Redefining Ribera del Duero
Vega Sicilia, Pingus, and Pesquera: These are the names and style that we associate with the Ribera del Duero. In fact, it would be difficult for the average wine lover to think of anything else. Vega Sicilia alone defined what the region was capable of, and grew into an international brand long before anyone else had aspirations of creating wines that would be collected across the globe. In fact, when most producers in Ribera speak of their vineyards, it’s usually in relation to where their vineyards start and Vega’s end.
This makes perfect sense when you tour the region, and see hills sloping up from the alluvial plain, showcasing their old-vine Tempranillo. Vega has relied on families that have been with them for generations to maintain these vines, which, in some cases, are upwards of 130-150 years old, and they still go into Vega’s blend. However, as you come closer to the valley floor, things become quite different. The vine ages go down drastically, the soils change, and suddenly things start to look more like a greener version of Napa Valley instead of Spain.
It’s because of this and the inclusion of international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, that the average wines of Ribera start to look a lot alike; this problem is exacerbated by a reliance on new oak, which masks the stamp of terroir with a sheen of spicy vanilla. The properties with the best vines and vineyard locations are able to make amazing wines in spite of this, even though it can take many years for the oak to integrate. I for one would never turn my nose up at a mature Unico. However, if terroir and the flavor of indigenous varieties is what you seek, then until recently, Ribera was not the place to look.
Looking to the Hills
Thinking back to my last trip to Ribera del Duero, I kept looking to the hills. As I stood at the edge of a road, peering into one of Vega’s old-vine parcels, I started to wonder where that road led as it wound up a steep hilly landscape. Turning to a wall of rock, roots and soil behind me, from a sheer slice of earth that was carved away to make space for that road, I began to question why there was so little emphasis on what could be found there.
On these lower slopes, the soils consisted of a fine mix of colluvial deposits from the hillsides above, along with sandy limestone and a layer of quartz gravel beneath. Yet here you could also see a white hue from the addition of chalk. What else was up there? This prompted me to begin looking for the expression of Ribera del Duero that I craved, knowing that every region has artisanal grower-winemakers who think big but work small and have an attachment to terroir. At the time, I just didn’t know who those people were in Ribera.
Dominio del Águila
It was only two years ago that Dominio del Aguila came onto my radar. At first, it was an item that was allocated and purchased by Morrell in limited quantities, the kind of quantities that don’t warrant being able to taste a wine before making a buying decision. With them came some dramatically high scores from the Wine Advocate, and so, as these things tend to go, some of the wine sold due to the scores, and the rest sat long enough that I began to research the producer to better understand how we should sell their wine.
This research provided my ah-ha moment: the realization that Jorge Monzon of Domino del Aguila was doing exactly what I had hoped, exposing the unique terroir and native varieties of Ribera del Duero. Let’s keep in mind that Tempranillo is as closely tied to the Ribera as any variety can be to a historical region. In fact, a wine can not be included in the Ribera del Duero designation without being at least 75% Tempranillo. The problem is that much of the recent plantings are using high-production clones, plus adding more Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot in the place of old-vine, less productive, Tempranillo.
But there’s so much more to it than that
These are vineyards from another time, when different varieties were interplanted to create field blends. Granted, when these vines were first planted, the wines they created may have been simple, easy-drinking, farmers’ wines. However, today these ancient vines are 80-150 years old!!! What’s more, they are planted in locations that may not be ideal for modern-day farming, but perfect for the artisan who works by hand. In these vineyards around the town of Aguilera, between 870 to 900 meters above sea leave, Jorge found old-vine Tempranillo planted along with Albillo, Tempranillo Gris, Carinena, Garnacha, Bobal, Brunel and a number of other varieties that are still awaiting identification.
Jorge identified these locations and slowly acquired them over the course of ten years while working for Arzuaga-Navarro. Throughout that time, he nursed the vines and soils back to health using organic principles, while selling his production to the who’s who of the region. Jorge was basically biding his time to be able to launch Dominio del Aguila in 2010, when he was confident in the fruit he was producing and how to properly vinify them into the style of wine he envisioned. With the help of his wife and partner, Isabel Rodero, they then set to rebuild three ancient cellars which date back to the 15th century, to age and store their production.
What was that vision?
It becomes easy to understand Jorge’s inspiration if you look further back into his past. Prior to Arzuaga-Navarro, he worked for Vega Sicilia, trying to perfect a white wine that would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Unico. Before that, he was at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, working alongside Bernard Noblet, and soaking in any knowledge that he could. When he returned to Ribera del Duero, it was with Burgundy on his mind, and the desire to one day produce a portfolio of wines from the regions diverse terroir.
