Spain: the Tempranillo Axis

The appellations along the Duero stand for Ribera del Duero, Toro and much more. David Schwarzwälder gives an overview.

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Duero River
Duero River

The Castilian Duero axis with some of its appellations are important Spanish provenances for the trade. The Ribera del Duero and Toro wine-growing regions are well known to customers, while other appellations such as Cigales or Tierra del Vino de Zamora are often less well known.
 

One for all

When the Duero Basin is mentioned, one appellation is usually meant: Ribera del Duero, Castile's largest and most important PDO; it outshines all other PDOs on the Castilian plateau and is considered by many to be the epitome of Tempranillo excellence.

Tempranillo (and its Castilian synonyms Tinto Fino or Tinta del País) is the top Spanish variety. However, Tempranillo is not in itself a unique selling point, certainly not on the northern plateau. Toro and Cigales, as well as the mini-PDO Tierra del Vino de Zamora, are also dedicated to Tempranillo. Consequently, the question arises of tangible - or rather, tasting - profiles that can help distinguish the various Tempranillo growing regions.

 

Wine map of Castilla y León
Wine map of Castilla y León

Formally, one would try to define the identities of the four Tempranillo-controlled growing regions by terroir. The two cooler appellations, Ribera del Duero and Cigales, would be contrasted with the two warmer PDOs, Toro and Tierra de Zamora.

But while the latter are geographically close neighbors, and also very similar in terms of climate, the differences between the small Cigales and the giant Ribera del Duero are much greater.

Tempranillo specialties for true fans

The Duero rises in the Sierra de Urbion between La Rioja and Castile and then covers almost 600 kilometers on the Spanish side. It then marks the border between Portugal and Spain for 115 kilometers, before heading towards the sea for another 200 kilometers on the Portuguese side. Toro and Tierra de Zamora, the two appellations on the Spanish western course of the Duero, are both characterized by exceptionally dry climates, and both have a remarkable stock of old vines.

PDO Cigales

Cigales is primarily known as a producer of fresh rosados rather than an area of origin of powerful tintos. Nevertheless, over the past decade and a half, the production of wood-finished, mostly Tempranillo-based red wines has steadily increased. While this does not make Cigales a serious competitor for Ribera del Duero, it is nonetheless worthwhile to contrast the general conditions of the two areas and perhaps identify one or two differences in the red wine profile.

Arid and not as high

Cigales is located north of Valladolid on the banks of the important Duero tributary, the Pisuerga. In many respects, the vineyards appear more arid than Ribera del Duero, and the proportion of stony and sandy soils is much higher. The small appellation is also situated at a lower average altitude. Whether these aspects actually have an impact on the wine type is debatable. Most winemakers attest to Cigales having less vintage variation and thus, to some extent, a more predictable average quality. Conversely, this would attest to Ribera del Duero having more spectacular qualities in the great years. Cigales has less than a tenth of the vineyard area of its large neighbor, which makes the vintage picture more uniform in any case.

More freshness in the glass

But do red Tempranillos from Cigales present themselves differently in the glass? Ribera del Duero certainly stands for greater thermal contrasts. For this reason, many winemakers attribute Ribera del Duero with more concentration and "sweeter" tannins, while Cigales has the reputation of being a bit less dense, but usually a bit fresher. In terms of craftsmanship, it should also be mentioned that Ribera del Duero still uses comparatively more new wood. This could possibly provide another explanation for the milder character of many Cigales tintos.

 

PDO Tierra del Vino de Zamora

Although Tierra del Vino de Zamora is completely unknown and the selection is very limited, there are some treasures to be found, including Bodegas Viñas del Cénit, which has some of the oldest Tempranillo plots in the world. Much recognition has also been given to the small producer Bodega Dominio de Sexmil. The winery makes three Tintos, each exclusively from vines that are at least 100, 120 and 150 years old, and counters the very dense tannin with a long aging in wood.

It is obvious that the dry climate and the mixture of clay and stony soils produce concentrated and dense red wines. Unlike Toro, however, the eleven producers in the 605 ha appellation work at much higher altitudes, which naturally has a positive effect on acidity levels. 

The wines often appear somewhat more stringent and also edgier than their Toro neighbors. The best Tempranillos of the appellation stand for structure, fine-grained tannin as well as a rather spicy instead of salty mineral component.

The potential of the PDO is certainly also due to the old vineyard stock. The average age of the Tierra del Vino de Zamora vines is 65+, and this despite the fact that since the turn of the millennium more and more new plantings have been made, especially in the southeast around Villamayor de los Escuderos.

Overall, Tierra del Vino de Zamora is and remains a self-evident insider tip. Last year, the responsible viticultural authority certified only just under 200,000 bottles of red wine, and a leap in production is not to be expected. Nevertheless, there has been a new addition only recently with the Castillo de Buen Amor near Salamanca.

Cult-producer Vega Sicilia
Cult-producer Vega Sicilia

PDO Toro

Really exciting for Tempranillo fans is its big neighbor Toro, which offers a wealth of specialties for many die-hard lovers of the variety. Basically, there are two Toros. On the one hand, the commercial side, represented by large estates that usually have wood-finished, approachable Tempranillos with warm sweet fruit in their portfolio and thus score points in the export market. On the other hand, the artisanal wineries with their world-famous specialties.

The appellation thus offers an astonishing amount of choice, but is entirely dominated by Tinta de Toro, as it is known in the area. Consequently, the diversity comes from the many interpretations of one and the same grape, which naturally suggests a comparison between Toro and Ribera del Duero.
 

Consistent quality

Toro certainly does not have an easy time competing against Ribera del Duero, but it can score in several ways. The short growing cycle in the area arms the variety against major damage, especially as far as frosts are concerned. What is often not sufficiently appreciated is the great reliability of the growing area.

The quality of the vintages is much more homogeneous in Toro than in any other red wine appellation in Castile and León. This can be explained, among other things, by the fact that the harvest is relatively early and the pitfalls of the Castilian highland autumn are no longer too strong in many years. This gives the growing region an advantage that should not be underestimated. Especially in years of difficult climatic conditions, which in other appellations of the highlands usually have serious effects on the quality and quantity of the harvest due to their significantly later picking date, Toro usually presents itself as a safe haven.

Ribera del Duero, on the other hand, actually has a longer cycle in most years. While this means more risk, it usually gives Ribera Tempranillos more elegance and finesse.

Toro has a lot to offer
Toro has a lot to offer

In terms of depth and mineral intensity, however, high-quality Toros are hard to beat. Also up for discussion is whether, in terms of mouthfeel, the tannin of a high quality Toro is naturally more grainy even at an advanced age than an equivalent Ribera counterpart, to which more polish is attributed.
 

Aging Potential

And this brings us to the point of aging potential. Only a limited group of consumers really care about this aspect, yet the topic should at least be touched upon. The upper qualitative midfield of the Ribera del Duero usually matures somewhat better in the medium term, i.e. the gain in elegance is more attractive. Whether, on the other hand, there are differences in value at the absolute top may be doubted. Ribera fineness versus Toro depth, it remains a question of taste. The sheer range in the top segment alone does not turn out quite as lush in Toro. Who is surprised? Ribera del Duero has almost five times as much vineyard area as its small western neighbor.

 

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