Visiting the Ribera del Duero

I had never been to Madrid before. Have you been? It’s a bit like a Spanish London, the same shows, Lion King, Mamma Mia, Les Misérables. There’s a subway and chaps in suits, food markets and shops, plenty to do. But what is so different about Madrid is how inherently Spanish it is. The food markets are just bursting at the seams with Spanish flavours, the wines are mostly Spanish too, and why not, they’re so good at it all, they’d be mad not to offer you anchovies on toast ten different ways with a €4 glass of, you guessed it, Spanish wine. What beats that? I stayed for just one night, but I’d like to go back again, and I’d like to go back to the Ribera del Duero again too, which is what I’m really here to tell you about. 

Just an hour and a half from Madrid centre, following the Duero river through what isn’t mountains, but a plateau from the river bed, is nothingness, like how I imagine it to be driving on Mars. This, for what it doesn’t have, is just as exciting as rolling tapestries of fields. You do eventually pop out and life picks up again, there are some sheep, the occasional cow, and then you will see vines, and you know you’re in the right place. I was to begin my exploration of the Ribera del Duero at Finca Torremilanos, close to the town of Aranda de Duero, the capital of the Ribera del Duero wine region.

You approach Finca Torremilanos along quite a long drive, winding up a gradual slope to an impressive building with beautiful vineyards surrounding it. This wasn’t the first vineyard I was to visit though, I dumped by bags and I was in a mini bus with my tour guide Jorge to see Bodegas Balbás. Having started writing this while still in Spain, I’ve been very un-English and not even told you about the weather yet. It was raining cats and dogs. Properly wet rain, I spent €10 on an umbrella in Madrid that was definitely manufactured to only ever open once in its lifetime. It continued to rain on my journey across Mars and by the time we were heading out to the winery there was actual mud on the roads. Fortunately, we were to only tour the winery so being welly-less wasn’t the end of the world. The rain wasn’t a bad thing, for I was told repeatedly that it never ever rains in the Ribera del Duero and this was the first rain they had seen in 2022. I also heard more than once, “I tried to live in the UK for a bit, but it’s like this every day, never sunshine, so I had to come back.” I wasn’t sure whether to tell them we’d had a similar 2022 until recently, they probably wouldn’t have believed me. 

At Balbás, they produce traditional Ribera del Duero wines from Crianza through to Gran Reserva plus some of their own unique blends and a delicious rosé. Once of the differences between these wines is ultimately how long they can stay in barrel for. Let’s just stop to go over a little history of the Ribera del Duero. Winemaking in Ribera del Duero dates back 2,600 years but like many regions, it stopped for a great deal of time and it wouldn’t be until the 19th century that things picked up again. A lot of people give the credit to both Vega Sicilia, and also Alejandro Fernández who released wine in the 1980s and received some very high scores as being the people who would convince the growers in the Ribera del Duero that they could produce their own very good wines and leave the cooperatives behind. It was these wines that encourage the official Spanish wine organisations to re-write their rules and finally, Ribera del Duero became a D.O. in 1982, paving the way for winemakers to grow. At this point in time, there were just nine wineries in the region and today there are over 300. To come under the Ribera del Duero D.O. recognition, red wines must contain at least 75% Tempranillo grapes and the rest must be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec or Garnacha Tinta. For whites, the Albillo grape is the only recognised grape. Of course, you can make plenty of other wines but they won’t be D.O classified. The aging requirements for Ribera del Duero are the same used in Rioja. Wines labelled as “Crianza” must age two years with 12 months in oak. “Reserva” wines must be aged at least three years with at least 12 months in oak. The “Gran Reserva” labelled wines must spend at least 5 years aging prior to release, two being in oak.

Back to Balbás winery where I’m learning that it is still very much family owned and I was fortunate to meet seventh generation owner, Patricia Balbás who is Commercial Director there. I was also got to meet Patricia’s father Juan Jose Balbás who is still very much involved and passionate, what a great family network. Keeping out of the rain, we made our way to the winery where they had just about finished harvest. They do all their fermentations in steel and then the wine is transferred to new oak to age for the length of time needed for whatever it will finish up as. Once it has aged in barrel, the wine goes back into steel tanks to be blended before being aged in bottle prior to release. As a very simplified description of the artistry of wine making.

