Tim Atkin MW on North-West Spain’s Trendsetters

The date can be a little confusing. Castilla y León, the largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, was formed as recently as 1983, but its two component parts are woven into the fabric of Spanish history. Indeed, look at a list of UNESCO’s 1,154 world heritage sites and Castilla y León leads the way, with eleven of them, including the cities of Ávila, and Salamanca, the cathedral of Burgos and the old Roman gold mine of Las Médulas.

The wine regions of this enormous territory, spread across more than 94,000km2, also present something of a paradox. Winemaking in this part of the world dates back some 2,000 years, and yet many of its most famous Denominaciones de Origen are comparatively recent: Rueda (1980), Ribera del Duero (1982). Toro (1987) and Bierzo (1989). The catch-all Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla y León, formed in 2000, is even younger. It’s this youth that makes Castilla y León such a dynamic place.

You could argue that trendsetting – the subject of our latest Three Wine Men online tasting – comes with the territory in these parts. Regions that are no more than 42 years’ old have helped to transform the contemporary Spanish wine scene. Rueda and Ribera del Duero in particular have been two of the country’s greatest recent success stories. Verdejo in the former and Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) in the latter have become permanent fixtures on supermarket shelves and wine lists worldwide.

Verdejo and Tempranillo may dominate Castilla y León’s 70,000 hectares of vineyards, to the tune of 63% and 12% of plantings respectively, but the region is always capable of surprising you with other grapes, some of which are little known, or cultivated, beyond its borders: Albarín Blanco, Albillo Mayor, Estaladiña, Juan García, Mandón, Prieto Picudo and Rufete Blanco for example. These grapes are not yet trendsetters perhaps, although Albillo Mayor is coming back into the spotlight now that it is the sole variety permitted for the recently anointed Ribera del Duero Blanco since 2018, but they are all fascinating in their way.

Even within the region’s two top denominaciones de origen, things do not stand still for long. In Rueda, producers are experimenting with things like concrete eggs, ageing under flor, extended lees contact and partial skin contact to push the envelope. In Ribera del Duero, there is more and more focus on individual vineyard sites, especially on the high altitude páramo, or moorland. Even in the recent past, these areas were considered too cold to grow grapes on a consistent basis, but with climate change they have come into their own.

The heat of the 2022 vintage – excessive, even in a continental region like Castilla y León that is used to high summer temperatures – has made a lot of winemakers think about the long-term viability of Tempranillo, which is so widely planted here. It’s an early-ripening grape that’s well suited to the famously short growing seasons in DOs like Ribera del Duero, but it doesn’t have particularly high levels of natural acidity. That’s why people are looking to the páramos, as well as experimenting with grapes that are better at withstanding the heat, such as Bobal, Garnacha and Graciano. I think we will see a relative shift away from Tempranillo over the next two decades. Or a move to colder terroirs over 900 metres or on moisture-retaining, clay-rich soils.

Partly because it’s celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, but also because we wanted to highlight vintage and terroir differences in the region, our tasting focuses on three Ribera del Duero – two from the páramo (Valtravieso and Monteabellón) and one from the DO’s most famous village, La Horra (Corimbo). The vintages are the contrasting years of 2016, 2017 and 2019.

The remaining three wines come from a trio of Castilla y León’s other famous denominaciones de origen. The first is a Rueda from bush vines on stony soils, showcasing the charms of modern, unoaked, lees-aged Verdejo. The second is a more unusual white: a Godello that was sourced from a parcel planted in 1890. Atlantic-influenced Bierzo is best known for Mencía, which produces wines that are sometimes compared with the fresh, racy reds of neighbouring Galicia, but its best whites, especially its Godellos, are outstanding too.

Last but not least, we tasted another very old-vine bottling, this time from pre-phylloxera vines in Toro. This area close to the border with Portugal tends to produce some of the most intense, full-bodied Spanish wines, but Javier Rodríguez’s wonderful Tinto de Toro has grace, balance and finesse as well as power. Let’s hope that’s part of a broader trend too.

Featured wines: 

– Palacio do Bornos La Caprichosa 2021, Rueda

– Pago de los Abuelos 2021, Bierzo

– Bodegas Valtravieso Crianza 2019, Ribera del Duero

– Bodegas La Horra Corimbo 1 Reserva 2016, Ribera del Duero

– Javier Rodriguez El Teso Alto 2017, Toro

– Monteabellon Finca la Blanquera 2017, Ribera del Duero

In preparation for this event, Tim tasted through a whole line-up of stunning wines submitted from a wide range of producers – you can find his scores for each below, and you can find a recording of the session here if you’d like to watch!