Ribera del Duero: Wine Adventures in Castilla y León
Nearly twenty-five years ago, when I first began visiting La Ribera del Duero–the Duero river valley, which in Portugal becomes the Douro, the fabled Port river–I thought it was the dedicated wine aficionado’s back-country dream. It was a region dotted with a few castle towns, stark clean limestone-streaked hills, unirrigated gnarly old vine vineyards mostly planted with tempranillo (then called by the local names tinto fino or tinto de país), tawny wheat fields in the higher elevations, and often nondescript villages, some of which had amazing restaurants specializing in lamb and wine. Located just an hour and a half north / northwest of Madrid (like Napa Valley is to San Francisco), and an hour south / southwest of the overlooked, but wonderful provincial capital of Burgos, the Ribera del Duero is the most prestigious wine region within easy reach of the Spain’s capital city.
Slide show with captions on the Ribera del Duero.
Double click on the slide show, then when the Google album comes up, click
The cooperatives usually fermented their wine in open-topped epoxy-lined cement tanks. God was more or less in charge of the temperature control system during fermentation. If the fermentation season was cool and the tanks were clean, some stupendous cooperative-made, vinos del año (wines from the current harvest), especially from vineyards in the cooler uplands of the Ribera de Burgos, could end up in the terra cotta pitchers of the region's superb, often colorful country asadores (brick-oven roast houses). Though served without labels these house wines became the stuff of legend in Aranda de Duero, where of travelers used to stop for lunch on their way north or on week-end day trips from Madrid. "Aranda de Duero, Vino y Cordero (wine and lamb)," signs proclaim at entrances to the town. Drawn by the town’s famous asadores (more than a dozen in Aranda alone)–with their brick ovens redolent with the aromas of irresistible roasting suckling lamb–generations of Spaniards (and a few foreigners) discovered how good the jewel-like, deep black raspberry-colored Ribera del Duero vinos tintos could be.
After the official denominación de origen Ribera del Duero was granted in 1982, the nucleus of small grower producers who would soon put the Ribera del Duero in the wine world’s map began to emerge. Led by Alejandro Fernández (whose Pesquera would take a moonwalk quantum leap when Robert Parker, Jr. compared it to Bordeaux’s Petrus in the late 1980s), several grower-producers began to demonstrate that where there was smoke (Vega Sicilia, Protos and the pitcher wines of Aranda), there was fire. Even with their fledging wines, often the first vintages they had bottled, producers such as Alejandro Fernández (who established Pesquera in 1972) in Pesquera de Duero, Torremilanos en Aranda, the Pérez Pascuas family (Viña Pedrosa) in Pedrosa de Duero, Valduero in Guimiel de Hizán, Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera and Victor Balbás en La Horra were already showing the great potential of the Ribera del Duero.
During most of the 1980s, I used to visit these wineries at least once or twice a year, and, along with a tasting visit with the great Mariano García, then the winemaker at Vega Sicilia and consultant to Mauro (just outside the Ribera del Duero D. O. in Tudela de Duero), I was able to cover most of the quality wine producers in a couple of days. Since then the number of wineries has spiraled up to more than 200 and now it would take a week or more just to cover the more noteworthy wineries, not to mention the new bodegas that spring up every year.
Now worthy of visits are not only the clásico small producers who surfaced in the early 1980s after the D. O. was established, but also the wineries which began their ascent to stardom in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Dehesa de los Canónigos, Pago de Carraovejas, Matarromera, Emilio Moro, Condado de Haza (Alejandro Fernández’s second venture, single vineyard estate winery ), Félix Callejo, Arzuaga Navarro, Bodegas Monasterio (whose young Danish winemaker, Peter Sisseck, would become an international star with Dominio de Pingus, his “garage” wine), Carmelo Rodero, Vega Sicilia’s Alión, Viña Mayor, Grandes Bodegas (Marqués de Velilla, Villalobón), Finca Villacreces, Viña Sastre, Cillar de Silos, López Cristóbal and Montebaco.
Up until 1995, growth in the Ribera del Duero seemed manageable for an intrepid wine taster of that old breed who believes that to really know a wine well, you must visit the bodega and meet the people who make the wines (I have visited 42 bodegas in Castilla-La Mancha alone). Since then the explosion in the number of wineries clamoring for attention in the Ribera del Duero has reached a crescendo. Among them are some serious contenders such as Emina, Pago de los Capellanes, Cachopa, Aalto, Dominio de Atauta, Real Sitio de Ventosilla (Pagos del Rey), Pagos del Infante and Viña Arnaiz, all founded during the five years leading up to the Millennium. The year 2000 on seemed to spark its own comet trail of coming stars to further light up the Ribera del Duero’s wine sky, including the not inaptly named Celeste from Cataluña’s Miguel Torres, Astrales from Alberto and Eduardo García (two of star winemaker Mariano García’s sons) and La Rioja Alta’s Aster).