The smell in a barrel room is exactly what you might expect from the aromas you get from a wine that has been aged in new oak. For me, it’s vanilla but with a sense of banana leaf too, gloriously seductive really. That with the heady juiciness of Tempranillo is pretty extraordinary. Not all wine ageing happens in barrels, some of it is done in the bottle before it is released so there are huge great stacks of bottles in crates too, a scary sight. After all the time invested in making the wine, you don’t want to mess around when it comes to corks and they have got quite expensive. “We are paying over €1 per cork these days,” Iker tells me. “But we are very happy with these, they are consistently high quality.” These being of course Diam, who seem to be dominating the cork market. I think with these classical wines, they’re open to screw caps but that’s another investment to go into… and as another winemaker told me, “I’d get romantic with the Gran Reserva wines.”

Time to taste the wines now, with Iker, Head of Marketing, leading the way. We started at Balbás by trying the rosé, it was so refreshing to have a rosé that had something about it. This was 100% Tempranillo from 25-year-old vines, a very pretty garden rose pink colour, ballet slippers rather than dead salmon. It had a wonderful texture, creamy but with some grip too, not so cold as the style we have grown to accept, if that makes any sense at all. Not so steely…

Then we moved onto the very approachable fruity number they make, Pago de Balbás, maybe the perfect wine for getting those friends that aren’t quite sure if they like red wine yet into red wine. It had seen some oak (9-months in French oak) but was just bursting with vibrant red fruits and very supple tannins, super wine, very easy drinking, 100% Tempranillo. We followed this with the Crianza which has spent 18 months in French oak barrels with Tempranillo grapes coming from 45-year-old vines. A powerhouse on the nose, warm and woody with dark fruits, warm cherries. It was very elegant for such a big wine on the palate, I was quite in awe of it. I just wish that I’d had an hour or so to see how it evolved in the glass. 

Finally we tried Ritus, more of an experimental wine. It was my favourite of the tasting and a bottle came home with me. Less oak and more fruit, some more mouthfeel, fruit a bit more dark, less enthusiastic. It is made up of Tempranillo (75%) and Merlot (23%) from grapes at the highest point on their estate called La Malata, which is at 940m so actually one of the highest of the Ribera del Duero appellation. This too spends 18 months in French oak barrels but you just wouldn’t know, it is so unbelievably fresh, a fascinating wine I can’t wait to revisit. 

Thank you so much to Iker for the tour, and thanks again to the Balbás family for the wonderful gift of my name on a barrel, I can’t wait to come back and check up on it! 

Back to the hotel in a dash and just time for a cup of tea (first of the day) before meeting Ricardo Peñalba, wine-maker, owner and generally enthusiastic chap at Finca Torremilanos. Ricardo is the perfect mix of complacent, enthusiastic, loving and also slightly introverted. The type of person who seems most at home with his vines but when he does do tours you may as well write the day off, wandering and talking, learning and listening, the day goes by without daring to disturb you. We took off up to the vines, the rain holding it’s breath so it could listen too. The vineyards vary from plot to plot, but there is a great deal of bush vines which is traditional for Spain and lovely to see, they’re great with their gnarly stumpy roots, characterful little things. It was muddy, they’re on a clay and sand with a pebbley layer, called alluvial soil. There’s also a more limestone type of soil up there too but the majority of it is what looks like a river bed. 

Ricardo is experimenting with some varieties that aren’t recognised in the Ribera del Duero denomination, there was some Pinot Noir and Viognier popping up in the vineyard. It was great to see so much variety, some grapes still remaining from the harvest, perfectly ripe and sweet. Ricardo showed me shredded leaves still green, their battle wounds from a late hail storm in June, any winemakers worst nightmare. “It’s been a strange harvest,” Ricardo says. “I’m experiencing one of the longest fermentations I’ve ever come across, I’ve not really seen anything like it with one of the varieties.” He decides not to divulge any more than that on the tricky grapes, but keeping things biodynamic means sometimes things do go a bit awry. Some of the wines at Finca Torremilanos are totally biodynamic, “It’s so dry and warm here, we just don’t have to spray,” says Ricardo, like you’d be mad not to be biodynamic or at the very least organic. 

