On the so-called milla de oro (golden mile) of Ribera del Duero, along the Ruta Nacional 122 between Peñafiel and Quintanilla de Onésimo, you’ll find some of the region’s most important names: Vega Sicilia, Arzuaga, Matarromera, Alión and others that are directly responsible for the fame of Ribera.
However, if you leave the Ruta Nacional and enter the narrow, winding roads through the provinces of Burgos, Soria or Segovia, the picture changes drastically. Locals farm patches of old vines in small, peaceful medieval villages, their houses and churches made of limestone, the surrounding hills dotted with caves, where peasants used to make and store their wines, well protected from heat.
These are the towns where you’ll find a new generation of producers, all of them focused on tempranillo, the region’s beloved “tinto fino,” while many are also tending other varieties, often working with vines not allowed by the Consejo Regulador. I recently visited a number of growers and found five who are showing a completely new side of Ribera del Duero, with much lighter and fresher wines.
We are with Jorge Monzón, tucked in a cave several meters underground, a labyrinth of tunnels carved into the rocks, full of barrels and foudres where Monzón ages his wines for Dominio del Aguila, a project focused on old vines in the hills surrounding La Aguilera, a small town of less than three hundred inhabitants, located in Burgos, in one of the highest and coldest areas of Ribera del Duero. And we talk about clarete.
“Clarete is Ribera’s traditional wine, the light and fresh wine that people drank for parties,” Monzón says. It’s a field blend based on tinto fino, along with vines such as bobal, garnacha or albillo, harvested early to retain the grapes’ natural acidity. “The people in La Aguilera like acidity,” he adds.
Monzón was born in La Aguilera and, after studying in Burgundy and working with Bernard Noblet, the maître de chai of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, he returned to Ribera del Duero in 2003. He worked at Vega Sicilia for ten years before becoming the winemaker at Arzuaga.
Meanwhile, in 2010, he founded Dominio del Aguila, a project he owns with his wife, the architect Isabel Rodero.
Currently, the project produces some 40,000 bottles from more than 60 acres of old vines, all in La Aguilera. Monzón believes La Aguilera’s potential lies not only in its old vines, but also in its cool climate, its slopes and its altitude. “All this produces wines of great freshness,” he says.
That style is reflected in the entire range of reds from Dominio del Aguila, including the simplest, Picaro, a clarete produced in the traditional style, with a very light color and equally light weight. Its floral aromas and generous red-fruit flavors are a window into the ancient wines of Ribera del Duero, a style that was popular long before this appellation earned the fame it has today.
THE WILD EAST
Head into the far eastern reaches of Ribera del Duero, and although you’re still within the map of the denominación de origen, the province of Soria feels like a different world. Far from the tourist routes, time appears to have stopped at some point in the 20th century. There are no large wineries, no ultra-modern architecture nor large vineyard projects. Soria is a territory of old vines, of small vineyards scattered among the hills.
The only winery you may have heard of is Dominio de Atauta, where Bertrand Sourdais, a Frenchman from the Loire Valley, became the founding winemaker in 2000.
“Although I had visited Ribera a couple of times, the truth is, when I came to work here, I had never heard of Soria,” he says.
The soils of Atauta also interest him, particularly as they relate to his property in Chinon, Domaine de Pallus. For Dominio de Es, he works with 66 small plots, all with chalk-rich soils, to produce three wines. “Calcareous [soil] brings freshness, vibration, flavors of red fruits and fine red flowers.”
Sourdais has found many vines of albillo—a white grape—interspersed among the tinto fino. “That there is albillo in the old vines is not by chance. The peasants liked the effect on the wine—that festive side, which makes it easier to drink, easier to digest.”
He makes his Dominio de Es 2017 Viejas Viñas de Soria with fruit from 25 small vineyards around Atauta. The blend is tinto fino cofermented with ten percent albillo, half of the grapes added as whole clusters; he ages the wines in French oak barrels from a cooper in Burgundy. The wine is pure tension, with a verticality and nerve in its red fruit that’s a departure from most contemporary Ribera del Duero wines. It is the wild east of Soria, interpreting Ribera del Duero in a way I have never tasted before.
A LITTLE HELP FOR TEMPRANILLO
“With all the money that the bank has lent me, I could have built a winery. But I preferred to buy vineyards,” Francisco Barona tells me.
Barona was born in Roa, in the province of Burgos, and his family has been growing grapes for generations. When he was young, he used to ride through the vineyards on his bicycle and, at harvest time, he also liked to taste the grapes and work in the fields. In 2003 he went to study viticulture and oenology in Bordeaux, and after passing through Napa and South Africa, he returned to Ribera del Duero in 2009, when he had just turned 25 years old.
