What greets my eye, through the plate-glass windows of the state-of-the-art winery, is a sea of vines under a huge, curving blue sky. What greets my taste buds is a hugely concentrated red wine, blowing me away with its rich aromas of blackberries, bitter chocolate and spice. Wine and landscape: they come to the same thing. Or rather, one is an expression of the other (terroir, as the French call it), somehow packing up everything about a place – its soil and climate, but also its traditions and ambitions – into a single mouthful.
For years I’d known the Ribera del Duero only as a name on a bottle. In the past quarter century this region of north-central Spain has taken the wine world, not to mention my own tastes, by storm, challenging the supremacy of Rioja as the country’s pre-eminent purveyor of quality reds. But I had no very clear idea about the place behind the wines: its people, culture, food and architecture. Certainly I hadn’t explored the region’s wised-up wineries, the restaurants ancient and modern, and the seriously classy new hotels, working to take oenological tourism in Spain to the next level.
Now, as I drove across the high plains of Castilla y León, the pieces fell alluringly into place. The Ribera del Duero sprawls for 100km from east to west along the N-122 trunk road, traversing the provinces of Soria, Segovia, Burgos and Valladolid. At its heart is a low valley, 2km wide, with sweeping plains planted with wheat and vines gently rising to flat-topped, sparsely forested hills on either side.
Castile has a reputation for severity. It’s true that, at 800m above sea level, the climate verges on the extreme, with blisteringly hot summers and long, snowy winters, but on this late-spring day it was the picture of amiability. Here stood a ruined castle, there a four-square church in cream-coloured stone, looking rather too big for the dusty village clustered round it. Giant patches of crimson-red poppies lay like wine stains across the fields. Somewhere in the middle of it all, hidden among the trees, ran the river that does for this wine region what the Mosel, Loire and Rhône do respectively for theirs.
You don’t have to be a wine lover to relish the Ribera, though it helps. You might easily be drawn here by the excellent new hotels in former monasteries; by the medieval townscapes of Aranda de Duero and Peñafiel; or by the prospect of feasting on milk-fed lamb and sheep’s cheese at one of the Ribera’s traditional asadores (“roasters”). But you’d get with the programme soon enough. For the wines of Ribera del Duero are gloriously easy to take on board. Made almost entirely from a single grape variety, the Tempranillo, the prevailing style combines fruit and oak, silkiness and density, subtlety and power. These are wines to be impressed by, and then impress your friends with.
I roamed the Ribera from east to west, refining my search towards the western sector closest to Valladolid, known as “la milla de oro” (golden mile) for its miraculous concentration of world-class wineries. As I drove along the N-122, the big names leapt out at me distractingly from billboards standing proud among the vines: Aalto, Matarromera, Arzuaga, Vega Sicilia.
In Pesquera, a low-rise village supposed to have one of the highest ratios of wineries (26) to inhabitants (474) in the whole of Spain, I stopped to lean on a balustrade and peer through the pine trees at the swirling coffee-coloured waters of the Duero. This unassuming place, I knew, was the heart and soul of the Ribera. Here Alejandro Fernández, pioneer and patriarch of Bodegas Tinto Pesquera, made his first wine in a primitive stone tank that is reverentially shown to visitors, like a sacred relic. The genial Fernández, 84, is now CEO of a wine empire whose latest addition, a funky modern hotel called Pesquera AF, occupies an early-20th-century brick-and-limestone flour mill in Peñafiel. A diverting fusion of industrial architecture and soft-core design, the new hotel is recommendable among other things for its in-house restaurant Luna Llena, where Pesquera wines can be paired with a far more creative menu than is usual in the asadores of Castile.
Rather like Fernández himself, the Ribera has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. Thanks largely to the dynamism of the local wine industry and the presence of big businesses such as Michelin, GlaxoSmithKline and Pascual, unemployment in the region is several per cent lower than average for crisis-challenged Spain. Investment, pouring in from companies both wine-based and otherwise (the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, for example, is the financial muscle behind Abadía Retuerta), has given the region a sleek, well-fed aspect.
Forty years ago, for sure, things were different around here. Wines were made for local consumption – a thin rosé called clarete being the tipple of choice – and were unknown outside the region. Arguably, only one winery was functioning at top-drawer level: the legendary, aristocratic Vega Sicilia (est 1864), makers of the uncontested grandee of Spanish wines (not to mention one of the most expensive: the 1962 vintage currently retails for around €1,300 a bottle). But there were big changes in the offing. In 1982 the Ribera del Duero was at last accorded its own Denominación de Origen. There followed an explosion of new wineries, and global accolades for a generation of highly coloured, voluptuous reds that happened to appeal to influential critics and tastemakers such as Robert Parker, whose fondness for the Ribera has been a major factor in its recent fortunes.
