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There might be many reasons for this, but the consequence is clear: Compared to France, Spain's wine growing regions are still a relatively young construct. Only Rioja is over 80; older than fifty years are just thirteen, many were either founded shortly after the end of the Franco dictatorship or originate from the boom phase of the nineties. In Castilla y León, the D.O. Ribera del Duero is the second oldest after Rueda, which, however, is also just two years older. Nevertheless, it may be surprising that almost half of all Denominaciones de Origen are older than Ribera del Duero.

The founding fathers actually had only one thing in mind at that time: to create a proper production and marketing environment. At that time, nobody dared to think that they would turn the Spanish wine world upside down and - at least in terms of quality - attack the supremacy of the Rioja region. Since then, many things have changed: the number of bodegas exploded from thirteen to more than 230, the former 5,000 hectares became 20,000 hectares, the end is open.

The stars of the first hour

Of course, Vega Sicilia has to be mentioned. Vega is the reason why Malbec is allowed as a grape variety in Ribera. When the D.O. was founded, the company had just this grape variety in its vineyards. So it was either Malbec in or Vega out. What followed was one of the few really good decisions of the Consejo Regulador. Vega Sicilia now bears the bottling number 001 as the first bodega in the D.O.

Barrel warehouse of Bodegas Neo

This, however, is a bit of a gift from another winery. Because Vega first had the less prestigious 011 - the 001 had Protos, then still Cooperativa Ribera del Duero. Protos was and is also the bodega that made Ribera del Duero nationally famous. Wherever you sit in a restaurant in Spain: If there is Ribera del Duero to drink, there is always Protos. No one has such a close-meshed network as the bustling winery, which today processes five million kilos of grapes and is currently working on a new, futuristic bodega, designed by Norman Foster.

Protos was already influential in style, just like its international counterpart, Tinto Pesquera. Both appreciated the maturation of the wines in American oak barriques, both were and are friends of vanilla and coconut aromas. This might also be due to the fact that Teófilo Reyes had worked as an oenologist for both wineries before he started his own bodega in 1994, but he only managed to become a small star - others became stars. 1985 Pesquera Gran Reserva is the Petrus of Spain - whoever draws such daring comparisons must have a good lawyer, or better yet: be a lawyer himself. This saying was something like the international birth of the "brand" Ribera del Duero. Besides Pesquera, it was above all the Ismael Arroyo winery, which is much smaller, that attracted attention with its ValSotillo, which, as Gran Reserva, was sometimes highly praised by critics at that time, but meanwhile has received much less public attention. With Pérez Pascuas, this group of old stars is quickly finished.

It is interesting that, with the exception of Vega Sicilia, none of these bodegas play in the very first league of the region anymore, neither at national nor at international tastings. This has to do with a phenomenon that is typical for Spain, had predictable consequences, but was almost completely ignored until today: Viticulture in Spain, and in Ribera del Duero in particular, is a two-tier affair; the growers own the vineyards and sell the grapes to the bodegas, which make wine from them. During the boom period of the nineties, when grape yields of 17 and 19 hectolitres per hectare were not exactly high, the winegrowers were the kings of the region. A kilo of grapes cost up to 450 pesetas, which corresponds to 2.70 euro. For less than 200 pesetas, one could at best buy skins for making schnapps. The vintners became rich - and later founded their own bodegas, so that the old bodegas lacked the grapes particularly for their top wines. In one of the aforementioned bodegas, they explained to the stunned visitor, "We," and there was a lot of Castilian pride in that "we," "are bodegueros, and not winemakers!" Wineries that once made endless money from almost half a million bottles are still pressing a quarter of that today and would be lucky to get anywhere near the prices they did back then.