Before we make our way into the winery from the vineyard, we pass by a productive vegetable garden and Ricardo suggests getting me some tomatoes for breakfast. Only a fool would pass on Spanish tomatoes, they were delicious with olive oil and toast the next day. The first room I see in the winery is where they traditionally build their own oak barrels, good old-fashioned cooperage. It’s a little like stepping back in time, a big chimney looms over two grates where fires are lit. One for warming the wood in order to shape it and the other to toast the inside for that extra flavour. It’s a huge job, I’ve seen a lot of barrels with wine in them and indeed whisky in them but I don’t know why I’ve never realised how thick the individual panels are. I wouldn’t fancy my chances at putting them together, a real art. 

We moved onto where the wine is made, they have a mixture of steel and concrete for fermentation. Concrete is great because it allows for micro-oxygenation, a bit like barrels, it allows the wine to breathe a tiny bit allowing for more evolvement throughout the fermentation. It also keeps the juice at a very steady cool temperature, perfect for fermentation. Steel tanks are all temperature controlled. We finished up in the mighty barrel room, just stunning, plus some naughty bottles of cava aging, possibly the only cava made in Ribera del Duero. I smelled everything, Ricardo tipped over empty barrels and had me burying my nose in them, taking it all in, it’s so important if you want to properly grasp an area and a sense of place that you try to embrace all the makings of the wine. I do realise how fortunate I am to have experienced this, but I’m asking you to go on wine adventures too. We popped out and we were suddenly next to the hotel, Ricardo grew up in this incredible space, what fun he must have had. I tried a real variety of wines with Ricardo, none of which is imported to the UK currently, unfortunately. It did used to be, perhaps not the article to get into the politics of that.

We tried a few wines that were not formally Ribera del Duero, two whites under the Aranda de Duero appellation, called Peñalba López, a blend of Chardonnay, Viura and Albillo. We tried the 2020 and the newly released 2021, both were stunning. Being a big Chardonnay fan anyway I just love this style of wine. Creamy but with some zing, sublime. 

Next I tried a very funky looking natural wine called El Porrón de Lara (a porrón is a glass contraption that you can drink from, very fun.) This is 100% Tempranillo that was harvested early (Tempranillo is an early ripener anyway) then it went through an indigenous-yeast fermentation before being aged in old barrels. Eventually it was bottled, no fining, no filtration and no added sulphur. The freshness to this wine was almost cool, it had a lovely grippy texture and an ever-changing complexity which I just adored, definitely one we need in the UK. I was running late for my dinner date but we just managed to squeeze in a legit Ribera del Duero D.O. wine, Finca Torremilano’s Los Cantos which is a Crianza. It is mostly Tempranillo but there’s a little Merlot in the mix too which really softens it all up in the most wonderful way, stunning wine. 

It was time to pop into town for dinner with Jorge and explore some more. It took around ten minutes to get to Aranda de Duero. Jorge grew up in the area and he was a very comfortable person to walk around with. We stuck our head into a wine shop and Jorge was handed some keys by the owner who just radiated pure warmth. We walked to what was literally a graffitied metal door in the middle of the town, the sort of place you wouldn’t think twice about if you were passing. It was pure darkness behind and Jorge had to leave the door ajar slightly to find the lights. This was my first experience of one of Aranda’s infamous underground cellars. There are over 7km of underground cellars but who knows, there could be even more. They’re owned by families, homes that just so happen to be above them, and some of them are unclaimed so have pretty much been taken on by whoever looks after them. Their entire purpose was for wine. People used to carry it down the very steep steps in goat skins and fill the big wooden barrels down there. Because they’re underground in the clay they maintain the perfect temperature for wine all year round. The ground is sand so at the end of the year before the next harvest the wine would be tipped into the sand and they’d start all over again. These days, they are used for parties. Imagine that, instead of sneaking to the park at the weekend you could sneak down into some historic underground cellar with pals, no signal, no problem. 

We went to a restaurant with one of the cellars beneath it, it was called El Lagar De Isilla. We had traditional tapas for supper, lots of black sausage, a mysterious sausage that looks very like black pudding but when split open reveals itself to be a lot more like haggis. All delicious, all plenty to knock me out cold when I went back to the hotel. 

