You’d have thought the King of Spain could jump the queue when he felt like a few bottles of Spain’s most famous wine. But when he rang up and said – “Good afternoon, I’d like to order a case of your wine please”, the guy at the end of the phone simply said: “have to wait your turn like everyone else, sir, there’s a waiting list.”
” But have you any idea who I am? I’m the King of Spain.” “That’s as may be sir. And I’m Winston Churchill. Now run along. I’ve got things to do.”
Well, I’m not sure about the Winston Churchill bit, but it’s a tale they tell at Ribera del Duero’s iconic Vega Sicilia, and it’s true – you do wait your turn to buy this remarkable wine, fabulously rich, and pierced through with a javelin-like acidity which allows it to age for ever.
But Vega Sicilia is now merely the most famous of several star wines – Pingus and Pesquera are two equally thrilling reds. And although the main grape is Tempranillo – just like it is in Rioja – it doesn’t taste the same here in Ribera del Duero – it even has a different name: Tinto Fino. And that javelin acidity is a crucial part of the style, coupled with a darkness of colour, a richness of black fruit often as bright and tasty as blackcurrants, and a solemn but splendid perfume.
How? Altitude. We’re in the upper Duero Valley, almost 850 metres high. Some vineyards are on clay but the best ones are on limestone – good for colour and acidity – but it is the altitude which matters most. This is almost as high as you can grow grapes in Europe. You get long icy winters here, then short, fresh and sunny summers, with very hot days up to 40*C and very cold nights, down to 4 – 5*C. Spring comes late. autumn comes early. You can get frosted in May. You can get frosted in September. You’ve barely got enough time to ripen your grapes. But the Tempranillo is an early ripener, and usually slides home before the autumn frosts arrive to give some of the most focussed, serious red wines in Europe.
The next wine area along the Duero couldn’t be more different. Rueda is a bit of a wind-swept, sun-scorched gravel bed of a place. You would never expect it to be the source of some of Spain’s freshest whites. In fact, until the 1970s they made a sort of golden sherry up here. But Marqués de Riscal, one of Rioja’s big players, took a plunge. Riscal had never made white wine, and they didn’t like the big oaky styles of their Rioja competitors.
Yet their boss knew that there was a sharp green grape called Verdejo being grown along the Duero in Rueda. It just needed some modern treatment. Which is precisely what it got, and now Rueda from Verdejo, or sometimes from Sauvignon, is one of Spain’s most appealing, tangiest whites.
Make sure you’ve slaked your thirst before you venture further west down the Duero, because we’re back in the clutch of more Tempranillo red – out in the wild moonscape of Toro, towards the Portuguese border. This is uncompromising country, and the Tempranillo – now called Tinta de Toro – is more pugnacious and assertive than in Rioja or Ribera del Duero.
We’re still high up – between 700 and 800 metres, so we still get cool nights to keep some freshness in the wine, but the days are more brutally hot, and the Tinta de Toro has adapted by thickening its skins, shrivelling its size, and challenging the winemaker to fight for its favours. They’re in there. Toro is a charming brute, with a rich dark raspberry fruit, almond paste nuttiness and gum-drying black chocolate. Tough to crack open, but worth it. The vines must fight to survive in this hard land. I wouldn’t want Toro to give up its charms too easily.