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Altitude Matters In Ribera del Duero

by Patricio Tapia
July 3, 2014

Pine trees stand like sentinels guarding ancient, twisted tempranillo vines. The soil, a mix of orange and red pebbles, grows the occasional rosemary bush and thorny shrub. Here in Peña Lobera, there are a mere thousand vines, spread among three small parcels, nearly 3,000 feet above sea level outside the tiny village of La Aguilera in Burgos. This is one of the highest vineyards in Ribera del Duero.

Hacienda Solano bottles a single-vineyard wine from the site, 100 percent tinto fino with the clarity and freshness that cool nights at altitude can bring. In Ribera del Duero, where the lowest vineyards are already higher up than most other wine-growing regions of Spain, this wine is a departure from the prevailing style—from the ripeness and voluptuous textures that have come to define the Denomination of Origin. It’s one example of altitude being a significant factor in the terroir expression of Ribera del Duero.

Peña Lobera, near La Aguilera, in Burgos Peña Lobera, near La Aguilera, in Burgos
That’s not been a focus, however, for the area’s Consejo Regulador, which places soil differences and exposition as the primary factors distinguishing Ribera del Duero’s terroir. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Consejo funded a soil study that identified more than 30 distinct categories of soil and mapped the region’s vineyards based on the research. “It’s common to find two or three different soil types in any one plot of vines,” says Agustín Alonso, the technical director for the Consejo. “It’s also important to consider that the climate is extreme for cultivating vines, so the orientation of the plot, whether it’s facing the sun in the afternoon or in the morning, can often be more significant than the altitude.”

Following the release of the study, there has been an explosion of single-vineyard wines in the region, with bottlings such as Malleolus de Sanchomartin from Emilio Moro, El Picón from Pago de los Capellanes and Pago Santa Cruz from Viña Sastre, to name just a few. But with temperatures in summer reaching past 104° Fahrenheit, how varied is the expression of these wines in the end?

“I don’t know why we haven’t established different sub-zones in Ribera as they have in Rioja, between Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja,” says Goyo García Viadero, a consultant for some of the more important producers in the region, including Matarromera, Protos and Dominio de Atauta. García Viadero also farms his own vines, all in the Burgos district, an area that could be considered “Ribera Alta.”

The highest altitude sites in Ribera del Duero offer an elegant alternative to the region’s rich, concentrated style of reds, one that may someday reach the heights of Vega Sicilia and Pingus.
García Viadero describes the highlands as starting about six miles north of the river, from Roa to Aranda. That’s where he grows his three single-vineyard wines—from the Anguix vineyard at 2,600 feet, El Peruco at almost 3,000 feet and Valdeolmos in the middle at 2,800 feet of altitude.

La Navilla in Pedrosa del Duero La Navilla in Pedrosa del Duero

Regardless of the type of soil each vineyard may have, García Viadero has noted significant differences in his harvest dates based on altitude. Between Anguix, his lowest site, and El Peruco, his highest, there is, on average, a two-week difference. “In Ribera, we have heat lasting through the day,” he says, “but what we need to preserve the freshness in the grapes are cold nights. And that’s what you get in the higher vineyards.”

In the context of García Viadero’s relatively light and pointedly acidic wines, Anguix is “the most Ribera,” he likes to say, offering ripe red fruit and lots of energy. El Peruco is that much higher and that much closer in style to Chambolle-Musigny, a tempranillo filled with bright red fruit and a fine point of acidity.

In Ribera del Duero, the differences in altitude are not as extreme as they can be in other wine regions. Argentina’s Mendoza, for example, can run from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, while here in Ribera, the lower areas near the river are generally at altitudes of 2,300 feet and the highest vineyards, north of the river, at 3,200 feet. But even that more narrow difference can have a strong impact on the style of the wines.

Hermanos Pérez Pascuas’s vines in Pedrosa (and above) Hermanos Pérez Pascuas’s vines in Pedrosa (and above)
Goyo García Viadero at Viña El Peruco Goyo García Viadero at Viña El Peruco

José Manuel Pèrez, the technical director of Hermanos Pérez Pascuas, tends vineyards at 2,800 feet in Pedrosa del Duero. “Ribera has a continental climate, with a strong influence from the Atlantic and low rainfall,” he says. “There is a large temperature difference between day and night—twenty degrees Celsius, especially from June to September. The temperature swings increase with altitude.”

The style of the wines from Pérez Pascuas places an accent on acidity and on fresh flavors (melding with a judicious use of oak). Perhaps the best example is La Navilla, a vineyard with clay-limestone soils surrounding the winery in Pedrosa. “The maturation of the grapes is slow in this vineyard and their acidity is high,” Pérez Pascuas says, “something we consider fundamental for making great wines. I don’t want to underestimate other styles, even if I don’t agree with them. But I have always fled from over-maturation, from the wines with excessive alcohol, heavy and out of balance. Altitude is one factor that helps us avoid those conditions.”

He only makes La Navilla in the best years, such as the classic 2009, using vines at least 35 years old, aging it 20 months in barriques. It sets the style of the house, with a firm tension between acidity and tannins, its round, spicy black fruit offering tremendous energy in a wine built to cellar.

While altitude may be fundamental for producers such as Pérez Pascuas, Solano and García Viadero, for others it’s just one element of the equation. Xavier Ausás, winemaker at Vega Sicilia, says that, in general, the fruit he uses for Valbuena 5° and Unico comes from calcareous and well-drained soils. “Those types of soils are found at higher-elevations [around 2,500 feet] and on the slopes. The fruit for Alion, on the other hand, comes from lower ground, on alluvial soils.”

Peter Sisseck, who tends vines at 2,600 feet in La Horra for his Dominio Pingus, tends to agree, believing that altitude is important, but other factors also come into play.

“I’ve always seen Ribera as a region of slopes rather than plains,” he says. “The orientations of the slopes make a difference, along with the type of soil and the age of the vines.” Pingus, Sisseck’s legendary wine, comes from a tenacre vineyard where the cool, northern orientation sustains 80-year-old vines. The wine is voluptuous, with deliciously long flavors. However, if you compare it to El Peruco from García Viadero, the two wines come from radically different worlds.

That difference, of course, may come from vineyard practices, harvest dates and vinification techniques, but in the end, if would be difficult to make the same style of wine from both sites, and make it well. Even so, Sisseck points out that demarcating a zone for Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja would be complicated.

“It’s not so easy to say,” Sisseck explains. “For example, that the land to the east, above the Duero River, is higher, while the land to the west is lower. There are exceptions on all sides. Quintanilla de Onésimo is the town farthest to the west, and it has higher ground than many places to the east.”

And it’s true. Classifying the complex topography of Ribera del Duero’s alluvial terraces would be a major headache. Ribera del Duero is still a young DO (it was established in 1982) and producers are slowly deepening their understanding of their own terroirs. For most of the past 30 years, the wines have seemed to be cut from the same cloth, focused on ripeness, richness and the extensive use of new oak. But for many—including Goyo García Viadero, Hacienda Solano and Pérez Pascuas, it’s the cold summer nights at high altitude that allow them to focus on a different style, providing an alternative that may one day be as famous as the wines of Pingus and Vega Sicilia. ■

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2014.
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