Though relatively little known now, there are a number of nascent stars that have made successful debuts in Ribera del Duero’s red wine galaxy just since 2000, many of which have drawn high praise from the Spanish wine press. They include Mattaromera’s Rento, Emilio Moro’s Cepa 21, Bodegas Conde’s Neo, the Osborne family’s Bodegas y Viñedos del Jaro (Sed de Caná, Chafandín), Montegaredo (a new pyramid-shaped bodega), Alonso de Yerro, peripatetic flying winemaker Telmo Rodríguez’s Matallana, Lynus, Abadía de San Quirce, Miros de la Ribera, Codorníu’s Legaris, Bodegas Trus, Uvaguilera (an ex-Mauro winemaker), the very promising Montecastro and the wines of Bodegas y Viñedos Lleiroso, the pet project of Pascual Herrera, Director of the Enological Station of Castilla y León and director of the Wine Museum of Peñafiel.
The investment in La Ribera del Duero from bodegas from outside the region mushroomed after the new Ley del Vino (wine law) was passed by Spain’s Congress in 2003, allowing wineries to make and sell wines from other regions. In addition to the wines from Osborne, Telmo Rodríguez, la Rioja Alta and Codorníu, other outside producers include La Rioja’s Féderico Paternina (Marqués de Valparaiso), the giant Cava producer Freixenet Valdubón), Catalan Cava producer Parxet (Tionio), Pernot Ricard’s Tarsus, O. Fournier (Alfa Spiga) and the Carrion group (Viña Arnaiz).
It is evident that with so many quality wineries to consider, keeping up with the Ribera del Duero can be a daunting task. Still, a two-to-four day trip can be immensely rewarding for lovers of wine country. The Ribera’s wineries and vineyards are located on either side of a 70-mile stretch of the Duero River that runs from east to west. But many of the wineries are concentrated in several main wine towns in the Ribera de Burgos hills and along the river plains on both sides of the valley in the provinces of Burgos and Valladolid (there are also Ribera del Duero D. O. vineyards in Soria and a few in a small northerly portion of Segovia). And, unlike the days when I first began traveling in the Ribera del Duero, there are now a number of good, charming, reasonably priced lodgings along the way. Then, as now, there have always been some wonderful country asadores, where, if you are lover of lamb, you will be in for some of the great dining experiences of your life.
A trip like the one I planned in the summer of 2006 can provide a good overview of the wines, gastronomy and historical sights of the Ribera del Duero and provide those in search of great back country wine adventures with indelible memories. I usually rent a car at Madrid’s Barajas airport and drive north on the A-1 auto-route through the mountains to Aranda de Duero and turn west on the Soria-Valladolid road (route 122), then drive northwest on local roads through the picturesque uplands of the Ribera de Burgos to Roa de Duero, where I often make my base.
However, on this trip, I decided to change my normal route to visit Soria, the easternmost and least known of the four provinces that comprise the Ribera del Duero. There are two wineries well worth considering in this province: Dominio de Atauta, which has been making some sensational wines that have drawn raves both in Spain and internationally, and the more modest, but quite delicious Viña Gormaz, located in the historic town of San Esteban de Gormaz, which has one of the oldest Romanesque churches in Spain. The town of Atauta is filled with centuries-old, hand-hewn bodegas burrowed into the hills and has a mirador that overlooks a sea of vineyards. Atauta was unknown even to serious Spanish wine aficiondos until recently, when Dominio de Atauta began making a series of first-rate, limited edition wines from a series of a very old single vineyards planted on pie franco (French rootstocks), since the 19th-century phylloxera bug invasion did not reach this back-country area.
