Everyone knows about Napa and Sonoma, Tuscany and Bordeaux. For a lesser-known vineyard getaway, one heavy on juicy reds and masterful meals, consider Ribera del Duero, a burgeoning wine region just two hours north of Madrid.
Haven’t heard of it? Except for noticing the appellation on a handful of esoteric wine menus, I hadn’t either. So I decided to drop in on the area dubbed the “Sonoma of Spain”by oenophile Robert Parker of Wine Advocate.
After spending a night in Madrid, I hopped the fast train to Valladolid and headed north to commence my vineyard tours. Unlike California wine country, with its attractive farm stands and lively, shop-filled Main Streets, Ribera is rural, with one main road snaking through quiet one-bar towns. Further proof I was not in California: I could not locate a single coffee shop for a midday pick-me-up.
Though the road seemed flat, the terraced vineyards I was driving alongside were at an elevation of 3,500 feet, some of the highest in Europe. Punctuating the rustic landscape were unexpected flashes of modernity — a white cube, a terra cotta wave of arches, a celestial-looking Grecian moderne edifice — that housed the wineries. These bodegas, as the Spanish call them, are what draw tourists to Ribera del Duero. They peep out from beyond a medieval castle, behind an ancient monastery and between groves of fluffy-looking pine trees that seem plucked from “The Lorax.”
My first stop was 3 Ases, which produces only 50,000 bottles of wine per year. At smaller wineries like this one, tastings are led by the vintners themselves. As we walked through the vines, owner César Arranz explained that the tempranillo grape, the backbone to Spain’s well-structured red wines, had grown here since the Middle Ages. But it wasn’t until 1982 that Ribera del Duero winemakers petitioned for — and won — their own Denominación de Origen (D.O.) appellation to compete with Rioja, the region’s mighty neighbor to the northeast.
Ribera del Duero is now home to more than 300 wineries — some indie upstarts, others internationally acclaimed labels — that wind through the ancient provinces of Soria, Segovia, Burgos and Valladolid. Arranz poured “Joven Roble” and “Crianza” (different designations of the local wines such as Joven, Crianza and Reserva indicate how long the wines have aged in oak barrels and in the bottle), followed by a plucky, strawberry-forward rosé from a bottle bearing a label of a donkey wearing oversize spectacles. Producing easy-to-drink rosé in the land of classic tempranillo was progressive, he explained.
The move, plus the quirky label, was part of an effort to entice a younger generation of beerswigging Spaniards to drink wine. When I asked the cost of these wines, I thought my Spanish had failed me. Only 6 euros (about $6.60) for a bottle of killer rosé? And 8 euros (about $8.80) for the fragrant Crianza aged for 14 months in a French oak barrel? This was shockingly inexpensive, even considering the 5% price hike at retail.
Next I visited Abadía Retuerta in Sardon, a more expansive operation where award-winning (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Magazine) wines are produced on 500 acres of terrain that sweep from the southern bank of the Douro River up to 2,100 feet above sea level. I bounced over the rocky terrain for about 20 minutes in a 4x4 to see the vines — tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, petit verdot — and the property’s state-of-the-art gravity-flow irrigation system before taking in panoramic views of the Douro Valley from the property’s craggy cliffs. Then came a tasting under a 200-year-old oak tree, where chief winemaker Ángel Anocibar pointed out the similarities between Napa cabernets and the wines of Ribera. Since both regions are adjacent to rivers and benefit from soil rich in gravel, sand and clay, Napa cabernets and Ribera’s bold tempranillo-based wines are structurally similar, meaning they are full-bodied and taste of deep blue fruits like plum and blackberry. A few swigs of Selección Especial later, the comparison rang clear.
Abadía also offers nature-based activities to accompany tastings, such as e-biking and horseback riding through the vineyard, followed by a picnic lunch and a gardener-for-the-day experience in the property’s biodynamic organic garden.
