Ribera del Duero Wine | Powerful & Uncompromising

Harry Lambourne
14th February 2024

The Ribera del Duero wine region is responsible for a host of delicious wines. None are more famous than the powerful and uncompromising red wines for which this region is known. Intense creations which, went at their finest, can rival anywhere else in the world.

Yet, in spite of this, the Ribera del Duero wine region is not as well known as the Spanish wine region of Rioja which sits just a few hundred kilometres to the east. However, if you like the Tempranillo led, (often oaked), wines of Rioja then it is very likely a bottle of Ribera del Duero wine will absolutely hit the spot.

So, over this article we will take you through natural factors and history behind the great Ribera del Duero wine region. We will also introduce you to the key grape varieties and some of the world’s most famous producers which call this place home.

The Landscape Of The Ribera Del Duero Wine Region

This prestigious wine-making region sits just two hours north of the Spanish capital of Madrid, (MacNeil 445). The landscape is starkly different from the bustling urban centre to the south. The region takes its name from the Duero River, (the third largest on the Iberian Peninsula). It flows across the great ‘meseta’, (high plateau), of north central Spain before it falls into Portugal where you’ll see it called the Douro, (MacNeil 446).

Ribera del Duero Wine Region
Ribera del Duero, Castilla y Leon

The Ribera del Duero landscape is striking. Across the horizon, you will see a medley of rough mesas and rocky plateaus that stretch out as far as the eye can see. These peaks are permeated by glorious Medieval castles which allude to the tumultuous past of this famous wine region, (more on that shortly).

This natural landscape has lead to a severe and harsh vineyard environment far from the fertile lands where conditions appeared to be tailored towards viticulture, such as Chile or New Zealand.

Bodega owners call this area, the land of extremes, (MacNeil 448). Intense sun and heat, with modest rainfall. Yet, fierce winters that can see temperatures drop to -29 degrees. It certainly is severe with a large diurnal range, (the difference between day and nighttime temperatures), which helps to protect the grapes from the heat and preserve acidity.

While this can help, the sunlight and lack of rainfall can be brutal. This means that the vines have had to adapt and take a shape that looks wholly unfamiliar to many. They are built to survive on these high, dry and sunny plains. They are known as Bush Vines and nowhere are they as beaten and knotted as the Ribera del Duero wine region. Here, they appear as though they are trying to dig below the earth to hide from the harsh sun. The vines cling to this rocky soil for dear life, (MacNeil 445).

What Are Bush Vines?
Bush Vines
Bush Vines

Bush Vines are typical across many Spanish wine regions and they are as they are described. They’re pruned into the shape of a bush. This means that they have a very short trunk and that they remain low to the ground. The idea behind this is that as the leaves of the vine grow, they’ll form a layer of shade in hot climates.

It also promotes air circulation which is great at reducing the chances of mould. This ability to ward off diseases naturally, means that bush vines have found great success from farmers who look to approach farming from an organic or biodynamic angle. Organic and biodynamic farming won’t use any artificial pesticides and herbicides, so the air circulation from bush vines means that they are less likely to be required.

There are some significant drawbacks to this practice though. Perhaps the most crucial one is that it prohibits the ability to perform mechanical harvest. They are far more labour intensive and require time consuming hand-picking. They can also be prone to lower yields, (although some say this provides a greater intensity of flavour).

Bush vines are frequently used in regions such as the Rhône Valley in France, as well as throughout Australia, South Africa and Greece.

There is a reason that Spain uses bush vines so effectively. The climate makes them particularly necessary in locations across the country.

They need to maximise the amount of water which is available to the vines, while shading the fruit from excessive heat. The soil is also far less nutrient rich, so the bushes are planted far apart, to ensure they get what they need.

A unique element of the Spanish bush vines is that they are untrellised. They’re completely free-standing in a sense. This means that they can be planted virtually anywhere. Undulating hills or mountain sides are fine for these vines, they’ll just slot right in wherever they’re needed.

The History of The Ribera Del Duero Wine Region

Now, we can look back to the castles which date back to a tenser time. The Ribera del Duero wine region is split out into four key districts. They are Castilla y León, Burgos, Valladolid and Segovia & Soria. Castilla is well known for the production of Saffron, but it was also a key battleground for many centuries, (MacNeil 447). The city of Valladolid would also become the capital of Spain for a brief time in the 17th century.

Moors Castle in Segovia
Moors Castle in Segovia

During the Middle Ages, much of the Castilla area was a key battleground in the Catholic and Moors Wars. The castles which span the region often date back to the Moors Invasion around the 8th Century.

