Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ribera del Duero Wine Country: the good, the bad and the ugly

Ribera de Duero is one of the most well known wine regions in Spain and it is a cinch to visit from Madrid…only 2 hours due north.
We go quite frequently and have taken a few groups there. We often base our visits on what is called the "Golden Mile", which is centered around Sardon del Duero. This area is know for some of the top wineries in Spain: Pingus and Vega Sicila being the most famous. One winery in the Golden Mile is our top recommendation to visit: Abadia Retuerta. Fantastic wines and a beautiful, detailed winery visit to one of the most high tech wineries in Spain. Also included in the visit, and equally impressive, is the ancient abbey on the grounds. Unlike many wineries, visits are welcomed and the reception is both warm and professional. If you are in the area…give them a call and stop by.

This last trip, we decided to go off our beaten track a little and discover the area near Pedrosa del Duero. We visited two wineries whose
Ines I have long loved, but have never visited. The day turned out to be a study in contrast….the two visits were at the opposite end of the spectrum, showing the two extremes, bad and good, of what you find here in Spain. It just goes to show that you don't know what kind of reception you will get in Spanish wine country….but it is always an adventure!

First the bad: Pago de Capellanes. I was very excited to visit this winery as they consistently produce some of my favourite Ribera del Duero wines. I taste them year after year, and the wines never disappoint. They particularly represent excellent value from a wine region that has become very pricey. I consistently include them in my wine tastings.
First the good things: a very professional and friendly staff member gave us brief, but sufficient tour of the premises. The winery is a work in progress, the enotourism part of the project, including a tasting room, has yet to be built. The most impressive area is the barrel room.
The unforgivable thing: no tasting….of any wine! After the brief tour, the staff member bid us farewell. Though this has happened to me several times in Spain, I was still stunned and disappointed! It doesn't matter that I have tried all their wines….there is no substitute for tasting in situ with a person involved in making the wine.
Spain is honestly the only country where this has happened to me. It leaves me baffled that many wineries don't realize the importance of tasting, whatever the situation.
Some wineries, this one I imagine, feel they have to have an elegant space to conduct a tasting….if only they could see the dingy, downright dirty places in the Rhone valley, where I have tasted some of the most sublime wines!
I think the fundamental problem is staff training, that many staff members who receive you do not realize the fundamental role of tasting the wines. Whenever I have been received by the enologist or owner, tasting happens. This is the sad state of enotourism in Spain!
The shock is even greater because we always go as wine professionals, pre-arranged visits in which tasting is even more de rigueur! Let me tell how mad I would be if I came all the way from the US and didn't get to taste a single wine!
Another bad thing: no credit cards accepted! Too bad, because the prices at the winery were way better than in Madrid…

Too bad…I will still drink their outstanding wines, but this is a winery I would not recommend to visit.

Our second experience was of the day was completely different…we visited family-run winery Lopez Cristobal…they make about half the quantity of wine that Pago de Capellanes does. We were received by the son of the founder, Galo Lopez, who is involved in every aspect of the project, but who is particularly involved in the wine-making side of the house. Galo was charming and it was wonderful to tour the facilities with someone who is so knowledgeable. The winery is quite ambitious and has recently purchased the adjoining flour factory. The first expansion will be to built a new wine-making space inside one of the huge flour storage warehouses. Also inherited are some lovely industrial buildings that will enable the winery to expand further and get even more involved in enotourism in the future.
Galo and the team at the winery know how to receive visits and understand what the visitor is looking for: friendly reception, expert tour, and a reasonable introduction to the wines through tasting.
We tasted through two wines with Galo, he wanted to open more, but I picked the two that most interested me. I was not as familiar with Lopez Cristobal's wines, having tasted them only twice before, but I was very impressed with them: great fruit, fine oak and fresh acidity. It is that fresh acidity and the lower alcohol levels that make these wines more elegant that some fo the Ribera monster reds of late. These wines are very pleasant on their own, but match food even better. The value is tremendous for Ribera…at the winery the crianza is 9 euros, incredibly reasonable for a Ribera Crianza of this calibre.
There are just five wines: A Joven Roble with 3 months oak, the Crianza with 12 months, a Reserva with 16 months.
This is the basic range…then there are the two premium wines that also represent great value around 25 euros. These wines are deliberately mad ein very different styels and represent two different trends in Ribera del Duero:
1. Bagus: a specific old-vine vineyard wine or "vino de pago" made only in the best years. The focus in this wine is the fruit, reflecting the terroir. This is a very complex, yet approachable wine, where the oak is the supporting player.
2. Lopez Cristobal Seleccion: this is a coupage of the best grapes of the year. Here, the "crianza" is an equal partner to the fruit…only the finest new French oak is used. This creates a wine in the more "international" Ribera style….a style that is the most trendy right now.
It was wonderful to taste the wines in a charming wine tasting room with such an expert and we lingered a long time over the wines and the wonderful jamon and lomo put out for us. We were at the winery at least 3 hours…Galo was so generous with his time.
I can tell you that his wines are good enough on their own, but in that exceptional setting, they were sublime!

The difference in the visit made all the difference: I highly recommend visits to Lopez Cristobal and the combination of great visit and fine wines have won yet another loyal fan in me.
These two visits represent the two sides of Spain perfectly. Hidden gems that need to be rooted out and reward you many fold. The ugly side is the dramatic improvements that must be made in customer service in all areas of the wine trade here in Spain. I like to focus on the positive….