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The Wines of Northern Spain – A Cornucopia of Choices

By Don Clemens

Before I began working in the wine business, and before finishing college, I served in the Air Force, and was stationed in Germany for most of my time in the service. Because of this, I was fortunate enough to have traveled over most of western Europe. Even then, I liked wine – especially red wine! But I can’t honestly say that I recall drinking anything that was specifically a Rioja, for example. My longest “stay over” trip to Spain at that time was several nights along the Spanish coast, in Tossa de Mar, on the Costa Brava. While the Tempranillo grape may have been the main component of the various sangrias that my bride and I sampled, I was not yet as sophisticated about the wines of Spain that I like to think that I have become. My infatuation with Spanish red wines really began when I was a retail liquor store manager. I was interested in some of those unusual bottles, shaped like those that French Burgundy came in; some were contained in something like snug burlap sacks and said in clear letters “Rioja”. That is probably where I had my first real sampling of this particular Spanish treasure. Happily, I have had the time – and inclination – to learn much more about Spanish wines. Almost three decades later in my career, I had the opportunity to spend more than a week under the tutelage of Miguel Torres and the Torres Wine company, staying in Barcelona, and immersing myself in the culinary and wine culture of northeastern Spain. The wine scene in Spain had dramatically changed in those decades.

Rioja – The "Room Where It Started”...

For many of us, the first interesting red wine from Spain that we encountered was probably from the province of Rioja. With me, some basic familiarity with French red wines likely started this journey into learning about the red wines of Spain, or maybe it was the popular red wines of Italy that led the way. 

In any case, winemaking in Spain goes back many centuries. The abundance of native grape varieties fostered an early start to viticulture with evidence of grape pips dating back several eons. Archaeologists believe that these grapes were first cultivated sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the wine-growing culture of the Phoenicians founded the trading post of Cádiz around 1100 BC. Following the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians introduced new advances to the region-including the teachings of the early viticulturist Mago. Carthage would wage a series of wars with the emerging Roman Republic that would lead to the Roman conquest of the Spanish mainland, known as Hispania.

Ribera del Duero – Powerful, Elegant Red Wines

Best known for its Tempranillo-based red wines, Ribera del Duero has delivered some world-class wines in a very short period of time. When the region received its D.O. status in 1982, there were only nine wineries and 15,000 acres of vineyards. In less than 40 years, the region now has more than 270 wineries and more than 55,000 acres of vineyards. The vineyards of Ribera del Duero stretch intermittently for over 70 miles along the River Duero. These intermittently planted vineyards feature a mix of different soils, exposures, and elevations – some as high as a half-mile above sea level. The semi-arid terrain, ample amounts of sunlight, and extreme diurnal temperature swings (from day to night) — sometimes a 50-plus degree difference — create optimal ripening conditions for the Tempranillo grapes that define Ribera del Duero wines’ distinctive character.

Ribera del Duero – Powerful, Elegant Red Wines

Best known for its Tempranillo-based red wines, Ribera del Duero has delivered some world-class wines in a very short period of time. When the region received its D.O. status in 1982, there were only nine wineries and 15,000 acres of vineyards. In less than 40 years, the region now has more than 270 wineries and more than 55,000 acres of vineyards. The vineyards of Ribera del Duero stretch intermittently for over 70 miles along the River Duero. These intermittently planted vineyards feature a mix of different soils, exposures, and elevations – some as high as a half-mile above sea level. The semi-arid terrain, ample amounts of sunlight, and extreme diurnal temperature swings (from day to night) — sometimes a 50-plus degree difference — create optimal ripening conditions for the Tempranillo grapes that define Ribera del Duero wines’ distinctive character.

Rioja – The "Room Where It Started”...

For many of us, the first interesting red wine from Spain that we encountered was probably from the province of Rioja. With me, some basic familiarity with French red wines likely started this journey into learning about the red wines of Spain, or maybe it was the popular red wines of Italy that led the way. 

In any case, winemaking in Spain goes back many centuries. The abundance of native grape varieties fostered an early start to viticulture with evidence of grape pips dating back several eons. Archaeologists believe that these grapes were first cultivated sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the wine-growing culture of the Phoenicians founded the trading post of Cádiz around 1100 BC. Following the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians introduced new advances to the region-including the teachings of the early viticulturist Mago. Carthage would wage a series of wars with the emerging Roman Republic that would lead to the Roman conquest of the Spanish mainland, known as Hispania.