The next stop to the west of San Esteban de Gormaz is the great crossroads town of Aranda de Duero, where the wineries of note are Torremilanos, Martín Berdugo and the new-wave star, Bodegas Conde, which produces highly regarded, but oaky Neo. Aranda is famous for its legendary asadores such as Mesón de la Villa, Casa Florencio, El Pastor y the perennial favorite, Rafael Corrales, which feature fall-off-the-bone roast suckling lamb and other Castilian cuisine specialties. Don’t miss Aranda’s Santa María church with its superb 15th-century Isabeline plateresque façade and the picturesque Plaza Mayor in the 15th- and 16th-century old quarter, beneath which is a subterranean network of ancient wine caves. Aranda has several hotels worthy of using as a base of operations, including two out by the main highway, Torremilanos, a winery hotel set in the vineyards, and the comfortable, well-appointed four-star Hotel Tudanca, which is located at a major highway rest stop complex and also has a noteworthy restaurant.
From Aranda, head north and west of the city, to the Ribera de Burgos region, where in the past twenty years, wine has joined sheep raising and wheat as the main pillars of the area’s agricultural economy. You will enjoy meandering through this strange, picturesque section of Castilian landscape, exploring quaint back country wine villages such as Gumiel del Mercado, Sotillo de la Ribera, La Horra, Roa de Duero, and Pedrosa del Duero, where tourists are practically unknown and you can taste excellent wines in such bodegas as Valduero, Valsotillo, Balbás, Condado de Haza, Viña Pedrosa, Carmelo Rodero and Pago de los Capellanes. Sotillo also produces some excellent Castilian type ewe’s milk cheeses. In this area, there are also newly renovated places to stay in small towns, including several casas rurales (inexpensive, often rustic and charming, but very comfortable bed-and-breakfast lodgings) in Gumiel de Izán (see listings) and in the renovated and highly recommended Palacio de Guzmán y Santoyo in the village of Guzmán near Pedrosa (see listings).
Those strange, fascinating rock formations protruding from nearly every hillside in towns like La Horra, Sotillo and Gumiel del Mercado are called zarceras. The hills are soft sandstone or limestone, which made digging bodegas, or wine cellars, relatively easy so the villages in this region are honeycombed with hundreds of manmade wine (and cheese) caves. Each of these caves needs a ventilation shaft, so the landscape sprouts weird, often individualistic, conical-shaped, stone-and-cement zarceras. There may be as many as twenty or thirty of these five-to-ten foot tall structures cropping from a single hill. The effect is other worldly, resembling an outdoor pop sculpture garden crafted by visitors from another planet.
The modern, functional, inexpensive, but comfortable Vado del Rey Hotel in the center of the lively, historic wine town of Roa de Duero is also a good base for exploring this region and it has two excellent restaurants, Nazareno, one of the most highly regarded asadores in Castilla y León and El Chuleta, which serves superb roast lamb and a very good broader menu of regional specialities. At Roa de Duero, the Roman Rauda, a Roman bridge still in use spans the Duero. Cardinal Cisneros (Gonzalo Jiménez de Cisneros), once confessor to Queen Isabela and the powerful regent of Castile after the death of King Ferdinand died here in 1517 and there is a statue of him on the esplanade, overlooking the Duero plain where there are several important wineries including Aalto, Condado de Haza and López Cristobal, one of real sleeper wineries of the region, winner of one of the most important Spanish wine prizes in 2007, Castilla y León’s Zarcillo de Oro, for its red crianza 2004.
Mesón Mauro, one of Castilla y León’s greatest roast houses, is located on one of the highest streets, near the castle. The fare here is salad, a plate of local cheese and chorizo, a quarter of roast baby lamb, and jarras (clay pitchers) of Mesón Mauro's spectacular Ribera del Duero house wine. If you have time for a couple of meals in Peñafiel, the colorful Molino de Palacios a very good Castilian fare restaurant ensconced in renovated old mill house on the Duratón is an excellent choice. The good, comfortable Hotel Ribera del Duero has some rooms with a view of the castle.
North of Peñafiel, past another ancient bridge is Pesquera de Duero, home to Alejandro Fernández’s Pesquera, Emilio Moro, Bodegas Monasterio and Bodegas y Víñedos del Jaro. West of Pesquera, are several of the Ribera del Duero’s most important wineries, including Vega Sicilia, Dominio de Pingus, Alión, Mattaromera, Finca Villacreces and Arzuaga Navarro, but some criss-crossing of the Duero is required to take in the wineries in the towns of Valbuena de Duero, Padilla de Duero and Quintanilla de Onésimo, plus the not-to-be missed major historic attraction in the area, the 12th-century Cistercian monastery of Santa María de Valbuena. It will take it will take some serious enchufe (connections) and writing ahead to get into either Vega Sicilia or Pingus.