During these times, grapes were not generally the focus of people’s attention in the modern day Ribera del Duero wine region. The Moors, (despite the Muslim culture), actually didn’t discourage wine production as they saw its value. Yet, it really took off again from the 15th century when Catholic Monarchs were reinstated and a lack of conflict led to stability, (MacNeil 447).

For many centuries, once the eyes of the Spain and the rest of the world were moved away from this area, Ribera del Duero wine region would slip back into a somewhat unremarkable region, (at least in terms of the wines which it would produce).

Indeed, up until the 1980s, the Ribera del Duero wine region remained largely associated with cheap red wines that lacked finesse and were churned out by cooperatives which were backed by government subsidies. Ribera del Duero wines were often left in unclean barrels, often unfiltered and left to ferment as the grapes saw fit. Generally, locals would buy Ribera del Duero wines directly from the bodega, straight from the barrel. These were not geared towards the export or fine wine markets.

Now, times have changed. We wouldn’t be talking about the Ribera del Duero wine region right here, unless they had! Let’s take a look at the wines of the modern day Ribera del Duero wine region.

Wines of The Ribera del Duero Wine Region

We mentioned that the wines are not dissimilar to those of Rioja. While this is true, there are certain differences which we should clarify.

First of all, there are very few white, rosé or sparkling wines from the Ribera del Duero wine region. The red wines truly excel so they have become an almost exclusive focus of winemakers in the Ribera del Duero wine regions.

They are concentrated and complex with a primal power and a host of unique tasting notes. Beyond the typical fruit flavours which include black and red fruit, you can expect to find coffee beans, espresso, cocoa, peat, dark chocolate and liquorice, (MacNeil 445).

You will see similar labelling terms to the ones used in Rioja, but again there are slight differences. Crianza wines must be aged for two years, one of which must be in oak. Reserva must be aged for three years, one of which must be in oak. Then, finally are the Gran Reserva wines which must be aged for five years, two of which must be in oak, (MacNeil 450). The latter are only made in years of exceptional quality so can be both hard to find and expensive. Rioja wines are often aged for longer and the same terms are applied to white Rioja wines.

The key grape varieties include Tinto Fino (Tinta del Pais/Tempranillo), but with clonal differences which really set apart these wines from Rioja. The berries are smaller and more well-suited to the Ribera del Duero wine regions, with tougher skins which often produce more powerful but slightly less polished wines.

Tempranillo Grapes
Tempranillo Grapes

Outside of this version of Tempranillo, there are two minor grape varieties which garner significant attention. One such grape variety is Garnacha. This occupies far less space than it does in Rioja. It is rarely made into a single varietal wine, (except for inexpensive rosé wines). Beyond that, it is used as a bit part blending partner with the local clone on Tempranillo.

The other notable grape variety is Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously, you all know this grape variety very well, but you may have not known it had found success in this distinctly ‘un-French’ region. The success of this grape can be attributed to the famous producers at Vega-Sicilia. Almost all of the plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, within the Ribera del Duero wine region, come from this world-famous winery, (who also produce tiny amounts of Merlot and Malbec).


It is worth dedicating a bit of time to these producers as they were absolutely instrumental in the boom of the Ribera del Duero wine region. From the 1990s Vega-Sicilia, (and the Pesquera winery), both found huge commercial success which caused a reinvention of the Ribera del Duero wine region.

The vineyards of Vega-Sicilia were first planted in 1864 under the guidance of Don Eloy Lecanda who had studied in Bordeaux and returned to the Ribera del Duero with a host of French grape cuttings, (MacNeil 451).

Today, wines are generally made up of around 80% Tempranillo and these French grapes make up the remainder. Another key point is that a number of these vines are now more than a century old.

They produce just three wines. The Reserva Especial which is a deeply prestigious wine blended from different vintages. The Valbueuna 5 which is released after five years of ageing. Then, last but not least is the Unico. This is certainly unique. The wine is aged in a number of large and small oak barrels and is only released when it is deemed fit by the winemakers, (although this is rarely less than ten years).

In fact, the Unico from 1968 and 1982 were both released in 1991, (MacNeil 451). Regardless of what year you ever get a hand on, it is special stuff and revered by collectors across the world. Regular customers include King Juan Carlos of Spain and King Charles of England, (MacNeil 451).

We hope you’ve enjoyed our look into the Ribera del Duero wine region. It may be that you never get the chance to sample a bottle of Vega-Sicilia, (most people won’t). However, there is a ton of absolutely delectable Ribera del Duero wine.

If you have a particular penchant for all things big and bold, then the Ribera del Duero wine region is certainly something which is made for you. It may be time to branch out from the admittedly delicious Rioja and get a taste of something which is more on the wild side.

Seek out some of the wines which Ribera del Duero wine region and you are unlikely to be disappointed. It is truly an exciting wine region and is only likely to increase in popularity as time goes on.

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.

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