The arrival of the new marks the golden years

Of course, the foundation of a region is the most important action for this very region. From a qualitative point of view, and all experts agree on this today, another event determined the way Ribera del Duero would go in the future: the arrival of a blond young man who always jokingly pretends in interviews that he ran out of gas on the N-122, couldn't find a gas station, and then just stayed there. Doubts may be allowed about this story, but not about the consequence. Peter Sisseck was the first to break with the idea that great wines can only come from old vineyards. He almost received the vineyards, which today are the basis for Hacienda Monasterio, as a present, because at that time, nobody wanted to plant vines on these calcareous slopes - and areas without topsoil are not suitable for other cultivation. Before, nobody talked about yield restriction, about green harvesting, and at that time, nobody relied exclusively on grapes from their own harvest, not even Vega Sicilia, which is still buying a good part of their grapes from independent vintners. At the same time as Pago de Carraovejas, Hacienda Monasterio introduced French oak barrels to declare war on vanilla bombs, even though the ever-modest Dane would never put it that way.

Perhaps the secret of the best Ribera wines: little earth% much lime

What followed were the three golden years of Ribera del Duero. Fame followed fame, dollar followed dollar, the bodegas were constantly sold out, also thanks to the scarce harvests, founding a bodega in Ribera del Duero became a pastime of nouveau riche Madrileneans who could brag about it to their business partners. Completely perplexed and unprepared, Rioja was hit. The region, which always thought of itself as being in the sun, had to learn from one day to the next that it was only playing second fiddle. It was to take ten years until it recovered from this. Today, almost fifteen years after the boom, a bottle of Rioja is on average again more expensive than a bottle of Ribera. At that time, the prices increased - and the quantities increased. This could not go well. When after the 1996 harvest, which was large by the standards of the time, sales were still good, many bodegas turned the screw again a year later - it was one turn too many. The market collapsed. As a result of the many new plantings in the nineties, more and more wine spilled onto the market, suddenly wine was no longer simply allocated, it had to be sold, which many producers simply could not do, had never learned. The vineyard area had long since exceeded the 10,000 hectare limit, the Consejo kept issuing new desired upper limits, but without success.

The bang and the turn

The first projects collapsed. Out of ten friends from Madrid who went out to rake in red gold, six got nervous and wanted their money back. The winegrowers, most of whom had no contacts beyond the village, suddenly didn't know what to do with the wine. Prices dropped - in some cases by more than 50%. And exports collapsed. First in Europe, above all in Germany, where a new darling came to the fore, the Priorato. A little later, there were also declines in US exports, especially as the dollar rose and rose and wines became almost unaffordable. The number of bodegas also broke through a barrier: in 1998, there were more than 100 wineries in Ribera del Duero.

Almost 100 - and still active. An inconspicuous hill on the outskirts of Peñafiel is the basis of one of the most elegant wines of the region

Then came Pingus! And with him, a new turn of events. The system of the garage bodega, which Peter Sisseck from Pomerol only knew best, and of the mini-vinifications started. Before, there was only Pago Santa Cruz. In tow of Pingus came Pesus, Terreus, Malleolus, the generation of -us wines. Everyone who was halfway self-respecting had to have such a wine - even Rioja: Aurus. Ribera had moved back up to the top of quality, not least because Priorato was weakening a bit and Rioja still seemed to be in a coma. But all the -us wines could not hide the fact that not everything that shone was gold anymore. Some of it was just bacon.

People had gotten used to the fact that 50 million kilos were also processable, they got used to the chemistry. Many vineyards are located where potatoes used to grow and where they would be better still today. And they got used to the fact that the big bodegas of other regions came to Ribera del Duero. Real Sitio de Ventosilla, with about 500 hectares of vineyards still the largest estate of the region, got competition: J. García Carrión from Jumilla, Felix Solís from Valdepeñas, Federico Paternina and many more. Torres came, also Freixenet, also Codorniu. Rioja was there, with La Rioja Alta in the lead, Galicians came, even Rueda bodegas like Palacio de Bornos ventured to the other side. Ribera del Duero changed its face. With eight million liters of capacity, Felix Solís put a kind of spaceship after Olmedillo de Roa, with five million bottles sold, J. García Carrión became the region's sales star, the ten largest wineries now control a quarter of the market. And this market has become tough. Small bodegas without a big reputation offered their not even that bad wines for one euro in the gastronomy - if you bought three cartons, you got the fourth one for free. Earning money is different.

