• Two Thumbs Up
• Pleasant, simple aromas of blueberry and raspberry. Drinkable if not downright quaffable with its smoky flavors of chocolate, cola and strawberry.
• Two Thumbs Up
• Interesting and manifold spicy aromas of nutmeg, spice cake, blueberry and raspberry. A mellow, easy-to-drink wine with tastes of red apple skin, coffee and black cherry.
• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Rich, complex, smoky aromas of black cherry, plum, white flowers and minerals. Quite complex and engaging with rich flavors of coffee, clove, dark chocolate, black cherry and a tart blood orange quality.
“It has been an age since I’ve taken a serious look at Ribera del Duero wines,” I told my breakfast partner. “I’m really looking forward to this tasting.”
“Oh yeah? When was the last time you had any of their joven wines?” he asked, as he finished what looked to be a delicious omelet.
“Ummmm,” I stalled.
It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with the term, which is Spanish for young. It was just that I couldn’t remember having a joven or a roble (Spanish for oak) or a cosecha (Spanish for vintage) wine that made any impression good or bad. All these classifications mean about the same thing: young, generally inexpensive Spanish wines.
“You might be in for a surprise,” my colleague said with a knowing grin. And my colleague happened to have a very knowing grin as he was Michael Schachner, who covers Spanish wines for the magazine Wine Enthusiast. We were in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood for a major trade tasting featuring Ribera del Duero wines.
Ribera del Duero lies about 100 miles north of Madrid in the high plains of Spain. These plains boast an ancient winemaking culture that focuses mainly on red wines from the friendly tempranillo grape. And it is a bit of a curiosity.
While it stands in the shadows of the more renowned Rioja region to the east, it is home to Spain’s most iconic wine: Vega Sicilia’s Unico. For most of Ribera’s long history, with the exception of Vega Sicilia, its rocky hillsides were better known for rough, rustic styles of wine. A renaissance in recent decades has seen waves of improvements. My last serious take on its wines (some six years ago) held a generally positive position. These were wines from the early 2000s and the late 1990s.
Any jovens in that mix? Not a one. They were all crianzas, reservas and gran reservas. These are Spain’s better categories of wines and have longer aging requirements with minimum times in oak casks that often result in mellower (if not a tad oaky) wines.
After we slogged up Lafayette Street in a cold, driving rain, Schachner and I entered the Puck Building, where we faced the hundreds of wines at the grand tasting, sponsored by Ribera del Duero’s winemakers organization. Schachner dove in with his tasting glass held high, leaving me with that annoying knowing grin.
Naturally, he knew. I tasted some 50 wines that morning and early afternoon. Some wines set my heart aflutter. These were almost exclusively crianza level wines and better. The younger wines? I can’t say there wasn’t one or two that tripped the light for me, but it was mostly a tightly packed minefield of yuck-o.
What was waiting for me when I got home to Atlanta? About two dozen wine samples from Ribera del Duero, half of them in the joven category.
With minor note of dread, I put the wines in bags for my more controlled tasting. The dozen crianza and better wines were as expected. Mostly yummy. The younger wines had a few pleasant surprises for me, which I will share with you this week, but about half of them hurt me to taste, definitely thumbs down material. They either had a syrupy sweet quality or they had a chemical-like, artificial raspberry flavor.
So when we’re talking about Ribera wines, stick to the higher quality levels (It’s easy to find the quality level. There’s a color-coded sticker on each wine. Purple-pink for younger wines, burnt orange for crianza, brown for reserva and olive green for gran reserva. And remember: with joven wines from Ribera del Duero at least, the pain in Spain comes mainly from the plains.