The next morning, my Italian companion had arrived, Gino, and so Jorge, Gino and myself set off to our first stop, a vineyard and winery. This time we went to Pradorey which is an enormous estate of wine, cows and hospitality. There was something quite Ozark about it. Pradorey’s history is rich in hunting and drama so obviously, I’m already a fan at this point. It dates back to 1503 when the Earl of Ribadeo sold the Real Sitio de Ventosilla estate to Queen Isabella I of Castile, belonging to the Crown of Castile until 1521 when King Charles I bestowed the estate to the 2nd Marquis of Denia. The beautiful lodge at Pradorey is open to the public, so you can stay in a very traditional room in the heart of the vineyards if you’re visiting. It is built in the Herrerian style by the Duke of Lerma in 1601 as a hunting lodge for King Philip III. 

We had a tour of the very impressive winery, a highlight being the library of vintages, which must have received around 100 messages on Instagram when I shared it on my stories. We all dream of having wine rooms like that in our own homes. We then whizzed through a tasting and then had a very joyous time attempting wine through the traditional drinking vessels, the porron and also a goat skin which is a bit like a much more sustainable Chilly bottle. My favourite Pradorey wine was the Ribera del Duero Adaro 2020, a 100% Tempranillo wine which was developed in homage to the founder, Javier Cremades de Adaro. The grapes come from Pago Salgüero, a heavy clay vineyard (which we witnessed on our boots after all the rainfall) and it is currently being converted to organic. It’s a very fresh take on Tempranillo, with staggering depth. At first you might just notice the vibrant and fresher red fruits, but as you delve a bit further there’s some liquorice and coffee bean notes there too, a really delicious wine. 

Following Pradorey, we visited Afinado by Carnicas Chico and you will never guess what they do! Traditional Spanish ham curing. It was so interesting; we went into the drying rooms where there are thousands of hams and shoulders drying including the highly sought after Iberico. Similarly to wine, ‘jamon’ has a DO status so there are rules for the aging process. Some is aged for up to three years, it’s serious stuff. We had a go at carving our own and then onto the best bit, tasting. The depth of flavour is very different between a shoulder from a standard pig to that of the Iberian ham. I actually prefer the more straightforward flavours of the shoulder sometimes, as the Iberian is more of a sit down and think about how outrageously good it is and I don’t always have time for that. 

It was time for lunch and this would be my first experience of Ribera del Duero’s speciality, roast suckling lamb. We went back to Arunda de Duero for this where it was very busy for a week day. Every single table was having roast lamb, they take it very seriously. It is roasted in a clay pot in a traditional fire oven. The lamb is then presented to you before being chopped into very tasty succulent pieces. It is served with a refreshing lettuce and onion salad, some bread, and the sauce left over from cooking. The beauty is, like most brilliant things, in its simplicity. We had a lovely wine with it, of course, this time Viejas de Izán’s Tempranillo, 2020 vintage, which I would have happily finished on my own had I not get the rest of the day to get through. Our magnificent tour guide Jorge took no prisoners and just as I was ready for a lamb and wine induced siesta he whisked us off to see some more culture. This time, the Peñaranda de Duero, a very historically rich village in the Ribera del Duero. The highlight was the Palacio de los Condes de Miranda, a beautiful Renaissance palace that has been very well looked after. The ornate wooden ceilings were very cleverly made, they don’t make them like that anymore! 

I’ve already told you far too much, so some highlights from the end of the trip:

  • The vultures in the peculiar deserted town of Haza
  • Peñafiel castle
  • The wonderful winery of Emilio Moro, especially their wine ‘La Felisa’ 
  • The spa at Hotel AF Pesquera 
  • The absolutely stunning wines and location of Finca Villacreces, where our journey would end and we were so looked after

If you have any questions at all, do leave a comment or message me on Instagram and I will try my best to help you. If you would like any advice on buying wine from the Ribera del Duero, I will be sharing more on my Instagram over the rest of the year. 

Useful links:

First hotel, Finca Torremilanos: www.torremilanos.com

Balbás winery: www.balbas.es

Pradorey winery: www.pradorey.es

Ham: agroalimentariachico.com/en/carnicas-chico/

Emilio Moro: www.emiliomoro.com

Final hotel & spa: www.hotelpesquera.com

Finca Villacreces wines: www.villacreces.com/en

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