Tempranillo – Rioja or Ribera del Duero, which do I choose?

Mar 22, 2017

Tempranillo – Rioja or Ribera del Duero, which do I choose?

By Jason Moore

Tempranillo, has been known as the backbone of Spain’s most noble wine region, Rioja, for many generations. Often blended with local grapes Garnacha (Grenache) and Mazuela  (Carignan), Rioja reds have been Spain’s signature wine for almost two hundred years. But since the turn of the last century, wine-lovers have also come to know Tempranillo as the premiere grape of another great Spanish wine region – Ribera del Duero.

Countless sommeliers and wine retailers have come to appreciate the different faces of Tempranillo and the nuances that are expressed when it is grown in different areas of Spain.

Consequently, there’s been an increase in overall selections from the more recently developed regions like Ribera del Duero. Although grapes have been grown and wine has been produced in Ribera del Duero for centuries, international recognition was late in coming.  Not until the 1990’s did Ribera begin to emerge from big brother Rioja’s long established shadow.

Ribera’s emergence as a rival (or at least an alternative) to Rioja begs the questions:

“Which Tempranillo should I drink and why?  Are Tempranillo wines from Rioja different from those from Ribera del Duero wines, or do they taste more or less the same?  What are the differences? How about the similarities? Which wine goes better with what I am eating tonight? And what if I am not eating?  Which wine is better as a cocktail?”

Most of Rioja (the darker portion of the Orange shaded area on the right of the map above) benefits from a Continental climate with many vineyards resting on an elevated plateau 1500 ft above sea level.  Soils are clay-based in lower-lying Rioja Baja, while the higher elevated zones of Rioja Alvesa and Rioja Alta contain more chalk and limestone.  Although Rioja is an inland area, it is about a one-hour drive from the city of Portugalete on Spain’s northern coast.

Largely due to terroir and dry growing conditions, Tempranillo from Rioja tends to be higher in acid with abundant floral and red fruit notes.

The wines are lighter, brighter, and drier than corresponding wines from Ribera.  Historically, wines from Rioja were vinified to accentuate oak aging, however, modern Rioja wines de-emphasize oak in favor of highlighting Tempranillo’s engaging bright cherry and red-berry fruit character .

Like much of Spain, the cuisine in Rioja features great quantities of cured ham along with grilled and roasted meats. However, as noted, Rioja is not far from the sea and quite a bit of seafood is consumed as well.

In fact, the high natural acidity of Tempranillo from Rioja makes it one of the world’s best red wines to consume with seafood.

The chalky soils of the Rioja Alta.  Notice the light color.

The mineral-rich soils of the high elevations of Ribera del Duero.  Note how the reddish clay at the top of the hill gives way to the more white/chalky soil at the bottom.

The Ribera del Duero region lies both south and west of Rioja on a much higher elevated plateau (the darker shaded portion of the yellow area of the map). Vineyards in Ribera del Duero range in elevation from approximately 2300 feet to over 3500 feet, making them some of the highest elevated vineyards in Europe.  The soils in Ribera del Duero are rich and nutrient laden with large concentrations of limestone, marl, and clay.   The climate in this elevated inland location is extreme with long, hot summers, and cold, dry winters.  The area features over 2400 hours of annual sunlight.

With the extreme climatic conditions coupled with the heartier soils, Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero tends to be more robust than that from Rioja with typically higher alcohol and riper, darker fruits.  The wines can be denser and textured, with assertive flavors of dark cherry, black berries and sometimes cassis.  While oak ageing plays as prominent a role in Ribera del Duero as it does in Rioja, it is the dense, concentrated fruit that carry Ribera’s wines.

Cuisine in the area places more of an emphasis on meat, with lamb playing a large roll.  Few food and wine pairings can top a delicious Ribera del Duero matched with grilled lamb chops.

Classical Wines from Spain has been importing wine from both the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions for over thirty years.  We have a variety of wines from both areas to fit every mood, meal, and budget.

Classical Wines from Spain has been importing wine from both the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions for over thirty years.  We have a variety of wines from both areas to fit every mood, meal, and budget.

Ribera del Duero Wines

Viña Gormaz Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero, 2015 – from dry farmed 50 year old vines and fermented in concrete tanks, VIña Gormaz features sweet, old-vine fruit of currants and cherry with polished tannins that eschew the need for oak aging.

Viña Magna “Seis Meses,” Ribera del Duero, 2015 – made from 100% Organic grapes farmed at an extreme elevation of over 3300 feet, aged six months in French oak, this wine showcases a variety of purple fruits from plums to blueberries, with a mouth-coating texture of smooth glycerin resulted from no fining, filtering, nor cold stabilization.  Texturous and long.

Viña Magna Crianza, Ribera del Duero, 2011 – 12 to 18 months of barrique ageing in mostly French Oak.  Round and robust with flavors of plum, marionberry, cola, chocolate, tobacco, and spice.  A serious wine for a serious meal.  93 points Wine Enthusiast coming in the June issue!

Viña Magan Reserva, Ribera del Duero, 2011Viña Magna Reserva (2011) – “This powerful red delivers cassis, blackberry and garrigue flavors, framed by espresso, tar and mineral notes, well-integrated and supported by muscular tannins and balsamic acidity. Dense but lively, with floral and mineral accents on the long, expressive finish.” 95 Points Thomas Matthews, Wine Spectator Insider, May 11, 2016

Rioja Wines

Martinez Corta “Cepas Antiguas,” Rioja, 2015 – from estate vineyards of over 40 years old in the lighter soils of the Rioja Alta, Cepas Antigua is lightly oaked, featuring aromas of roses and flavors of fresh, bright red cherry and wild strawberries.  Perfect for hors d’oeuvres and snacks, or as a light, cocktail red wine.

Familia Montaña Crianza, Rioja, 2014 – mouth-filling, yet fresh, the spice and leather components complement the ripe berries and ferrous minerality of the Rioja’s red soils.

Familia Montaña Reserva, Rioja, 2011 – aged 18 months in French and American Oak, a higher percentage of wine from the Rioja Alvesa provide body, weight, and a ripe red-fruit character to the nose and finish.

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