This week I got to attend another master class with the Guild of Sommeliers, this time on Ribera del Duero, taught by MS Matt Stamp (and I’d attend another of his classes in a heartbeat, he ha a great way of explaining things and presents the wines in an easy-to-understand way).
So, what did I learn? Well, I learned that, as I thought, my favorite red wine region in Spain remains Priorat. I like Rioja but have never connected as well with the wines as I’d like, and Jumilla makes some great wines but they’re just not for me as they tend to be a bit overpowering for my palate. Priorat has been my favorite since I’ve been tasting Spanish reds, due to the cool slate characteristics laced into the fruit and spice, which appear to cool the wine off a bit and show plenty of mineral, just the way I love it. I hadn’t been exposed to nearly enough good Ribera del Duero wines, so I figured, this was a great opportunity to learn more.
And learn I did. I had no idea how drastically temperatures fluctuate over the course of 24 hours, during the summer growing season. I didn’t know much about Ribera’s soil types, or about the success of pre-phylloxera vines that still produce - so let’s just say I didn’t know enough about Ribera to form a proper opinion. What I also learned after what felt like a massive tannin overload is that Tempranillo from Ribera is quite different from Tempranillo from Rioja, in that the skin of the grapes in Ribera is a lot thicker due to climate, which brings a lot of tannin into the picture, and also brings dark fruit characteristics into the wines, as opposed to the red fruit notes we usually perceive in a Rioja red. And regarding alcohol content - those of you who know me or have had a glass (or bottle...or two...or three) of wine with me, know that I’m pretty good at guessing the alcohol content of wines, especially on reds, and that unless a wine is extremely well balanced, I rarely appreciate alcohol content of over 13.5%. The heat just tends to get in the way of expression of fruit and soil and environment, which are the things I value most in a wine and its identity. So when I started reading through the list of wines we’d taste, I got a little nervous as what I saw - most were over 14% and some were over 15% - and interestingly enough, one of my favorites was over 15%, but due to its wonderful balance, alcohol content was not an issue for me.
I’m going to mention right up front that you might not agree with some of the things I’m saying in this post, and that one of the main reasons I opted to take the class was that I knew Vega Sicilia Unico was part of the tasting, and knowing what the cost of that wine is (between $450-$500 for the current release), I felt it was a good chance to taste it and not pay nearly that amount. And for that price, after tasting it, I’m not at all tempted to lay out that kind of money for it. It’s far too big for me and I wasn’t connecting as well with it as I did with some of the others that were closer to the $80-$100 price range. Am I surprised? Well, no, not exactly. Go back about a year and a half and check out a blind tasting I sat through at Lake Side Emotions that included the wines from Mitjavile against the likes of Petrus, Mouton Rothschild, and Cheval Blanc - and see that I understand that price does not always indicate which wine I’ll like best. For $450+ on the Vega Sicilia Unico, after tasting it, I can honestly say I’ll pass. And in fact, on some of the other Ribera reds we tasted, I’ll pass. But some stood out to me and left quite an impression, even some in lower price ranges. Those wines truly impressed me.
Some of the disappointments, in my opinion, included a couple of the wines we tasted first. The Rosado, 2012 Bodegas Penalba Montecastrillo, was definitely not my style. I like my pink wines to be light and refreshing, and for me, this wine was anything but refreshing. There was almost too much fruitiness, making it borderline sweet, and it felt a bit heavy. I also don’t care much for reds without any use of oak, at least that’s generally what I’ve found, and this was no different - the 2011 Bodegas Hornillos Ballesteros Mibal Joven was also not my style, in that I felt it lacked complexity. The other wine from the first four that I didn’t connect with was the 2008 Tinto Pesquera Reserva - imagine how disappointed I was! I had hoped to love Pesquera but it didn’t happen that way, because for me, the wine felt like there was entirely too much tannin and left me with absolutely no fruit or mineral at all at the end, the dryness just knocked everything else out, and I found myself downing half a glass of water.
I found that I didn’t care much for the 2008 wines that we tasted, and MS Stamp reminded us that 2008 was not a particularly good year for Ribera del Duero, so that was no surprise to me, after the 2008 Pesquera and 2008 Monteabellon 24 Meses left me wondering what was wrong with those wines.
The wine that left surprisingly little impression with me was the 2010 Pingus PSI, which seemed to lack aroma, and while the wine in no way offended my palate, it seemed to have very little to tell me about itself. And looking back, I have few tasting notes about it.
The best value wines I felt were the 2010 Aalto at around $39, which was absolutely lovely and showed great complexity with youthful dark fruit notes and elegant spice, and herb notes, with a nice balance of acidity and tannin heading toward the finish; and the 2010 Antidoto at a shocking $20, with perfectly mellow fruit, herb, floral, and soft spice characteristics, and a clean feel. There’s one that I’d buy for a weeknight or pour with tapas.
And now for the favorites - the third wine of the tasting was stunning to me - the 2009 Bodegas Perez Pascuas Crianza Vina Pedrosa (around $39). I wrote in the margin, “gorgeous” and “love” - and for me, it was no exaggeration. Everything seemed to be as I call “ in check,” meaning that the wine was nicely balanced with lovely characteristics, the wine showed big aromas but was gentle on the palate, and reminiscent of dark fruit but some red fruit as well, herbs, dry flower petals, and mature spices. Who wouldn’t love that? From the second flight, I absolutely loved the 2009 Atauta Valdegatiles (around $125), a soft but big wine and as I wrote, “incredible,” I admired the elegance of such a big wine and realized that yes, such a thing is possible, as the wine showed fruit and floral notes and was everything I’d hope for a Tempranillo to be. The other wine from the second flight that I marked with a huge asterisk and a “must buy” was the 2009 Vina Sastre Pago de Santa Cruz (around $84). This is a big and somewhat bold (and very dark) wine with aromas of ripe dark fruit and earthiness, and another showing excellent balance. The rustic character of the wine was the best at telling me, “I’m a big red wine and I’m from SPAIN.” That’s one that I’d love to try again in a few years. And the favorite, for me, was the 2001 Valduero Gran Reserva, which was the wine I felt I best connected with (around $100). With mostly dark fruit notes, vanilla, dry herbs and flower petals, tobacco, and soft spice, and plenty of mineral heading toward the end, this was the irresistible wine of the afternoon, absolutely gorgeous with a great feel, amazing aromas, and for me, everything about it was just right. It had such presence and yet was in absolutely no way overpowering.
So when we tasted the 2003 Vega Sicilia Unico right after that wine, I was left feeling disappointed with the Unico, as it was pretty nicely balanced and showed some fabulousness on the nose and in its flavors of rich stewed dark fruit and tobacco, but it wasn’t as elegant or as enticing as the Valduero. And I’d rather pay $100 for a wine that I love, than $450 for a wine that I like.
So there you have it, my observations from the Ribera del Duero Guild of Sommeliers master class.