Spanish wines are life of the party

Although Spain is firmly entrenched in the Old World viticulturally — they label the wines by where the grapes grow rather than by grape name — talented young winemakers are experimenting as though they are working in California, and no region exemplifies the dynamism of Spanish wines better than Ribera del Duero.

Although Spain’s most famous winery, Vega Sicilia, has been producing exceptional wine in Ribera del Duero since the 19th century, the region attained widespread recognition only in the early 1980s, when Alejandro Fernandez released his wine, Pesquera. In 1982, there were nine wineries in this region, which straddles the Duero River (the extension of Portugal’s Duoro River, home to Port) in Northern Spain. Today there are 190. Vineyards have doubled during the same period and cover 50,000 acres, about the same as Napa. It is now the most expensive red wine region of Spain, according to German Munoz Lopez, a spokesman for the agency that regulates the Ribera del Duero wines.

The key to the quality and distinctiveness of the wines from Ribera del Duero is in its climate. The vineyards lie on a plateau 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, which ensures that the vines receive tremendous sunlight, essential for photosynthesis.

Also, the altitude of this arid region contributes to the dramatic difference in day and night temperatures. Warmth during the day assures ripeness, while cool nights conserve the grapes’ acidity, and hence the wines’, which ensures they are lively rather than heavy. The tempranillo grape, Spain’s most widely planted variety and the grape of choice in the region, thrives in this environment, producing rich, intense wines. Regulations allow for inclusion of a small amount of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and grenache.

Fernandez owns another estate in the region, Condado de Haza, which produces exceptional wines and offers an excellent example of what the Ribera del Duero has to offer without breaking the bank. The 2002 Condado de Haza (about $23), made exclusively from tempranillo, is luxurious, dense, and remarkably supple. Alluring, non-primary fruit flavors add complexity. It’s a warming wine for winter fare.

Condado de Haza is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000.

March 3, 2005.