At this end of the Ribera del Duero are some excellent hotel and dining choices, including the hotel and restaurant in Arzuaga Navarro winery and Fuente de la Acena, a highly rated hotel and creative cuisine restaurant in an old renovated mill on the Duero, both in Quintanilla de Onésimo.
The Duero flows on west, south of the historic capital city of Valladolid and the Cigales wine district. Then on through the Rueda district, where some excellent white wines are being made from the Verdejo grape, and Toro, where some of some Spain’s most powerful red wines are made. At the Portuguese border, this great wine river becomes the Douro and its waters bless the region that produces the grapes for Port then flows on to meet its date with the Atlantic Ocean at Oporto, but those are tempting adventures for another time. Doubling back through the Ribera del Duero on the way to Madrid to visit a few more wineries and having another meal of that irresistible lamb accompanied by a good bottle of rich, black-ruby Ribera del Duero wine are temptations that few can resist.
Hotel Restaurante Tudanca - Aranda
N-1 Autovía del Norte, Km. 152
Tel: 947 506 011
Finca Torremilanos (Aranda de Duero exit, west)
Aranda de Duero (Burgos)
Tel: 947 512 852
Parador Nacional de Turismo
Plaza Mayor, 1
Tel: 947 177 110
Palacio de Guzmán y Santoyo
Tel: 947 554 104
Casa Durmión (casa rural)]
Avda. del Cid Campeador, 75
Sotillo de la Ribera (Burgos)
Tel: 947 506 016
El Zaguán de Gumiel
Gumiel de Izán (Burgos)
947 544 141
Hotel Vadorrey (& apartment hotel)
(Also with a good asador-restaurant)
Las Cruces, 21
Roa de Duero (Burgos)
Tel: 947 541 832
Hotel Ribera del Duero
Avda. Escalona, 17
Tel: 983 873 111
Hotel Fuente de la Acena
Camino del Molino
Quintanilla de Onésimo (Valladolid)
Tel: 983 680 910
Arzuaga (In Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro)
Carretera Valladolid-Soria, Km. 325
Quinatanilla de Onésimo (Valladolid)
Tel: 983 687 004
Aranda de Duero
Tel: 947 500 230
El Lagar de Isilla (15th Century underground wine cave)
Aranda de Duero
Tel: 947 510 683
Mesón de la Villa
La Sal, 3
Aranda de Duero
Tel: 947 501 025
Asador Rafael Corrales
Calle Carrequemada, 2
Aranda de Duero
Tel: 947 500 277
Puerta del Palacio, 1
Roa de Duero (Burgos)
Tel: 947 540 214
Avda. de la Paz, 7
Roa de Duero (Burgos)
Tel: 947 540 312
Tel: 983 873 014
Molino de Palacios
Avda. Constitución, 16
Tel: 983 880 505
Restaurante Fuente de la Acena
Camino del Molino
Quinatanilla de Onésimo (Valladolid)
Tel: 983 680 910
Bodegas Gormaz, San Esteban de Gormaz (Soria) firstname.lastname@example.org
Bodegas Dominio de Atauta, Atauta (Soria) email@example.com
Torremilanos, Aranda de Duero (Burgos) www.torremilanos.com
Bodegas Valduero, Gumiel de Mercado (Burgos) www.bodegasvalduero.com
Bodegas Balbás, La Horra (Burgos) www.balbas.es
Bodegas Ismael Arroyo (Valsotillo), Sotillo de la Ribera (Burgos) www.valsotillo.com
Bodegas Condado de Haza, Roa de Duero (Burgos) www.grupopesquera.com
Bodegas López Cristóbal, Roa de Duero (Burgos) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pago de los Capellanes, Pedrosa de Duero (Burgos) www.pagodeloscapellanes.com
Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas (Viña Pedrosa), Pedrosa de Duero (Burgos) www.perezpascuas.com
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández Pesquera, Pesquera de Duero (Valladolid) www.grupopesquera.com
Protos Bodega Ribera de Duero, Peñafiel (Valladolid) www.bodegasprotos.com
Vega Sicilia, Valbuena de Duero (Valladolid) www.vega-sicilia.com
Bodega Matarromera (also Emina & Renascimiento-Rento), Valbuena de Duero www.matarromera.es
Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Quinatanilla de Onésimo (Valladolid) www.arzuaganavarro.com
About the author
Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.
Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Culinary Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain
Gerry Dawes can be reached at email@example.com; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): firstname.lastname@example.org