Then off to Burgos, 50 minutes north. Bodegas Portia has received international acclaim for its edgy Norman Foster design, which is futuristic indeed. The steel-and-cement trefoil exploding from the earth resembles the Capitol from the Hunger Games films. Inside, a raised public gallery connects three massive wings to display different stages of the production process, from pulping to bottling. Sadly, the tasting room was full (note: definitely book tastings in advance), so I eyeballed the restaurant, Triennia Gastrobar, and took my leave.
Thanks to hearty soil, where there are vineyards, there is usually also standout food. I may not have spied casual restaurants in and around the towns, but, with direction from locals, I tapped into Ribera’s sophisticated culinary scene.
At Ambivium, the gastronomic restaurant inside the stylish Pago de Carraovejas winery, I had my jet-lagged mind blown during a pairings lunch masterminded by chef Marina de la Hoz. Dishes like fatty ox tartare topped with white truffle shavings and wisps of blue cheese, slow-roasted suckling pig dotted with creme fraiche, and aromatic black rice infused with squid brought the bold flavors of Spain into sharp focus. The food is divine.
But dapper sommelier Guillermo Cruz, 34, steals the show. His zest for storytelling, explaining the nuances of pairing the aforementioned tartare with, say, three vintages of Barolo (1967, 1996, 2013) to underscore the Piedmontese inspiration, added a thrill to the meal. The cost of a 12-course lunch? About $70, $160 with wine pairings.
Another dynamic tasting menu unfolded at the Cepa 21 winery, where Alberto Soto, a chef who employs “trampantojo,” or the element of surprise, deconstructs traditional flavors into high-concept small plates. To wit: His macaron de la Ribera del Duero looks like a cookie but is actually lamb pâté between two crunchy disks of dehydrated wine-flavored jam. Salmorejo, a classic creamy tomato soup with ham and egg, became, in his hands, a meringue-based, hand-eaten tapa filled with a dash of the cold soup. The price tag for this inspired 13-course meal was $66, $88 with wine pairings, much less than what such an experience would cost in Madrid.
Experimental cuisine is not the focus at La Serrezuela, a tiny restaurant in a tiny town called Montejo de la Vega de la Serrezuela in Segovia. Here, the culinary stars are just-plucked-from-the-earth vegetables, deftly smoked over coal and laced with zesty Spanish olive oil. Melt-in-your-mouth lechazo (baby lamb), smoked for hours at low heat, also dazzled.
As I drained my wine, I told chef Giorgio de Marco how much I wished to see one of the ancient underground bodegas popular in this area. A few minutes later, a neighbor appeared and led me up the street and into a door tucked into a rock formation. Inside, down a slimy path and through an iron grill, I entered a “Game of Thrones”-looking cell filled with musty wine barrels. Wine was siphoned directly from a barrel, and we (five fellow diners had trailed us to the cellar) raised a glass to good health. Most of these bodegas are private. A similar experience can be had at Bodega Don Carlos (in Aranda de Duero), where tastings and meals are served in a historic underground cellar.
I needed to splice gorging with recreation. Happily, the sloped terrain offered ample opportunity to hike. The Quintanilla de Onésimo Trail follows the River Douro for 8.6 miles on pathways trodden by fishermen hundreds of years ago through plains and vineyards. This can be made into an all-day trek if you continue up to Peñafiel castle and end at the stunning Castilla Termal Monastery of Valbuena, a five-star hotel within a preserved 12th-century Cistercian monastery.
One afternoon, I headed to Parque Natural Hoces del Rio Riaza in northeast Segovia, a spot celebrated for lunarlike terrain, specifically gorges formed by the Duratón River. The park, which offers superlative hiking and kayaking, is a famous breeding ground for birds of prey. As I descended into a juniper-scented canyon, there were griffon vultures, wings extended almost 9 feet, circling above the cliffs. Later, with the help of binoculars, I spied a peregrine falcon imperiously perched above a ravine.
The days flew by, a flurry of big flavors, bold wine and transcendental scenery. Whether you stay in Ribera del Duero or make a day trip from Madrid, this pocket of Spain gets high marks on hospitality.