The Iberian Peninsula is hot. So are its wines. They are delivering full-flavored libations at modest price points. And that is really something to cheer about these days.
Ribera del Duero, Spain
If the old caveat about a vine needing to suffer to produce great wine is to be given any credence, then there are surely great wines coming out of Ribera del Duero.
Ribera del Duero experiences extreme temperature fluctuations as it rotates through the seasons. Summer days often crest the 100-degree mark, and winter days often dip below zero. Although there are some Mediterranean influences here, this high northern plateau experiences more of a continental climate than a Mediterranean one, and a brutal one at that.
The wine region touches upon four Spanish provinces: Burgos, Valladolid, Segovia and Soria, a vinous "four corners" within the region of Castille and Leon. Vineyards flank the Duero River (for which this region is named). Translating from Spanish to English, Ribera del Duero is "river of gold," but the treasure to be found in this part of Spain is red.
The upriver province of Soria is the highest in altitude (the Duero flows southwest into the Portuguese regions of Douro and Porto before spilling into the Atlantic). It is here that a very high percentage of old, head-pruned tempranillo vines are found. Their concentration is such that they do not need an oak regimen to deliver a concentrated powerhouse of liquid flavor. Many of the vines are still ungrafted and more than 50 years old.
There are two benefits to ungrafted grapevines. The first is for the producer: The vines live longer and the vineyard need not be replanted as often. This cuts costs. The second benefit is for the consumer: Grafted grapevines block potassium uptake into the vine/grape; ungrafted grapevines deliver all that heart-healthy potassium right to the fruit/wine.
Vina Gormaz Tempranillo 2009, Ribera del Duero, Spain, $15:
A wild amalgamation of pomegranate fruit, chocolate-covered cherries and red licorice. The flavors just keep on unfolding. The grape is native to Spain.
Calatayud is due east of Ribera del Duero in the province of Zaragoza in Aragon. The wine region of Carineña (also in Zaragoza) abuts it on its eastern flank. The three regions are like pearls on a necklace moving west to east: Ribera del Duero, Calatayud and Carineña.
Calatayud boasts seven rivers, so there is ample water running. And this is a good thing. The region receives only 12-20 inches of rain each year, so the vines must source water from the ground.
Most of the grapes grown are red and most of the vines are planted on slopes. Therefore, roots run deep. Quite deep. Vineyards are planted at an altitude of 1,800 to 2,650 feet. At such elevations, nights are cool enough to preserve a grape's natural acidity, giving the wine more life and vibrancy than it would otherwise achieve in climates with no diurnal temperature swings.
So yeah, this is hot stuff, in moderation.
Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain, $13:
This one will wow you. Rich with succulent sun-dried strawberry fruit and tender tannins. The finish is all black pepper and spice. Lovely. The grape is native to Spain.