, and overall a firmer, more delineated structure than the 2009s. Perhaps the 2010s will not be so accessible immediately; perhaps they don’t fully conform to the image Ribera now chooses to project; but they are likely to acquire greater interest as they integrate over time and achieve secondary and tertiary qualities.
So, I plunged in: the first wine was a joven, with fresh, very clean fruit, showing some complexity, with solid concentration for its purpose, sweet tannins, and full palate coverage. Honest, pure, elegantly structured, and not over-extracted. The second wine was one of two that appeared a bit reduced; the third was the aristocrat in the crowd: long, taut, persistent, linear, with full palate coverage, a firm structure and a very long finish. This wine stood head and shoulders above its peers, and set a standard none others matched. The other top wines I found focused, well-structured, and, if not exuberant, dynamic on the palate, already showing some complexity, with secondary flavors of mineral, tobacco, dark berries and anise. Some wines were refined, some flashier. All the wines, however, showed sweet tannins, generous amounts of alcohol, and dark berry flavors with some mineral and/or tobacco qualities. If I ended up singling out that wine #3, it wasn’t just because of the tannin quality, but because, even in this raw stage, the wine was the most elegant, showing breed rather than highlighting sweet fleshy fruit. I privilege elegance over power, even if that power is sleek. Not a single wine was “slathered,” as they say, with new oak, but then again, those that had seen wood hadn’t seen it for very long – this, of course, allowed us to see the fruit for what it is, neither enhanced nor obscured by wood. Several of the wines were focused, dark and mineral-driven rather than fleshy, fruit-forward and exuberant. A few with fleshier fruit had a glossy elegance to them. Overall, I found the wines relatively dynamic, with sweet, refined tannins and alcohol levels balanced with the considerable level of fruit concentration; even if they were quite closed and tight at first, and largely remained so, they opened out a bit across the palate in time; the best were concentrated, with a firm core of minerality, with notes of violets, licorice and dark berries.
Admittedly, this was only 10 samples. As I visited bodegas before (and after) the tasting, I found that I preferred 2010 to the flashier 2009, but that’s a subjective prejudice, privileging structure and longevity over immediate accessibility. But in evaluating the vintage, I thought, well, if 2009 was “excelente” for the fleshy, attractive vintage it was, isn’t 2010 equally “excelente,” albeit in a different style? In the post-tasting discussion, nobody gave the vintage a rating other than “excelente” or “muy buena,” and it turned out that the general consensus was “excelente.” While this was determined by a simple averaging of the scores, it ultimately doesn’t send a clear message. If Ribera del Duero wants to be known as a big, fleshy wine, then isn’t 2009 closer to “excellent” than 2010? Or is it that Ribera isn’t necessarily a megavinum, and is capable of more refinement and nuance than many critics acknowledge? The more I taste wines from the region, the more I see that there are many differing styles, from the restrained elegance of Perez Pascuas (Roa), the slightly more virile wines of Finca Torremilanos (Aranda del Duero), the sweet earthiness of Pesquera, the glossy, if pretty, extraction of Aalto and Pingus, to the packed, massive, mineral (and arguably exhausting) wines of Atauta (Soria).
And above them all sits Vega Sicilia, whose old vines on steep slopes of fractured, crystallized calcareous chalk – the vineyard sparkles with reflections of what appears to be shattered glass – produce wines with no parallel in the region. And curiously, if it is Vega Sicilia’s “Unico” that defines Ribera del Duero, it ironically is a wine that is decidedly not the big, fleshy megavinum that many Ribera producers are trying to create, because . . . because they think that’s what the consumer wants?
Thus, as of this writing, I see Ribera del Duero still as a young region still in search of itself. Yes, the wines tend to be ripe, because the climate is relatively warm. I think many people’s narrow focus on fruit in wines generally – abetted in Ribera wines by the abundant fruit concentration – causes them to overlook not just the fine minerality expressed in the wines, but the fine, sweet, well-wrapped tannins, and especially the virile acidities in these wines, which frame the fleshy wines and impart nerve and tension to the more restrained cuvées. The Consejo also has done its part reinforcing this narrow image of the region by focusing on the “fruit-forward” character of the wines, giving scant attention to the finely etched mineral thread they also have. Even if most of the vineyards are planted on limestone and chalk over a schistose substratum, there is considerable diversity of terroir among vineyards (not surprising for such a large region); diversity in style among producers; and even diversity in intent within the individual producer, who may produce both an elegant reserva and an extracted flagship cuvée. Moreover, our impression of Ribera del Duero as a big, fleshy wine is also skewed by the style of wines primarily imported into our market, namely, the crianza, reserva, and special cuvée – all wines of greater concentration and power, plus oak influence. The fresh, inexpensive, unoaked, delightful joven wines are far fewer and far between, and, I would argue, not what comes to mind when people think of Ribera wines.
In the end, I’m not persuaded that “rating” a vintage at this early point in its evolution says very much. Certainly, the exercise has offers publicity to the region, an excuse for writers to write and readers to think about the wines. That said, I’d be dissembling if I said I found it pointless and would not care were I not invited back. But a simple rating out of context can be confusing. Is it a statement of the vintage’s early accessibility? Of its potential to age? Of its conformity to current fashion? Of, as in a dog show, its fidelity to an idealized standard of wines the region could produce? Moreover, apart from the fact that pundits frequently misconstrue a vintage’s longevity, I think that reducing a vintage’s “character” to a simple great/good/bad/indifferent/miserable characterization may do a disservice not just to the vintage, but also to the individual wines produced. The test of a winemaker is crafting a lovely wine in less than auspicious circumstances. I also think it is sends a confusing message to the consumer looking to understand quality and for guidance in their buying decisions. It’s confusing because the message currently conveyed is that the big, ripe, accessible vintages are “better” (rather than simply different) than the – choose your language – more classic, leaner, structured, elegant, refined, nervier vintages. It’s misleading, when they are taught, for a different example, that 2000 Barolo is the “best”; sure, if “best” means flattering and early drinking; but wouldn’t it be more accurate to call 2000 Barolo “flattering while young?” And 2001, “more structured, concentrated with greater ageworthiness”? And, to return to Ribera, according two, but very different vintages the identical assessment over-simplifies matters to consumers. (In fairness to the Consejo Regulador, their press release on the 2010 vintage does discuss the structural elements that suggest the wines’ aging potential, but in time, are people going to read that?)
It may be pointless to cavil with the way ratings over-simplify wine to make it more accessible – I’m far from the first to do this. But I think it important to recall that if all wines are not alike, neither are all consumers. Someone might really prefer one vintage over another based on their stylistic preferences. I don’t think it would take much to refine these preliminary vintage assessments with slight qualifications; buyers looking to stock their cellars with vins de garde have different buying requirements than those seeking early gratification.
Nitpicking aside, what did this Vintage Assessment accomplish? Yes, PR. But it also prompted me to look more closely at this young region, to look beyond the prejudices and over-generalizations, and to appreciate the diversity in style and terroir Ribera del Duero has to offer. My hope is that in time, the Consejo moves beyond repeating the “fruit forward” mantra, and toward encouraging efforts to refine our understanding of the various styles and “goûts de terroir” the region has to offer.