Barona walks through the thick, twisted vines with the pride of someone who has worked hard to earn what he has, a collection of old vineyards totaling 80 acres, all within Burgos. He sells most of these grapes, keeping 12 acres since 2014 for his own project, which bears his name. Of all his vineyards, Las Dueñas is his favorite. “Do you know when it was planted?” he asks, leaning against one of the vines. “It was planted in 1908. I’ve known this vineyard since I was fifteen years old and I always liked the grapes here. It has had one hundred and ten vintages. Can you believe it?”
Barona believes that tinto fi no is a great grape, but that it needs other varieties to complement it. “With this heat, tinto fino loses a lot of acidity. To remedy this, it is usual to add tartaric acid. But I do not like that. Before I’m a producer, I’m a wine drinker. And that acid bothers me.”
He estimates that Las Dueñas is 80 percent tinto fino, and there is also bobal, garnacha, monastrell and albillo. “All these grapes bring freshness, complexity and acidity.” His first harvest at Las Dueñas, in 2014, produced only 850 bottles. “What do you think?” he asks, while I savor this concentrated and intense wine, pungent in its acidity, ideal refreshment with the tender, juicy baby lamb chops that Barona has just taken off the grill. “Can we have another bottle?” I answer.
TINTO FINO WITH ITS OWN LIGHT
Blanco, born in Asturias, is the talkative one. He travels from one place to another, making wines from Rioja to Bierzo, passing through Ribera del Duero. He does not stop and has the vital and active personality of someone who does not like to stop, ever.
Herrero, also known as el niño (the boy), is withdrawn and somewhat surly, a man of few words. He was born in Aguilera, to a family of winegrowers, and has stayed there, convinced of the potential of the old vines of tinto fino he has tended for as long as he can remember.
Determined to shift over from grapegrowers to winemakers, Herrero and his father built a winery in La Aguilera. In 2008, Blanco joined them. “That was our first vintage, one of the worst I remember. We could barely produce something like eight thousand bottles,” Blanco tells me, while Herrero nods sternly.
As of 2012, they decided to stop selling grapes and keep everything for Milú. Today the winery produces 80,000 bottles and focuses solely on tinto fino growing in La Aguilera, which, both partners agree, has a special flavor. “Before Milú,” Blanco tells me, “I had worked in Ribera wineries and I always liked the grapes from this place. In a way, all the roads always ended here, in one of the highest and freshest areas of Ribera del Duero,” he adds, and Herrero nods again.
The Milú project encompasses 70 acres of vines around the town, most of them very old, some more than 100 years old, distributed among 27 plots. Blanco and Herrero vinify the fruit from each plot separately, then bottle a total of seven wines. Their range starts with Milú, a kind of village wine produced from young vines, and rises to single-vineyard bottlings such as Milú Valdevicente, which comes from a three-quarter-acre parcel planted more than 100 years ago at around 3,000 feet of altitude.
WAITING FOR THE CORSOS
The Sardal Vineyard is shaped like a small amphitheater facing the Gramejón River, a tributary of the Duero. Its old bush vines were planted at the beginning of the 20th century, seemingly isolated from everything in the rest of Ribera del Duero. It is flanked by pines and oaks, its chalky clay soil home to juniper, thyme and marjoram. From time to time, foxes appear behind the trees, as do wild boar and a type of local deer called corsos.
Pablo Arranz and his wife, Andrea Sanz, inherited this vineyard from Arranz’s grandfather, who was born in Aguilera and died in 1998. They saw the vineyard as an opportunity to leave a hectic life in Madrid and return to their roots. “These vines give very few grapes, and working with them is difficult,” Arranz tells me while we both enjoy the peace of the place, barely interrupted by some noise from the engine of a tractor, far away. “When we returned to Aguilera, other old people from the area, who could no longer work their fields, began to offer us their vineyards, and little by little we made a small collection of plots.”
After some years building this base of vineyards, the couple launched their Magna Vides project in 2011. “The old vineyards have not only given us an unparalleled quality of fruit,” Arranz says. “We have found an impressive diversity of grapes as well—up to twenty different varieties—bobal, garnacha, alarije, monastrell, albillo and others. We don’t know what some of them are.”
While they produce wines that carry the DO Ribera del Duero, aka reds with a majority of tempranillo, the couple wants to demonstrate that the region is planted to much more than tinto fino. So they have launched a small line of other wines, including one that is 100 percent bobal. “Locally, this grape is called valenciana because it comes from the Levant,” Sanz explains. “I think that with global warming, the future of Ribera del Duero lies in its past, in grapes that, genetically, have more acidity, such as bobal, albillo and others.”
She pours their Alma de Cantaro 2016, labeled as a vino de mesa, as bobal is not authorized by the Consejo Regulador. It’s a juicy red, intense in its scents of fruits and herbs, with deliciously rustic tannins, perfect for drinking here in El Sardal, while eating some chorizo with peasant bread, waiting for a corso to appear from behind the pine trees.