What the Ribera has done far more recently is less about the wines and more about the universe of experiences surrounding them: in a word, tourism. The region now offers a menú degustación of superb new bodegas, some of them architectural masterpieces, plus fine restaurants and splendid hotels such as the Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine, a sumptuous refashioning of a medieval monastery sitting in its own 700-hectare wine estate, and by any reckoning one of Spain’s best hotels. Despite its apparently unassailable level of excellence (it happens to be number one on TripAdvisor), the hotel continues to innovate: last year saw the estate’s former stables transformed into a magnificent spa, Santuario LeDomaine, pushing the envelope with novelties such as the tasting massage offered by “spa sommeliers” who cleverly match Abadía wines with homemade essential oils. Earlier this year the in-house restaurant, aptly located in the old refectory, hired Catalan chef Marc Segarra (formerly of Mugaritz) to give added lustre to its Michelin star.
But of my various lodgings in the Ribera, the one I most enjoyed was the new Monasterio de Valbuena (“new” in a manner of speaking; the lavishly restored Cistercian monastery dates back to the 12th century), which, like the Abadía Retuerta, swaps Castilian austerity for new heights of sybaritic comfort. Valbuena is run by Castilla Termal, a local group specialising in high-end spas in historic settings: hence the monastery’s 2,000sq m balneario, where I had the memorable experience of lounging in a hot pool while gazing up at the vaults and frescoes of a 13th-century chapel (actually a perfect replica, but still). My enormous suite, called the Mirador for its expansive views over sand-coloured courtyards and countryside, was minimalism made warm and inviting with rich modern fabrics and wallpapers. Everything was just so, and marvellously silent – probably something to do with the 1.5m-thick stone walls. I wandered the monastery’s double-galleried gothic cloisters, ventured down into the cellar, where it’s said wine was first made in the Ribera by the monks of Cluny, and strolled to the river through pastures smelling of cut grass and delicate elderflower.
Days in the Ribera can fall intuitively into an agreeable routine of wineries in the morning, big Spanish lunches and gentle cultural snoopings in the afternoon. At Casa Florencio in Aranda de Duero, an asador in the purest Castilian style (the ceiling lamps were straight out of Game of Thrones’ castle Winterfell), I sat beside a mural depicting a shepherd leading his flock past a Romanesque church. The menu is a meat fest, taking in black-pudding morcilla and slabs of milk-fed, wood-roast lamb – a cuisine for which the rib-sticking wines of the Ribera might have been invented.
In the afternoons, I tottered around historic towns such as Aranda de Duero, with its 7km of underground bodegas beneath the streets, and Peñafiel, famous mainly for two things: a picture-book 10th-century castle, high on a hill beside the town, and a 21st-century winery designed for Protos, a leading name in Ribera wines, by British architect Richard Rogers’ studio. From the battlements of the castle, I could trace the arching barrel-like forms of the winery far below.
You don’t have to be heavily into winery visits or architecture to appreciate the excellence of both here. Every bodega had its own tale to tell. Some made a big deal of family heritage. Others offered innovative visitor experiences – such as Cepa 21, with its pruning and grape-picking workshops and its brilliant restaurant, helmed by rising young Castilian chef Alberto Soto. Still others were jaw-dropping buildings with dimly lit halls as cool as cathedrals where millions of liquid euros rested in French oak barrels. It’s easy to put together, as I did, an itinerary based on high-profile wineries of architectural merit that are also visitable, principal among them Rogers’ Protos and Norman Foster’s sensational Portia in Gumiel de Izán, a gigantic three-pointed star sunk into the earth, beautiful in its concrete and rusted metal grandeur. When the wow factor of the wine palaces began to pale, I sought out Ernesto Aparicio Lázaro, a passionate young winemaker who is forging an alternative future for the Ribera in the garage of his village house in Valdearcos de la Vega, crafting chemical-free wines according to the phases of the moon, under the Apalaz label.
Either way, high-end or low-fi, the name of the game was stunning wines in beautiful settings. At Pago de los Capellanes, the Rodero Villa family’s highly regarded bodega outside Pedrosa, I wasn’t sure which deserved greater admiration: the elegant modernist winery and contemporary cloister enclosing four ancient walnut trees – designed by Estefanía Rodero Villa herself, with her husband Alessandro Beggiao – or the velvety, ink-dark vintages combining fruit and oak in perfect synergy.
Rodero Villa brought out a bottle of the family’s El Picón 2010, which had just been awarded an impressive 96 points by Wine Spectator, and we tasted it looking out through the picture windows at the vineyards from which the grapes had come. The distant hills had a burnished look, as if scrubbed clean by the morning light. A singular and still quite undiscovered landscape; a unique and formidable wine – both tastes, I can now say, that are very much worth acquiring.