Today’s Wines and Looking to the Future
Today, the wines of Dominio del Aguila are like nothing I’ve ever tasted from Ribera del Duero, and I mean that in the best possible way. The combination of old-vine field blends, foot-trodden fruit, whole-cluster fermentation, and aging in neutral barrels for the majority of the portfolio has created one of the most exciting mixes of wines that I’ve had the pleasure to taste in a long time. If tasted blind, you would never guess Spain. You would possibly find yourself thinking that it was an off-the-beaten-path producer from Languedoc, someone willing to experiment and release at a price point that could land their wines into the right markets.
Take the Picaro Tinto Vinas Viejas as an example. Here we have a Tempranillo-based red (95%) with a small mix of varieties grown in heavy clay soils, that was crushed by foot, fermented with stems, and aged for thirteen months in completely neutral wood. It sells for $35 per bottle and could make a believer out of anyone who has given up on Ribera. Minerality, acidity, vibrant fruit, balance and grippy tannin–all present and ready to impress.
As we work your way deeper into the portfolio, we find the Albillo Viñas Viejas, one of the most characterful Spanish whites that I’ve ever tasted. It can’t even bear the designation of Ribera del Duero due to the rules of not accepting any white varieties, yet I assure you that this is one of the top wines of the entire region. Then there is the Riserva, the company’s flagship, and a wine that deserves hours of meditation as it unfolds both in the bottle and the glass. I had the opportunity to taste this wine once over the course of a day, and each taste was better than the one before it. The Reserva comes from 85-year-old vines planted in sandy clay soils with limestone mixed throughout, and again, foot-trodden, whole clusters and aged in neutral oak barrels.
Lastly, there’s the Gran Reserva Pena Aladas, from several sites around the Pena Aladas that host vines that well over 100 years old, growing in a thin layer of sandy clay over gravel, limestone and bedrock. The Pena Aladas spends 51 months aging in the cellars of Dominio del Aguila, and may well be an immortal wine. Tasting it is like dreaming of what may come, because today, it contains so many intense layers and sensations that it nearly overloads your senses. I can only hope to be able to taste this wine again when it’s mature.
There is more, as Jorge is a believer in terroir and continues to search for new and interesting ways to expose it. One wine that I’ve yet to taste is the Canta la Perdiz, which has received some of the highest praise imaginable from critics.
What more can I say?
I cannot recommend Dominio del Aguila highly enough. I don’t recall having been this excited about a new producer in a very long time, and I can only imagine that other producers have become inspired by what Jorge has accomplished. We may be witnessing a rebirth of the entire region. The classics will always be the classics, with an audience that loves them, but I can safely say that Dominio del Aguila is blazing the trail for what Ribera del Duero will likely soon become.
On to the Tasting Notes
2014 Dominio del Águila Pícaro Clarete Ribera del Duero – The nose was remarkably pretty, showing fresh crushed strawberries with hints of dusty earth, sweet herbs and minerals. On the palate, I found soft textures with pure red fruits, a stunning mix of acid and minerals with hints of citrus. The finish was spicy and medium-long with lasting minerality. (91 points)
2016 Dominio del Águila Tinto Pícaro del Águila – The nose was dark and sweetly spiced, with notes of crushed stone giving way to exotic spice, dusty raspberry, cherry, and sweet floral tones. On the palate, I found silky, almost creamy textures with sweet-and-sour red and blue fruits, lavender, and violets leaving a coating of mineral and spice upon the senses. The finish was long yet fresh, with zesty red fruits, grippy light tannin and resonating minerality. (92 points)
2014 Dominio del Águila Ribera del Duero Reserva Tempranillo – The nose was dark with savory minerals up front, crushed stone and animal musk, as peppery herbal tones emerged On the palate, I found silky textures, yet energetic, with saturating dark blue and red fruits, smoky crushed stone, ashen-earth, sweet herbal and spice tones. The finish was long, displaying masses of lingering minerals, marine-inspired florals, building tannin and fresh woodland berries. This wine took three hours to really open up, but it was well worth the wait. (95 points)
2014 Dominio del Águila Albillo Viñas Viejas – The nose was incredibly spicy, with a burst of hot green peppers and curry leaf up front, giving way to wild herbs, crushed stone, lemon rind, and hints of fresh green apples. On the palate, I found silky, deep textures with minerality up front, as young pit fruits and wet stone came forward, complemented by brisk acidity adding verve and lift from the mid-palate through the finale. The finish was long with saturating minerals, wet stone, wild flowers and spice. Wow. (95 points)
2014 Dominio del Águila Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva Penas Aladas – The nose was dark and intense, showing animal musk, crushed stone, and dark soil tones backed by notes of herbal-infused blackberry, blueberry, wild flowers, and hints of tangerine. On the palate, I found silky, creamy textures with zesty spiced red fruits, lavender, inner herbal tones, saline-minerality and inner soil tones. It was as if the nose transposed perfectly to the palate. The finish was long, showing saturating black cherry and lasting minerality with a coating of fine tannin. I was amazed by how intense and layered yet fresh the ‘13 Gran Reserva was. (96 points)