Internationally, Ribera del Duero had regained its footing. The dollar fell and exports increased. Also to Germany, where in the meantime more than 400,000 bottles per year land again - unfortunately, the statistics of the Consejo are only very vague.

Ribera as avant-garde

Slowly, by abandoning the classic levels of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, a different system began to prevail. However, Ribera clearly copied this from Rioja. When Miguel Ángel de Gregorio brought his first Allende to market, and labeled it as simple Vino de Cosecha because he did not want to argue with the Consejo about the duration of the barrel ripening, nobody in Ribera really took note of it yet. It was not until wines like Palomero, Neo Punta Esencia or Avan came on the market and the bodegas could badly market their best wine as Joven, but all others as Crianza or Reserva, that the system began to waver. The rule, which had always made only limited sense, that the length of barrel aging should determine the status of the wine, also collapsed in Ribera del Duero. The Priorato never knew it, and also in the Toro region, which had become big in the meantime, the old classification was only used by the traditionalists.

With nearly 5,000 vines, it is the densest vineyard in all of Ribera del Duero. Even today, many plots are still head pruned

Throughout all these developments, Ribera del Duero continued to grow, but in smaller and smaller steps. While in the first years of this decade there were about 30 new bodegas every year, today there are only five or six. Bodegas Aniversario, which quickly changed its name shortly before entering the D.O., is number 231 - end open. The vineyard area has also exceeded the limit of 20,000 hectares, only a quarter is older than 30 years. At the same time, mechanization and industrialization have increased. Many vineyards are irrigated because what can be made out of them can also be achieved with 7,000 kilos per hectare. However, to put this figure in its proper perspective, it should be mentioned that even 7,000 kilos with an average yield of no more than 55% equates to a yield of less than 40 hectolitres per hectare, which in Burgundy is enough for Grand Cru, in Bordeaux for 800 euros retail price. As everywhere in Spain, "organic" is also having a hard time in Ribera del Duero. Even though, there are three organic bodegas in Ribera del Duero today, and at least among the old ones, the organic idea is still present because they are not used to it any other way.

How will Ribera del Duero celebrate its 50th birthday?

Since I was allowed to actively experience the last thirteen of the 25 years in Ribera, I dare a small outlook: Ribera is not going to get much bigger than it is today. The possibilities to create large, contiguous vineyards, an absolute prerequisite for new investments of large bodegas from Germany and abroad, are practically exhausted. The number of bodegas will grow, even if only to a small extent. However, the structure will change. The tendency towards more and more small and smallest bodegas, some of them producing as few as 8,000 bottles per year, will increase, which can only be beneficial for quality. However, the concentration of the big ones will also increase, which will only be beneficial for the penetration of the supermarkets, a segment where Ribera del Duero has been virtually non-existent so far. The middle range, all the bodegas that today market between 200,000 and 500,000 bottles of wine, will have a hard time. Many bodegas will be bought up by large groups as second bodegas. The quality of the wines will increase. Already today, there are hardly any really defective wines. The changeover from D.O. to D.O.ca., which is planned for the next few years, will bring about a further tightening of controls and thus an increase in quality. And one will learn, in particular concerning the longevity of the wines. Because apart from Vega Sicilia, which are left out here for many reasons, there are hardly any wines that are already really old. Whether Ribera del Duero wines actually age as well as is always assumed remains to be seen. The oldest ValSotillo is just 22 years old, the oldest Janus Gran Reserva not much older.

In the upscale quality viticulture, which will probably account for about 20% of the production in the future, there will be discussions about barrel sizes, new or used wood, cement, wood or steel as fermentation guide, barrel ripening times, maybe also about pruning and grape varieties (Syrah, Petit Verdot), and many things will be tried out. Ribera del Duero is the southernmost zone of septentrional viticulture. Many things are possible there. And Ribera del Duero is still young - the region is just coming of age.

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