Sometimes, rarely, it pays not to have a diary bursting at the seams with a whole load of uncancellable tastings, classes, courses or deadlines. It means that when an email pings into your inbox suggesting a fleeting visit to Ribera del Duero the following week you are at liberty to say yes.
I thought I was agreeing to a day tasting a hundred or so Ribera wines to pronounce a judgement on the 2013 vintage. But Ribera’s primeur tasting is nothing like that of Bordeaux. Expecting nought but a hard day of tasting tannic reds resulting in a dry mouth and black teeth I was pleasantly surprised, nay, positively delighted, that in fact our programme began with a visit to Vega-Sicilia, a late delicious tapas dinner, staying at Hotel Pesquera and breakfasting the following day at 10:30. If this is Primeur tasting Spanish style then I rather like it.
The serious side, the day of judgement, did not involve tasting through the wines from the 170 wineries of the DO but to taste a random sample which consisted merely of 10 wines. The hard work, it seems, had already been done and now it was down to 10 of us, 5 from outside of Ribera and 5 wine-makers who work within the DO. I represented the UK; Peer Holm, a wine writer and consultant, was from Germany; there was a French wine buyer for Lavinia: my new best friend, the very lovely Pilar Cavero, Best Spanish Sommelier of 2013, who works at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona; and finally a writer who seemed to be the Michael Schuster of Spain, in appearance as well as by the fact that he has written a book on how to taste wine.
The 10 wines ranged in style – young, oaked or keeping wines – and were tasted blind and without the judges consulting each other. We had to declare our findings of the vintage as one of the following quality levels: Excellent, Very Good, Good, Average or Difficult. I judged the vintage as Very Good as only two wines proved to be a little disappointing, all the others seemed to me to be ‘Very Good’ examples of their styles. When it came to presenting our judgement to the whole Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Ribera del Duero and each of us explaining why and how we had reached our decision, it appeared that 4 agreed with me, 4 rated the vintage as Good and 1 as Excellent.
Whilst we judges were interviewed, filmed and photographed by all sorts of Spanish press and television companies, the Consejo went off to cogitate our pronouncements. They would make the final decision and in fact decided to down grade our average of Very Good to Good. They felt that we had tasted wines which, although randomly selected, had in fact been above average in quality; they knew better then we how the year had developed; they were better able to compare with 2012 which had been graded as Very Good and wanted to be sure that consumers could rely on their judgement in the future. One can only admire them for that.
I was given a very detailed report on the weather, temperature, rainfall and grape development of 2013 but it’s all in Spanish so I am working my way through it rather slowly. My summing up on the vintage from the wines that I tasted is that the wines are of a relative light colour, there is fruit but it’s light rather than ripe in style, the acidity is good and balanced, alcohol is around 13.5, the wines will be able to carry the oak for their classification but wine-makers should be careful about how much new oak is used and generally the wines will not be for very long ageing.
The whole experience of judging the vintage for Ribera was very positive in terms of the people, the wines, the area and the wine-makers. This is a stylish DO, with carefully made wines by serious producers. Its leading lights, such as Vega Sicilia and Pingus, are just as much a part of and as important to the DO as the other producers even though their world-wide reputation doesn’t need them to be. Ribera del Duero may produce wines from Tempranillo and age them in oak but they are unmistakable from Rioja. These are wines with a real identity, modernity and I expect to see many more great examples on the UK wine shelves in the coming year. Look out for them. And for your information 2009, 2010 and 2011 were all rated as Excellent vintages.
All photos by José I. Berdón Homillos.